Desperate to resupply in the face of unrelenting resistance, the Army of Fire targets smaller settlements that were passed by the first time, leading to a rash of violence in the last holdouts of the clans behind enemy lines. In the meantime, the delegates of the Imperial Court watch in horror as the fighting grows closer and closer to the southern edge of the mountains, and wonder in mute horror what will happen in the Army of Fire spills into the Empire at large.
The War of Dark Fire, Part 11
By Shawn Carman & Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
Jineko struggled not to show her anger and despair to the others as she hurried through the winding, narrow streets of the city. The people here had been on edge for weeks, perhaps months. Many of them looked to her for guidance, despite the peculiarity she found in the matter. If they looked to her and saw fear, or panic, or even grim resignation, she was not sure what effect it might have, and thus she remained impassive despite the warring emotions that lurked just beneath the surface. Once she entered the modest estate that served as the military headquarters for the city, however, the veneer of calm slipped, and her features twisted into a mask of anger and confusion. And, if she were to be honest with herself, some small amount of fear. “They are coming,” she said darkly, her words heavy with implication.
The ronin scattered throughout the room reacted in a number of ways. Some winced, some gasped, and some were impassive. Koan, the old eccentric, immediately lapsed into prayer. That, at least, was something familiar that Jineko could count on.
The burly Crab who had been surveying maps of the area looked at her coolly. “More information, please.”
“A scout report just arrived at the northern waypoint,” she elaborated. “There is a force of Yobanjin heading southeast, directly toward us.”
The Crab glanced back down at the maps for a moment. “There seem to be few other possible destinations,” he admitted.
Jineko nodded. “There is nothing of value in this region, Kiyoka-sama.”
The Kaiu grunted. “They followed us here, then.”
“Unlikely,” Jineko observed. “You have been here for ten days, and with the rains we experienced two days ago, there is no way that your trail could have been followed. I think your arrival and theirs are unrelated.”
“Perhaps,” Kiyoka observed. “It would weigh upon me if, in attempting to assist in defending Heibesu, I contributed to its destruction.”
“Why now?” Noburo asked. The yojimbo’s face was devoid of any expression, even fear. “The front lines have moved south of Heibesu many weeks ago. What draws their attention to us after so much time has passed?”
“Supplies,” Kiyoka observed. “The war has lasted longer than they expected, I am sure. They have doubtless spared many smaller settlements, and even a few larger ones, such as your city. Now you are little more than an unwilling supply depot, to simplify their war efforts.”
“I will see the city burned to the ground before I allow them to take its bounty,” Jineko said bitterly.
Kiyoka chuckled. “I appreciate your ardor for battle,” he observed, “but if it’s all the same to you, I think I prefer to keep the city intact and defeat those who come to take it. It seems as if those who live here might better appreciate that sort of tactic.”
Jineko attempted to scowl but could not help but smirk somewhat. This Kiyoka reminded her in some ways of her father, Saigorei. He would have liked the Crab, she thought. “What would you suggest, Kiyoka-sama?”
“I would suggest that we do exactly what my commander instructed me to do when I was dispatched here. The same thing your Wolf Legion has done from the day of its creation, back during your father’s era,” Kiyoka said simply. “We fight.”
* * *
Few in the Empire had any truth depth of knowledge regarding the Yobanjin, their culture, history, and tactics. It was impossible to say what manner in which they waged war, or what deceptions they had used against one another in the past. For that matter, had there ever been a war that even approached this one in scope? Any grand conflict between the tribes that had forced them into a civil war? That could surely be the only possible equivalent, and somehow Bayushi Tomo did not imagine that such a thing had occurred. No, these were men who had little experience beyond a simple ambush from the rocks, or a pitfall cleverly concealed with leaves and sticks. In that regard, they were amateurs at best. Even the blessings of the Dark Oracle that they bore were strange and unfamiliar tools, or perhaps the Empire would have fallen already.
Best not to contemplate such things.
At Tomo’s command, a dozen Scorpion cavalry leapt forward to teach the Yobanjin something about deception. The pit in which they had been waiting was concealed with the false remnants of what appeared to be a collapsed peasant hut, its exterior properly treated to appear as though it had burned. When the Scorpion erupted from beneath the ground, charging up the ramp of earth with wild, unbridled screams of laughter, it surely must have seemed as though the earth was surrendering demons from within its bowels to slaughter the living. As Tomo had hoped, the horrible scene unfolding before them paralyzed many of the Yobanjin, if only for a few moments, and that was all the time that Tomo required.
The front lines of the Yobanjin force attacking the sequestered city of Yamasura had moved past Tomo’s position several minutes ago, and was now deeply enmeshed in the front line of the combined Lion and Crab forces that were augmenting the city’s sparse defenders. There would be no ability to withdraw. That they had not bothered to check the fallen building only confirmed to Tomo that they were a foolish, disorganized group that had little more in the way of advantages than brutality, the element of surprise, and the sinister gifts of the Dark Oracle. They were a blunt, crude instrument, nothing more, and were unable to deal with anything unexpected without considerable difficulty.
This suited Tomo perfectly, as she had something new to share with them that she was quite certain they were not going to enjoy.
Tomo watched as a trio of the barbaric shamans moved forward to levy their blasphemous magic against her and her Scorpion kinsmen. She laughed, wiping away a drop of the viscous substance she and the others had poured over themselves and their mounts only moments before emerging from their place of hiding. She busied herself with cutting down three more of the barbarians, paying their shamans no mind whatsoever, allowing them to complete their heathen rituals, and then stood calmly as the flame rolled over the lot of them.
The flame lasted only a few moments, and the discomfort was considerable, but the only significant problem was maintaining control over their horses, who desperately wanted to panic with the flames all around them. They were well-trained steeds, however, and their riders were even better. The unit managed to hold together, and when the flames dissipated, the shock and dismay on the faces of their enemies was worth more than Tomo could express. With another feral battle cry, she lunged forward with her steed and crushed the shamans beneath her.
The demoralization of the Yobanjin was glorious, and the Scorpion cut a path through them with minimal effort. Having erupted from the ground and seemingly immune to the army’s magic, Tomo could only imagine what they must think of their new enemies. She knew the illusion would not hold, however, and pressed forward as fast as she dared. The solution the Tamori had provided, while thick and foul-smelling, worked brilliantly but would not last indefinitely. Already she could feel the coolness on her skin where it was disappearing into the air, and she feared that a second blast from other shamans might easily overcome their defenses and incinerate them at once. She regretted that she would likely have no chance to congratulate the Tamori on how well their solution worked.
A spear bit deeply into Tomo’s arm as she spied the army’s command group. She growled through the pain and cut away the head of the man who had wounded her, but the illusion of their invulnerability was gone. She spurred her horse on faster, aware that two of her men had fallen. The remaining ten charged as though the hordes of Jigoku were on their tail, crushing everything in their paths, suffering the wounds of dozens of weapons and the fire from a hundred archers. By the time they had crossed the short distance to their target, only six remained.
The Yobanjin commander was a hulking brute of a man, wielding a scimitar in one hand and a captured no-dachi in the other. He beckoned her forward, and she gladly obliged. She rushed toward him, hurling herself into the air only seconds before the man cut through the body of her horse in such a way that would have severed one of her legs had she remained astride it. As she flew through the air, she lashed beneath her, but the tip of her blade only cut through the commander’s helmet and bit into his scalp, leaving a long, bloody, painful wound. She landed gracefully behind him, stopping only for a brief moment to grunt in pain at the arrow that suddenly sprouted from her abdomen. She then performed a backwards cut that literally severed the commander’s legs at the knees and dropping him into the dirt. The shock of the injury was such that he died instantly.
Three more arrows impacted against Tomo, each one penetrating her armor and deep into her body. She threw aside her mask, coughing up too much blood to keep it on. She saw the remainder of the command group fall to her squad’s blades, even as they died around her. Just as she would in mere moments.
Bayushi Tomo perished with a smile, her last sensation the sounds of panic from the Yobanjin as the Lion and Crab pushed forward at the same time as the last of the enemy command staff died on a Scorpion blade.
It was a good plan. And a good death.
* * *
The path that led east out of the village ran along the bottom of something that was somewhat larger than a ravine, but far too small to be considered a valley. The meager rains of spring had been enough to refresh its rocky soil and bring out the tenacious mountain wildflowers, lending it a glory that no Doji garden could hope for. Mirumoto Hakahime leaned against the trunk of a scrubby juniper and savored the view as she tried to catch her breath. Spring had always been a bittersweet season for her–she loved the flowers, even when she knew that the plants that bore them would be dead in a month. ‘All things that are born will die,’ Mirumoto Masae had told her once. ‘Strive diligently.’ Hakahime took a deep, careful breath and moved on.
The path led to what looked for all the world like a small warehouse set in the middle of an unplanted barley field. Hakahime shrugged to herself, washed her hands in the basin of water next to the door and went in. It was the oddest shrine she had ever seen, but her clan was full of odd things.
Inside she found a Mirumoto officer in conversation with a shugenja. ‘You are our volunteer?’ the officer asked, noticing her entrance.
‘I am’, she said.
The officer frowned as he studied her mons. ‘You are with the Fourth Imperial Legion? Surely you can serve the Empire better in another fashion.’
‘I encountered the invaders in one of their first raids.’ She indicated the still-healing burns on her face and hands. ‘I breathed in some of the fire; my lungs are dying.’
The shrine’s shugenja broke in. ‘Twenty injured bushi could be healed with the effort it would take to heal her,’ he said. He smiled at Hakahime. ‘You will bring glory to your clan and the Legion. The Lords of Death will smile on you.’
Hakahime moved slowly along the path. It offered her no cover, but that wasn’t a problem. She had spent the morning playing hide-and-seek amongst the buildings of the abandoned village, making sure that she had the Yobanjin scouts’ full attention. Now the time for hiding was over.
She heard the cry of the first scout to see her, the answering yells as more of the invaders joined the chase. Hakahime started into a brisk trot. More would exhaust her too quickly, less might arouse suspicions of a trap. There was as splatter of gravel tumbling down into her path, and she glanced up in genuine surprise to see one of her pursuers half-run, half-slide down the hillside towards her. Hakahime burst into a run that lasted until an unsteady foot turned on a stone and she went sprawling. She lay on the ground and shuddered from the white agony in her lungs as her right hand touched the pouch in her obi. Now? she wondered. Now? She could hear people approaching, talking among themselves, but there seemed only a few. She let go of the pouch and waited.
‘Here we will use the strength of niten against our enemies,’ the officer said. ‘Two weapons, two strikes–two kills.’ He gestured at the bulging sacks that lined the walls of the shrine. ‘This is our first strike.’
Hakahime looked them over. ‘Rice?’ she said.
‘Barley,’ the shugenja corrected her. ‘No rice grows in this area.’
‘But what,’ Hakahime started to say, and then she gave the two men an accusing look. ‘You would have our clan use poison!’
‘What is a poison?’ the shugenja asked in a mild tone. ‘Every farmer loses a fraction of his crop in storage to pests–I have spent years developing ways to protect our clan’s grain. My current formula renders the grain unfit for food, but it is splendid at protecting next year’s seed-stores.’ He smiled and patted one of the bags. ‘Am I to blame if the invaders don’t believe my warning?’
Hakahime moved closer and saw the bags were clearly marked with the name of Emma-O. ‘No,’ she said slowly, ‘I suppose you are not.’
Rough hands grabbed her and tied her hands behind her back. She was pulled to her feet and promptly fell over, black motes swimming through her vision. Two men hauled her back up, each to an arm, and started to drag her back along the path. Hakahime was grateful for the pain in her shoulders; it distracted her from her lungs.
Voices caught her attention and she looked up to see a force of about twenty men approaching. Her captors dropped her in front of the leader and gave some kind of report in their strange, almost familiar language. He listened, then dropped down to one knee, seized Hakahime by her hair, and pulled her up to look at him. “What are you doing here?” he said in accented Rokugani.
“At the end of this path is a building holding much grain,” Hakahime said. “What do you think I was going to do to it?”
The man turned slightly and yelled an order. One of the men took off at a run, heading down the path towards the village. The leader turned back to her. “Samurai fool. If you had gone for it this morning, instead of darting around the village, you could have destroyed it by now.”
“I am not a fool,” Hakahime said. “I had a second treasure to protect, as well.”
“And the second stroke?” Hakahime asked.
“Mountain paths are such a nuisance to keep clear,” the shugenja said. “I have spent years offering prayers and gifts to the earth kami in the hills along the path–but now they know me, and they will do little favors for me when I ask.”
“Like, say, drop an avalanche on the path?” Hakahime said. “But you want the grain to be found, yes?”
“We want it to be found at the time of our choosing,” the officer said. ”There is a large scouting party approaching the village; a day behind them is a much larger force. We will take care of the scouts first, and karma will come to the rest in due time.”
“And what am I to do?”
The shugenja smiled again. “Go back out on the path and pick up a stone that you like the look of, and bring it back here. I will do the rest.”
The leader was silent, looking at her. Hakahime looked into his soulless, fire-flecked eyes and saw what he saw: a thin, dirty woman with a burned face, bearing neither armor or swords but with a red silk pouch tucked into her obi. He pulled the pouch out and then let her go. Hakahime managed to stay upright on her knees, wondering with some detachment what kind of person the Yobanjin had been before Chosai had taken his mind. Would he have been horrified by whatever he had done in these mountains, or would he revel in the gifts the Dark Oracle had given him? She felt a tiny tremor in the rocky ground beneath her.
The leader slit open the pouch with a knife and a small rock dropped into his hand. He looked at it, puzzled. “What is this?” he demanded.
“My death,” Hakahime replied. The tremor was stronger now, and some of the Yobanjin began to look around uneasily.
“How–” the leader started, and then the hill groaned as its side buckled and slid down into the ravine. The Yobanjin started to yell and run, but Hakahime was ready. With the last of her strength she shot up to her feet and threw herself at the leader, pushing him down. She landed with her back to the avalanche, facing the wide, horrified eyes of her enemy.
“All things born must die,” she yelled at him. “Strive diligently!”
* * *
Hiruma Seiko drew a deep breath and held it, counting inwardly to ten before exhaling. Actually, that was not entirely true. Every time she became agitated as a result of the pointlessness of court, she held a breath and counted to ten. She had been keeping careful count throughout the season, out of curiosity more than anything else. So far she had nearly reached twenty thousand. Seiko was not entirely sure how long the court season would last, given the oddity of the war in the north, but she was beginning to wonder if there were enough numbers in the universe to keep count of how frustrated she was. It had not been quite so bad when the season started, but now it was more than a dozen times per day. She was certain it would grow worse before it was over.
The Scorpion were the worst part of it.
Perhaps in another court somewhere else, anywhere else, in the Empire, things would be different. Seiko had never attended a Winter Court of any significant size before, so she could not be certain, but she suspected the fact that this one was being held in the Scorpion lands was dramatically exacerbating the situation. The Crane lands would likely be no better, but at least among the Lion or the Unicorn, for instance, she would feel more at home among warriors. The Scorpion, on the other hand, were little more than a plague upon the face of the Empire as far as she is concerned.
For instance, at the moment, a member of the Dragon was enthusiastically thanking one of the Scorpion delegates for their role in the defense of Yamasura. Seiko had not heard what had happened there, but she was absolutely certain it could not possibly have warranted the sickeningly smug and arrogant look on the Scorpion’s face as he reassured that the only thing his clan wished in return was the opportunity to assist their allies among the Dragon in rebuilding once the war was over. Oh, and yes, there were a few mercantile interests the clan had in the ronin city of Heibesu, and if the Dragon could see clear to assist them in that matter it would be more than repayment for their assistance.
The entire exchange left a bitter taste in Seiko’s mouth. The rest of the court seemed in remarkably good spirits following the news from Yamasura. From what she could overhear, it sounded as if there was some manner of new weapon the Tamori had developed there that had proven remarkable effective against the Yobanjin. The city had sustained significant losses but it had not fallen, and now the delegates were scrambling to determine how it could be reproduced elsewhere. Supposedly, the Empress wished to see it produced in large quantities to use against the Dark Oracle and his minions. To Seiko that was obviously conjecture, as the Empress had been withdrawn to her chambers for several days, ever since she had heard news that Shiro Kitsuki had come under attack.
The worst part of the debate over this new creation, this alchemical mixture of which no one in the entire court had any true knowledge, was the debate that had broken out over who would assist the Tamori in creating more. Rather than waiting to hear more about it and determining where it should be produced based on that information, the clan delegations were falling all over themselves to reap the minor honor of assisting them with it. It was ludicrously self-serving, and it nearly sent Seiko into a red rage. The Scorpion had been first to attempt to secure the position, of course, but had met surprisingly stiff resistance from the Phoenix, who wished to assist in any matter pertaining to the pursuits of shugenja.
The Lion intervening in the debate had been something of a surprise. As far as Seiko knew, the Kitsu had a somewhat conservative shugenja tradition. She doubted if they would even be able to produce the material in question. She did think they would allow the Dragon full access to their resources with little interference, however; the Lion were not the sort to stoop to espionage. They seemed to be winning the debate, fortunately, which Seiko found of comfort, but the Scorpion were attempting their normal tricks. Who knew what the final outcome would be?
The disgust was overwhelming. Nodding to her replacement, Seiko left the chamber behind without hearing what the final decision might have been. Perhaps some time sitting in the garden would help clear her head.
* * *
Fire and smoke filled the sky, causing the eyes of anyone who stood outside for more than a few minutes to water uncontrollably. Hida Benjiro stood atop the smallest of the castle’s tower, apparently oblivious to the circumstances that caused his eyes to be red and inflamed. “Third legion, relieve the sixth legion on the western wall,” he ordered, and his signalmen implemented his commands at once. “Bring up additional rations for the Third. They’ve been fighting all morning.” He glanced down at the forces surging around the castles. “Tell the Kuni it looks like their shamans are preparing an assault on the north. I want nothing to get through. Make that clear.” A runner left the tower immediately, forgoing the stairs to leap down off of a series of short stone emplacements jutting from the exterior. One slip could result in death, or at least grievous wounding, but then the Hiruma were accustomed to operating under exactly such conditions. “Any status updates?” Benjiro asked.
“Reports indicate the western wall has sustained the most significant damage. All other fortifications are holding as expected.”
“Good,” the senior commander said. “Have Seison deploy his men to shore up the damage. Only the floating crews, not the siege personnel. I have use for them.”
“What are your orders, commander?”
Benjiro smiled darkly. “When facing a human opponent, giving them a little hope and then crushing it utterly is spectacularly effective. Remove the reinforcements from the front gate.”
“You have your orders.”
Only a few moments later, Crab warriors enacted his commands, removing the massive bars that reinforced the front gate. They cleared a path behind the gates immediately afterwards, which was fortunate, for only seconds later there was a resounding thud, and the gates were forced open by the Yobanjin front line at the exterior. The exultation and violent glee obvious on the faces of the invaders was terrible to look upon, and extremely short-lived.
Kaiu Seison looked upon the gates and what lay behind without mirth or malice. “Fire,” he said calmly. The Kaiu samurai manning the two huge ballista that had been constructed within the courtyard obliged at once, firing two massive bolts the size of tree trunks at incredible speed into the invaders. The devastation within their ranks was overwhelming. The impact instantly killed at least a half dozen of them, and the force of the strike pushed them back through the gates, killing dozens more and leaving shattered bodies scattered in a semi-circle all around the gate. The shouts of surprise and dismay were like sweet music to the Crab, who laughed as they barred the door again in the wake of the damage visited upon their enemies.
The siege of Shiro Kitsuki, if it could be called such, continued.
The sentry standing at the entrance to the shrine slid quickly to the floor without a sound of protest, a small needle protruding rather obviously from his neck. “Forgive me, my friend,” a soft voice whispered near his ear. “You will awaken shortly. I meant you no harm.”
“Be silent, Ohba!” a second voice hissed in the stillness. The only sounds in this place were the sounds of battle, and those were distant, almost dreamlike. “No one must know we are here. You know our duty is sacred.”
Shosuro Ohba frowned. “I dislike injuring an ally, Sogetsu,” he said.
“The Dragon are our allies, yes, but this task is more important than any alliance. You know this.” Shosuro Sogetsu looked at his partner with disdain. “Our master was very clear.”
Ohba nodded and removed several thick scrolls from the altar. “The journals of the Lady Iweko prior to her ascension are too valuable to be entrusted to the protection of the brutish Crab,” he repeated. “Jimen-sama wishes to ensure they are secured against any possible threat.”
“And so we shall,” Sogetsu said. “Now silence your bickering and let us go.” He grimaced. “I do not relish the notion of extricating ourselves through that sea of unwashed filth beyond the castle walls.”
“Do not be such a delicate flower,” Ohba chastised. “If it were not for such challenges, this would be a boring assignment.”
* * *
Yoritomo Harada would likely never be mistaken by anyone as a complex man. He knew this, and accepted it. More than that, really: he understood that it was true. He was a simple man, one who accepted that his lot in life was to serve, and further that the acts he was called upon to commit in the name of his lord and clan were oftentimes unpleasant to him personally. His personal preferences, however, could never be allowed to interfere with his duty. His ancestors watched over him, and he could not bring shame to them.
Harada’s current duty was not one that he had ever imagined for himself. A yojimbo at the Empress’ Winter Court was a duty he had neither considered nor desired, but there was no escaping it. Apparently his name had come up when his lords were considering what manner of vassal might be best suited to meet the Scorpion on their own ground. The comparison saddened Harada. He did not think of himself in such a manner, and he hoped that others did not.
The mood in court had been subdued the past few days, much to the warrior’s relief. The attack by the Army of Fire on Shiro Kitsuki, the former home of the Empress, had taken its toll on the Child of Heaven, and she had retired to her quarters three days ago. No one had seen her since, and the severity of the situation had cast a shadow over the proceedings in general. Harada enjoyed the quieter, less frenetic pace, but knew that the cost was too great for such a meager enjoyment.
In the main chamber, a brisk discussion was taking place between a Dragon delegate and some minor functionaries of the Unicorn and the Mantis. From what Harada could overhear, it seemed that the Dragon were already planning the reconstruction of their lands in the aftermath of the war. It seemed premature to Harada, given that the war was in no way over, but perhaps it made the Dragon feel better to contemplate such things rather than the enormity of what they had lost. Interestingly, the Dragon delegate seemed interested in the construction of a new shrine, one to the Fortune of Honest Work. It was curious, as Ebisu tended to be more revered in the Unicorn lands, and in portions of the Mantis territories, much more so than in the Dragon lands. From the sound of it, however, the Dragon were greatly moved by the assistance of the peasants who dwelled within their lands, innocent men and women who had risen up against the Army of Fire and assisted in the defense of the Dragon provinces.
Was this such a surprise to anyone? Harada knew, as did many of his kinsmen, that the lower classes would fight like enraged animals to defend their homes, particularly when so many were convinced that the samurai were completely unconcerned with whatever losses afflicted the heimen. Perhaps things were different in the Dragon lands, but Harada doubted it. Still, he could not deny that the news the court had received of the fate of Lost Samurai Village had been both surprising and inspiring, so perhaps he should not be surprised that the Dragon had been so deeply moved by it. Perhaps it was a means by which that clan could forge a closer bond with its vassals, much as the Mantis and Unicorn enjoyed.
Harada was still contemplating the matter as he walked through the garden. The clamor of the court chambers, subdued though it might be, was still dreadfully annoying, and he took every opportunity to leave it behind for the quiet stillness of the garden. Say what one would about the Scorpion, it seemed their gardeners were exquisitely talented. As he turned a corner, Harada smiled slightly at the sight of Hiruma Seiko. Like him, she was somewhat out of her element in court, and the two had bonded somewhat over their mutual discomfort. Despite her striking beauty, however, what drew Harada to her the most was that she did not feel the need to fill silences between them with mindless conversation. On the contrary, he mused as he sat near her, they could sit together for hours with barely a word spoken between them, simply content in the company of a kindred spirit and savoring the silence.
As they sat, Harada felt a strange sense of peace, no doubt brought on by the garden and, if he were honest, the presence of Seiko. It was a feeling he rarely felt when he was not at sea. A compulsion overcame him, and he withdrew a small, hand-carved flute from his obi and began to play. It was a mournful song, one that carried well across the waves when the seas were calm and the ship sat still and quiet in the dead hours of night. It was a song of a sailor’s longing for home and family, and yet woven through with shades of a man’s love for the open sea and the freedom of the waves. It was one of his favorites, one that his mother had played for him as a child, and it never failed to move him.
Unexpectedly, Seiko began to sing. It was not the song that normally accompanied the music, but her voice blended perfectly with the notes, weaving the two together into a flawless tapestry of image and emotion. It was a song Harada had never heard before, and spoke of a lost home that was denied to those who should by rights have dwelled within. Countless lives and blood were shed to try and recover it, but without success. It was a song of loss and pain, but gradually changed in tone as the story it told spoke of a recovery, one hard fought after hundreds of years, and of the glory and pride in standing in one’s home after so much time apart. Harada lost himself in the music, feeling it perhaps more strongly than he had ever felt anything in his life. He closed his eyes, only dimly aware that others had gathered in the garden to hear them together. He did not care. The world consisted only of Seiko, her song, and his music.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity and yet was far too soon at the same time, the song ended. Harada breathed in a deep breath and released it slowly, his spirit aflame with the sensations invoked by the song. He heard whispered murmuring around them, and inwardly scowled that others would ruin this perfect moment for him. He opened his eyes, then, to see the assembled observers part.
The Empress and her Voice stood in the garden, regarding them carefully.
Harada’s heart ceased to beat, it seemed, and he clumsily slumped out of his seat to kneel before the Empress. He had been in her presence before, of course, and felt the weight of her divinity as surely as if he had been carrying a heavy crate ashore. Now, however, her attention seemed to be focused squarely upon he and Seiko, and it was as if the brilliant summer sun was shining directly in his face. It was too much to bear. He lowered his face as he knelt.
“The Empress wishes to thank you for your song,” Togashi Satsu said. “Its beauty moved her, and she was compelled to exit her chambers to see what could create such an enchanting sound.”
“Thank you,” Seiko whispered hoarsely, but Harada was completely incapable of speech. He had an inkling, somehow, that his life had just changed forever, but he did not know how or why.
* * *
The Tonbo provinces were small and relatively unremarkable in every way, save for the inordinate amount of fighting that they had seen during the course of the family’s existence. Much of that fighting had been done by Lion forces seeking to avenge an insult so old that it would likely not have mattered any more if any other clan had endured it. Now, as the first signs of the enemy descending from the mountains came into view, it was Lion who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the meager Tonbo forces to defend the Dragonfly lands. The irony was not lost upon Ikoma Otemi.
Otemi turned to the Crab officer on his right and surveyed the Crab forces that stood with the Lion and Dragonfly. “Should we assume this is a dire omen for your lord’s success?”
“Benjiro-sama lives,” the old man said, his tone bitter, as if he regretted even speaking to Otemi. “Rabble such as this could not overcome him.”
“I hope so,” Otemi said sincerely. “And yet they come to us just the same. Would they not still be in the mountains if Benjiro yet lived?”
“There is no column of smoke,” Hida Hikita said as he pointed to the north. “For Benjiro-sama and his forces to have fallen the city would be nothing more than a smoking ruin. He would not cease fighting under any other circumstance.” He shook his wizened head. “No, these barbarians simply found the defense at Shiro Kitsuki impossible to overcome, and they have come looking for easier prey. They are weak, pathetic things. They will be broken here today.”
Otemi nodded. It was clear the older man did not wish to take orders from anyone who did not wear his clan’s colors, but Otemi had been placed in overall command and there was little Hikita could do but accept it. The Lion veteran would have preferred to avoid such conflict, and looked for something, anything, that might distract the old officer from his misery. “There are a handful of Daidoji units our allies sent,” he observed. “Would you prefer they stand with the Crab? You have fewer men on the field today than the Lion.”
“The Crane remain allies only so long as it suits their needs,” Hikita said bitterly.
“I see,” Otemi said. “As you wish.” He looked over at the three blue banners. “I am surprised they did not send more. Perhaps they are hoping to mount an offensive if we fall today.”
“I am quite sure they could send no more,” Hikita said.
“No,” he answered. “Benjiro-sama killed all the rest.”
Hida Kaoru easily broke the barricaded door in, sending rays of sunlight cascading into the darkened room of the interior estate. A small child near the door shrieked in terror as Kaoru’s form filled the doorway. She grimaced at the darkness inside. Had they thought that the Yobanjin would pass the estate by simply because it appeared empty? “Shush, child,” Kaoru said to the tiny girl. “I am not here to hurt you. You must not fear me, do you understand?”
“Sakura!” a woman shrieked from an interior room, perhaps just noticing that the child was missing. A woman clad in the traditional style of the Tonbo raced out from an inner chamber wielding a knife, a wild look in her eye. “Get away from my daughter you filthy…” she stopped suddenly and dropped the knife. “Oh! Oh, I… I apologize, Hida-sama! I did not know it was you!”
“No apologies,” Kaoru said. “Your daughter is well-deserving of such a protective mother. For now, however, I require you and those in your household to come with me.”
The woman nodded, but frowned. “What has happened?”
“The commander desires the line to fall back in order to draw the Yobanjin more fully out of the foothills,” Kaoru explained. “He hopes to enclose their ranks completely. Unfortunately this will likely result in the destruction of many homes in this province.” She smiled somewhat apologetically. “You know little of tactics, I am sure, but I assure you this is a necessary sacrifice. The Crab will ensure that you, and all those in this region, are well protected until such time as your homes are restored.”
The woman nodded slowly. “Will this allow Shigetoshi-sama to destroy the Yobanjin?”
“Yes,” Kaoru said at once.
“For that I would burn all that I own,” the woman said. “Wait one moment while I gather the others, and we will follow you, Hida-sama.”
Daigotsu Gyoken watched from a darkened alley as Kaoru and the Tonbo left as quickly as they could, banging on different doors as they went. There were perhaps a dozen of the scouts trying to gather everyone to leave. Of course they would not be able to locate everyone, much less mobilize them and lead them out in time.
Which suited his purposes perfectly.
“Rasetsu,” he called to his companion, who materialized from the dark alley like a wraith. “The Hida can’t find everyone.”
“How convenient,” the scout said. “Of course the Tonbo will not think so. I am quite certain those left behind will feel betrayed, would you not say?”
“I would,” Gyoken agreed. Normally he despised working with the manipulative scout, but today his particular talents would be quite useful. “I think they will be most appreciative of our protection.”
“Where should we take them?” Rasetsu asked. “Otosan Uchi is too far.”
“Northwest,” Gyoken said. “Take them back into the mountains.”
“The Fingers of Bone?” Rasetsu said incredulously, his tone showing a rare moment of surprise. “We cannot risk exposing its existence!”
“The Chuda will handle that,” Gyoken said. “We stand to gain new converts in the meantime, and it is not as if anyone could find their way back there regardless.”
“It is risky,” Rasetsu said, rubbing his chin.
“You know we need recruits,” Gyoken said irritably. “The search is taxing our every resource. Daigotsu-sama needs more hands searching, more eyes looking. We must do all in our power to aid him.”
“Very well then,” the scout said, resigned. “What is your plan?”
“My plan is to let you do the talking,” Gyoken answered. “You are quite good at that, after all.”
Like shadows among the stones, the monks of the Order of the Spider emerged from the foothills to observe the fighting just south of them. They were close enough to hear the clash of steel and the screams of the wounded, but were themselves perfectly silent. They were four dozen in number, each clad in the distinctive robes that were the trademark of the sohei, the warrior monk. Many carried bisento, the large weapon that they favored, but just as many carried no weapons at all. They watched, and waited.
They did not wait long.
One among them strode to the front of their ranks and stared at the rear of the Yobanjin army for only a few moments. “The formation on their right flank is the weakest,” he said. “We will attack there. Strike quickly and without mercy. Kill everything in your path. When the army turns, we fade into the shadows. We will reform and attack the opposite flank a short time later.” His tone did not suggest that any of these instructions were open to debate.
“Master,” one of the monks spoke up regardless. “Why are we doing this?”
The man called Michio turned and glared at the speaker with obvious disgust. “What manner of fool question is that?”
“What is Daigotsu’s purpose in this?” the monk asked. “Does he not wish the Empire brought to its knees? Is he not allied with the Dark Oracle?”
“The Dark Lord regards the Empire as his and his alone,” Michio said. “He considers this invasion an act of betrayal by a former ally. That is all I need know.”
“It simply seems…”
Michio silenced further questions with a vicious backhand that left the speaker dazed on his back among the stones. “The Order of the Spider serves Daigotsu. Our founder Roshungi wished it, and now that I am master of the order, I wish it.”
There were no further questions. The others followed their master into battle exactly as he commanded. They crossed the plain between them and their foe as swift as the shadow of a cloud crossing the sun. A lone rear guard detected their approach, but seemed to relax when he saw the insignia they bore. “The Spider,” he said in thickly accented Rokugani. “The Fire God said you were our allies. What would…”
Michio silenced the man with a knife-hand strike that broke his head into two pieces. “Any man who cannot kill ten of these creatures has no place in my order,” he hissed. “Now, to battle.”
Tonbo Chiatsu was dying. He had no delusions about that. He had been wounded early in the fighting, and the line of battle had pushed past him so quickly that even the Yobanjin had left him alone. It might have only been because he lost consciousness, and they had mistaken him for dead. Ironic that he had been mistaken for dead and allowed to live, only to die now from the blood that had issued from his wounds. Chiatsu found that he did not fear death, but he was paralyzed with fear over the fate of his wife and young son. Would the Yobanjin reach them before they could be evacuated?
A strange noise reached Chiatsu’s ears, one that seemed grossly out of place on the battlefield. It was the rustling of cloth. He remembered it well from his childhood, when his father would prepare for court and his attendants would dress him in layer after layer of fine quality cloth. The strange whispering sound had seemed so enigmatic to him as a child, but he had not thought of it since despite the commonality of it.
In the red-tinged haze of his vision, he saw something approaching. Despite the bleak surroundings and blurry perception, he could see the black kimono of a stranger with perfect clarity. He recognized the mons it bore at once, both the clan and individual family branch, and his body, which had been increasingly numb, was suddenly cold with fear. He struggled to rise and flee, but could do little more than twitch.
Suddenly the stranger who was not a stranger was next to him, and knelt. “Do you know who I am?” he asked, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper.
“Yes,” Chiatsu croaked feebly.
“Then you must know why I have come,” the man continued. “You know that I cannot harm those who threaten our lands unless I am invited to do so. And you know what price comes with offering such an invitation.” He paused for a moment. “Your injuries are more than I am willing to heal. You know all of this to be true. You know that your death is certain, that your hope, your life, is over. You also know that your home and family may share your fate. You know what must be done. Are you strong enough?”
Chiatsu nodded, tears in his eyes. “Please,” he said, “please stop the Yobanjin from destroying my… our home.”
“Thank you, cousin,” Tonbo Toryu said. The Dark Oracle of the Void rose from the battlefield and turned his smoldering gaze upon the battle. “Your damnation has purchased life for your family.”
* * *
“These are remarkable times,” Usagi Kijimo said before the assembled delegates. “None among us can deny that we have seen… incredible things. Things beyond all imagining, and all within our meager lifetimes. Yet in spite of these things, this war which we witness unfolding before us now is perhaps unique in the whole of our history, and perhaps will never be repeated. It shall stand out in the story of the Empire, and we must recognize it as such.”
“I must confess to some degree of confusion as to why the esteemed representative of the Hare Clan feels it is necessary to share these painfully obvious observations with the court,” Bayushi Hisoka mused aloud. “We are not without our own ability to perceive the world around us.”
“Of course, Chancellor,” the young courtier said with a smile. “I would not imply otherwise. I only wish to provide context for a humble proposal that I wish to place before the court.”
“A proposal?” the Chancellor raised his eyebrows. “Please, continue.”
“The losses endured by the Empire are significant,” Kijimo continued. “The Dragon, Phoenix, Unicorn, Badger, and Ox have stood valiantly against the invaders, and there have been considerable successes. Now, the invaders have descended from the mountains into the Empire at large, within striking distance of the Imperial City itself.”
Hisoka’s expression had darkened. “If fear-mongering is your proposal, I find it in poor taste,” he said darkly.
“No, my lord,” Kijimo said with a bow. “I merely wish to point out that as the invaders descended from the mountain, who stood to meet them? The Lion and the Crab, of course, as anyone would know would happen, but who else? The Tonbo, my lord. The tiny, militarily insignificant Tonbo.”
“Would it be your intent to suggest that the Tonbo are somehow more valorous than the Lion or Crab for their efforts?” a member of the Crane asked. “That seems… presumptuous.”
“I would never suggest such a thing,” Kijimo said. “But do the Lion or Crab have anything to fear from war? Of course not. They are the most powerful military forces that exist in the world, and war is their nature. The Tonbo would have been well and truly justified to withdraw and permit the true masters of war to ply their deadly trade. But they did not. The simple priests, craftsmen, and diplomats instead stayed to fight alongside the others. They sacrificed themselves for the Empire when it was not necessary, simply because they wished to honor the Divine Empress with their service.”
The Chancellor rubbed his chin. “It is true, the Tonbo are not soldiers, and yet they wished to prove their mettle. It is commendable.”
“It is more than that, my lord,” Kijimo said. “Their example should be exalted before the Empire, that others might strive to the same level of devotion and self-sacrifice in the name of the Empress and her Empire. It would be my wish, were I able, to offer a proposal to reward those veterans of this battle with a second family name, one to show the distinction of their glory before the Child of Heaven, that others might always remember what rewards await the faithful.” He frowned somewhat. “Sadly, it is not within the parameters of the Minor Clan Alliance to suggest such a thing, as it would be self-serving and thus inappropriate in the Empress’ court.”
“I can see the point you wish to make,” the Chancellor said, “and I find it valid. If I may offer a personal observation, your technique requires work, but shows promise. I would be happy to offer support such a proposal, not as Chancellor, but as a representative of the Scorpion Clan.”
Kijimo bowed deeply. “The Hare, the Dragonfly, and the Minor Clan Alliance would be honored to work with the Scorpion on a matter of such distinction, my lord.”
* * *
Utaku Yu Pan knelt briefly before rising and facing her daimyo, waiting patiently for her opportunity to speak. After what seemed like hours, Xieng Chi turned and looked at her expectedly. “Is it as bad as we feared?”
“It is, my lady,” Yu Pan confirmed. “The Yobanjin force that sacked Shiro Shinjo has slowly been making its way across our eastern provinces. They have immolated everything in sight, and the forces we have marshaled against them have been pushed back. They would likely have reached the castle already if it were not for the Shinjo forces harassing their flank at all hours of the day.”
Xieng Chi raised an eyebrow. “This is the first I have heard of this. If the Shinjo were in such a poor state after Shiro Shinjo was attacked, who defends it now while they pursue the enemy?”
“The Lion, apparently,” Yu Pan said with a slight shrug. “I can make no sense of it, but that is what we have been told.”
“Remarkable,” Xieng Chi said. “Or perhaps surreal would be a better word.”
“Do you have orders, my lady?” Yu Pan reminded her gently.
Xieng Chi frowned. “Orders? We do what the Utaku have always done.” She removed her lance from its stand at the ancestral shrine that stood in her preparations room. “We make ready for war.”
TO BE CONTINUED
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It’s A Trap Again!
Battle: Each Personality without a Weapon at the current battlefield receives a Force penalty equal to the number of units now in his army.
Bearers of Alchemical Weapon
3F, 0HR, 3G, 2FV
Will only attach to a Ninja personality.
Battle: Transfer any number of attachments from a target enemy Personality to another target Personality in his army. (Attachments that are not legal do not transfer.) You may take an additional Battle action
3F, 0HR, 4G, 3FV
Ronin * Singular
This card has +1F for each other Ronin you control.
After this unit assigns, if you are a Crab Clan player: The player with the Imperial Favor discards it.
F: +0, C: +0, GC: 4, FV: 3
Political * Unique
Will only attach to a Magistrate.
Reaction: After a non-Unique Personality enters play, bow this card:
Dishonor the Personality. If his controller gained any Honor for the Personality entering play this time, he loses an equal amount of Honor.
Recovering the Empress’ Journal
Battle: Give +2F to each Magistrate or Scorpion Clan Personality in your army with Chi greater than a target enemy Personality’s Personal Honor.
Battle: Target a Personality in your army who is Crab Clan, a Hero, or an Unaligned Human: Give him a Force bonus equal to the number of units in your home. He may use one of his base abilities a second time this turn. You may take an additional action, which must be from that ability.
Battle: Target your Shadowlands Shugenja: Lose 6 Honor. Create two 0F/1C/0PH Shadowlands Undead Personalities in your home, each with the ability, “Fear Battle: Move this card to the current battlefield: Move a target enemy Personality home.” Before this turn ends, destroy all Personalities this action created.
Your Cavalry Followers have +1F.
Bow this card: Produce 3 Gold, or 4 Gold if paying for a Cavalry card.