As the Empire faces crisis in the form of a devastating plague, the alliance of clans in the south faces a more immediate and perhaps vastly more dangerous threat in the form of a constant onslaught of abominations, all intent on crossing the Great Carpenter Wall and gaining entry into the Emerald Empire.
The Burning Wall, Part 1
By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
The room was dimly lit with a single lamp and furnished with two sets of bedding and a small table. It was also very small, seven paces on one side by six paces on the other, numbers Hiruma Aki had arrived at by pacing around the room repeatedly.
Hiruma Akio watched her brother out of the corner of her eye as she picked up a sheet of paper and began to crease it with practiced, steady motions. “For the love of Hida,” she said, “can’t you stop that?”
Aki paused for a moment to stare pointedly at the small mound of paper crabs that sat next to her. “You fidget your way,” he said, “and I’ll fidget mine.” He resumed pacing.
Akio dropped a crab onto the pile and picked up another sheet of paper. Her brother had a point, but he was still driving her to distraction. “How can you even have the energy to be this restless? We have been in battle for weeks. We have no idea how long the attacks will continue. Sit. Down.”
She was his elder. She was the only family he had left. Aki sat down near her and picked up one of the paper crabs. “I’m sorry, sister,” he said. “It’s just–the attacks on the Wall, the rumors about the plague–I’m worried that it might be the beginning of–” He broke off suddenly.
“Of what?” Akio asked.
“Nothing,” Aki said. He toyed with the crab, refusing to meet her eyes.
Akio stopped folding paper and studied him, worry springing to life in her mind. Secretive behavior could spring from perfectly innocent reasons, like having an affair with your gunso’s wife or developing a fondness for liquid void. Or it could be a mask for something involving kansen and a sudden aversion to jade. On the Wall, one took no chances. “Aki, what are you thinking?” she said.
“I’m a berserker,” he said. “We don’t think.” He tossed the crab back onto the pile.
“You aren’t berserk now,” Akio said. She reached over the table and grabbed her brother’s wrist. “You’ve been broody ever since you came back from Kitsune Mori. What happened to you? What did you learn from that prophet?”
“Nothing,” Aki said, still looking away from her.
Akio was about to press the point when a loud, low gong sounded through the room. “Another attack,” she said, releasing her hold on her brother. The two of them rushed out of the room, heading for the open stairway that led up to the main level of the Wall. At the top they paused, looking out towards the south. If the previous assaults were called waves, then what was before them was the tide: a dark, churning rabble that heaved and roared and had no end the eye could see. All about them gongs pealed and watch fires sprang into life as the defenders of the Wall readied themselves for battle.
“No,” Aki moaned. “This can’t be it.”
Akio looked at him, disturbed. “What can’t be it?”
“This can’t be what we saw!” he shouted, pounding his fists on the stone before him. He whirled about and Akio could see that he was slipping away into the madness. “This Wall will not fall!” he screamed. He stood for a moment, hands balled into fists, and then raced off. Akio took two steps after him and then stopped. She knew from experience that Aki wouldn’t be rational for hours, so there was no point in trying to find him and question him. He was off to fight his demons, and she needed to join her unit so that she could fight hers.
* * *
There had been a time when Akodo Hiroshi thought he could not get his fill of battle. He could no longer remember when that time was. He ran into position with the rest of his troop and looked for Hida Hikita, the old man who was his liaison with the Crab command structure. “What now?” he yelled at him.
“We’re under attack!” Hikita yelled back.
Hiroshi swallowed a retort that would have been soul-satisfying but ultimately unproductive. “How should we fight it?” he said, pointing to the large, heavily armored oni currently trying to scramble up over their section of the Wall.
Hikita waved his attention over to a group of Crabs fussing over something involving a large barrel, a hose, and a very large pump. “Oh, the Kaiu have that one covered,” he said. As Hiroshi watched, some of the Crabs began operating the pump while others aimed the hose towards the oni, drenching it with the odd-smelling liquid from the barrel. The oni took no notice of it until a shout went up and a flurry of flaming arrows came streaming down, igniting the liquid. The demon shrieked and lost its hold on the Wall, sliding out of sight. Hiroshi could feel the stones beneath his feet tremble for a few minutes while it tried to beat out the flames by throwing itself against the Wall.
“An efficient solution,” Hiroshi said.
“When it works, it works well,” Hikita said. “But there was one time when….” his voice trailed off as a score of flaming figures pulled themselves over the top of the Wall and dropped down to the walkway. They looked around for a moment and then charged the Kaiu. “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.”
“Are they undead?” Hiroshi said, watching in amazement as more figures came over the side.
“Undead, and on fire thanks to the oni.” Hikita picked up his dai tsuchi. “I thought I was done with that up north.”
“Alive, dead, or undead, they are enemies of the Divine Empress. We will stop them.” The newcomer wore armor in Akodo colors but with no mon, and his face showed perfect calm.
“Nagataka-san,” Hiroshi said, after shooting Hikita a warning glance. “You fight with us today?”
“Yes, Gunso.” Nagataka smiled at him. “Now is the time to make good my debt of honor.” He drew his blade and ran towards the Kaiu who were now fighting for their lives, screaming a battle cry as he went.
“Foolish,” Hikita said. “You need to attack there, where they are coming over the Wall.”
“We will,” Hiroshi said.
The Crab looked slightly confused. “You aren’t going to go with him?” he asked.
“No,” Hiroshi said. There was a note of sadness in his voice. “He might survive, then.”
* * *
When he awoke, he didn’t know where he was. Moto Juncheng stared blankly up at the wooden ceiling above him for a moment and then memory returned and he rolled off the pile of blankets he was on and tried to climb to his feet, stopping as pain shot through his arm and shoulder.
The woman tending to the man on the pile next to him looked up briefly. “Lay back down,” she said. “I will see you in a moment.”
Juncheng lay back down, fishing in his memory for her name. Xiong. Iuchi Xiong, one of the shugenja sent with the Unicorn forces to the Wall. He checked to see that he still had his sword and winced at the pain the movement cost him. His arm was going to hurt for a long time, but he had killed an oni who stood taller than the great temple of the Lords of Death, and how many samurai could say that?
Xiong arrived with a basin of water and a stack of clean cloth. Working swiftly she cut the fabric away from his wound, washed it clean, and then began to bandage it.
“This is taking too long,” Juncheng complained. “Pray the kami’s blessing on me and send me back to battle.”
“I will send you back to battle,” Xiong said, “but I have no prayers for you. The kami are exhausted from healing us, listening to us, watching us die. They have no more blessings for us.”
Juncheng was silent then, distracting himself from the pain by looking around. “And these other men? Will you be sending them back too?”
“No,” Xiong said. “They are more seriously injured; I am waiting for stretcher men to move them out of here. I’ve done all that I can for them.”
Before Juncheng could think of something else to say the front wall of the healer’s station blew in and something bounced off the opposite wall and rolled to a stop. As he stared at it in surprise the object began to move and break apart, revealing itself to be a group of oni holding tightly on to each other. After a moment he got a better look at them–they were chalk-white with six lean limbs and gaping mouths that took up most of their long, ovoid heads. The first one free swung its head and then leaped upon the nearest man, ripping hunks of flesh off of his body.
“No!” Xiong screamed. She pulled her wakizashi from its sheath and ran towards the pair. Before she could reach them, another oni leaped on her, fastening its jaws on her sword-arm. Juncheng rolled to his feet and dragged out his sword, yelling curses at the oni. He reached Xiong and swung at the oni as hard as he could. The beast kicked him aside lazily with one of its legs, and continued its feeding.
Juncheng staggered to his feet, pain lancing from his shoulder. He could see Xiong’s last struggles against the monster, but now another one stood before him. He backed himself into a corner of the room and prepared to sell his life dearly.
* * *
The whole world was composed of screams and roars mixed with the stench of blood and entrails and overlaid with the sandpaper pain of thirst. Hida Kaoru swung her tetsubo with all of her dwindling strength and had the faint satisfaction of seeing the last goblin fall.
“How many of us are left?” croaked her commander, looking around. “Six? Right, we will–”
“‘Ware left!” someone cried, and then they were in battle again as two large, red-fleshed oni charged into them. Kaoru ran to aid her commander and then the world went flying as the slick surface betrayed her footing. She landed on her shoulder, losing both her breath and her weapon. Hida, she thought, holding on to consciousness. Her family. The clan.The Wall. She started to climb back to her feet and looked up to see one of the oni standing in front of her, raising his club for a killing blow. Kaoru froze, unwilling to surrender to defeat but unable to think of something to stop it.
The shout was followed by a samurai wielding a gleaming no dachi. Kaoru blinked in surprise as he set to the oni and swiftly killed it. The newcomer glanced around, taking in the bodies laying around, and dashed towards her.
“This one is still alive,” he announced, dragging her up by her arm. “You’ll need to help her out,” he added, shoving her into someone’s arms.
“Go teach your grandmother to drink sake,” a voice snapped back, and Kaoru recognized Hiruma Akio. The gunso looked as tired as Kaoru felt, but she showed no weakness as she started to lead the two of them away. “Are you injured?”
“Just bruised,” Kaoru said. “Bad fall.”
“Good. My squad is being sent to hold this section. After the healers look at you you’ll join us and Fubatsu. They are sending up some Lions to reinforce us.”
Kaoru nodded. “The battle,” she said. “How is it going?”
“On,” Aki said. “It’s going on and on and on.”
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