The assault upon the Great Carpenter Wall by the panicked forces of the Shadowlands finally ends, and the true foe presents itself. Can the alliance of the Crab, Lion, and Unicorn stand face in the face of a completely unknown foe?
The Burning Wall, Part 2
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The waves of creatures rushing toward the Wall ended abruptly during the night. After weeks of constant assault, the sudden peace was even more disturbing than the constant battle. For a precious handful of hours, there was silence and serenity.
And then the sound had begun.
It was a rhythmic sound, a steady beat that had droned into the minds of those who heard it only moments after it began. It was maddening, and the uncertainty of it, of what could produce the noise, set the warriors of the Crab, Lion, and Unicorn clans on edge as they stood in the darkness and waited. It had begun as barely a whisper, drifting on the winds across the plain toward the Wall, and grown slowly louder with each passing moment. It was an enigma that brought madness.
Akodo Shigetoshi knew the sound, of course, and he wished for the blissful ignorance of those who knew not what it was.
As the first light of dawn crept across the horizon, the Lion Clan Champion stood quietly beside his counterpart from the Crab Clan atop the Wall, surveying the empty expanse of the Shadowlands that stretched before them to the south. Neither man spoke for a time as they watched, although there was much shouting and alarm from those near them. Finally it was Shigetoshi who spoke. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” he asked quietly.
Hida Kuon shook his head. “There has never been anything like this.”
Before them, marching across the Shadowlands, there was a force unlike any that man had ever seen. Endless wave upon wave of warriors, or things that appeared to be warriors, formed in flawless ranks, encased from head to toe in what seemed to be seamless metal armor. Each warrior bore four arms, two carrying weapons, and two with metallic talons adorning each inhuman finger. The faces crafted into that armor were hideous beyond all reckoning, and behind them burned some sinister light that cast a glow about the eyes and mouths.
“Where could such a force have been spawned?” Shigetoshi wondered. “Surely the Lost could not create such a thing, else we would have perished centuries ago.”
“That is not the Lost,” Kuon said. “That is no force spawned within the Empire, nor the Shadowlands.”
Shigetoshi nodded. “Gaijin, then.”
“No gaijin that I have ever seen, or heard of,” Kuon said.
The Lion Champion chuckled lightly. “I am sure gaijin have demons as well, my friend.”
* * *
Hida Benjiro grunted as he pried his tetsubo free from his most recent kill. The metal that comprised the armor of these creatures was incredibly resilient, but when finally struck with sufficient force, it collapsed and gripped the metal of the weapon that destroyed it like a vengeful fist. An individual tetsubo, Benjiro had learned, was only worth about sixteen kills before it was warped beyond use. He had discarded three today so far, and his fourth was nearing its lifespan. Katana seemed a better choice, but he had no intention of sullying his grandfather’s soul with the blood of these damnable gaijin things unless he had used up every other weapon at his disposal.
Whatever these creatures were, within the first hours of the fighting, the clans had discovered that they had oni of their own, either specimens recruited or enslaved within the Shadowlands, or perhaps some foreign strain of demon that were indistinguishable from the warped monstrosities the Crab were accustomed to already. Ultimately, it made little difference. Flesh was flesh, and Benjiro would destroy it until there was nothing left remaining for him to kill.
His unit of Hida Elite Guard was currently at the forefront of a spearhead, the purpose of which was to try and pierce the enemy ranks and get some inkling of their command structure, then withdraw and report. Unless of course an opportunity arose to strike at the head of the army, which Benjiro would take without hesitation regardless of the Lion strategies Kuon had been convinced were good practice in a situation such as this.
A brief lull in the fighting as Benjiro’s men surged forward past him allowed the veteran to hop atop a rocky outcropping in hopes of seeing deeper into the army’s ranks. Thus far he had noted no ranged fire to speak of from his enemies, and he was not afraid. He swore as he ascended, however, for the ranks of the enemy extended every bit as far as he could have seen from the Wall. There seemed to be no end. A flash of color drew his eye, however, and he squinted against the glare in an attempt to see what he could from this distance.
There was a unit of irregular type, standing out among the sea of identical armor and composition. The iron warriors within it were larger, bearing six arms instead of four, and cast about in search of prey as if hungry for battle. Perhaps they were brighter than the average lump of iron, Benjiro couldn’t say. There was little to distinguish the group otherwise, at least at first glance, but then the warrior noticed something else moving among the massive servitors. He watched it flicker and ripple as it moved, its shape somehow indistinct among the orderly ranks.
Benjiro froze as a memory surfaced unbidden in his mind. A memory of time spent trapped in an enclosed space, of a creature speaking to him at length in a language he did not, could not understand. And now, suddenly, something of its words seemed to make sense. An image formed in his mind, complete with instinctive understanding. And with it, dawning horror.
“Rakshasa,” Benjiro whispered, the word familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time. “Fall back!” he bellowed, summoning his men back from where they pressed forward into the enemy. “Fall back to the Wall!”
* * *
Kaiu Kyoka surveyed the portion of the village immediately behind the Wall with great scrutiny. “We will need room for the new siege engines,” he barked to his men. “Empty these buildings of anything of use, and level everything. Make room for war!”
The men under his command leapt to fulfill his order despite their exhaustion. They scattered through the buildings, grabbing anything of value that they could immediately locate. Some emerged with a handful of weapons, or of meager supplies. Most emerged with nothing, the area having long since been stripped of anything useful. One building was blockaded, an oddity that had gone unnoticed until now. Kyoka watched as two men broke down the door, the only apparent means of entry, and disappeared into its shadowy interior. A moment later, one appeared at the doorway again, his expression one of confusion. “Kyoka-sama!” he shouted. “You should see this!”
Kyoka swore as he descended the stairs from the rear portion of the Wall, the heat and sound of the battle disappearing as he stepped downward behind the barrier of stone. “If this is not of the utmost importance, I will see you thrashed!” he bellowed. He shouldered past the man at the door and squinted in the gloom. “Light!” he roared.
The man at the door disappeared outside. Only a moment later, one of the tightly boarded windows was smashed inward, allowing light to flood in. “Fortunes!” the man still within the building swore. “There’s more than I thought!”
Kyoka glanced around in awe. There were supplies stacked everywhere, nearly filling the building. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “These are supplies marked for entry into one of the storage compartments on the Wall!”
The scout drug a finger across the surface of a crate. “Been here a month,” he said. “Maybe a little more. Stolen?”
“Why would it be stolen and hidden so close by?” Kyoka wondered. “It makes no sense. Where are these supposed to be?”
The Hiruma glanced at the chop on the side of the crates. “Storehouse sixty-four.”
“Sixty-four?” Kyoka glanced back at the Wall. “That’s right near Kyuden Hida, at the center of the fighting!”
The scout shook his head. “It isn’t possible to steal this much out from under the Hida. How can this have been moved? Why?”
“I have no idea,” Kyoka said. “But I have a feeling that we will find out shortly.” He waved for those observing at the doorway to enter. “For now, however… move these supplies out and get these buildings down!”
* * *
The fighting at the Wall where it adjoined Kyuden Hida was the worst of the battle, and by far the worst that any living Crab had ever seen. Even years ago, when the Wall had fallen for a short time to the forces of Daigotsu, there was not such a fever pitch to the battle. Now the Crab understood what they faced if they fell, and they fought all the harder to prevent such a horror from ever happening again. Hida Benjiro stared out at the plains on the other side of the Wall, stared at the vast, unending ranks of their enemies, and realized the dismal truth of the matter: this was the face of inevitability.
“Kuon!” he roared, crushing one of the ironclad monstrosities that they faced. “We have to fall back! We cannot hold the line!”
“No,” Kuon said flatly. Around him was an island of calm amid the storm, although judging from the gore covering his weapon, the Crab Champion had not stood idle during the fight to this point.
“Kuon, we have to fall back,” Benjiro insisted. “Look at them! There is no end to them! If we stay, everyone dies!”
“I will not fall back,” Kuon said again, his voice perfectly calm. “I will not see the line of my ancestors shamed twice by my failure. Not in my lifetime.” He turned to the man who was as his brother. “Go,” he ordered. “Get Reiha and my sons free from here.”
“My sister will kill me if I come back without you, and then she’ll come looking for you herself!”
Kuon laid a hand on Benjiro’s shoulder. “Go,” he repeated. “Save my family.”
Benjiro stared at him, stared at the resolve in his eyes. “Don’t do this,” he said softly. “I will beg you if I must, but please don’t do this. You are the Crab. If you fall, we all fall. Don’t you understand that?”
There was a roar from the battlefield ahead of the men. “He comes now, your rakshasa,” Kuon said. “This is my time, Benjiro. Protect my family. That is my final command to you.”
Benjiro stepped away and wiped his eyes. “I will,” he said. “Damn you, you know that I will.”
There was some manner of explosion on the ground directly at the base of the Wall where the two men stood, shaking the entire section slightly. The pained shouts of men dying were audible even over the sound, and then the enemy ascended the Wall. To describe it would have been impossible, for even as the men looked upon it, its features swam and shifted. Different animals appeared, some completely unknown but utterly terrifying, before the image finally settled upon that of a tiger’s head atop a massive warrior’s body. “Who among you is the lead dog of this flea-ridden pack?” it snarled.
“I am Hida Kuon, Champion of the Crab,” Kuon said, his grip on his weapon tightening visibly. “Are you responsible for the slaughter of my men?”
“Oh, absolutely,” the thing said with a chuckle.
“Then we have much to discuss,” Kuon growled. “You will step no farther into the Empire while I live.”
“That will not take long,” the rakshasa hissed.
The man and the beast lunged at one another, having no need for further discussion. Kuon was on the offensive instantly, raining down a series of carefully placed but devastatingly powerful blows upon his enemy, who evaded them with catlike grace by the narrowest of margins. It was a cautious dance between the two, with each trying to gain a measure of the other. Finally, the rakshasa seemed to leave an opening, which Kuon moved instantly to exploit with a two-handed downward strike that would have surely shattered a boulder with the force of his tetsubo. The weapon tore through the rakshasa with little resistance and no apparent damage, his flesh flowing back together like water in the wake of the blow. The thing laughed in a most sinister manner and ripped Kuon’s side open with its scimitar, bringing the man to the ground instantly, gasping for breath. “Completely inadequate,” it snarled. “Just like all mortal scum.”
“Keep talking,” Kuon spat. “It will make your death all the sweeter when your hubris catches up with you.”
“Worm,” the rakshasa sneered. “You think you can still kill me?”
“Not me,” Kuon said, “but you will die. It is only a matter of time.”
The thing growled and lifted its scimitar for the killing blow.
From amid the chaos around them, an armored man shouldered his way through the ranks and slammed into the rakshasa bodily, pushing it back and following it up with a strike from his massive hammer. The thing yelped in alarm and pain, and staggered backwards holding a bloodied arm. “Take the Champion and go!” the man roared.
“No,” Kuon said, struggling to tear away from the Hiruma yojimbo helping him to his feet. “I will not leave the Wall in shame again!”
Kaiu Taru tore the helmet from his head and thrust his face mere inches from Kuon’s. “Listen to me!” he demanded. “I have seen what happens here today! The Fortune of Enigmas showed me the future! If you die today, the Crab die! Do you understand? Your family! Your friends and followers! Everything is lost if you die today! Die another day if you wish but today you will go!”
Kuon stared at Taru in shock for only a moment, then bowed his head and nodded. The Hiruma spirited him away as Taru turned back to the rakshasa. “I have waited for this day for many months,” he said.
“Only a fool waits for his death!” the creature said. “Do you honestly think you have a chance of defeating me?”
Taru pointed at the thing’s bloodied arm. “Seems like I might.”
“This?” The creature laughed. “My flesh is what I will it to be, and I will it to be whole!” True to his word, the wound swam and flowed like water again, and his arm was as it had been only moments before. “See?”
Taru shrugged. “It matters little.”
“I see now,” the rakshasa said. “You think your talisman protects you. And perhaps it might, from the slaves that make up the rank and file. The accommodations we were required to make might allow for that. But ultimately it is a meaningless bauble crafted by an insignificant god. It will not save you from me.”
“I do not require salvation,” Taru said, his hammer in one hand and a torch in the other. “I have determined my fate. My destiny is of my choosing, and no one else’s.”
The creature sneered in an expression of absolute contempt. “Mortals and your vaunted destinies,” it spat. “What makes you think you are so exceptional?”
Taru smiled. “I am not afraid to die.” He hefted his hammer in one hand and struck the ground in front of him, shattering the thin layer of stone that covered the hidden storehouse below.
The rakshasa frowned, then recoiled slightly. “That acrid stench, what is that?”
“I think you know.”
It sniffed the air again. “Gunpowder,” it whispered.
Taru dropped the torch.
The Wall exploded.
The distance that the two Hiruma had been able to carry the gravely wounded Kuon was enough to spare them the brunt of the blast, but the three men were sent sprawling into the mud regardless. The scouts were on their feet at once, lifting Kuon and checking his wound. “What was that?” one of them asked, glancing over his shoulder.
“The Wall has fallen,” Kuon croaked.
“The enemy general is likely dead,” the other man said.
“No,” Kuon said. “No, that I doubt. But I think perhaps Taru hurt him.”
“Taru?” the first man asked. “Was that Kaiu Taru?”
Kuon looked back toward the ruined Wall. “No,” he finally said. “No, not anymore, it wasn’t.”
With the Wall breached, the Destroyer’s Horde wasted little time rushing in to fill the gap, but found the way no easier, as the Crab, Lion, and Unicorn presented a most difficult obstacle to overcome. Still, the matter was concluded. Now it was merely an issue of how long before the defenders were forced to fall back. In the smoke and gloom, one man searched through the ruins of the Wall, his brilliant golden armor tarnished by smoke, ash, and the blood of his enemies. “He must be here!” he shouted in frustration. “Find him, Kheth-tet! Find him quickly!”
“Do not order me about like one of your mindless lapdogs, Legulus!” another man shouted through clenched teeth. He emerged from the smoke, his form largely unarmored, his face’s dark complexion adorned with even darker tattoos. “I do not serve you, arrogant fool!”
The two men glared at one another as if they might come to blows when the rubble nearby shifted and fell away, and a shape emerged. “Be silent, you wretched filth!” a garbled voice said. The shape struggled to come together, but kept flowing away from itself as if it were melting. “I will disembowel the both of you if you are not silent!”
“Of course, master,” the one called Legulus said at once. “How may we serve you?”
“What do you require, my eminence?” Kheth-tet asked.
“Kill them,” the wounded rakshasa hissed. “Kill every Crab you find. Leave nothing alive in this wretched place.”
Kheth-tet bowed and Legulus clutched his sword to his chest in salute, and the two officers returned to their men, leaving the mauled creature to try will its wounds away in the battered stone rubble. “I will see this Empire brought to ashes,” the rakshasa hissed, its flesh very slowly beginning to knit back together, inch by inch. “Nothing will stand in the path of the Destroyers!”
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