The assembled armies of the Empress stand at the line south of Ryoko Owari Toshi, prepared to pay any price to stop the inexorable advance of the god-beast. But Kali-ma’s greatest weapon has not yet revealed all of its secrets…
Wrath of the God-Beast, Part 1
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
There were screams of alarm as the people of Ryoko Owari Toshi filed through the streets, passing through the gates of the city and into the plains beyond. The members of the Thunder Guard, the city’s elite guardians, worked hand in hand with the firemen gangs that they so often opposed. The traditional enemies had put aside their rivalries and now struggled to evacuate the city as rapidly as they could. Now and again one of the simple folk being led from the city would glance to the south and see the massive form on the horizon that lumbered toward them, and a fresh wave of screams would begin.
Three men sat atop their horses south of the city, hundreds of armed and armored samurai massing around them. The stared to the south without fear. “The beast does not slow,” Akodo Shigetoshi said.
Shinjo Dun’s expression did not change. “If Yu-Pan-sama’s flanking maneuver cannot slow it, then it cannot be slowed. She is the finest cavalry officer that lives.”
“Not for much longer if the beast cannot be stopped,” Hida Benjiro added solemnly.
“Then let us end its threat,” Shigetoshi said firmly. “This far, brothers, and no farther.” He say higher in the saddle and raised his voice so that it would carry to the other soldiers assembled near them. “Today, we kill a god!”
The roar of the army was deafening.
In the south, the god-beast continued.
* * * * *
The tiny goblin peeked carefully over the edge of the riverbed where he was secreted. He quavered slightly at the sheer number of samurai that he saw massing for battle to the northeast, but he did not succumb to the urge to run. He glanced all along the horizon, lingering for a moment on the enormity of the god-beast that lumbered in their direction. Then he ducked back down.
“How many?” the gunso demanded.
“Don’t know,” the goblin said, shaking his head sadly. “Can’t count so high. Too many!”
“Useless!” The man kicked at the goblin. “Why you were ever permitted to serve as a scout I cannot comprehend!”
“Makishi,” a quiet voice said. “Shut your mouth or I will take your head.”
The gunso turned toward the voice, eyes blazing, but shrank instantly when he saw who had spoken. “I… yes, Shimekiri-sama,” he said quietly.
The dark swordsman lifted his head to stare at the approaching monstrosity, apparently heedless of the danger of exposure. “Our time comes shortly.”
The cowed gunso frowned. “My lord, how… how can we attack the thing among so many enemies? They will destroy us on sight.”
“They will not,” Daigotsu Shimekiri said. “In a few moments, they will need all the assistance that we can offer.”
The gunso shook his head. “I do not understand.”
The swordsman looked at him with a completely disgusted expression. “Of course you do not. You are a simpleton.” He turned back toward the south. “Can you not smell it on the air? “ He nodded toward the god-beast. “Something different is coming.”
Gakku looked up at the dark man in awe, and shivered.
* * * * *
“The beast approaches!” the Lion officer roared. “Lord Shigetoshi needs men willing to face and fell it! Who among you is ready?”
The men clamored and readied their weapons, preparing for the advance toward the mountainous foe in the distance. Ikoma Noda smiled and lifted the war banner high into the air, shouting about the pride of their ancestors on such a day. He was in the midst of a tale of the Lion Champion who had marched into the Shadowlands to slay countless foes when the shuddering of the ground and the periodic report of the beast’s footfalls suddenly and abruptly stopped.
The entire army assembled south of the city stopped and stood, staring at their distant enemy. The beast had stopped and stood immobile. Then, slowly, it panned its head left to right, as if surveying what was arrayed against it. Those assembled did not move, nor speak, or hardly even breathe; so far as any of them knew, it was the first time the beast had displayed any sort of reaction to the forces of Rokugan other than a slightly annoyed response to attack. Now, it simply stood. Again, slowly, it shifted its weight to the right side and lifted its powerful limbs, then brought them down with astonishing force.
Despite that the god-beast was yet miles away, many among the assembled forces struggled to maintain their footing with the massive tremors that the beast’s action unleashed. Nearer to the creature, a massive chasm was torn in the earth, a gulf the likes of which did not exist outside the most jagged and quake-torn regions of the Spine of the World mountains. The dust cloud that was thrown into the sky dimmed the mid-day sun until it was as twilight. And then, just as the air began to clear, there was movement from the chasm itself.
Things began to emerge. They were horrible to look upon, serpentine in nature but with heavily armored carapaces protecting their upper body and two long, insectile arms that ended not with hands, but with foot-long claws that seemed more like blades. The lower jaw was slightly wider than the top, leading to a gaping, terrible maw that was large enough to consume a warrior’s head in one bite. At first there were only a few, then dozens, and then hundreds of the creatures swarming up from the chasm. The din of their war cries seemed nearly silent in the wake of the thunderous report of the beast’s crashing steps, but it was audible just the same.
“What… why are there demons beneath the Scorpion lands?” Noda heard one of the officers ask the nearby Kitsu priest.
“They were not,” the priest answered mournfully. “The beast has summoned them. It is perhaps a defense of some sort.”
If the commander had an answer to that, it was never spoken, as the swarms of creatures from the chasm suddenly began their serpent-like gait toward the assembled armies. And their rate of movement was vastly faster than that of the god-beast.
Noda stared in horror at the wave of abominations that swarmed from the earth and moved toward them. The task before them had been all but impossible when it was simply the god-beast alone, but now? Now he did not know what to do. As if from a great distance he heard the officer shouting commands to the men assembled behind him, and he heard them moving to assume a new formation, but without looking he knew that their spirits were troubled. They were Lion, and they would never break, but this was a blow to their morale such as he had never known, and he did not know what to do. There were no words for something like this.
A hand closed over Noda’s where he held the banner.
Noda turned slowly, his eyes lingering on the doom before them, he gaze finally tearing away from it toward the strange green glow in the periphery of his vision. The hand that held his was brilliant green, so pure that it was almost painful to look upon. The woman to whom the hand was attached stood beside him, her eyes boring into his very soul. The warcats loitering in her wake were almost imperceptible for the sheer force of her presence. Moments ago they had not been there, but now they stood at the fore of the Lion forces. “Noda,” she said, her voice at once quiet and as strong as steel. “The men are ready. They need you.”
“Yes,” he said, his voice scarcely above a whisper. “Yes!” he said louder. He turned to the men, his eyes blazing. “The god-beast fears us!” he roared. “It fears the Lion, as all things that live should! It sends its pawns to stop us, but we will not be stopped! We will litter the path of the beast with the dead, and burn their foul corpses as a monument to the enormity of the task once we have slain the beast!”
The men lifted their weapons and roared their responses, shifting quickly and smoothly into the proper formation. Noda could see their grip on their weapons, the eagerness in their eyes. They were ready for battle, ready for death if need be, and Noda was ready to fight and die with them.
He looked for Matsu Benika, the Jade Hand, but she had moved on. Somewhere else along the front lines, he heard another roar of victory, and he knew that her work was not yet finished.
* * * * *
The forces of the Empire and the chasm-spawn collided like two storms, crashing into one another with a cacophony of violence and death that could scarcely be rivaled with only human opponents. The measured skill and fearlessness of the samurai was a match for the sheer number of their opponents, but the surprising resilience of the demons evened the struggle. The ever-closer form of the god-beast behind the enemy’s lines also complicated the struggle considerably.
Tsuruchi Shisuken was keenly aware of all these factors as he fired arrow after arrow into the horde, trying to thin it as much as possible in order to break the lines so that the army could press forward to intercept the god-beast before it grew too close to the city. He grimaced as he fired his forty-first arrow, and wondered if the six quivers allocated to him would be sufficient.
Shisuken halted in mid-draw before firing his next arrow. Something appeared in his field of vision, and he risked a glance to the riverbed. A force of men, some two or perhaps three dozen at most, leapt up from their place of concealment and charged the flank of the creatures, breaking through the horde’s front line and plummeting into their midst. For the moment, their actions were lost upon Shisuken, however, as he fixated on one thing and one thing only: the image of a man he had seen in his mind’s eye one thousand times over after their one and only meeting. It was the man who had assassinated Moshi Amika during the night when so many prominent figures across the Empire had perished. It had been years before now, but Shisuken had not forgotten. The man had killed his charge, and he would never forget.
Shisuken pivoted and followed the new target, preparing to fire. He had fired upon the same man only once before, and while he had been certain at the time that he had landed a killing blow, the man’s body had never been found. Shisuken never missed, and the double shame of the man’s escape and filled him with rage such as he had never known. This was the chance to avenge it.
“Who are those men?” one of the archers next to him bellowed.
“I do not know, but their charge is disrupting the beasts’ line and allowing our forces to push ahead!” their commander said. “Fire to support!”
Shisuken’s arrow shook ever so slightly as he struggled with the rage burning in his chest. This might be the only chance he ever had to end the shame that he and he alone attached to his name as a result of that night. This might be the only chance for revenge.
“Shisuken!” his commander shouted. “What is wrong with you? Fire!”
With a strangled growl, Shisuken pivoted away from the target and fired into the mass of demons, hitting one directly in the throat. “When this is over, your life is mine!” he hissed to his distant opponent, not caring that he could not hear him.
* * * * *
“Back to back, men!” Mirumoto Kenzo bellowed over the clamor of the creatures they fought. “We did not travel so far just to fall to these beasts! We must win the day and return home to kill more Yobanjin!”
The Dragon officer’s men shouted in answer to his goading, some even chuckling, but Kenzo knew that their situation was dire. The beasts had broken the line near where they stood, and they were cut off from the main force. An isolated unit had poor chances for survival in situations such as these, and Kenzo knew all too well what the likely outcome would be. The whispers in the back of his mind, whispers he had learned to ignore under all circumstances save for battle, called out to him to succumb to the rage and bloodlust, but he knew that nothing good could come of such things. He remained in control of himself and struggled to find a way to lead his men to safety.
A blurry form vaulted over Kenzo and his men to land amid the demons facing the Dragon officer. There was still more blurred movement, and two of the things were cast away in opposite directions as if struck by a Unicorn steed moving at full gallop. Where they had once stood, a tattooed monk was in their place. “Good day, Mirumoto-sama!” he said, his face completely calm as he punched through the thick carapace of another creature, killing it instantly. “I thought perhaps you might require assistance.”
“My thanks, brother,” Kenzo shouted, “but unless you brought your entire monastery, I think you may have overestimated your abilities.”
The monk did not smile. “My fellow monks have pressing matters to attend to elsewhere, I fear, but do not be concerned; I did not come alone.”
There were more flurries of movement, this time among the ranks of the creatures, and this time black and crimson where the monk’s had been green and gold. As Kenzo watched, more than two dozen of the demons ahead of them seemed to simply fall to pieces in a shower of gore and viscera. With the way thinned, Kenzo could see the way back to the primary formation, where the armies of the Empress stood against the gaijin demons.
Togashi Osawa smiled ever so slightly. “Our allies among the Scorpion,” he explained. “They are called the Shadow Blades, and I understand they have a great deal of experience against the Destroyers and the plague-ridden. They are rarely seen save by their enemies, it appears.”
“Well if you see them,” Kenzo said, “please extend my gratitude.” He gestured to his men. “Charge, men! Let us clear the way and rejoin our comrades!”
* * * * *
Well behind the front lines, where no one was free to see it, there was a shimmering in the air, and then the wind began to increase in strength. It grew stronger with each passing minute, spinning in a tight circle like a miniature cyclone, picking up debris and loose earth until its center could not be seen. Once opaque, it persisted only for a handful of seconds, and then died down as if it had never been. Within the space formerly obscured by the storm stood a dozen men and women. Six of them formed a circle facing outward, and with the cessation of the storm, five of those collapsed to the ground, unconscious. The sixth staggered and dropped to one knee, but did not fall.
“Lady Mitsuko!” One of those within the circle, an armored warrior, stepped forward to hold the woman’s arm.
Isawa Mitsuko, the Elemental Master of Air, struggled to catch her breath. “I… I am sorry. Forgive me, but… the kami, they demand… quite a price for such a ritual.” The inquisitor reached up and brushed a lock of hair, once the most brilliant black and now shot through very slightly with grey, back from her face. “I need a moment.”
Another woman in the garb of an Elemental Master stepped forward. “You and your acolytes have done all that we could ask and more, Mitsuko-sama. Rest now. Let us handle this.” She nodded to the armored man. “Yoshimi, remain with them.”
The man looked up sharply. “My place is with you.”
Isawa Kimi shook her head. “Not this time, friend. Stay.” She turned to the others. “Are you ready?”
One of them shook his head. “Look at the size of it,” he said in awe. “How can we fight something like that?”
Another laughed. She was a tiny old woman, and it was a strange, cackling sound. “Is it harder to stop than a volcano, little ones? No? Then stand aside, and let Agasha Gifu show you what has to be done.”
TO BE CONTINUED
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