A series of vignettes from around the Emerald Empire dealing with the aftermath of the death of the god-beast and other assorted tragedies.
Scenes from the Empire
By Shawn Carman & Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
It was with a heavy heart and eyes dim from exhaustion that Miya Shoin, the Imperial Herald, entered the throne room of the Divine Empress. Two of his most trusted vassals followed closely behind, the satchel bags they carried heavy with scrolls. Shoin bowed low before his lord, his forehead nearly touching the floor. “Please forgive my tardiness, Divine One. It is completely inexcusable. I am greatly shamed by my discourtesy and failure.”
The Voice of the Empress raised his hand. “The task set before you was enormous, Shoin-san,” his rich, baritone voice said. “The Empress is not displeased, and in any event a handful of minutes can scarcely be considered tardy in any real sense.”
Shoin did not rise from his bow. “Regardless, mistress, it shall not happen again.”
The silhouette of the Empress behind her screen nodded, and Shoin rose. “In accordance with your wishes, my lady, I have prepared a comprehensive list of those slain in the battle with the god-beast, from the moment of its first appearance though the battle at Ryoko Owari in which it was killed.”
“An exhausting task, to be sure,” the Voice said. “That you have completed it so quickly is a great testament to your gifts. The Empress is grateful.”
“It is my great honor to serve,” the Herald said sincerely. “I must warn you, however, that there are many bodies as yet unidentified, and many who are missing. This list is as complete as it can be at the moment, but may require extensive correction in the coming weeks.”
“Of course,” the Voice said. “Please, continue.”
Shoin nodded and took the first scroll. “You know the broad strokes of it already, I am sure. The beast was felled by a number of factors, the exact cause of death being a point of contention. The Phoenix report we heard some days ago involved the use of Void magic on a large scale, which I must confess is something I find quite confounding. Other reports from the front insist that the beast was whittled away exclusively by martial means, and succumbed to large scale trauma and blood loss. There was a report from one magistrate on the scene that there were wounds on the beast that appeared after its death but before its immolation, and believes that some other factor may be at play as well.”
“There is no consensus regarding the demise, then?”
“None whatsoever,” Shoin said. “The controversy has been heated in some areas.”
“Unfortunate,” the Voice said. “What else?”
“I must also regret to inform you that the southern front lost considerable ground during the beast’s incursion,” Shoin continued. “Our front lines were broken and the Destroyers did not hesitate to make use of such opportunity. The southern Scorpion lands are now hotly contested and the Destroyers’ presence in that region is significant indeed. The conclusion of the matter in Ryoko Owari has allowed the commanders to redirect their full attention to the southern border once more, but the general consensus is that the ground lost cannot and will not be easily reclaimed.”
“What of the city?”
“Ryoko Owari has suffered much of late,” Shoin said. “My reports on hand indicate that as much as a quarter of the city was destroyed or at least appreciably damaged during a fire of considerable size some weeks ago. That led to an easy incursion by a group of demon spawn created by the god-beast, which ran rampant through the nearly deserted streets, damaging anything in their path.” He shook his head. “Under ideal circumstances, estimates believe that the city cold be repaired completely of all damage within approximately six months, but of course these are hardly ideal circumstances.”
“Hardly,” the Voice agreed. “What of specific losses? Can you advise the Empress of any losses which she may know of personally? The Child of Heaven wishes to know the names of those lost, rather than simple numbers, although numbers are an essential place to begin.”
“Of course,” Shoin said. “The present estimate of those forces lost exclusively in the conflict with the god-beast at slightly more than four thousand, half of whom were lost in the battle at Ryoko Owari. This is the single most expensive engagement in the southern conflict to date, although the total losses of that war are perhaps ten times the amount lost to the god-beast alone.”
“It is the fear of the Empress that the losses of this war, compounded with so many losses over the past generation, are such that the Empire will be left populated exclusively by widows, widowers, and vastly too few children.”
“The situation is indeed dire by all estimates,” Shoin agreed. “By the present estimate, the war will, in eighteen months time, have exhausted the samurai population of the Empire to the point that repopulating the ranks of your armies will take more than two decades at best.”
“Dire,” the Voice said. “The term scarcely seems to cover the enormity of the situation.”
Shoin forced a smile. “Beyond that, there were many, many deaths. My research, which I must warn you was extremely hasty, indicates only a handful of major deaths that involve individuals whom you may be familiar with.”
The Empress bowed her head behind the screen, and the Voice nodded for the Herald to continue. “Two of your generals were wounded,” he said. “Utaku Yu-Pan’s left arm was severed below the elbow, but she should recover in some months’ time. Her shireikan Shinjo Dun has assumed command at her insistence, but her recovery should allow her to continue her service as a warrior and commander. Similarly, Akodo Shigetoshi lost an eye in the fighting, but has refused to retire from the battlefield. His attendant shugenja are treating the wound as best they can while he continues leading from the front as best he is able.”
“Great and honorable vassals,” the Voice said. “The Empress is grateful for their service and honored by their dedication.”
“Beyond that, there were few among the dead that I could immediately link to the Empress’ person,” Shoin said. “Among them, however, was Kitsuki Hakahime, a former vassal of the Divine One during her time as the Kitsuki family daimyo, and Yoritomo Ietsuna and Bayushi Utamuro, both of whom records indicate crossed the Empress’ path during her time as a magistrate.”
“Rivals,” the Voice said. “Still, their passing is unfortunate, and they gave their lives for the Empire. They will be remembered as heroes.”
Shoin bowed his head. “Of course.” He gestured to the scroll satchels of his two attendants. “I have the lists of the dead, if it is your wish to take them and peruse them at your leisure, my lady.”
“No,” the Voice said. “The Empress wishes to hear the names of the fallen.”
Shoin stared for a moment. “All of them, my lady? That would take… some time.”
“The Empress has cleared her schedule for the remainder of the day,” the Voice said. “She has relegated the important tasks of the day to the Emerald Champion. It is important that the Empress hear the names of all who have given their lives for her, or so she firmly believes.”
Shoin bowed deeply out of respect. “As you command, my lady. I will be honored to perform such a terrible task for you, if it will in some way assist you in enduring this terrible time of trial.”
The Empress nodded, and the recitation began.
* * * * *
The warrior crouched within the bushes, unmoving as stone. There was a distant buzzing that he dimly recognized as his legs screaming out in protest at his position, at the fact that he had not moved in more than three hours, but he had long since trained himself to ignore such things. Pain and discomfort were mere impediments, after all, and those with proper discipline could overcome them without great difficulty. Bayushi Keirei had spent decades conditioning his body as a weapon under his absolute control, and he knew that it would not betray him due to a bit of minor inconvenience. So he waited. Unfortunately, the screams of the dying were far more difficult to ignore than the pain from his cramping muscles.
The village had been under assault when he had crept to the perimeter as he arrived at the village, seemingly days ago. He had carefully assessed the situation and immediately determined that there was no way for him to help the villagers. The horde of undead that descended upon the village was far too great for him to halt by himself, or even if he had a dozen others with the same training. If there had been two dozen perhaps, but no less than that could hope to end such a gruesome rampage. No less than five dozen of the abominations were swarming all over the village, killing everything in their path, consuming many who fell, and randomly destroying whatever obstacle presented itself. Their numbers were hard to judge because of the chaos; there might be as many as a hundred, possibly even more.
Keirei did not look away as an old man was dragged from his hut and torn to pieces, screaming all the while. This was what he needed to see. He needed to let the hate build up in his chest. It made it so much easier to do what he needed to do. Keirei had never shirked from duty, not once in his long years of service, but this… this was different. This was damnation. And while he watched the horror, he remembered.
A young man, one of promising station and ability, one whose parents called in many favors to ensure that he could fulfill his dream and train with the acrobats of the Kakita Artisan Academy. A young man who dreamed of becoming a sensation across the Empire, of performing in the greatest courts, perhaps even for the Emperor himself one day. It was a lofty dream, but one that everyone agreed was achievable. And he dared to believe that it was his destiny.
Then the Scorpion Champion had seen him perform.
It was Keirei’s greatest moment, and it had been the greatest performance of his life. Never had his physical abilities been in finer form. He believed that this was the stepping stone to the dreams he had embraced, that now the only thing he waited for was his impending gempukku, and then the world would be his. But that was not to be.
The Champion had been duly impressed, and had dispatched one of his vassals, a man named Shosuro Toson, to speak with Keirei and his parents. There had been no option, really. An accident had been staged, and Keirei’s future as an acrobat had been erased. He then began his true training with Toson and his students, marrying the Shosuro techniques with his own gymnastic training, creating something altogether new and never before seen, even among the Scorpion. He had become a unique weapon, and when he finally underwent his gempukku and took the name Keirei, he was nothing more than a whisper, a shadow among the Scorpion, someone that no one in the Empire knew.
And now, his duty was the one thing he had ever been asked that he was uncertain if he could perform. Toson had scarcely been able to speak the words, but his lady Miyako-sama had not wavered when she told him.
“Find the thing that wears my husband’s flesh,” she said, “and destroy it.”
There. Amid the sea of dead and dying, Keirei spied a familiar form. The ruin that had been visited upon it caused him tremendous pain, for a man as great as Bayushi Paneki did not deserve a wretched disgrace such as this. Despite that his dreams had been shattered, Keirei revered Paneki above all others, for what miserable life in the courts could have compared to the things he had seen and done? He owed his life to his lord, and he was prepared to sacrifice it if it would give the man some measure of peace.
Keirei erupted into motion, exploding from the bushes with speed no human should possess. He vaulted over a trio of confused zombies and ran at full pace toward the distant figure of his former lord. He spun into a cartwheel, lashing out with foot and fist as he sailed through the air, sending fully half a dozen more scattered along the ground. He needed no weapons as he drew closer, disabling everything in his path. He needed no weapon because he was a weapon. Hands tore at his clothing, rotten fingertips brushing ever so slightly against the smooth skin of his shaven head; if he had kept his topknot, he would have been undone.
Bayushi Keirei launched himself into the air, sailing over other undead, his foot extended to crush the skull of his former lord. He could see a faint intelligence in the thing’s eyes, and even as he was in the air he felt absolute horror and revulsion at the thing’s existence, and no small amount of fear. Did something remain? He dared not even contemplate the idea.
Hands grabbed his clothing. A dozen or more of the things managed to seize him and halt his progress, stopping him in midair. Keirei swore violently. There had been no indication they were capable of such speed or thought. Was the dead lord influencing them somehow? He had that ability in life, to change the lives of those around him simply by his presence, his charisma. Keirei was thrown to the ground, and the zombie lord simply disappeared into the ranks of the undead.
Paneki was gone. The undead closed in around him. Keirei was lost.
The acrobat launched into a flurry of violent motion such as he had never unleashed before. He crushed and shattered bone and flesh with every movement. The way around him cleared, and he could see daylight once more. There was a fallen torii arch nearby, and he vaulted to the top of it. He used his hands to balance himself, swinging in a circle in a series of acrobatic movements, destroying any undead that came near him. A dozen threw themselves at him only to be destroyed, then a half dozen more. He continued, his movement never ceasing, the violence never relenting, until he could see a break in the ranks. He threw himself into a somersault and ran at full speed for the break, slaying to more of the creatures as they attempted to impede his exit. As he crossed the village’s boundary he saw the things lose interest and return to feasting on dead villagers.
Bayushi Keirei was free.
The mission was not yet ended.
* * * * *
Before the battle…
The sun poured its heat down on Ryoko Owari, filling the city’s streets with fetid, muggy air. Isawa Nakajima did not notice. He was standing in the midst of a crowd of heimin waiting with patience and barely-leashed terror to be let through the gate at the street’s end, but he did not notice them either. The shugenja’s attention was wholly taken up by the beast that was approaching from the south. He could see it, as those around him could, a lumbering presence just glimpsed over the top of the city walls. But Nakajima could feel it was well: the god-beast’s presence revolted the elements, and even at this distance the shugenja was aware of the earth kami’s dismay. Their emotions pressed in on him, leaving him faintly nauseous and struggling for breath.
“What is taking so long?” he complained to Shiba Nobuyuki, his yojimbo. “The people in this crowd could walk, or even run, much faster than this.”
Nobuyuki shook his head briefly. “More speed would trigger a panic, Nakajima-sama, and in the crush no one could get through. It is a very narrow gate here.”
Nakajima’s answer was cut off before it began by a swell of noise from the crowd. His gaze immediately went to the god-beast, and he saw that the thing had stopped and was surveying something in front of it. The armies of the south, the shugenja thought, and he silently said a prayer for the samurai who were about to die. The god-beast shifted its weight to one side and then seemed to smite the ground at its feet. Nakajima frowned a moment in puzzlement over what the beast was trying to accomplish and then he staggered, as did the crowd around him, when the street they stood on shifted and buckled. He staggered a second time, as the normally placid earth kami sprang into a rage over something only they could perceive. Nakajima focused all of his will on not throwing up, trying to soothe the kami in his vicinity. The crisis passed and Nakajima’s awareness of the normal world returned. Nobuyuki was discreetly holding him up, saving him from the filth of the road beneath their feet. Around him the crowd had grown noisier, with whispered speculations and prayers to the heavens mixed in with screams and cries of despair.
“We must get away from here!” Nakajima said, shaking off Nobuyuki’s supporting arm. “There is something terrible happening.” The yojimbo’s only response was a lifted eyebrow. “An additional terrible thing,” the shugenja clarified. “The city must be cleared, quickly.”
Without a second thought Nakajima strode forward and started pushing his way through the crowd. “Let me through!” he said, “I must get to the gate.”
“We all need to get to the gate!” someone shouted back, and Nakajima staggered as someone else shoved him back. “Coward!” a peasant woman screamed, clutching an infant and a small child to her. Nakajima stared open-mouthed at the hatred he saw on the faces around him, as the fear that hung in the air began to crystalize into something far uglier.
“MAKE WAY FOR A PRIEST OF THE ISAWA,” Nobuyuki bellowed out. He muscled his way next to Nakajima. “A priest of the Isawa comes to confer with your leaders! Make way!” The yojimbo stepped forward, making shooing motions with his arms. “Make way for a priest of the Isawa!” he yelled again. “A priest of the Isawa comes to confer with your leaders!” The crowd began to part before him and he moved forward, Nakajima following in his yojimbo’s wake.
When they reached the gate the guard captain regarded them with weary respect. “Greetings, Isawa-sama,” he said. “You and your yojimbo may go through the gate at once, of course.”
“That is not why I am here,” Nakajima said. “I have come to warn you: some fresh evil has broken out on the plain to the south of here. You must speed up the evacuation of the city.”
“Isawa-sama,” the captain said, and then seemed to think better of his next words, and started over. “Isawa-sama, I would that we could. But you see we are sending people through the gate as quickly as possible without having them trample each other.”
Nakajima turned and studied the gate. What the captain said was true; the gate was smaller than the road that led to it, and the guards were doing all that they could to guide the flow of people out without delay or panic. “What if the way were wider? I could destroy the wall on either side–”
The captain held up his hands in alarm. “Isawa-sama, no! Please. I have no doubt that you could throw down the walls with but a thought, but it would not be helpful to have a road strewn with rocks and sharp gravel. Worse still, there is sure to be someone out of sight of the gates who will take the noise as a sign of enemy attack, and he will panic everyone around him and start a stampede. I have seen riots start before. You must believe me about this.”
Nakajima thought of what he had seen of the crowd’s mood. “I believe you, captain.” He studied the city wall. “That wall looks like it is very well-built,” he said.
The captain swelled with a bit of civic pride. “You will not find a better wall outside of the Crab lands, Isawa-sama. The Scorpion do not tolerate shoddy workmanship.”
“Then there is another way,” Nakajima said. “Please clear everyone away from the gate; this should not take long.” He left before the captain could reply, and walked towards the gate. Behind him he could hear Nobuyuki briskly offering his help in carrying out the shugenja’s orders. He smiled, then put the matter out of his mind. What he was about to do demanded both great power and great finesse, all the while dealing with interference of the god-beast’s vile presence. It was fortunate he was here, Nakajima thought, for it was clearly the type of task that required an Isawa.
He stood in the center of the road, waiting for the guards to finish coaxing the crowd away. Then Nakajima closed his eyes, took a deep breath, centered himself, and began to softly chant a prayer to the earth kami. They were aware of him immediately, and as they focused their attention on him Nakajima felt his nausea double and redouble. He almost collapsed, but he forced his body’s misery into a small corner of his mind and did his best to ignore it.
The chant went on, and he could feel the kami slowly begin to understand what he was requesting of them. They were surly about being asked to do anything with the god-beast near, and Nakajima countered by pointing out that his task would be a distraction from the horror in the south. For a time that felt like an infinity to the shugenja the kami resisted his pleas, and then with the suddenness of an avalanche the task was done. Nakajima staggered a bit with the shock of it, then smoothly plunged into the prayers of thanksgiving for their help.
When Nakajima opened his eyes again the guards were all half-kneeling, bowing to him in the warrior fashion. All the heimin in the crowd were kneeling or bowing as space permitted them, and not a sound came from the mass. Only Nobuyuki stood upright, his sword in his hand and his eyes looking for anything that could have harmed Nakajima while his attention was occupied elsewhere.
The shugenja glanced to his left and right and smiled. On either side of him the wall had rolled itself up like a paper scroll, widening the way without dislodging a single stone. He raised his hands and addressed the crowd. “People of Ryoko Owari!” he said loudly. “Follow the directions of the city guards, they will make sure you get out safely. The blessings of the Celestial Heavens be upon you!” He turned and began to walk away.
Nobuyuki caught up with him after a few strides. “Nakajima-sama, where are you going? You cannot walk far in this state.”
“I only need to reach the side of the road,” Nakajima whispered. “Then I can kneel and look benign while my strength comes back.”
The yojimbo smothered a laugh, then turned serious. “That you are lingering here, and not immediately departing, will help keep the people calm,” he said.
Nakajima nodded, but his thoughts were not on Nobuyuki’s words. The god-beast could still be seen in the distance, and the shugenja knew that if the clans could not stop it, his deed would amount to little.
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