The first in a long series of fictions devoted to the results of the 2011 Kotei tournaments.
The Destroyer War, Part 1
By Shawn Carman & Lucas Twyman
Edited by Fred Wan
Akodo Tetsuru shifted his weight atop the steed he rode, surveying the scene before him with a cool, calculating gaze. “The order is given,” he said after a few moments. “We will fall back to the Crab lines. We cannot hope to hold out against the impending assault, and I will not see valuable assets sacrificed in the vain hope that the Heavens themselves will part and bestow a miracle upon us.”
The Moto officer riding at Tetsuru’s side winced slightly at the Lion commander’s tone, but said nothing, offering only an apologetic look at the Hare officer standing before them. The man bore the symbol of the ruling Usagi family on his shoulder, and his face was a mask of rage. “You want us to abandon all we have built here?” he demanded. “Without lifting a blade against those who would take it from us?”
Moto Munoru cleared his throat. “Your devotion to your holdings is admirable, Kashira-sama,” he started…
“Kudo has insufficient strategic value to warrant the loss of resources that a failed defense would incur,” Tetsuru said, his tone remaining completely dispassionate. “Surely you can see that we have no chance of standing against the Destroyers in our present state. We must fall back to the Crab line and rejoin the legions there. To take the field of battle in the face of certain defeat without hope of accomplishment is foolishness.”
“Many of us call this village home!” Usagi Kashira insisted. “We have worked and trained here for years!”
“I would think you would wish to survive and rebuild it, then,” Tetsura said. “Because its destruction is imminent.”
Kashira’s face twisted into a baleful sneer. “This is the petty vengeance of the Lion, then,” he said. “You could not keep Kudo, so you would see it burn.”
Munoru’s eyes cut to Tetsuru as if fearing his response, but the Lion commander merely shrugged. “If it makes you feel better to imagine that is the case, then do so,” he said plainly. “You should accept, however, that Kudo is beneath the notice of the Lion. If we could save it by standing here today, I would do so without hesitation, for that is my duty to the Empress. If it were offered to me on behalf of the Lion, however, I would decline it.” He leaned forward to make his point more clear. “Kudo has nothing that the Lion want.” He straightened once more and looked around. “Now please instruct your people to begin evacuating immediately. I do not wish to leave anyone behind, but if it comes to that, I will give my men the order to depart without you.”
Kashira’s hatred was like a fourth man standing among them. “This is not over,” he said hoarsely, and turned back toward the village.
“I assure you it is,” Tetsuru assured him.
“Was it necessary to antagonize him so, commander?” Munoru asked when the two officers were alone. “What good comes of it? I have never been present when a blood feud started but I am fairly certain that’s what it looks like.”
Tetsuru smirked at his second in command. “You have seen what approaches from the south,” he said. “Do you wish to stand against them without Crab fortifications to protect our ranks?”
“Not particularly,” the Unicorn admitted.
“Nor do I,” Tetsuru said. “If anger gives haste the Hare’s departure, then perhaps today we saved their lives. As it is, I fear their sluggishness in evacuating this wretched hovel will cost many of them their lives, and perhaps some of us as well.”
Kitsune Ando stood in a quiet portion of the village and wiped his hand across his face. Despite the coolness of the air, he was sweating profusely, a combination of the stress and his anger at the situation. He had overheard the commander’s exchange with Hare lord and it had sickened him. Clearly this situation was a product of Lion pettiness, just as the other Mantis had cautioned him to be on guard for. Everything they had told him about the Lion had proven correct in the months since he had joined the southern offensive, and the fact that he had to answer to Lion officers at every turn made him want to wretch. What did they know of honor?
Between two particularly closely placed buildings, Ando found a pocket of snow that had been spared the recent thaws. He dropped to his knees and thrust his hands into the snow, eager for a familiar sensation of the beautiful, natural joys from home. Anything to spare him from the tormented thoughts he so often had now that he had joined the greater Empire. He closed his eyes and focused on the simple feeling of nature’s white bounty enclosing his hands, all sensation falling away.
Ando did not know how long he stayed there, but after a while he recognized the presence of another nearby. It was the same as when he was in the Kitsune Mori, and the eyes of a spirit were upon him. He looked up and was surprised to see a beautiful woman clad in white standing amid the alley, her feet covered by the same strip of snow he was touching. “Forgive me, my lady,” he muttered, withdrawing his hands. “I did not hear you approach, and…” his voice trailed off as he realized that there were no tracks on either side leading to the spot where the woman stood, and she could not have reached that spot without stepping into the snow somewhere.
“You hold one of mine close to your heart,” the woman said, her voice strange. “I can see her touch upon your spirit.”
Ando stared at her blankly. “I… I am betrothed to a young Moshi priestess,” he said after a moment, unsure why the words came so easily to him.
“Do you care for her?”
“We have only met once,” he explained, “but she is… it is difficult to explain. Her spirit is pure. I find myself thinking of the next time I will be able to see her again, to speak with her.”
“Pure,” the woman laughed. “You, too, are pure, in many ways.”
“You are her, aren’t you,” Ando said softly. “I have heard the legends, but…”
“What would you give?” the woman asked. “What would you give up to save the lives of those here? The lives that weigh upon you so heavily even now?”
Ando had to stop himself from gazing around the village, because he knew that if he did so she would be gone when he looked back. “The Hare and the Lion are so intent upon one another that I fear the Destroyers will reach the city before the evacuation is complete,” he said. “The loss of so many of my kinsmen among the Minor Clans is a terrible thought to have.”
“What would you sacrifice?” she whispered. She pointed at his chest, where his heart was. “Would you give up the purity of your soul?”
“I… I would save their lives, if I could,” Ando said. He looked down. “I would offer you whatever I could to make such a thing happen.”
Impossibly, she laughed. “Your purity is genuine. Your soul is without blemish. Thus far, at least.” Moshi Hinome smiled. “Preserve your purity, and join it with that of my niece. Create something good and honorable in this filthy, mortal world.” She smiled, but the look in her eyes was one of terrible determination. “Go now and hasten those you would save. I will see to it that the Destroyers are slowed.”
“Thank you, my lady,” Ando said. And he ran.
* * * * *
The ranks of the Destroyers in the south were visible on the horizon mere hours after the village’s relatively few defenders departed to join the major offensive taking place to the west. The tacticians in command over these provinces had determined that the damnable ironclad monstrosities would be making their major push in a spearhead movement to the west, leaving such minor and relatively unimportant holdings like Western Works Village alone in favor of more valuable and strategic holdings.
It was the estimation of the man known simply as the Sensei that most tacticians were imbeciles of the first order. There were more of them than there had been battles in his lifetime, he had decided, and knowledge gained only on paper meant nothing in execution. This was a lesson that he had learned the hard way many years ago, and now these feckless paper soldiers would learn it as well, but at what cost? The Sensei looked around at the dozens of artisans who called the tiny village home. They were clearly panicked, scrambling, on the brink of just grabbing what they could and running. Perhaps that was for the best. There was but a handful among them who had ever lifted a blade. Some of them could make blades, probably, but wield them? It seemed unlikely.
Not for the first time, the Sensei wondered why he had bothered to come here. He had anticipated that smaller targets such as this village would be among the first to be lost when the Destroyers’ offensive inevitably resumed. The winter chill was not yet completely absent from the air, but it was warm enough that the Fortunes’ wrath finally kept the Destroyers at bay no longer.
There was a lull in the clamor of the village, one of those rare instances when the world just became silent. In that quiet handful of seconds, the sound of the metallic march of the Destroyers, resounding across the plain on the hard, cold-packed earth, reached the village. It was yet faint, but growing louder with each passing moment. It was, the Sensei imagined, the manner of noise that could shatter the mind of a weaker man. As if on cue, someone in the village screamed, and then the panic that had lingered just beneath the surface exploded into the open, and the village became chaos.
The village was emptied in a very short period of time, the artisans and the peasants who served them fleeing north and east toward more secure holdings. Many would doubtless have more such incidents in their future, and the Sensei imagined that a great many would flee before the Destroyers before the spring was over. From a hill in the distance, he watched as the metallic monsters advanced into the village. Their advance slowed noticeably as they reached the village, and they moved among the buildings as if searching for something. Which of course they were, and no one knew that better than the Sensei. But of course they would not find it within this village. It was a lovely place, and when he had lived another life, when he had borne a different name, he had maintained a residence within the village. The people there had known him as a simple ronin merchant patron who purchased their wares for distribution elsewhere. Even now, in his private chambers near Deception’s Veil Dojo, he had an item crafted by a silversmith from the village. It was a foolish indulgence, but he could not help himself. Now, he watched as the Destroyers tore Western Works Village, one of the few places in the world for which he held true affection, to pieces right before his eyes.
It was unacceptable.
The Sensei reached out through the kami and sensed the wards he had placed upon several containers of liquid that were themselves suspended in other liquids. These strange suspensions, a careful mixture of techniques the Sensei had learned among the Tamori, Agasha, and his own family, were concealed throughout the village. He had placed them there some time ago, and checked them each time he made one of his infrequent trips to the village. At the time he had done it, he did not know exactly why. Had he simply been preparing to destroy something he loved if others threatened it? Or had he thought one day it would fall to him to destroy it, for whatever reason? He did not know. Now, perhaps… perhaps it was destiny. Perhaps he had been moved to do it because this day was coming.
The Sensei whispered to the kami, and they responded. The wards that sealed the smaller containers were washed away as if by the sea, and instantly the second liquid began to seep into the smaller, clay bottles.
Western Works Village would be destroyed. That could not be helped.
But it would not be destroyed by those metallic beasts.
The explosions when the liquids mixed were beautiful, in their own way.
* * * * *
Shutai bloats in the winter sun; the poor huddle in their huts, and the rich and vicious try to revel in the face of death. The village smells of dung and the coppery tang of blood. It is a dead dog frozen over, the flies forever buzzing about it, waiting to pick it apart.
The demons approach.
“The Voice told me a joke once: when you find Shinsei on the road, kill him.”
Bayushi Jimen, the Emerald Champion, shifted in his horse and stared down at the single man standing before him.
“What do you do,” he continued, raising his armored arms to the sky, “when you encounter me?”
“I express astonishment and reverence, my Lord,” the man replied, kneeling before the Emerald Champion’s mounted form.
“Exactly, Sogetsu.” Jimen lowered his arms, and motioned to his honor guard to move forward into the village. A single child stood at the edge of the dirty main street, staring at the Emerald Champion with hungry eyes. Jimen made a note to have the child disciplined, then turned back to the kneeling Shosuro. “Why are you here?”
“Nostalgia, my lord.”
Jimen rubbed the chin of his mempo. “That is not an answer I expected. Explain.”
“I lived here for eleven years, my lord. Yamazaki was my name. I was the local magistrate.”
“You are a reasonably competent man, Sogetsu. What gift allowed you to stay alive for so long, among these worthless and wicked men?”
“Opium,” Sogetsu said, his stare growing distant, “I would smoke opium and if anyone complained about their neighbors, I would beat them to death.”
Jimen raised an eyebrow. “Which party would you beat to death?”
“I would spare whoever paid their taxes first.”
“Clever and loyal in the face of adversity. That is why I like you, Sogetsu. So, tell me again, why are you here instead of doing your duty?”
“Ohba is searching, my lord, and I await his return before we decide where to act.” Sogetsu looked away from the Champion, across the village. “This place is not safe, even in normal circumstances. Why does the Favored of the Daughter of Heaven risk arriving here at the brink of war?”
“Nostalgia, Sogetsu,” Jimen replied. “There is a private garden south of here, one the locals avoid. It was the summer home of one Shosuro Yamane, an old friend of mine. I hear he is spending his last years sequestered there. I wish to visit him one last time and ensure that he is safe.”
Jimen nodded to his men, and they began to spread out across the village. Around them, the villagers continued their standard activities – loitering, drinking, conducting trade – unnervingly unaffected by the approach of the magistrates.
Jimen regarded the situation with amusement. “Remarkable. None of these people have left. Death approaches, many-armed and hungry, and they remain here as if nothing has changed.”
“Where would they go?” Sogetsu said, studying the Champion’s stone-and-steel face for any betrayal of emotion. “They have nowhere else.”
“I know,” Jimen replied. Sogetsu was surprised to hear a cold chuckle rumble underneath the Emerald Champion’s mempo. “This is finest prison we have made, the suffering that binds it the embodiment of the source of our wealth and prosperity. I am just in awe at how beautiful it truly is.”
Sogetsu bowed deeply, obviously trying to conceal his reaction to the Emerald Champion’s words. “I will take my leave, my lord, as I am sure that you have much to prepare when trying to fortify your forces against the approaching threat.”
Jimen trotted his horse around Sogetsu, keeping the ninja from leaving. “Why are you really here, Sogetsu?”
“Because he is near.”
Jimen, for once, had no reply.
Sugiyami Yagi, vassal of the Shosuro and owner of the House of Jade, Shutai’s most respectable (and arguably the only respectable) geisha house, turned and re-entered the drinking room. This was not one of the ordinary raids – that could only mean the war finally approaching. Still, men readying themselves for death wanted nothing more than company, and the House of Jade would always be ready to satisfy lonely men.
“Kouda, crack open the Daiginzyoo-syu. We need to see if it’s still good. Pour me a glass.”
Kouda towered over the room, thick and fat and hairy, like a bear storing food for winter. “Yeah, boss?” he said dimly.
“The good bottle, you idiot. The good bottle we hide in the chest in the back.”
“Right, boss.” Kouda lumbered into the back, and Yagi rubbed his eyes. The big man was loyal to a fault and strong as hell itself, but he wasn’t always the best barman. While Kouda wasn’t touched by the kami or anything, he wasn’t always the quickest-witted man around. Still, they were lucky. Yagi kept Kouda out of trouble, and Kouda would crush a man’s skull if he stole or hurt any of the girls. Yagi couldn’t help but smile when the big man returned with his glass in hand.
“Why’re you smilin’, boss?” Kouda asked.
“Blessings in disguise, old friend.” He sipped the sake, gingerly at first, then finished it with a quick gulp. It was still good. “Assuming we survive this, business will be booming. Especially since that bastard Kuni tore Futaba’s Vice and Virtue down, we’re the only game in town.”
“Shame about Futaba, though,” Kouda said sadly. “She deserved better.”
“We don’t deserve any of what we get, Kouda, remember that.” He idly spun the pinwheel in the window. It and the others placed in windows throughout Shutai were the only specks of color in the muddy, stained village, gifts from a local priest made to appease the air kami and bring good fortune. “The Fortunes can hold back a flood, but Fortunes don’t bother with tear-stained eyes.”
Stomping back to the row of bottles, Yagi grabbed a cheaper bottle of sochu and pulled its cork with his teeth. “Otoya leaves, then Futaba’s dead, Yamazaki gone, the Kuni probably dead. Seven years and they were all missin’ the same dead man an’ pinin’ for each other, eh, Kouda?”
“I suppose we’re better off now with Kosugi and that Yogo girl running things. Amazing that Fotuba could work here all these years and none of us realized she was a Scorpion, not even Yamazaki. Who knows what other secrets all of us have?”
“I ain’t got none, at least.” Kouda said, smiling widely. He rubbed his face with a meaty hand. “Boss, why’re you thinkin’ so much about those days now?”
Yagi slowly turned back and looked through the door. He stood silently as the masked man talking to the Emerald Champion stood and slowly walked away, disappearing into the shadows between buildings lining the street. The Emerald Champion slowly pulled his horse around as he scanned the main street, finally stopping and facing the geisha house. Jimen sat contemplating for several moments, then his mempo seemed to smile as he spurred his steed towards the House of Jade.
“Business,” Sugiyami Yagi replied softly. “I’m only thinking about business.”
Noritoshi sat alone in the darkness.
The quick compression of air, and the mind-without-mind took control. He rolled forward, the whirring stars cut through the night sky. Two steps, curving left; a single breath. There was a flash of steel; he rolled again, reached out, the pommel of his blade was in his hands. A scream; another swift flash; the scream then cut short before it could fully leave its owner’s throat.
Three strands of hair fell from Noritoshi’s head, landing beside his sandaled feet. His hair slid to his shoulders. The assassin fell in three pieces before him.
Action without thought: Noritoshi spun, his blade sang.
A figure at the base of the hill crumpled. Noritoshi’s wakizashi leapt into his hands and he trotted cautiously to the second figure’s side.
The figure slowly crawled to his knees. Laboriously, it pulled Noritoshi’s katana from its gut; the sword clattered onto the dusty road. The figure reached down and grabbed the sword by its blade; it tried to wipe its blood from the edge, then offered the hilt to its master.
“Shosuro So- Sogetsu,” the figure said, its voice wet with pain.
Noritoshi took his blade and flicked away the remaining blood before returning it to his saya.
“You threw…” – Sogetsu coughed wetly – “you threw your sword. That… I did not expect.”
“You should expect only death, assassin.” He placed his hand back on the saya, ready to strike again.
“I suppose…” Sogetsu replied sadly, “but, unlike poor – poor dead Ohba over there, I had no intention of killing you tonight.”
“Your partner attacks me and you were not going to kill me?” Noritoshi said, rage burning in his eye. “Do you take me for a fool?”
The ninja pressed his head to the ground, bowing deeply, then forced himself to look back up. “Never.”
Without relaxing his grip, Noritoshi let his senses extend and drift to his surroundings. The smell of pine and hay wafted through the air from a small barn, but he felt no other men near him, nor could he hear anything beyond the quick breaths of his hidden son and the laborious wheezing of the dying man.
“Leave, Lord Noritoshi,” Sogetsu said, his voice soft, “Take your son and leave.”
The Crane lord narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“If you confront Jimen now, the demons will arrive and kill everyone. Leave and Jimen will be able to defend Shutai.”
“Shutai is a festering abscess on the face of the Empire. Its peopel are bandits and murderers. Not one man who lives there deserves to live.”
Sogetsu smiled. Blood slipped past his lower lip. “So you say.” He looked into Noritoshi’s eye, trembling but unbroken.
“Why should I listen to you? You seek only to spare your master.”
Painfully, Sogetsu removed his mask, his scarred face stood bare for Noritoshi to see. “I know how much a man will destroy for revenge, Noritoshi. I know what it is… to lose her… in war…”
Noritoshi closed his good eye tightly and heard Sogetsu slump to the ground.
In Shutai, the pinwheels spin; the air kami delight in their gift.
Blood will be spilled. Men will die.
Noritoshi walked away.