The ongoing chronicles of the Empire’s war with the forces of Kali-ma, as determined by the 2011 Kotei Season tournaments.
The Destroyer War, Part 2
By Shawn Carman & Lucas Twyman
Edited by Fred Wan
The bells at the temple began ringing suddenly, interrupting her reverie. Shinjo Genki finished her prayer to the Fortunes and then rose, smoothing the cloth of her kimono and adjusting her blades to ensure ready access. She hoped desperately that violence within a sacred temple would not prove necessary, but she had stopped suffering the burden of being naïve years ago. She strode out into the larger chamber where many monks and other visitors were scrambling. She surveyed the room and fixed her gaze upon an older monk, a man moving quickly but calmly through the temple, speaking to others and seemingly bringing his calm to them. She approached him at once, ignoring all others. “Excuse me, brother, but what is happening?”
The monk bowed. “Lady Shinjo,” he said, smiling very slightly. “I fear that the army attacking the Scorpion lands has been sighted to the south. They approach with great speed. We have but moments.”
Genki nodded. Only the previous day, she had delivered a vital document from the hands of her Khan to his general, Utaku Yu-Pan, in the southern front. She had hastened to perform this duty because it was very close to the day each year that she honored her husband’s memory with a day of prayer in the temple. Any temple was sufficient, but this day was sacred in her memory, something special that she and Shono alone had shared when he still walked the mortal realm. Now the Destroyers were threatening the Temple of the Scorpion’s Shadow and the village that existed there. Genki had chosen this location because she felt it was far enough from the front for her to complete her ritual before returning to ensure Yu-Pan required nothing further, and then return home to her daughter.
This was destiny.
“Brother, how many men are available to defend the temple?”
The monk seemed surprised by her question. “We have no standing forces, my lady,” he replied. “At present, so far as I am aware, there are perhaps a dozen samurai present in the village.”
“That is good,” she replied, “but I meant among your ranks.”
The old monk shook his head. “We are not a militant sect, my lady.”
“Forgive me, abbot,” a new voice broke in, “but I no longer think that is a consideration.”
The old monk looked at the younger monk that had approached, and at the ten or so others who stood behind him. “Ahiro?” he said. “Are you certain?”
“This is not an act of violence, master,” the man said, bowing almost apologetically. “This is an act of preservation of life. This is a defense of the Celestial Order of which we are all part.”
Genki smiled at the younger man. “I am grateful to hear such a thing from you, brother,” she said. “We find ourselves in a desperate situation, I fear.”
“Command us, my lady,” one of the other monks said.
“Take everything that can be carried and create a barricade inside the village perimeter,” she replied. “Move as quickly as you can. We have very little time.”
The monks immediately moved to comply, others joining them as they moved through the temple. “I am sorry for this sacrilege, brother,” she said quietly as she watched the monks removing various pieces of furniture.
“Sacrilege,” the monk repeated. “It is strange to think of it in that way. This temple will not stand to see the sunset, I think. What could be more sacrilegious than that?”
“I would see it meet its end intact, if that were possible,” Genki admitted.
“Why are you doing this?” the old man asked. “What is the purpose, if you have accepted that the temple is to be lost?”
“We must purchase time for all to flee,” she replied. “I saw many elderly and small children when I arrived here this morning. I will not see them trod beneath my enemy’s foes.”
“Your clan’s reputation for compassion is well known, and well deserved,” the monk said. “But, if I may… I sense something deeper than that.”
Genki smiled and drew her blade. “It is what my husband would have done,” she said. “Fortunes be with you, brother. I go to break the Destroyers’ charge. Please, save as many lives as you can.”
“I will,” he said. “I suspect I will save only a fraction of the number you do, however.”
* * * * *
Tsuruchi Etsui threw himself to the ground to avoid a volley of arrows that rocketed across the roof of the building where he had been standing. The archery was sloppy, virtually without technique, probably fired by men in a state of absolute panic. Etsui could not deny that panic was a reasonable response to the situation: Frost Village was in the process of being utterly overrun by the Destroyers. There had been a battle to the south, but the forces defending the village had been outnumbered and outmatched. The line had been broken, and the village had been in the path of an inexorable enemy. Etsui was technically on assignment with a different detachment, some two days travel from here, but he had arranged to be absent without his superiors being aware of it. He had urgent business within the village that had nothing to do with his military obligations.
The archer picked himself up and leapt into the void between the building he stood upon and the one he had been searching for. He tucked his legs beneath him and landed nimbly atop the roof of the smaller structure. The roof then unfortunately gave way beneath his weight, sending him sprawling into the dimly lit interior. He rolled with the impact, still feeling his breath driven from his lungs but without serious injury. He came to his feet as quickly as he could and took stock of the house’s interior.
Etsui stood alone in the house. It was slightly larger than the others he had seen in the village, and seemed larger still because the interior was one large chamber. It was nondescript in every regard, which was exactly as it should be. It would, however, make Etsui’s duty here more difficult. Quickly, he moved through the chamber, securing a lantern and searching every available space in order to try and locate the object of his quest. As moments passed, he became more vigorous in his search, as if keeping time with the increasing proximity of the shouts and screams from the village beyond the thin walls. Finally, he threw open a small, undecorated box sitting beneath a writing desk, and his breath caught in his throat.
The Mantis warrior reached in carefully and withdrew a small tiger statuette. It was ceramic of some sort, and painted carefully, if with a somewhat amateur hand. He turned it over again and again, searching for any mark that might indicate the secrets it contained. Finally, frowning slightly, he dashed the ceramic tiger to shards on the floor. “Ha!” he breathed quietly, and reached down to brush the ceramic pieces away. Contained within the statuette was a scroll, old and sealed with a non-descript wax seal. He weighed it in his hand carefully. He could imagine the weight that the secrets contained within would carry, were he to read them.
There were screams just outside, causing Etsui’s breath to catch in his throat. He looked to the doorway, then to the scroll, and frowned. He could not risk it falling into anyone else’s hands, not at any cost. Grimacing, he thrust the scroll into the flame of the lantern, and watched as the fire consumed it.
Better secrets lost than secrets revealed.
Etsui turned to leave, but the shadow of a four-armed monstrosity appeared in the doorway and blocked his exit. It was one of the ironclads, the rank and file of the Destroyer armies. Its two powerful top arms held its weapons, stained with fresh blood, at the ready. The lower two arms, tipped with powerful talons, had torn the door from its hinges as if it were a child’s toy. For a moment, the two regarded one another with surprise, but the baleful glare of red from the thing’s dead eyes blazed only seconds later.
Certain his death was imminent, Etsui removed the small metal cylinder he carried with him and all times and twisted it. The blades concealed within it clicked free at once, something that it seemed only he was able to prompt the weapon to do. He lunged forward, desperate to get inside the thing’s guard before it could bring its weapons to bear on him, and stabbed upward with the thin metal rod. In his mind he knew that the weapon would snap before he damaged the thing, but he felt he had no other options.
Impossibly, the blade on the end of the cylinder bit deeply into the metal of the Destroyer’s false jaw, causing its entire body to shudder suddenly and then grow still. The light from its eyes faded even as Etsui pulled his weapon free, and he thought that he heard whispers in some vaguely familiar foreign tongue, but they were gone so quickly that he could not understand them. The Destroyer fell forward into the house. Etsui braced to dart over it and through the village, but behind it were two more, weapons held high.
The archer swore and looked for another exit, but of course there was none. Knowing what little he did of the man who had called this place home, there was likely a secret exit in case of emergency, but there was hardly time to search for such a thing. He glanced around and looked up at the hole he had created when he had entered the building. Without pausing to think, he sprang off of the low desk, kicked upward from the armor rack, and propelled himself upward onto the roof. He landed with his feet planted on either side of the hole, his bow already in his hand. Faster than the eye could follow, he fired four arrows into the house below, striking the Destroyers in whatever weak spots he could find, whether joints, eyes, or the thinner armored places beneath their arms. It was not enough to destroy them, but it would perhaps slow them down and keep them from raising the alarm, if such a thing was even possible. After all this time, they still were not sure what manner of communication, if any, the Destroyers were capable of.
Frost Village had changed dramatically in the handful of moments that Tsuruchi Etsui had been within the simple home. Fires blazed in multiple locations throughout the settlement. The shouts of alarm and screams of terror that he had heard so often in the past few minutes were still present, but farther in the distance. The steel wall of enemies that he had seen to the south so recently was now an iron tide that had washed through the streets, even only a few feet away in the streets beneath him.
His survival, it seemed, was problematic.
But if he were to die here, what questions would be raised? There would be accusations that he had deserted, and his family would bear the brunt of his shame. His… associates… might come under scrutiny, and that could not be allowed. Etsui’s jaw set and his hand tightened where it gripped his bow. No, to die here would be unacceptable. His fears of discovery were nonsense, of course, for who had time to ponder the death of one man during a war of such magnitude, but he would not accept such a fate regardless.
Legs pumping, Etsui raced along the rooftop of the inn where he stood. Once again, he threw himself into the void, this time a much larger one between the inn and the building across the way. He tucked his legs up and rolled, desperate for every inch of distance. He unrolled at exactly the right moment, struck the next roof roughly and rolled to his feet. He never stopped moving.
Like living things with a will of their own, Etsui’s hands fired his bow again and again and again. He threw himself into the divide between buildings, sometimes hurtling through blazing flame to reach the next roof. He felt and heard things being thrown or shot at him, but he dared not slow to determine what they were. Once he landed on a burning building, the floor creaking precariously beneath him. He did not stop or even slow, but simply ran, ignoring the pain in his feet and the searing heat on his hair and flesh. His only response was to cross his arms to protect his bow, and he ran.
Frost Village burned, but the Destroyers fell away as he fled.
Tsuruchi Etsui survived.
* * * * *
Mizuhiko’s eyes cleared; his chest felt queasy. Around him, the legion of Jade Magistrates and Shiba bushi fought to keep their feet. They had travelled, unabated, for two days through the strange path between the spirit realms; a trail carved by Asako Serizawa and himself, uniting the universal alterations of Void with the speed granted by Water. Walking the Way was uncomfortable; combining that ritual with his own travel magics made the trip unearthly and disorienting. Upon receiving notice from the Jade Champion that his Emerald counterpart was likely trapped in the Shosuro floodplains, the Phoenix Magistrates did not initially consider their involvement possible. With scattered battles against the Army of Fire still raging, and the Scorpion lands far across the length of the Empire, past a mountain range, any attempts at travel would only stretch the Phoenix armies thin and likely arrive too late.
Lord Bairei himself, in communication with Mizuhiko, found an answer. While Bairei found himself frustrated by the lack of notes left behind by the late Shiba Ningen, the seemingly-omniscient former master of Void did leave behind a select few scrolls, secreted throughout his summer home. Among them were several spells he had researched were a set of esoteric offerings to multiple kami, seemingly developed in concert with a young Agasha named Yuhiko. These spells would combine the Void – itself containing the balance of all elements – with kami of a single element, enhancing the base abilities of those kami. One spell in particular, which Bairei called “River of Ten Thousand Steps,” would allow the clan to bring a small legion of Phoenix swiftly across long a traverse of solid land, as long as they had someone at the destination to focus and receive them. A young Yogo shugenja named Chisume, the aide to Shutai’s village magistrate, served as that focus.
They could save the village. They could save the Emerald Champion. But the wear on Mizuhiko and Serizawa was great. Serizawa had already collapsed, his body convulsing. Mizuhiko felt like he should fall, he heard the stunned cries of the village defenders, first frightened and then joyous, saw blurry shapes rush to support him… and then there was a rush of warmth, of strength, and he returned to his feet. His head pounded, blood rushing behind his ears. His skull vibrated with pain, but his body again felt strong. The price they had paid was great, but his men were already readying themselves, dispatching the last stragglers of the first wave of Destroyers to rampage through the village. He was surprised to see so many peasants still in the town. Children huddled in the small huts, and farmers armed themselves with simple wooden staves. Dead and dying lay throughout the streets, their blood flowing, clotting, turning dark…
They could save them. The odds might be terrible, but these people deserved better, they were…
The thought was Mizuhiko’s, but not his. Unworthy. It screamed in his mind. It tried to drown out everything else: it tried to shock him into urgency. He felt his right hand twitch, but he gritted his teeth and clenched his fist. It wasn’t his voice. It was…
No, no. Quiet or loud, no matter how close to his own thoughts it seemed, he had to remember: the voice was not his own. It was the blade. It was the monster. It was Judgment.
They are the monsters.
Watch your fellow magistrates. Watch them stalk shiftlessly about this city, having done nothing to protect these people from the predators that have exploited them for years. They have not cared once, not until they served as a convenient roadblock for the external enemy that threatens the Empire, ignoring the corruption that eats away at its heart.
They were good men. These people were not all evil. There were tradesmen, a blacksmith…
One who likely constructed weapons for the bandits. First at the threat of death, but now he probably makes a small fortune funding their depravities. Hammering the blades that tip their spears, quickly forging the brittle knives that they would stab into your gut at the first opportunity.
… children, families, farmers who serve the local daimyo…
Men and women who turn a blind eye to the devils in their midst, or worse, children sucking at the teat of addiction and death. How young are they when they first wean them on opium? Are the hands of the young young more nimble picking their fields of fatal flowers than the shaking hands of adult addicts?
… businessmen, owners of taverns and teahouses…
And brothels and opium dens and houses of other vices; none worth defending. Every samurai’s life lost defending this city is one that will weigh on your conscience.
Any men who die today die saving the Empire. We cannot judge the Empress’s subjects; we only enforce the verdicts of heaven.
I cannot judge? I am a magistrate. It is my purpose. I have drank deeply of two Oracles, tasted a third. I can see into their hearts.
You are not me.
We can see into their hearts. There is not a single worthy soul here. Show them.
Mizuhiko’s eyes widened. The Emerald Champion, barking orders, attempting to regain control after the sudden arrival of the Phoenix, turned his horse around and began heading towards the two shugenja.
Mizuhiko could feel blood dripping through his fingers as his nails dug deeper into his clenched fist.
Rain began to fall, dripping into puddles of blood, slipping eagerly into the dry, cold earth.
Calling on the kami swirling around him, Mizuhiko turned and ran.
The Destroyer stopped, as if contemplating the change in weather, but its smooth, featureless face gave no indication of its reaction. It swiveled its upper half fully around, not bound by human anatomy, as if looking for something. Its head tilted, then a strange, foreign cry reverbrated across the battlefield. Normally, the creatures fought in tightly-knit units, but the scouting party had not expected the level of resistance presented by the samurai. A small village in the middle of nowhere was not supposed to contain an elite military unit. To the Destroyer, this was no matter; away from its fellows, it existed simply to destroy; reinforcements were on their way and the village would be replaced by flames and death soon enough.
With a strange, jerky gait, the creature began heading towards the village. With luck, it would take many of the defenders with it before falling.
There was a blur of motion, and the Destroyer twisted its torso around again to see what had moved past it. Metal creaked and its upper half fell to the ground. Surprised, the creature let out an electric cry as it died.
Behind it, a human-looking figure stood, looking back over its shoulder. Its arm was outstreched, a blade glittering in the evening rain.
“Look out!” Daidoji Kirimi cried, and she leapt from her hiding place. She took two steps and flew forward, tackling the figure to the ground as it seemed to crumble behind them.
The man’s eyes were glazed. He wore robes of red and gold. He blinked twice.
Kirimi stood up, brushed herself off, and inspected the pit trap. Triggering it falsely was quite a waste – it would take twenty minutes of dirty work to fish the small platform and the camouflaged blanket from the bottom of the spiked hole, but at least the target of the trap had been taken care of.
“You should stand up. If you hold my rope, I can set the trap up again without having to climb up on my own.”
The man stood, clenching his sword. His hand trembled, and he raised the blade to a ready stance. Kirimi raised an eyebrow and took a step backwards.
“I meant no insult, samurai. We are fighting on the same side. I am Daidoji Kirimi, recruited by the Imperial Legions to serve as a scout and to maintain defenses for the Emerald Champion’s entourage in this time of war.”
The man clutched so tightly on his sword’s hilt that his knuckles were a stark white. Swiftly, almost panicked, he sheathed his sword, and seemed visibly relieved.
“You are doing a… worthy job, Daidoji Kirimi.”
“I expect to do nothing less,” Kirimi said, saluting the samurai. “Daidoji have defended the Crane lands against constant assaults for nearly a millenia. We take pride in our duty.”
Bowing stiffly, the man introduced himself. “Isawa Mizuhiko, of the Jade Magistrates. We have been sent to relieve the forces of the Emerald Champion and see that he and his magistrates make it away from the front lines safely.”
Kirimi nodded, her lower lip sticking out, making her look somehow both mischievous and serious. “Jade Magistrate? I am honored. And glad to hear we are getting reinforcements. We have been fighting for nearly a week, and my last expedition revealed that we are seemingly dealing with only a scouting party.”
“The Phoenix Magistrates have sent three shugenja, two gunso, and their commanded men. Nearly three thousand strong.”
Kirimi rubbed her forehead and smiled blackly. “Two gunso’s worth? I’m not sure if that will be enough to slow them down long enough to allow the Emerald Magistrates to escape.”
“You underestimate our strength. We are Phoenix.”
“And they are legion, Phoenix. I know exactly how useful a Phoenix shugenja is – my husband would be ashamed if I didn’t – but we have too few, and we’re fighting on a flat plain. Unless your men can use wheat stalks and dried-up rice paddies as cover, we’re looking at a straight-up fight with inferior numbers, against a force that can travel faster than we can, don’t seem to require outfitting, and will run us down.”
Mizuhiko’s hand flexed and relaxed involuntarily. “We have not come all this way to fail, Kirimi.”
“I really never planned on dying in some Scorpion peasant’s fields, Magistrate Mizuhiko,” Kirimi frowned. “Unfortunately, the passage of time is against us. If we were here in the rainy season, I could gather the men and reorganize the irrigation ditches, focus the river a bit, maybe create some chokepoints here and there to slow their advance.”
Mizuhiko blinked. “You need water?”
“’I need water’ is like saying ‘the Imperial Treasurer could use some petty cash.’”
“Get your men working, Daidoji Kirimi,” Mizuhiko said, gripping the hilt of his sword again. “Get them working now. You will have all the water you need.”
* * * * *
The streets of Zakyo Toshi were virtually empty, but the clamor that usually filled them had somehow not abated in the least. Those few who remained within the city’s borders seemed to be intent upon ending their days with revelry of the sort that even the Heavens themselves would notice. The man called Karu sat on a low wall around a small garden in the city’s center and watched the others stumble through the streets, most oblivious to all that was happening around them.
Two days ago, the Scorpion presence within the city had suddenly and completely withdrawn, leaving Pleasure City as it had been before they ever came to claim the city for their own. Many had celebrated, as was their wont, but some had been concerned, and demanded to know why the Scorpion were leaving rather than defending the city. “This cesspool serves only to fill our coffers,” the utterly emotionless governor had said in front of an assembled crowd. “Defending it would only negate what little benefit it has afforded us in the first place.” With that, they had simply left the city.
The day that followed saw a mass exodus of everyone who had the means or the will to abandon the city. There were many, however, a surprising number by Karu’s estimate, that had simply chosen to remain. The enemy was advancing toward them with each passing moment, and many simply stayed to fill the final hours and moments of their lives with the same debauchery they had so aggressively pursued in life.
Karu looked down at the bottle in his hand. ‘Liquid Void,’ it was called, and was perhaps one of the worst vices that a man could possess without forfeiting his soul in the process. On the latter part of that consideration, Karu was not certain. There had been many times he wondered if his addiction, his weakness, had not cost him his soul. The things he had done for the money necessary to indulge in his habit… it was shameful. Even when he could not afford it, he often drank to keep the memories from haunting him. Now, finally, in these last hours of the city’s life, there was ample money and ample supplies to go around. No one cared. He could have all the liquid void he desired.
Why had he not partaken of it yet, then? What kept his hand at bay?
“Your people are a very strange one,” a voice said suddenly.
Karu turned to see a heavily cloaked figure sitting on the wall a short distance away from him. From head to toe, the figure was clad in a thick robe that obscured every detail. The man carried a walking stick, and Karu could see the outline of a blade beneath the cloak, but the odd clicking sound the man made was oddly foreign. “I have no people,” he said plainly.
“So you say,” the figure replied. “There are always… considerations.”
Karu stared at the bottle. “Are you certain?”
“There are precious few surprises in this realm,” the man said with a new flurry of clicks. “Why do you hesitate?”
“I do not know,” Karu said. “It seems… pointless.”
“Of course it does,” the man said. “Has it not always been pointless?”
“I used the drink to escape,” Karu said. He had never admitted it to himself. “I used it to forget how much I despise myself. Now it seems pointless because everything I hate will be washed away in blood very shortly.”
“Perhaps you do not wish to forget at the last moment of your life,” the man said. “Perhaps you finally remember that which you have forgotten.”
“There was nothing to forget,” Karu said darkly. “If you knew me, you would agree.”
“Perhaps,” the man said again. “But perhaps not.”
“Who are you, a monk?” Karu demanded. “What makes you think I have any desire to hear your riddles now?”
“I am no monk,” the man said. “I simply… see something worth saving.”
Inexplicable rage filled Karu. He threw the bottle aside, not even hearing it dashed to pieces on the cobblestone road. “I do not need to hear your nonsense!” He grabbed the man by the cloak and hauled him to his feet, marveling somewhere in the recesses of his mind at how light he was. “What is to keep me from…”
Karu’s voice trailed off as the cloak’s hood fell away. Beneath it, there was no man. There was only the head and bill of an enormous bird, a crow-spirit given flesh. The kenku clicked its beak once, the familiar sound that had emanated from the cloak only seconds before. “Do you know the stories of Matsu Benika and Kakita Kensho-in?” it asked unexpectedly.
Karu’s hands fell away from the cloak, but he stood there, inches away, staring slack-jawed into the kenku’s eyes. “I have,” he said hoarsely. “The Jade Hand and the Obsidian Hand.”
“Yes,” the kenku said. “One inspires heroes through valor and virtue, the other finds strength in those who succumb to vice and sin.” Something cool pressed into Karu’s hands. “Which would you follow, human? What path would you choose?”
Karu looked down at the brilliant blade in his hand. It was beautiful beyond all imagining. He had carried a similar blade once, but never so beautiful. “What… what is this?” he whispered. “Why are you giving this to me?” He looked back up at the kenku.
The crow spirit was gone.
There were shouts from the southern end of the city, and not the normal cries of pleasure, disappointment, or general inarticulation that he had come to expect. This was fear, pain, and terror. Karu looked to the south, listening to the growing sound of metal on stone, and glanced back at the blade in his hand.
Which path would he choose?
* * * * *
Tarui dove behind a crumbling stone wall just in time to avoid a massive gout of fire that emanated from the ranks of the Destroyers. His gunso was not so fortunate as to find cover, and the man virtually disintegrated while Tarui watched. He clenched his teeth and smashed the ground with his fist, but he felt emotionally empty. The battle had been raging for more than an hour and already the ronin had seen many men, his brothers in arms, some friends for years, killed all around him while he inexplicably survived. If another had enjoyed the ridiculous luck that Tarui had enjoyed thus far in the battle, he knew that he would suspect such an individual of cowardice. Tarui wondered if that would be his fate when the battle was over, but for now thoughts of survival and the ramifications thereof were a luxury he could not afford.
“Nikutai!” one of the men was shouting. “Nikutai! Orders?” It took Tarui several minutes to finally look toward the insistent ronin and realize that the man was shouting at him. But of course he was. Not five minutes before his death, the gunso had promoted Tarui to the position of nikutai, which had been vacated very shortly beforehand when a lone ironclad Destroyer breached the front lines and killed nearly half a dozen of their number.
“Hold the line!” Tarui said pointlessly. “Find me the Scorpion commander!”
“He is at the barracks ruins, nikutai!” the man answered.
Tarui nodded and proceeded to make his way as carefully as possible to the recently destroyed barracks, which was fortunately very close. The situation there was slightly better than that of the tower near the remainder of his unit, a group that he was not yet ready to call his men just yet. “Bayushi-sama!” he shouted.
The warrior he had seen his gunso speaking to nearly half an hour previously appeared through the dust and smoke. Tarui was surprised that he was still alive, but the man was the size of a Crab and carried more weapons than any one warrior should ever have use for, so perhaps he was a survivor. “How many of your men remain, ronin?” he asked. His tone did not turn the final word into an insult; he simply did not know Tarui’s name.
“Two dozen, more or less,” Tarui replied. “The situation is not good.”
“How succinct,” the warrior named Bayushi Ishikura said flatly. “I do not think this position can be held, wave man. You should take your men and withdraw.”
Tarui looked at him, surprised. “You want us to withdraw first, Bayushi-sama?”
“This is our land,” the man said. “You are here to assist us, and we are grateful for all you have done, but this is not your duty. It is ours.”
Tarui looked back to where his men were. “What will become of you, commander?”
“The keep is lost,” Ishikura said plainly. “That cannot be undone. We can but kill as many as possible to save whatever lives they would claim if they were not sent to whatever hell awaits them.”
Tarui looked downward. “Fall back, commander,” he said quietly. “Let us hold them as long as we can. Fall back and find reinforcements. Let us slow them enough for you to re-equip and destroy them for what they have done here.”
Ishikura stared at the ronin. “Why?” he demanded.
“We swore an oath to the Legion of Two Thousand,” Tarui explained, “and the Legion pledged its aid. We will not abandon our duty or oaths so readily.” He bowed sharply. “Take your men and do what you must.”
Ishikura was silent for a moment. “Very well then,” he said. “Die well, wave man.”
“Of that I will make certain,” he said. “Fortunes be with you, Bayushi-sama.”
Tarui did not wait for more conversation, but ran back to his men. The flame assault had ended for the moment, but his men stayed down. They had been lulled into complacency more than once already today. “Nikutai!” one of them shouted. “What are the orders?”
“The Scorpion are falling back,” Tarui said. “We will hold the line as long as possible.”
The men looked at him in shock. “What?” one of them demanded. “I do not want to die for those masked villains!”
“My father was a disgrace, cast out from his clan for weakness and condemning me a life of constant scraping for whatever I could manage,” Tarui said firmly. “My son will not suffer that fate. He will live knowing that his father died a hero, and he will live with the gratitude of the Legion of Two Thousand, who will know that I did not abandon the oaths they swore when I took up their banner.” He stared at the men without malice. “If any among you wish to leave with the Scorpion, I will not think less of you, but today I will change the fates for my son and leave him a better life than I have had, and hopefully I will watch him from the fields of Yomi.”
There was a moment of silence. Some of the others fidgeted, and several did not meet his gaze. Finally, one of them nodded. “Hai, nikutai,” he said. “We are with you.”
Tarui nodded and closed his eyes. “For whatever time we have left, brothers, I am grateful for your company.” He drew his weapon. “Ready yourselves to repel the charge.”