The ongoing saga of the Empire’s war with the forces of Kali-ma continues in accordance with the 2011 Kotei tournament season!
The Destroyer War, Part 3
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
There was precious little left intact in the once prosperous Closed Pincer City. The city had been virtually flattened during the advance of the god-beast, the great destructive weapon of the Destroyer goddess, some months previously. The ongoing conflict in the southern reaches of the Empire ensured that the Scorpion Clan had enjoyed precious little time or respite, and thus the city had not been rebuilt. Perhaps it would be, once the war was over. Or perhaps the war would never be off, and all of Rokugan would join the city in ruin.
The advance ranks of the Destroyers moved slowly, cautiously through the ruined city, probing the half-collapsed buildings and piles of rubble as they went. These particular Destroyers seemed somehow leaner than the typical rank and file, and displayed what appeared to be a greater awareness of their environment than most. “Scouts,” Ieyoshi whispered. “These must be scouts of some sort.”
“Agreed,” the larger man at his left said. “Are you and your men ready?”
“Yes,” Ieyoshi replied.
The larger man smirked. “So you believe my plan has merit, finally?”
Ieyoshi frowned. “I disbelieve many things,” he said. “I do not believe you are who you say you are. I do not believe that your presence here these past weeks was coincidental. I do not believe you have the best interest of my colleagues at heart. I do not believe you were a member of the Imperial families. I do not even believe your name is Usharo.”
“I assure you my name is in fact Usharo.”
“And of all I said, that is the one thing you fixate upon,” Ieyoshi said, shaking his head. “I do believe that these are scouts, and that their front line is some hours behind them. And I do believe that we must strike now or be lost, much though I wish we could wait only a bit longer.”
“That is good enough for me,” Usharo said. “And waiting is for the weak. I will strike the first blow.” He hefted his unusual weapon in hand. It was a long metal pole, seemingly not steel but less refined somehow, perhaps pure iron, that had been sharpened into a point on one end. “Stand ready to follow me, if you can.”
“Where did you even get that?” Ieyoshi pondered, eyeing the weapon.
“I had it prepared especially for days like today,” Usharo answered. “Follow me!”
The man called Usharo leapt from his place of hiding, his kimono rippling in the wind to reveal his powerful build beneath. He struck the first of them with his shoulder, creating a resounding sound not unlike a bell striking. The Destroyer staggered under the sheer mass of its attacker, casting its arm out for balance, and this was its downfall. With a feral cry of victory, Usharo grabbed the thing’s upper right arm and forced it upward, then plunged his unique spear into the thin armor where its arm joined its torso. The metal demon shuddered and collapsed, regaining its metal rigidity in death.
Ieyoshi shouted and leapt into the clearing, once a courtyard, behind Usharo. His heart pounded in his chest with such force that he had no doubt the men following him must be able to hear it, so he simply shouted louder. They were wave men, one and all, and had sheltered in the ruins of Closed Pincer City during the harsh winter. There were nearly a dozen of them, and Ieyoshi felt certain that some of them were not truly ronin, but had adopted such status simply because the war made such things simpler. At the moment, all he cared about was that they carried blades of one form or another and that they followed him into the battle without hesitation. By his count there were nearly twenty of the Destroyers, and the assembled ronin would have had great difficulty even without the advantage of numbers.
Usharo bellowed and pushed away a second one of the Destroyers, lunging at it with his spear, but it managed to parry the blow away with its lower arms. Not for the first time, Ieyoshi marveled at the larger man’s incredible strength and apparent fearlessness. Something about the man troubled Ieyoshi greatly, but now was hardly the time to fixate upon such things. He shouted again and swung his blade with every bit of strength he could muster. The impact of the steel blade against the thing’s metal skin set his teeth on edge and vibrated his entire being, but it seemed to stun the creature long enough for the ronin at his side to crush its head with a tetsubo fixed with a stone on the end to give it greater weight.
“Haha!” Usharo bellowed. “Well done!” He finished a second Destroyer and moved to avoid being flanked by two working together. “I might benefit from a moment’s assistance if you have the time!”
“There are too many!” Ieyoshi shouted in return, backing away as two more moved toward him and attempted to get on either side of him for the kill. “This was a mistake!”
“The only mistake is living a life of fear!” Usharo said, laughing despite the near-certain death he was facing. “The measure of a man is how he dies, and I will be measured greatly indeed!”
Usharo was utterly mad, Ieyoshi decided, and he only wished that he had stumbled upon the truth a short time earlier, so that he and the others could have lived to see another day. As it was, he felt certain that the twilight of their days was at hand. There were so many things he had not yet done…
A clear, beautiful song rang out across the battlefield, sung with such force and echoing against the ruins with such powerful reverberations that it was audible even over the clamor of the battle. The sound seemed to confound the Destroyers, and they stopped in their tracks, looking about as did the ronin for the source of the sound.
“Back away,” Ieyoshi whispered to the others. “Back away slowly, and be ready to run.”
With the battle halted, even for a moment, more than a dozen figures emerged from the shadows, leaping on the Destroyers and savaging them with heavy weapons. In the span of seconds, the numerical advantage of the Destroyers disappeared and shifted in the other direction dramatically. “Yes!” Ieyoshi shouted. “Yes!”
“What… what is happening?” Usharo said, bewildered.
“I sent a runner out, and it seems he found a patrol!” Ieyoshi said with a grin. “The Crab are here!”
The battle raged only for a handful of moments, with steel and blood on all sides. A female Crab bearing the mark of a gunso appeared at Ieyoshi’s side after a handful of seconds, and he knew without question that she had been the source of the song that had disrupted the Destroyers and given them an opening. “Are you Ieyoshi?” she demanded.
“Hai, gunso-sama!” he replied. “Who are you?”
“Hiruma Seiko,” she replied. “Have your men form up on me and we will drive these beasts back to the pit from which they crawled.”
“Hai, gunso-sama!” Ieyoshi shouted, and turned to give instruction to his men.
It was not until that moment that he realized Usharo had disappeared.
* * * * *
It was on the twenty-second day of the siege at Shutai that the barricades finally suffered such damage that they could not and would never be restored. Three weeks of multiple assaults each day, with countless small incursions by isolated groups of Destroyers, each exacting a terrible toll in terms of supplies, defenses, and manpower. The morale of the city, diminished though it had ever been under ideal circumstances, had continued to flag until four days previously, when the Emerald Magistrate and his immediate command staff had broken the siege and headed north, leaving the city’s defense in the hands of subordinates, that the will of those in Shutai had truly broken.
It was late afternoon with the surge from the enemy’s ranks happened. The ironclad monstrosities that made up the rank and file of the Destroyer horde were as grains of sand on the seashore, and poured through first one breach in the barricades, then two, then six, and then finally there were no barricades, simply a wall of possibly living metal, moving through the city, destroying all in their path, killing all that lived within their reach.
The spirit moved unseen by mortal eyes, observing all and despairing at the situation in which she discovered the mortal realm. There were terrible things taking place everywhere she looked, acts of cowardice, weakness, and fear. Three weeks of strain and stress could render the most stalwart souls weak temporarily, but what better measure of a soul could there be than that which was taken under duress? If this was the depths to which the honorable soul would sink, then was honor an illusion? The spirit was uncertain. Each day she had spent within the mortal realm had only raised more questions. What manner of madness had infected her sister, that she had chosen a life here with creatures such as this?
On one street she saw a warrior of the Crab dying in battle for a cause he did not believe in, consumed only by hate and rage.
On another, a warrior of the Lion, embracing death not because of duty or devotion, but because of a perceived obligation to redeem the misdeeds of an ancestor.
On another, a warrior of the Scorpion stood by and permitted an ally to perish because of secret knowledge that ally had gained.
On another… wait. The spirit looked toward the sensation she experienced. She felt an overwhelming sense of virtue. In this den of sin and shame, it was like a brilliant beacon that summoned her, as a moth could not help but gravitate toward the flame. She flitted across the city, and there she found him, laying wounded in the street. As she observed him, he wrenched a spear from where it had penetrated his leg, grinding his teeth against the pain, and struggled to his feet.
The warrior was young, and he bore the colors of the Crane Clan. The spirit sensed from him great fear and desperation, but those sensations were washed away by the strength of the young man’s resolve. She could see the stains of blood from grievous wounds he had already suffered, but his eyes were full of fire and determination. The warrior looked to the southern end of the street, where a pair of Destroyers advanced slowly, carefully scanning as if searching for something or someone. The warrior’s eyes narrowed, and he glanced back over his shoulder. For the first time, the spirit noticed a young couple, laden with three children and two elderly citizens, struggling to get their charges out of the street. It was obvious to the spirit that they would not make it. The children and the elderly simply could not move fast enough.
“Go as fast as you can,” the Crane warrior said. His voice was exhausted but his certainty was unquestionable. “I will buy you the time you need to get your family to safety.”
“Thank you,” the woman said, sobbing. “Thank you, samurai-sama! Bless you!”
The warrior’s eyes softened for just a moment. “Get you children to safety, and I will have all the thanks I need.”
Even as she was wrapped in the veil of realms, the spirit brought her hand to her mouth. It was a mannerism she had learned from her time among humans, and on some distant level she was annoyed, but the welling of emotion she felt at the purity of this human’s spirit, at his obviously honorable and worthy nature, overwhelmed all other sensations. She watched as the warrior braced himself to fight the Destroyers, knowing as he did that there was no chance of survival. Would his death distract the demons long enough for the young couple and their family to escape? She did not know, and neither did he, but both knew that it was unlikely. Yet he did not waver. He did not hesitate.
The spirit’s heart surged, and she gave herself to the flesh.
The warrior braced himself, and nearly yelped when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned, and a beautiful Scorpion maiden stood there. “Stand easy, brave one,” she said softly, her features the most radiant he had ever seen. “I will deal with these creatures.”
“You carry no weapon,” the Crane said. “Please, if you wish to help, help the others escape. I will fulfill my duty.”
The spirit made flesh felt another, even more powerful surge of emotion. “I am Yogo Fujitani,” she said, “and I have no need of any weapon.” The priestess turned away from the warrior and her face took on the fierce aspect of an animal defending its den. She snarled at the ironclad beasts that had finally taken notice of them, and as they advanced toward her, she threw both of her hands up toward them. “Unclean filth!” she shouted. “You have no place in this world, and I cast you out of it!”
From her hands, a wind emanated, mild at first but growing rapidly in strength until even the Destroyers were slowed by its force. The wind did not abate, but grew, and portions of the buildings on either side of the street started to be torn away. Slowly, undeniably, the Destroyers began sliding backwards where they stood in the street, their metal feet leaving trails in the dust where they stood in the dirt.
“I… said… BEGONE!” Fujitani shouted. In synch with her command, a shimmering appeared in the air behind them, and from it emanated an unearthly chorus of animal sounds. The roars of lions, the bellows of bears, the enraged grunting of boars… all manner of sounds both known and unknown. The Destroyers struggled against the wind, but ultimately could not resist it. They were picked up by the wind and hurled into the shimmering, and disappeared.
The Crane warrior looked at Fujitani with both horror and rapture, lost in her beauty even as his life’s blood leaked into the street. “Who are you?” he asked softly, his strength fading, the light in his eyes dimming.
“I am your beloved,” she replied simply, and kissed him.
Around them, the city of Shutai burned to the ground.
* * * * *
Daigotsu Gahseng, known to his present colleagues simply as Gahseng, stopped in mid-sentence, turning to regard the village behind him. It was an unimportant little hovel called Kyobu Mura, a place without significant strategic value, but which the Empire was apparently unwilling to sacrifice. It was a weakness, but now something had caught his interest, something that the others would have missed.
“Gahseng-sama?” one of the Seppun asked him, the disdain at calling a ronin with such an honorific. “What is it?”
“Silence!” Gahseng barked. “I heard something.” He had not heard anything, of course, but the truth, that he had caught a strange scent from farther within the village, would have been greeted with disbelief or suspicion, and he had no interest in dealing with such things. “What did you say about the villagers’ reports earlier in the day?”
“Some children allegedly saw monsters on the outskirts of the village,” one of the men replied. “Traditional superstitious claptrap.”
The casual dismissal of something that had the potential to be true without any attempt at verification annoyed Gahseng. Not for the first time, he was grateful that since the Otomo daimyo’s sponsorship of him in joining the Empress’ Guard, his duties had taken him far from the Imperial City most of the time. In addition to the pettiness and baseless arrogance of so many among the Imperial families, the wards in place at the Imperial Palace caused him exquisite agony whenever he was within. It was only his devotion to his lord’s infiltration strategies that he continued. Fortunately, he had absolutely no intention of harm toward the Empress and her court, else he was quite sure the wards would have killed him long ago. “Yodo,” he said. “You have command. There is something to which I must attend.”
“Do not speak to me as if I am your subordinate,” the Dragon magistrate said quietly. “We are of equal rank, and I hold seniority.”
Gahseng clenched his teeth. “I believe there may be an advance scout from the Destroyers in the village, and I intend to go and find out,” he said. “Will you kindly oversee these men in my absence? I believe the assault will begin shortly.”
Yodo glanced to the village. “I heard nothing.”
“And I did,” he said. “Will you answer my question or not?”
She was clearly annoyed, but jerked her head toward the village. “Do as you must. But hurry. We have little time.”
Gahseng nodded and headed to the village, slipping quickly and quietly into the dark shadows between the buildings. There had been a scent, something verdant and mossy, like the darkest inner reaches of a rich forest. He had caught such scents before, but not in a long while, not since the Spider had abandoned their holdings in the Shinomen Mori, and its reappearance troubled him greatly. Free from the prying eyes of his so-called peers, Gahseng fully embraced the power of his senses, and moved from shadow to shadow like a thing of the darkness itself. It felt like coming home.
The scent was strong. How the others could miss it was madness. They were tiny beings, imprisoned in their own bodies, oblivious to all around them. How he pitied them! Gahseng moved through the village unseen and all but invisible, leaving in his wake only those with a dull sense of chill and dread from having unknowingly brushed past him as he moved around them. He moved to the remote northwest quarter of the village, which was less densely populated than the remainder. There was a small estate, private and long abandoned, where the scent was strongest. His prey was within.
Gahseng hesitated for a moment. There was another scent, something acrid and unpleasant, almost like a bitterness that he could somehow sense. And there was mildew. The house had been empty for a long time, but not as long as it had been made to appear. His instincts warned him that there was danger within, but that would not deter him. He was Spider. He knew not fear, nor failure.
Carefully, quietly, Gahseng slipped into the house through a window that had not been boarded up as securely as the others. Well, truthfully it had been, but a little gentle persuasion had changed that. The interior was pitch black and covered in a thick layer of dust. The scents within were stronger, and quite conflicting, but the prey-scent could not be mistaken. Gahseng quickly located what appeared to be a trapdoor into a chamber beneath the estate. A rug covering the door had been recently cast aside, and the frame of the trapdoor was strained on all sides, as if it had been strained by the size of something. Gahseng drew one of the knives he carried with him at all times and dropped into the darkness below.
The underground chamber was plunged into such absolute darkness that for several moments, even Gahseng could not make out anything other than the vague shapes of cabinets, desks, and tables, all heaped with various objects he could not identify. Of greater concern, however, was the presence he sensed within the chamber.
“You reek of the Foul,” a sibilant voice whispered in the darkness. “Your soul is rife with it.”
“I suppose that is one way to see things,” Gahseng replied, turning his blade over in his hands, searching for the source of the voice. “If you choose to see things in such black and white terms, then yes.”
“There is no white with the Foul,” the voice said. “There is only blackness, eternal darkness and corruption.”
“You have seen what approaches from the south,” Gahseng said. “I stand against it. Will you deny my blade has its purpose against such a foe, simply because you suffered insult from my people?”
“Arrogant human,” the voice hissed. The annoyance in the feminine tones was clear, but less certain than before. “Why do you stand against the goddess of the Foul?”
“Because she dares to claim that which belongs to my lord. And for that, she and all those who follow her will die.”
A massive shape moved among the shadows, and a female Naga emerged. “The vedics teach us that the Foul consumes itself, but to choose a portion of lesser severity leads only to the inevitable corruption of spirit.”
“Tell yourself whatever you like,” Gahseng said. “I will stand against the Destroyers, while your people sleep and benefit from my protection. If that makes you feel that you have embraced honor or your priest’s teachings, so be it. I say that it makes you a coward.”
“Cowardice is a human construct, but one that my people comprehend far too well,” the female Naga said. “I am the Massarah, and I have made it my purpose to remove all traces of my people from the path of these beasts. They shall have no knowledge of my people. If we are to meet in battle, then they shall have no advantage.”
Gahseng glanced around the sub-chamber as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. “This is some manner of library, is it not? Some Scorpion attempt to learn more of your people.”
“There are those among the Scorpion who have stolen into our cities while we slept, stealing texts in order to understand us better.”
“If you have not learned to distrust the Scorpion, there is no hope for you,” Gahseng said dismissively. He put his blade away. This creature was no threat, and even if she was, she was scarcely worth killing. “I leave you to your baubles and scrolls. I have important work killing the soldiers of a false god.”
As he turned to climb out, Gahseng stopped when the Masserah called after him. She was clearly conflicted, even to one who did not know much of Naga body language. “Take this,” she finally hissed, and gave him a blade. It was large, overly so, and inlaid with intricate pearl, gold, and jade stylings. “It will pain the Foul. It will pain them greatly.”
Gahseng smiled. “This will be most pleasant.”
“Be true to your people,” the Masserah said. “When the Destroyers have been defeated, fall upon your sword.”
“Bah,” Gahseng said with a sneer. “I only know how to kill. Not die.”