The ongoing saga of the Empire’s desperate war against the forces of Kali-ma, as dictated by the results of our Kotei season tournaments.
The Destroyer War, Part 6
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
In the past year, perhaps more maps of the Scorpion provinces had been drawn and reproduced than in the past century. Hundreds of them were in the hands of military officers all throughout the southern front, from the generals who commanded the combined forces of the Empress to the lowliest gunso, ordering his squadron to slog through the mud and grime. And yet on all the dozens of them that Doji Jun’ai had seen, there was no settlement or outpost in this particular location. Some noted a large rock outcropping, others a swamp. The discrepancy among the maps was one of the things that had drawn Jun’ai’s attention. Few had her ability to move among the different legions and units with absolute autonomy, a right afforded her by her unique position as the Keeper of Water, something many regarded as a religious position rather than one that would normally be occupied by a warrior. Technically she was part of the Crane command in this region, but the commander was an old family friend as well as a devout Taoist, and so the demands upon her time were minimal.
From where she crouched atop a small cliff, Jun’ai could see nearly two dozen Destroyers marching toward a small, unremarkable Scorpion outpost. If it had a name, she did not know what it was. The Scorpion would likely have named it, although perhaps not. It was always difficult to tell with them. She regarded the enemies curiously, and conducted her experiment one more time to confirm. She closed her eyes and silently counted to ten, then opened them once more.
Yes, there were two Destroyers less than here had been only moments beforehand. Each time she closed her eyes or looked away from their ranks, one or two of them disappeared. As near as she was able to discern, they were disappearing from the rearmost and moving forward. She assumed it was some force of Scorpion hunting their foes, but she was unable to perceive them anywhere in the area, and that was most unusual. They must have tremendous skill to evade her perception, which more than one person had described as nearly supernatural, although she would never be so arrogant as to use such a term herself. That they could avoid detection implied a potential supernatural ability of their own, however. She found the entire affair quite curious.
The Destroyers reached the outermost edge of the outpost’s perimeter and began fanning out through the grounds, approaching the building with more caution than she had come to expect from the accursed things. Was it possible that they could learn, that they were not the mindless automatons that she had always suspected they were? She was not certain, but she supposed that virtually any foe could come to fear the Scorpion if they were anything more than the basest of creatures.
As the main body of the Destroyers grew close, on of them reached out to tear aside the doorway leading into the outpost, revealing whatever might be found within. The door ripped from the facing of the building, little more than a scrap of wood within the powerful iron grip.
The building exploded.
The fire washed over the Destroyers, consuming them utterly. Even at this distance, Jun’ai felt the heat wash over her, searing her face. What could generate such tremendous force and heat? She was not certain, but she knew the Scorpion would have much more proficiency in such things. She wiped at her eyes, which had begun leaking from the heat. It was at that moment that she heard something behind her.
Jun’ai flowed away from the strike like a thing of water, her body moving smoothly and perfectly without hesitation. A heavy mace struck the ground where she had been only a moment before, sending fragments of stone all around the area. Jun’ai was on her feet easily, regarding the two Destroyers. They were smaller than the others, lighter in hue. They were the ones that the force of the Empress had come to understand were scouts of some sort, and they seemed to be more aware of their surroundings, more alert than the rank and file. Despite their smaller size, this made them more dangerous than the others in the mind of Jun’ai, that and their greater speed.
None of this would save them.
Not for the first time, the Keeper reflected that it was fortunate she traveled alone. She was far faster on her own, and her ability to move as quickly as she did permitted her to observe and report without placing others in harm’s way, as would surely have been the case in this instance. Jun’ai moved away from their clumsy strikes, stepping around them as she might a stationary object. She struck with her open palm, putting aside the trident-like weapon she favored under different circumstances. The Destroyer staggered under the force of her blow, and why should he not? “The stone gives way to the sea,” she said softly, and struck again. This time she easily ducked under a strike that impacted against the other Destroyer, hastening her work. “The ocean washes away the breakers, washes away the sand, erodes the steel.” She struck again and again, causing the things to reel from each blow, the metal of their bodies distorting from the sheer strength of her strikes. After only a few moments, the Destroyers were twisted and warped beyond viability, and lay broken on the ground. She finished them with a single strike to the head for each, then turned back to the conflagration below.
If there had been any souls within the building, they were now dead. Jun’ai doubted that there had been, but she offered a prayer for them just in case, then headed off into the wilderness toward her next destination.
* * * * *
Doji Saori laughed as she cut down one of the Destroyers. Her preferred method, it seemed, was to allow them to be weakened by the front lines and archery fire, then to move in and cut down everything that remained. She had acquired a specially reinforced no-dachi for that express purpose, although Akodo Tetsuru understood the process was both time-consuming and expensive, else he might have secured one for himself. As it was, while Saori’s technique was commendable and effective, he found her personally offensive on almost every level. She was skilled and, he admitted to himself, beautiful in a manner such as few women he had ever known, but she was self-absorbed and bordered on both indecency and disrespect with her speech.
Tetsuru struck again and again. His strikes were precise and exacting, or at least as much as he could make them. He fought with an ono supplied by his Crab allies; he was reluctant to fight with his blade since it had chipped slightly during a previous encounter, and he had no wish to see his grandfather’s legacy wasted on gaijin demons from the most unimaginable pit of hell. So he fought with an unfamiliar weapon, and while it was effective, his pace was thrown off by it.
“Try to keep up, Tetsuru-san!” Saori called out in her musical voice. “I know your years grow advanced but surely you can pull your weight in this battle! You can rest afterwards!”
Tetsuru scowled but did not reply. When this engagement was finished, he would see to it that she was properly chastised for her actions. In fact, if he had his way, the whole of the Mantis would feel his wrath as well as the Crane samurai-ko. When the two had been conducting the preliminary evaluation of the village in preparation, they discovered materials that suggested a mining operation was taking place nearby. Even one small in scope should have been noted on the Imperial maps that their detachment was using, and it was not. Tetsuru had been outraged at the implication that such a thing had been omitted from Imperial records, but Saori had seemed only amused. She had even implied that she would be willing to ‘forget’ such information in exchange for some of the profits. Forget it! Even thinking about it enraged Tetsuru further. He wanted nothing to do with such dishonorable scum. He would see Saori cast out for her shame and the Mantis would suffer in the name of his lord, Akodo Shigetoshi, whose insult at their hands had been put aside for duty’s sake but never, ever forgotten.
There would be a reckoning. Justice would be carried out, and it would be merciless.
Tetsuru finished another opponent and winced at pain in his shoulder. It seemed he had overextended himself, or perhaps merely the constant exertion was taking its toll on his body. Regardless, he had to put it aside for now.
The pain in his muscle was growing more severe by the moment. He reached to massage it, and his hand came away bloody. He looked down at the small stain on the front of his kimono, and realized that the sensation on his back must be more blood running down it. He turned in confusion, and saw Saori disappearing in and out of the ranks of the enemy. She was smiling at him.
She had done this. She had tried to silence him, but it would not work. He could not be killed by so meager a wound. This would only exacerbate her punishment. He would see her executed for this!
It was not until the Destroyer advanced toward him and he realized that he could not wield the ono one-handed, that it occurred to him that her goal might not have been to kill him herself.
* * * * *
“What is the purpose of this dojo?” Ikoma Hagio said, frowning severely.
His Scorpion advisor looked very nonchalant. “What purpose would you like it to have?”
“I am not particularly interested in levity, Scorpion,” Hagio growled.
“And I offer none,” Soshi Yoshihara replied with a shrug. “The Soshi family endures some oddity in which a lesser portion of our members are born with the ability to speak with the kami. Most shugenja families experience periodic instances of this, but ours has ensured for multiple generations, and may in fact be growing more severe. Those who are born without the gift are brought here, among other places. They are permitted to pursue whatever career interests them, so long as it serves the Scorpion.”
“Choosing whatever interests them?” Hagio said, clearly horrified.
“I did not expect a Lion to embrace the concept,” Yoshihara replied.
The Ikoma daimyo’s eyes narrowed. “The story seems somewhat preposterous. Why should I believe you?”
“What purpose would be served in such a tale?” Yoshihara wondered. “The question is, why would I lie? You are here in defense of my family’s lands. I very much want you to succeed in that regard, and for that reason I want you to trust me. I will help you in whatever way I can, and if by revealing my family’s secret shame I can accomplish that… well, I suppose I can always commit seppuku at a later date.”
Hagio frowned. “You are a very strange woman. I can easily imagine how you came to a position in prominence in the City of Lies.”
If the impolite reference to Ryoko Owari bothered the priestess, she did not give sign. “You are not the first to tell me that.”
The Lion commander said nothing for a while. “This location is not indefensible,” he said, “but it is close.”
“Scorpion outposts are built for secrecy, not siege,” Hagio said. “The landscape here is all wrong. The hills would be a much better place to engage. We should use the enemy’s weight and reduced coordination against them, fighting them in the hills and drawing them out to the plains after attrition, then finishing them with cavalry.”
Yoshihara evaluated the landscape carefully. “You genuinely believe that is the path to victory, then?”
“It is the most tactically advantageous strategy,” he replied. “And in this war, we need every advantage. Still, it cannot be helped.”
“It can,” Yoshihara assured him. “I will send word for the dojo to be evacuated, and you can place your men accordingly.”
Hagio stared at the Scorpion for a long few moments. “That will ensure the dojo’s destruction. You understand this, correct?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Yoshihara said. “But what I told you remains true. I will do whatever is necessary to assist you in attaining victory, as will all my people, and if the only way to accomplish that is to make sacrifices, even sacrifices of this scope, then it will be done.”
Hagio said nothing for a time. “I… have no concept of how to respond to this,” he finally said. “Your people… your ability to sacrifice… I have never seen the like. I do not know how to answer it.”
“With victory, please,” Yoshihara replied. “For the sake of the Fortunes, with victory.”
* * * * *
“We need to ensure they cannot return another day,” the Crane officer said. “I require a flanking maneuver on the eastern facing of their primary ranks. Who will lead it?”
Oishi raised his hand. “I would be honored beyond words if you would permit me that honor, my lady.”
Kakita Sadaka looked at the wave man curiously. “Do you understand what you are asking?”
A nearby subordinate officer sneered. “The ronin hopes to win fealty.”
“Be silent,” Sadaka said. “Oishi, my question?”
“I understand that there the maneuver will result in an extremely high casualty rate. I also understand that I am a disposable asset, which you should exploit under circumstances such as these.”
Sadaka frowned at his words. “No honorable man is disposable. If you wish the honor, however, you have more than earned it with the quality of your service in this engagement. Taiki Mura stands partially as a result of your actions, and for that you have my thanks.”
Oishi bowed sharply. “It is my pleasure to serve an officer of such high moral character, my lady.”
Sadaka bowed. “Will your son remain? He can take a position within my command staff until your return.”
Oishi began to respond, but the young lad at his right spoke first. “My place is with my father,” he said sternly. As an afterthought, he added, “my lady.”
“Very well then,” Sadaka said. “May the Fortunes bless you and the second squadron, Oishi-san.”
“Thank you, Sadaka-sama.”
“Have you noticed the commander’s fighting style?”
Chikara glanced up at his father, long since accustomed to such questions. “She is a duelist, father. She uses the one-strike style.”
“What is unusual about that?”
The boy thought for a moment. “Many choose not to use their katana against the Destroyers,” he said. “The risk of breakage is significant. Sadaka-sama does not seem concerned, however.”
Oishi nodded. “She has a duelist’s eye. She evaluates each opponent as an individual, locating tiny flaws in their iron flesh and strikes them. It is majestic to watch. You should observe her at every opportunity.”
“She is a talented commander.”
“More than that,” Oishi corrected. “She has a strong sense of honor and bushido. She uses that as her measure for comparing every decision. It is that quality which makes her an exceptional officer. Remember that, always.”
“I will, father,” Chikara assured him.
“Now stand behind me,” Oishi said. “We will be charging momentarily.”
When Oishi suffered the wound, it took Chikara several seconds to realize what had happened. He had accompanied his father into so many battles, seen him best so many hundreds of men time and time again, that the notion of his falling was almost beyond his comprehension. Oishi had attempted to tell him it was inevitable, but while Chikara had always answered dutifully, he had never truly believed it would happen. “Father!” he shouted.
Oishi groaned in agony, blood covering his entire left side from his chest down. The flanking maneuver was successful, and the rest of the men continued forward, shouting and pushing the Destroyers back away from the two, but Chikara did not notice. “Son,” Oishi said weakly. “Where are you?”
“I am here, father!” he said, sliding into the dirt beside his fallen father. “I will find a shugenja!”
“No,” Oishi said, his voice weak. “This is too great a wound. I have seen it before.”
“No!” Chikara shouted. “Do not say that!”
“I have been preparing you for this day for many years,” the older warrior said. “You are ready.”
“I am not!” Chikara said, struggling not to weep. “Please, I… I need to learn more!”
“I am… so proud of you,” Oishi said, his voice growing softer. “And I am so ashamed that I leave you without having given you the place among our former family that you deserve.”
“I do not need them!” Chikara insisted. “I only need you, father! Please!”
“When I left… after the Emperor Toturi I’s death… I thought only of myself. I was so consumed with thoughts of my disgrace… it never occurred to me that I might… have someone that might share my shame.” His eyes were glazed, but he stared at his son. “Forgive me, son. I did not mean to pass this to you. I would give anything to undo it.”
“I would have no other life,” Chikara said proudly. “I would have no other father.”
“You will be great beyond reckoning,” Oishi said. “And I will watch you proudly… from the next life.” He coughed, and there was blood on his lips. “I love you, son. I am so… so proud of…”
The ronin Oishi, once Seppun Oishi, was gone.
With a shaking hand, Chikara took his father’s blade. It felt heavy, so much heavier than the previous occasions when he had carried it. Tears filled his eyes and spilled down his cheeks, but he did not succumb to the urge to weep. He looked ahead to where the Destroyers were being driven from the village by the others. His jaw set, he stood and lifted his weapon.
“Hold, Chikara.” Kakita Sadaka appeared from nowhere. Her blade was unbroken, but covered with flecks of metal from where it had hewn fatal fissures in the armor of the Destroyers. “This is not your battle.”
“They killed my father!” he shouted.
“And for that we will make them suffer, I make that oath to you,” Sadaka said. “Your father surely spoke to you of the danger of fighting when consumed by emotion.”
The boy ground his teeth in frustration. “He… spoke against it.”
“Then you will have your revenge on another day,” Sadaka said. “I will assist you in exacting it, if you will permit it.” She looked at the corpse. “Your father was a great man, and I mourn his passing. I would honor his service by assisting you in your path to similar greatness.” She paused. “Will you accept my help?”
Chikara looked down. “I will,” he said.
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