The ongoing saga of the Emerald Empire’s desperate war with the invading forces of the Destroyer, as determined by the outcome of our Kotei tournament series.
The Destroyer War, Part 8
By Shawn Carman & Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
Soshi Tishi sipped his tea delicately, savoring the exquisitely layered flavor of it. It was a unique Shosuro blend, one not generally offered to those outside the clan due to the danger involved. This was not to say that outsiders never tasted the tea, of course. Even the tiniest mistake in its preparation could render it highly poisonous, and so naturally it found its way into the arsenal of his clan’s most dangerous operatives. Yes, sometimes outsiders did indeed taste the tea, but never more than once. With one notable exception. Tishi smiled at the woman sitting across from him. “How do you find the tea?”
Doji Yasuyo could never be described without using a word like beautiful or elegant. Even Tishi, a man who had a supreme appreciation for the value of words, had attempted to do so on numerous occasions and always failed. Her physical beauty was one thing, and had not suffered the weight of her years at all as nearly as Tishi was able to tell, but there was more than that. To look within her eyes was to see something of utter certainty and purpose. Something sure, and that caused her to transcend the merely physical and become something more spiritual in nature. The warrior took another drink of her tea and seemed to consider the question. “I find it quite… dangerous.”
“Of course you would,” Tishi said, his smile broadening and becoming more genuine. “A refined palette such as yours would sense the beauty of the thing.”
She nodded. “It has a name, I assume?”
“Razor’s Edge blend,” he confirmed. “Though you will never find anyone selling it.”
“I am quite sure there is a Yasuki somewhere who will have some, or at least claim to.”
Tishi chuckled. “I do not doubt that.” He set his cup aside. “It is good to see you again. Each time I return, I suspect you will be gone.”
“I believe that your orders to the staff here prevent my departure,” Yasuyo replied.
“That is not entirely accurate,” he corrected. “Each time I depart, my orders are not to execute you before my return. I have never instructed them to prevent your departure, not even once.”
“I am certain that, were I to leave, they would attempt to stop me. They would of course have no choice but to use lethal force.” She sipped her tea. “Or more correctly, they would attempt to do so.”
“I would deeply regret that,” Tishi said. He considered for a moment, then pressed ahead. “Will you tell me how you came to find this place? Very few Scorpion are even aware of its existence. That you found it continues to confound me, even after these past few years.”
Yasuyo stared at him for a moment. “How many times have you asked me that question?”
Tishi sighed. “I come to Hidden Moon Dojo approximately once every six months, to secure certain scrolls for safe-keeping,” he said. “I believe that since your arrival I have seen you… is it five times? And I have asked each time.”
“Have I ever answered you?”
“You have not,” Tishi said. “Nor do I expect you to do so this time, but duty obligates me to…”
“I found your hidden dojo because it was the point at which I re-entered the mortal realm when I finished my most recent time with my kenku sensei.”
Tishi froze in place, unsure of exactly how to respond to information of that caliber. “I am of course familiar with the legends surrounding you,” he said after a few moments. “I was a little unsure of their veracity, however. They seem quite… fantastic.”
“They are indeed,” Yasuyo confirmed. “Even I find them questionable, and I was present when they took place. I have at times questioned my own sanity, but of course that was long ago.”
“So I am to understand that you have trained with the kenku not once but on multiple occasions?”
“That is correct,” Yasuyo said. “I trained with them the first time many years ago, which is what led to my rise to prominence among the clan. The second time was shortly after my husband’s death. That stay was brief, and I returned some time afterwards. I spent some time among my extended family, but ultimately returned to complete my training with my sensei.”
Tishi frowned. “I do not doubt your word, Lady Yasuyo, not in the slightest, but you will forgive me if I say that the timeline of such a thing seems quite odd.”
“Indeed it does,” she agreed with a laugh. “To me as well! The passage of time between the realm of the kenku and the realm of men does not mesh well. I have on occasion spent months there to find that years have passed here, and the opposite as well. I long ago decided to stop attempting to understand it. It is madness to do so.”
The sensei considered the matter. “That does explain quite a bit,” he admitted. “And I do feel that I can trust you to speak the truth. But why did you choose to tell me this now, when I have asked so many other times?”
Yasuyo sat her tea down and regarded him frankly. “Because this is the last time you and I will speak.”
Tishi felt slightly chilled at the certainty with which she spoke. “Forgive the question, my lady, but are you threatening me?”
“No, I am attempting to warn you,” she replied. “The Destroyers will be here, and it will not be long.”
The chill grew stronger. “I am certain you are mistaken, my lady. We have rather extensive intelligence surveying this entire area, and there is no reason for the Destroyers to be here at all, much less without our notice.”
“Then your intelligence has been retasked, or perhaps destroyed outright,” Yasuyo said. “They will be here soon. I advise you to protect those documents that are so valuable to you. For all that you are the quintessential Scorpion, I believe that you are a man of honor, and I would not see you disgraced unnecessarily by the loss of those documents you hold so sacred.”
“Please, you must understand, there has been some confusion here, I think…”
Yasuyo rose. “I must return to my chambers. My sensei will come for me shortly, and I think you have more pressing matters than to speak with me.” She bowed sharply. “To my great surprise, it has been a tremendous pleasure to call you a friend, Soshi Tishi. I sincerely hope that you survive.” With that, she left the room, and Tishi found himself strangely speechless.
After only a moment, the screen slid open a second time, and a Scorpion warrior peered in. “Forgive me, my lord, but… the Crane said you wished to speak with me?”
“Yes,” Tishi said. “Yes. I need you, and as many men as you can find. Go and get them?”
“Who, my lord?”
“All of them,” Tishi commanded. “Every living soul in this dojo. Right now.”
* * * * *
The vast majority of those facing the Destroyers on the field of battle were warriors, bushi trained with the blade but not the spirits that swirled around them as they fought. Most shugenja found themselves far behind the front line, lending what support they could from afar and enjoying the protection that commanders so frequently afforded valuable assets. So perhaps it should not have surprised Agasha Chieh that the great numbers of samurai who had slain a Destroyer in combat were blissfully unaware of the horrors they were witness to. She wished that she, too, could enjoy such ignorance, but that was not her lot, it seemed.
Another of the ironclad enemies came near her, and Chieh threw out her hand, palm first, to release a coiling serpent of flame. In her youth she had found such secondary effects a delightfully melodramatic means of unnerving her friends, and as an adult the disquieting effect her spells had on her opponents over the years had served her very well indeed. The serpent wound around the metal monstrosity, rapidly turning white hot and burning away the metal. Then the thing that was within the metal screamed.
Chieh shrieked in pain, clapping her left hand over her ear despite that she knew it would do nothing. The scream was not a sound, as such, but some terrible side effect of undoing the dark ritual that had imprisoned the mystical energy within the metal shell in the first place. Every time one of the creatures was killed, the death-scream was nearly too much to bear. Were it not for the nigh-constant chorus of screams from the battlefield inuring her to the sound, Chieh might have gone mad. As it was, she merely screamed along with her dying enemies, tormented by the sound of their demise at her hands.
Around her, a special unit of Asako, trained both as inquisitors and as members of the Golden Arm sect of monks that had become so prominent within the family over the past few years, took their terrible toll upon the Destroyers. The war in the north had been all but won, the Dark Oracle wounded beyond his ability to recover and his armies routed. It had been the decision of both Shiba Tsukimi and Isawa Ochiai to deploy the clan’s resource more heavily into the southern front in an attempt to stem the loss of life taking place there. Chieh incinerated another of the Destroyers and wondered for the hundredth time if she had made a terrible mistake by seeking and securing permission to join the Phoenix forces here. She had seen much of death during her time as a magistrate, but this… this was something altogether different.
No. She had a duty, and it must be fulfilled. The last days and months of her predecessor’s life had been spent in a near catatonic stupor, the curse of his gift of prophecy. Chieh alone had attended to him in those long days and nights, recording his every feverish word. Much of that had come to nothing, but some had been important enough that thousands of Phoenix lives had been spared during events like the Rain of Blood or the Night of Assassins. Now, in these dark days, Chieh reflected that some of the things that had once seemed like nonsense from Agasha Hamanari’s last days might have been the first visions of the Destroyer War. There were certain things he had mentioned, certain potential outcomes, that she felt she must investigate firsthand. And thus she fought on the front lines, seeking to gain as much information as possible about their enemy.
Chieh looked up reflexively to see an officer atop a proud Unicorn steed smash one of the things away from him. “What?” she demanded tersely.
“The main unit of the enemy has stretched to the point of breaking!” the officer shouted back. “If we can break their lines, they can be separated and eliminated!”
“I am somewhat busy!” Chieh shouted. “Why are you talking to me?”
“Because these villains are blocking our path!” the officer roared, gesturing to the cluster of Destroyers she and her Asako were combating. “The terrain prevents proper charging into this group to break them! Can you clear the way?”
“What?” she demanded. “You ask so little! Perhaps I can provide dinner for your men while I am at it?”
“Well, it has been a while since I enjoyed proper Phoenix hospitality,” the man returned with a grin.
Chieh scowled. “What is your name?”
“Moto Jeng-Yun!” the man shouted. “The pleasure of your company is an honor on this fine afternoon!”
Chieh’s anger reached a boiling point, but it reminded her of her lessons with Agasha Miyoshi at the temple in the City of Remembrance. And that, in turn, gave her what she required if she was to do this thing. “Well, Moto Jeng-Yun, I suggest you and your men fall back a short distance.”
“What?” he said. “Why?”
“Because this will be… unpleasant.” Chieh threw her arms wide and summoned all the reserves of energy she had remaining. Some among the inquisitors, those with the gift of the kami as well, recognized what she was doing and lent their support as well. The essence of raw, unbridled fire magic filled the area, and a great dragon of flame emerged from their very bodies. The thing roared, its features twisted in a silent roar, and it descended into the masses of the Destroyers.”
“Lords of Death!” she heard Jeng-Yun swear, shortly followed by, “Come, brothers! The Lords have given to us to pass judgment on these unclean beasts! Let us find them wanting!” He turned toward her. “My thanks, Lady Chieh!”
She nodded and started to say something, but the world was spinning in an entirely unpleasant fashion. She collapsed, and her last moment of consciousness for the day was that she hoped one of the others would catch her. This was one of her favorite kimono, after all.
* * * * *
The advance of the Destroyers across Three Man Alliance Plain was terrible to see. There was nothing unusual about the enemies themselves, not particularly, but the valiant defense offered by members of the Three Man Alliance and their allies among the Mantis was tragic indeed. They fought courageously and without quarter, but this area had not been expected to fall within the enemy’s offense, which was growing wider with each passing day, and it appeared that the defenders had not been fully prepared.
Chuda Inisi watched from his place of concealment. The deaths of the samurai meant relatively little to him. He would have preferred to see them emerge victorious, today if no other time, but he had long ago become so accustomed to death that it was almost meaningless other than that it provided him with the means he required to accomplish his duties to the Spider Clan. No, this was a scene of tragedy not due to the deaths, but because there was no other location in the southern Empire, indeed no other location in the world or beyond, that held any emotional significance for him. This was where his father had died. This was where his life had been shaped, even when he was but an infant.
Inisi’s father had been a Scorpion warrior. He had enjoyed the company of a geisha, or a woman who had professed to be one at any rate; Inisi was well aware of the disparity between what a geisha did and what his mother’s occupation had entailed. Regardless, he had been but an infant when his father had perished in a relatively minor skirmish with the forces of the Mantis here on Three Man Alliance Plain. For a short while it had seemed that the incident would blossom into war, but then some agreement or other had been worked out and the matter was quickly and quietly resolved. Inisi’s father, his mother had assured him, had been forgotten and abandoned by his clan. For that reason alone he had never sought to claim his rightful place among them. Why would he wish to stand shoulder to shoulder with traitors, liars, and fools? Instead, as his life progressed, he had eventually found himself drawn to the Spider, and had joined the Chuda family. His gifts, it seemed, extended beyond the simple stealthiness he had enjoyed throughout his lifetime. His gifts were many and blasphemous. The irony that he had once condemned the Scorpion for their sins was not lost upon him.
As the Destroyers continued their forward momentum, Inisi ground his teeth in rage and struck the ground with his fist. He could feel the presence of restless spirits there, just outside the range of his perception. They were like memories, the vague impressions left behind when the body died and the soul moved on. As a Chuda he could command them, but his potential had always been somewhat limited. Even as he reached out for them, they receded. Those joining them even as the plain’s defenders died would not answer him either. Thus far, he had never been able to fully incarnate the dead into deathless servants under ideal circumstances in the temple. That he could not now, when he most desperately wished it, threatened to drive him to madness.
“Darkness dwells within thy soul,” a hoarse voice over his shoulder whispered.
Inisi moved like a flash, drawing his wicked knife and plunging its blade toward the speaker. If it was a fellow Spider, he would mourn later, or perhaps not at all; it was foolish to approach in such a manner, after all. The robed man caught the blade in his hand. His manner was one completely free from concern. The steel did not seem to give his flesh pain at all. His features were… strange. Everything about him except the extensive tattoos covering his flesh was somewhat imperfect, as if very slightly off in a way that the eye could not quite perceive. “Who are you?” Inisi demanded, hoping desperately that his tone was more menacing than it sounded to his own ears.
“Doth my name matter overmuch?” the man said in his strangely accented voice. “Thee and thine are always consumed with such things, when in truth they are inconsequential. If it calm thy nerves, I am Hojyn.”
Inisi’s nerves were not calmed. “What… what manner of name is Hojyn?”
“That is not thy concern,” the tattooed man said. He nodded toward the Destroyers. “Would thee seek their deaths?”
Inisi licked his lips nervously. This man who might not be a man unnerved him. “They have wronged me,” he said anyway, “and for that I would see them undone.”
“The darkness in thy soul calls out,” Hojyn said, gesturing toward Inisi’s chest. “It sings for release, and the vestiges of the dead… they answer.”
Inisi squinted at the man and shook his head. “I do not understand anything you are saying. Why are you here?”
“Thou need not understand,” Hojyn said. “I walk these lands, and protect them, as I am able. All that matters now is that thou can stop this, if it be thy wish. Is it thy wish?”
Inisi looked to the Destroyers, his lips pulling back in a feral snarl of hatred. “I would destroy them all,” he rasped.
“So be it.” Hojyn said. He lightly plucked the knife from Inisi’s hand, reversed it, and almost casually plunged it into the Chuda’s chest.
Inisi tried to gasp, to curse, to hurl a spell at the man, no, the thing that had killed him, but he could not. He felt as if shadow were leaking from his very body. As Hojyn disappeared without another word, Inisi was overcome by the sensations he felt. He felt his spirit leak from his body and seep into the earth, gathering to it all the tiny vestiges of death that had once shrank from him but which now clamored for his attention. He gathered them and brought them back to his body. Even as his perceptions completely transcended all that he had once known, he felt his flesh tearing and shredding, giving rise to one shambling undead, then another, and another. More and more churned from the remnants of his flesh as he moved among them like a spirit, like a thing that had never truly been human in the first place.
It occurred to Inisi as his vassals attacked the Destroyer that his mother was something of a liar.
* * * * *
Ujina Ukita slipped through the darkness under the trees, easily keeping pace with the man on the road. Treating someone dressed as a monk as a potential enemy made Ukita feel uncomfortable, but there was no help for it: the war had driven all normal travelers from the road, and since the attack on the Empress every unknown monk was looked upon with suspicion. To find one traveling alone in the Hare lands at night was too odd to overlook.
Withdrawing deeper into the cover of the trees Ukita began to run. After a few minutes he left the trees and climbed up the small embankment to the road itself. He loosened his katana in its sheath and waited. The unknown monk soon came into view, and nothing in his approach changed Ukita’s original impression of him: an old man with a warrior’s build, whose walk hinted that age had not robbed him of all of his strength. “Good evening, Ancient One,” Ukita called out. “It is rude, I fear, but necessity requires I must demand that you stop and answer some questions.”
“Necessity is frequently a mask of fear,” the man said, stopping as he did so.
“Fear needs no mask tonight,” Ukita said. “Not in in this province. But what is your name? What is your order, and what business of it brings you here?”
“My name is Kagetora,” the man said quietly, “and my order is no more. I am on a pilgrimage.”
Ukita started a little at the name, and then he bowed deeply. “My apologies for detaining you, Brother Kagetora. I will send word on to my lord, so that you will not be disturbed again in this province.” The monk nodded and walked on. Ukita watched him until Kagetora’s figure was lost to the darkness. Someday, he thought, if he and his clan survived, he would tell wide-eyed grandchildren how he had once met the last monk of Lady Moon.
Ieyoshi took a calming breath, settled his neutral expression in place, and clapped loudly. “Come in,” a voice called, and Ieyoshi slid the door aside and entered the quarters assigned to his current commander, the uruwashii known as Shimekiri. The man himself was sitting in the middle of the room, tools spread around him as he cleaned and sharpened his katana. “Sit,” he said, waving one hand. “You can report as I work.”
Ieyoshi bowed and sat in the indicated spot. “I have had no problems carrying out your orders, Shimekiri-sama, and all is ready for tomorrow,” he said. “The Hare seem quite grateful for Imperial aid.”
“Unlike the Scorpion, they have nowhere to run. I do not expect a repeat of the problem we had at Closed Pincer City.”
“No, indeed,” Ieyoshi said. He watched as Shimekiri meticulously inspected the edge of the blade for flaws. The uruwashii would give him his new orders when he was ready, and there was no point in being impatient about it. “That is a fine sword, Shimekiri-sama.” Even from where he sat Ieyoshi could see the quality of its metal.
“It is,” Shimekiri agreed. “One of Hida Fubatsu’s swords–he is not widely known now, but I expect that to change.” He smiled slightly. “One rarely hears of Crab smiths handing out blades to a ronin, does one?”
“You are not a ronin, Shimekiri-sama,” Ieyoshi said. He cursed himself a little for it, but it was more politic than the first thing he had thought, which was ‘And even rarer to hear of one being given to a Crane.’
Shimekiri’s smile vanished, and he gazed at Ieyoshi with a hard stare. “Why do you say that?”
“I am a wave man’s son. I have lived my life as a wave man. A man acts differently when he holds another’s name above his, even when he sets it aside for a time.” Ieyoshi shrugged slightly. “There are many reasons for a samurai to go on a mushsa shugyo, none of which are any of my business.” There were other, less honorable reasons for a samurai to put aside his lord’s name, but that was something better left unsaid.
“You are observant and thoughtful,” Shimekiri said. He was silent for a moment, turning his attention back to his work. “Were I to have a lord, he might find such qualities desirable in a vassal.”
“I am honored by your words,” Ieyoshi said. “But the Heavens have given me my place in life, and I do not contest their judgment.” Shimekiri’s lord was almost certainly Shosuro Jimen, and Ieyoshi wanted as little to do with the Emerald Champion as possible.
“If you say,” Shimekiri said. “We face battle tomorrow. Go and make yourself ready.”
The day had dawned fine and clear, which made it easy to see the battle. Kagetora sat on the side of the raised road, watching the two armies turn what was the finest, and perhaps only, fields in the Hare lands into bloody mud. The outcome of the battle was not something he was particularly interested in. When it was over the remains of both armies would move on and he could continue his pilgrimage.
All of the Dragon Clan had mourned Lady Moon’s death, but none more than Hitomi Kagetora. He had spent months sitting in the last shrine dedicated to her, torn between grief over her passing and rage at an Empire that had so easily forgotten her greatness. Finally he decided to spend the last of his days traveling, going to every place where history recorded a visit from his Lady and building a memorial to her there. Far to the south of where he now sat was the place Lady Hitomi had spoken with Kuni Utagu, and Kagetora wondered idly if the way there would be clear, or if he should delay the southern leg of his pilgrimage until after the war resolved.
Kagetora’s deliberations were interrupted by a thrashing noise behind him, and he turned around just in time to see a Destroyer charging down the road towards him. The old monk jumped up and met it squarely, using his bo staff to deliver a ringing blow to the thing’s midsection. The Destroyer ignored it. Grabbing the monk with one arm it gave him one rib-crushing blow and then threw him back down on the ground, after which it ran off to join the battle.
His broken ribs were one source of pain; the knowledge he wasn’t considered dangerous enough to need finishing off was a greater one. Kagetora looked up at the sky where the waning moon hung low on the western horizon and snarled his frustration. Lady Hitomi would never have allowed an insult like this to go unanswered.
The curve of the moon shimmered, wavered, and then elongated, resolving finally into the form of a great dragon, its feet in the sky and its head leaning down to inspect Kagetora. Its color was ghostly pale in the sunlight, but its eyes were pale gold like the full moons of summer. No one knows her valor more than I, who threw her down from Heaven, the dragon said. It breathed on Kagetora, and the monk gasped at the sensation of his tattoos flowing back to life. Bring honor to her name, it said, and slowly melted back into the moon.
Kagetora climbed to his feet, concentrating on his body. He was dying, there was no doubt of that, but his limbs were under his control and the Lady’s blessings once again gave him strength. He laughed and ran towards the battlefield, easily catching up with the Destroyer that had killed him. Kagetora put on a burst of speed and gave it a flying kick, removing its head from its body and leaving it sprawled in the mud behind him.
Reaching the main battle Kagetora plunged into the thickest part of the battle, kicking and punching Destroyers as he went. Some of them tried to hit him in return, but few managed to connect a blow, and those that did felt like child’s taps to Kagetora. Tiring of the game he leaped up and began jumping from Destroyer to Destroyer, stomping on heads as he did so. Finally he saw what he was seeking: a fresh influx of the enemy, marching in close order. He dove down among them, fire billowing out of his mouth as he fell.
“What in Jigoku is that?” Ieyoshi wondered aloud as he watched the figure gamboling among the enemy.
“Jigoku has nothing to do with it,” Shimekiri said authoritatively. “I had a report of a monk–” His voice cut off as a wave of light washed over them. It was no brighter than the morning sunlight, but it was whiter and softer and for a long moment it seemed as if the face of the sun had abruptly been replaced with the full moon. When it was over Ieyoshi stood blinking in the yellow sunlight, remembering how Hitomi had fought Lord Moon. Compared to a god, a Destroyer didn’t seem that difficult a challenge.
“Attack!” Shimekiri yelled beside him. He drew his sword and pointed it at the Destroyers. “Samurai of Rokugan, warriors all, there is your enemy! ATTACK!” The men around him shouted their approval, and the sound of it carried through the valley to Meidochi itself.
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