The ongoing saga of the Emerald Empire’s desperate war with the invading Destroyers, as determined by the results of the ongoing 2011 Kotei tournament series.
The Destroyer War, Part 9
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Kakita Hideshi’s arm was numb to the shoulder, but he did not pause in his kata. The ranks of the Destroyers were noticeably thinner, with many of the beasts having been killed or retreated from the fierce fighting near the heart of the village. Hideshi was not concerned for the well-being of his blade, for he knew its craftsmanship was beyond question. He could cleave the inferior metal of these beasts all day and his blade would suffer no ill effects. His flesh, however, was another matter. If the battle persisted a great deal longer, he would have to change his dominant hand, and that would place him at an extreme disadvantage.
Despite their flagging ranks, there was a surge from the remaining Destroyers, forcing Hideshi to back away in order to maintain a proper striking distance from his foes; if he allowed them to get any closer, his swing would be impaired and they would gain the advantage. The movement forced him away from his brother Crane and pushed him toward another unit. The carried the banner of the Imperial commander that was leading the defense, a man bearing the rank of uruwashi. Hideshi did not know the man’s name. It was not important to his work here.
The last vestiges of the Destroyer offense gave one final push, forcing Hideshi to fight alongside a group of men wearing non-descript colors. They fought ferociously, and it was a comfort to Hideshi to have such men at his side, at least for a moment. Then he noticed the force of the other man’s strikes, the speed with which he moved. It was unnatural, too fast perhaps even for a normal man to follow, but as a duelist, Hideshi was well aware of the capacity for speed that men possessed. This was something altogether different. Something supernatural. “You!” he hissed at the man. “You are…”
“Eh?” the man interrupted, glancing irritably at Hideshi. “What do you want? We are engaged with the enemy!”
“You are the enemy!” Hideshi returned. “You are one of the Lost!”
The man smirked, as if more amused than alarmed by such a revelation. “Do you think that matters? Here and now, in this battle, you thank that matters?”
Hideshi heard the clamoring of the Destroyers nearby, but kept his attention focused on the other man. His hand clenched the hilt of his blade tightly, his pain and discomfort momentarily forgotten. “What is your name?” he said to the ronin.
“Arima!” the man barked. “Why?”
“I have never killed a man whose name I did not know,” Hideshi returned, his blade shifting slightly in his grip.
The ronin looked at Hideshi’s weapon, then back to his eyes, and for the first time his expression changed from one of rage and bloodlust, the typical expression of many ronin in battle, to a more contemplative look. There was a glimmer of concern in his eyes. “I have claimed eight of these metal beasts today alone,” he said quietly. “How many have you taken?”
“I do not count the dead,” Hideshi insisted. “Perhaps I will start with you.”
“Fine!” Arima hissed. “Kill me if you want! But what will you tell the others? Do you think you can hit me with enough force to make it seem that a Destroyer did it, even if there are no witnesses?” He grinned. “Perhaps if you embrace your gifts, you can succeed where your skill would not. But then of course you deny your true potential, don’t you?”
“Be silent!” Hideshi snarled.
“Kill me and lose ground against the enemy,” Arima said, seemingly oblivious to the men killing Destroyers and vice versa all around him. He opened his arms slightly. “Is it worth it? What is more important to you? Make your choice, Crane!”
Hideshi gripped his blade so tightly that he lost all sensation in his hand. He longed to see the ronin’s blood in the air, on the ground, on his steel. But the cost… it was far too high.
With a feral roar, Hideshi turned and cut down another Destroyer, his rage giving his blade more power than ever.
* * * * *
“What is the status of the evacuation?”
The junior officer looked sideways at his commander, the rikugunshokan of the Shogunate forces, and then glanced down at the scrolls he had been handed only moments beforehand. “It appears that approximately three quarters have been evacuated already, my lord.”
Shiba Danjuro looked down the hill at the village of Kashi Mura. “We had ample time. Why is it taking so long?”
“There were a significant number of wounded ashigaru being barracked here, my lord,” the officer returned. “In addition there had been an outbreak of fever. Not a fatal illness, but it did incapacitate a noticeable number of villagers. Evacuating them has been more time-consuming than anticipated.”
Danjuro restrained the urge to swear. An honorable commander did not succumb to such things. He had done so in the past, but always strived to be greater. Today would not be a day that he could be a great man. He knew that much already. “We have no time,” he said quietly. The words were like ashes in his mouth. He was sick of saying them, sick of hearing them. It seemed every commander in the southern front had uttered them at least once during this accursed war. He wanted to be done with them, to be done with the whole affair, but of course he could not turn away from his duty.
The officer at his side was oblivious to his distress. “My lord? According to the most recent intelligence we received, there is ample time to continue the evacuation.”
“The blessings of the Heavens are not with us today, captain,” Danjuro said, his eyes to the south.
The captain looked south, his features growing grim. “What is that, do you suppose?” he asked, looking at the dust cloud rising from the drier southern lands.
“With that size and speed, it is a scout patrol,” Danjuro said. “And moving that fast, I would wager they are being pursued.”
“The Destroyers are hardly a fast-moving enemy, Danjuro-sama,” the captain said. “I do not think they…”
“The metal ones are slow,” Danjuro said, “but they are not the only ones.”
“Oh,” the captain said quietly. “Do you think…”
“Get everyone who can be moved out of the village immediately,” Danjuro ordered. “Confirm that all units are in position. We have no more time.”
The beasts chasing the Shogunate scouts were unlike anything that Danjuro had ever seen in person. He had heard accounts of the monstrosities from others who had served on the front lines. He had likewise heard that there were creatures similar to these that appeared in accounts by the Unicorn and Mantis of distant lands, but surely they could not be so twisted and evil. These things walked on two legs, as tall as four men, with large ears, powerful tusks, and long, strange noses from which they could sound the most horrifying, shrill battle cries. Their flesh was like hardened leather, the very thought of which made Danjuro’s stomach churn. They could be damaged more easily than the ironclads he was accustomed to fighting, but they healed with amazing speed. That was perhaps their most dangerous quality, even more so than the incredible damage they could inflict upon others: the beasts simply would not die. Or so it was thought. Danjuro and his men were prepared to test the limits of that ability.
But at what cost? The village was prepared, but not completely evacuated. There were dozens of ill and wounded still within the village as the demons descended upon it. Danjruo stared down into the village without speaking. He watched as the things entered the edge of the village and began destroying everything in sight. His men had withdrawn, he had been given no choice but to give that order. He saw a handful of villagers who would not leave their family members who were too sick or wounded to be moved, try to fight the things. Even after more than a decade of service during many wars, the slaughter turned Danjuro’s stomach. He glanced at the signalman standing nearby. “Fire,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.
From positions of concealment all around the village, hundreds of arrows were launched in an arc toward the village. Each was wreathed in flame, and each sought one of the dozens of barrels of lantern oil scattered throughout the village. Each of those was surrounded by more barrels in more concealed positions. Within seconds, the village was consumed in fire, burning oil adhering to everything. The screams of the demons were terrible, but Danjuro as grateful for them. They ensured that he could not hear any of the villages. “Pikes,” he ordered. “Archers free.”
Scout forces rushed to the northern and southern entrances to the village, the only sides not blocked by the steep hills. Fire-tempered pikes were put into place, wave after wave of them. When one of the massive demons emerged from the village, covered with burning oil and blinded by pain, it was impaled upon the pikes. The archers who had set fire to the village continued a relentless assault.
Shiba Danjuro watched as Kashi Mura died.
* * * * *
The command tent of the Sixth Imperial Legion was a rather stark affair, with no indications of the commander’s personal preference or taste appearing anywhere within it. Tsuruchi Etsui knew that many commanders preferred to tailor their tents to their taste, creating a familiar and comfortable environment from which to wage whatever war was their duty. Etsui found it distasteful to even consider personal concerns under such circumstances. Which made the presence of the sculpture that now dominated the main table all the more curious. It was a rough hewn piece of stone that appeared to be something different depending upon what angle from which it was viewed. The strokes with which it had been created were minimalist, giving only a vague impression of what it might be. He imagined that others might see something altogether different.
“Commander,” one of his sentries said. “He is here.”
Etsui nodded. “Send him in, please.”
A large, bare-chested man entered the tent, his expression one of annoyance. He held a hammer and chisel in his hands. “I can forgive appropriating one of my works. It matters little, as I was done with that piece.” He gestured toward the sculpture with a nod of his head. “But taking me away from my work? Inexcusable.”
Etsui gave the man an irritable glance. “I believe you are aware that your detachment is currently seconded to my legion, making me your commander. I would appreciate a marginally more respectful tone.”
“I would appreciate not having to suspend my work, or being cast out from my homeland, or having things taken from my tent without permission,” the Crab said. “But of course, how rude of me. How can I help you, commander?”
The Mantis archer stifled the urge to have the man arrested. “You are Yasuki Otsuka, a sculptor, correct?”
“In as much as any Crab can be said to be an artist and an artist alone, certainly,” Otsuka answered. “Like you, I have a large number of duties. Sculpting is my passion, however.”
“That much is obvious,” Etsui said. “An associate of mine wintered in the Crab lands some seasons ago. She described your work as primitive but exceptionally skilled. I did not understand the notion, but now I do.”
“Detail is for those who cannot convey true meaning otherwise,” Otsuka said with a dismissive wave. He glanced at Etsui suspiciously. “Why did you call me here?” He hesitated for a moment, then added. “Commander.”
“I am told that you have more confirmed kills than any man in your detachment since it joined with my forces,” Etsui said. “I am exceptionally curious as to how that can be the case. You are, as you say, a sculptor.”
Otsuka snorted. “I am a Crab, commander. If there are two things I know, they are stone and metal.”
Etsui hesitated a moment. “And?” he demanded.
Otsuka looked at him as if he were a simpleton. “You cannot possibly think those iron shells the enemy wears are flawless, can you?”
“Obviously not, but they are quite…” Etsui’s voice trailed off. “Are you suggesting that you can detect the flaws in their bodies?”
“It only requires an artist’s eye,” Otsuka said. “I’m sure many of the Kaiu can as well, although there are none with our current detachment.”
“What manner of flaws are you speaking of?”
Otsuka shrugged. “Where the metal is the thinnest, where the different sections were fused together, presumably by some hellish gout of fire or something equally ridiculous. It’s a simple matter, really. Once you find the weak spots, a hit with a good hammer is usually enough to breach the metal.” He hefted his sculptor’s hammer in one hand, spinning it in his palm.
“Interesting,” Etsui said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I’d like to add you to my command staff.”
The Crab seemed genuinely surprised for the first time since his arrival. “Command staff? I have no training for that manner of thing.”
“Perhaps not, but I’d like to see what might happen if I place you in charge of a Tsuruchi squadron,” Etsui said. “You find a flaw anywhere on a Destroyer’s body, and my men can hit that spot. If it works, it seems like a strong strategy for rapid attrition in the enemy ranks.”
“Well,” Otsuka started, “I suppose we can give it a try. Your men will have to be rather attentive, though. It’s a precise art, you know.”
Etsui smiled. “I think you will find them equal to the task.”
* * * * *
Hida Ikarukani bellowed an inarticulate expression of hatred as he leapt from a small hillock and brought down a specially reinforced ono onto the head of an ironclad Destroyer. The force of the blow made a sound like a gong and cracked the thing’s head open, leading to the now-familiar sound of whispering and the drifting cloud that emerged as the things died. The first few days of his deployment on the southern front, Ikarukani had experienced terrible nightmares related to the experience of killing the things. That had long since faded. Anger was his shield, his protector. Wrapped in its comforting embrace, he felt nothing but hatred for his enemies.
The berserker moved from one foe to the next as rapidly as possible, killing as efficiently as a force of nature, and with as little mercy or compassion. The men behind him shouted and rallying, following his example. At other times, such a thing was an inspiration to him, but when he was lost in the rage, he scarcely noticed them. His athletic prowess allowed him to rapidly outpace them, and in mere moments, he found himself surrounded by the Destroyers. A feral grin split his face. Their eagerness to kill him would cost them their lives.
A trio approached from the front, and he leapt toward them. He sensed more from the rear, but they would wait until he finished the first. He was midway through the strike that would kill the second when he heard a rumbling from the rear. It sounded like an earthquake, but this region was not well known for such things as far as he knew. He finished the third and turned to see that the earth had churned and buried the other three. He frowned, both in confusion and from frustration at being denied his prey. The former was stronger, however, and the red rage began to recede as he looked at the broken ground. “Hello, cousin!”
Ikarukani turned and scowled. “Marrying my cousin does not make you my family,” he hissed.
“I am actually quite sure it does,” Hida Ruri said. She wore Crab colors, but they were subdued, almost faded. It was as if she did not dare fully claim her new clan affiliation.
“Do not presume too much,” Ikarukani said. “My reverence for the priesthood does not extend as far as one might presume.”
“Your demeanor does not fool me,” Ruri said with a wave. “You are not the beast you pretend to be. And honestly I do not see why you bother, given that your enemies are impossible to intimidate.”
The warrior raised an eyebrow. “Your enemies, you say?”
“Our enemies,” she corrected. “Forgive me if it remains difficult to identify as part of the Crab. I spent many years attempting to avoid that exact behavior.”
“Do not feel it necessary to suspend it on my part,” Ikarukani said. He began to retort and the stopped, noticing something in the earth that had been churned to the surface. “What is that?” he said, pointing to it.
Ruri looked down and frowned. She whispered something and blew the earth away with a strong breeze. She bent down and examined the metal laid bare by the wind. “This is a fragment of a Destroyer,” she said. “Have there been any reports of previous combat here?”
Ikarukani shook his head. “There is a detachment of Minor Clan samurai missing,” he said, “but no one knows what became of them. There has been no report of their fate.”
“I think… something happened.” Ruri said. “I think something very terrible happened here.”
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