The ongoing saga of the Emerald Empire’s desperate war against the invading hordes of Kali-ma, as determined by the results of our Kotei Season tournaments!
The Destroyer War, Part 13
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The prowess of the students of the Fortress of Blackened Sight would never be questioned by those who saw them fight today. Of that, Bayushi Hirose was absolutely certain. This assurance was cold comfort, however, as he was also keenly aware that after today, the Fortress of Blackened Sight might no longer exist.
The battle around the fortress was raging, in every sense of the word. The Scorpion defenders were fighting with a fury that Hirose had never before witnessed. But alongside them was a detachment form the Fourth Legion, apparently consisting primarily of Crab berserkers and Lion deathseekers. The violence they were unleashing upon the enemy closed the gap between the meager abilities of a human warrior compared to the supernatural power of their metallic enemies. Dark storm clouds had gathered overhead, lending a twilight-like cast to the day’s battle as well, making everything seem somehow unreal. Except of course that death was all too real, no matter how it came.
Hirose neatly stepped under the swing of one of his enemies, cutting upward with a piercing motion that penetrated one of the weak spots in the Destroyers’ armor. That staggered the beast just long enough for him to dispatch it with a more powerful blow to another of the weak parts, the one at the base of the neck. Or where a person’s neck would be, at least. The thought of how many Scorpion, Crab, and others had died to find these vulnerabilities was almost overwhelming, but these hard-won lessons were what allowed the war to move forward. With every battle, more and more of the accursed things were destroyed. The once endless ranks were now measurable, even if that measure was so great that it chilled Hirose’s soul to think of it. The enemy’s rank and file had been thinned to the point that now they were beginning to document new incarnations of the Destroyers. The golden ones were the most commonly seen, and of course the beasts that served as Kali-ma’s elite. There were others, though. The ones that waged war against the Fortress today had a blue hue to them, one that as far as he knew, no one had seen before. What that meant would be determined after the battle was over, one way or another. Right now, Hirose could not wonder at its meaning.
Guardsman, a voice whispered in his ear. I have need of your gifts.
Hirose paused, his hand drifting momentarily to the chrysanthemum mon on his shoulder out of instinct. He quickly resumed his duty of defending the Empire, cutting down another Destroyer and circling another, looking for an opening. “Who speaks to me?”
I am the midday shadow, the voice replied. You know me, if not by name then by nature.
“Shadowspawn!” Hirose spat. “Dark filth!”
I am that and more, the whisper said. I am Goju Zeshin, and I require assistance in the destruction of our mutual enemy.
“Stand before me and be destroyed,” Hirose said. “I will not succumb to your evil. The Scorpion are no force’s pawns!”
No force save the Empress, perhaps, Zeshin taunted, but that is a matter for another time. I need not your soul, Scorpion. I need your sword.
“My sword you may have,” Hirose hissed. “I shall give it to you in your formless gullet!”
Be silent and listen! Zeshin commanded. Since the first days these beasts came upon your lands, my kinsmen have fought alongside you. You have not seen us because we did not wish it, just as we do not wish these things to conquer all of Rokugan. What use to us is an Empire under a gaijin god’s yoke?
“You are deception incarnate.”
Someone or something among the Destroyers is aware of us, and how to stop us, Zeshin continued. These ironclads, they have been warded against us. We can do nothing. Not without assistance.
Hirose hesitated. “What is it you wish?”
Damage the ward. Breach the armor. I will do the rest.
Cursing himself for a fool, Hirose engaged a Destroyer and located the ward. It was located on the thing’s throat and bore some superficial similarities to the wards employed by the Yogo family, enough so that he could identify it. A glancing blow from his blade ruined the ward, and a second blow to the ribs breached the armor slightly. There was a sudden deepening of the darkness around the two of them, and the Destroyer spasmed. The red glow in its eyes dimmed and became darker, and then suddenly the ironclad thing turned upon its brothers with enormous relish. Within moments, the Destroyers appeared for all in the world to be fighting one another, as Zeshin and perhaps others of his ilk turned them against one another.
Taking advantage of the momentary confusion, Hirose stepped nearer to one of the ruined blue-hued Destroyers, looking carefully at its every detail. This was information that his kinsmen would wish to have, and he hoped to provide the… he stopped in mid-thought. Over the heart of the Destroyer, also in blue so that it was difficult to see, was a symbol he recognized from his father’s journals.
“Ashalan,” Hirose whispered.
* * * * *
In general, courtiers were not accustomed to long hours of hard riding. It was extremely physically demanding, and tended to leave one in a state ill suited to polite company, which of course was completely contrary to the duty of a courtier. As a youth, Shosuro Orikasa had relished riding her father’s horse, however, and there were still days that she chose to spend her duty-free time on the horse trails of her family’s sprawling estate. It was almost certainly this, her atypical love of riding, that had allowed her to survive these past few weeks. It seemed that every few days she reached a new safe haven only to have it besieged out from beneath her, sending her fleeing again to the north. If she were a wiser woman, perhaps she would just keep riding and not stop until she reached the Lion lands. But she was apparently not a wise woman.
The horse twisted slightly as it ran, indicating to Orikasa its level of exhaustion. She surveyed the horizon in search of somewhere to stop and let it rest even for a little while, but knew this was barren country with very few… was that smoke on the horizon? Not the terrible columns of smoke that clouded the sky to the south, but a single line of smoke, indicating a farmstead or small estate. Daring to hope, she steered her horse in that direction.
The smoke emanated from a small stone building with a faded heraldry that indicated it was a waystation for magistrates. Clearly someone was within, although there were no horses tied outside. Orikasa dismounted and drew a few buckets of water from the well for the horse to drink, trying not to think overmuch about the toll such physical labor took on her hands, of what the other court attendants would say if they learned she had done such things. “I know!” she hissed. “Enough!” Once she was convinced the horse could slake its thirst and reach enough grass to graze for at least a few minutes, she made her way inside the crude building.
Inside, the building was slightly warmer than was comfortable, but not unbearably so. There was a fire roaring in the fireplace, and over it a pot was suspended. From the smell, it was a stew of some kind. It smelled like simple fare, the sort of thing that Orikasa remembered from her days in the market as a child, but given the circumstances, it smelled like a gift from the Fortunes themselves. “Help yourself, by all means,” a voice said. “There is more than enough.”
Orikasa turned to see a monk sitting at the low table, sipping at a bowl of stew. He gestured to the pot. “It might be a bit overcooked, but I was not sure when you would arrive.”
Orikasa stared at him for a moment, then decided that monks were universally strange and that it ultimately did not matter. She served herself a small bowl and sat, her stomach growling eagerly at the notion of such a filling meal. “Thank you for your kindness,” she said. “I am Shosuro Orikasa.”
“I know,” the monk said. “I am Koan. It is a distinct pleasure to meet you, naturally.”
Orikasa frowned. “I have read stories of a monk named Koan,” she said. “However, you are clearly too young to be the same Koan I am thinking of. Did you take his name as some sort of homage?”
“There is always a Koan,” the monk said. “Now, then, and tomorrow.”
“I see,” Orikasa said. “A koan is a riddle, is it not? Some sort of verbal puzzle? ‘The sound of one hand clapping’ and all that?”
The monk shrugged and sipped his stew. “If you like.”
Orikasa shook her head and enjoyed her meal, attempting to ignore the constant haranguing that she endured so frequently. She attempted to distract herself with conversation. “What are you doing here, Koan-san? It seems rather out of the way.”
“I thought I was clear about that, but if not, I apologize. I was waiting for you.”
Orikasa frowned. “I did not know I was coming here. I did not even know there was a here.”
“Just because you do not recognize your own path does not mean others do not see it.”
The young courtier sighed lightly. Monks were so infuriating, and her patience was already worn thin. “I know they’re coming!” she said sharply, then glanced at the monk. “I… apologize. Sometimes I…”
“Your sister is quite right, of course. The Destroyers are coming.”
Orikasa froze, her ladle halfway to her mouth. Likewise the spectral apparition that was her sister’s undead spirit stopped and stared at the monk. Can he see me? Rokujo wondered.
“Can you see her?” Orikasa asked at the exact same moment.
Koan looked surprised. “No,” he said. “Does that matter?”
Orikasa dropped her ladle into the stew. “I… I just…”
“I need not see something to know it is there,” Koan said. “Can I see the wind?”
“I just thought… perhaps…” she began again.
“You are not mad,” Koan said. “It is natural for you to think so, but no. You are far from mad, in fact.”
The young courtier said nothing for a moment. Her vision swam, and she felt her lip tremble ever so slightly. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“I think it quite wise to suspect yourself of madness if you can see things others cannot,” Koan said. “In your case, however, you are quite sane.” He stood suddenly and placed a straw hat upon his head. “And that was my purpose in being here. With that, I must move on. I advise you to do the same as soon as you have eaten. Your path is not yet finished.”
“What is my path?”
Koan looked surprised again. “I have no idea.”
What a peculiar man, Rokujo said.
“I am indeed,” Koan replied. “Please, eat quickly. You need to be gone from this place in less than two hours. Good day, ladies!”
* * * * *
Akodo Raemon shifted atop his horse and surveyed the engagement once more. All seemed to be going as well or better than he could have hoped, under the circumstances. His men were performing perfectly, with the instructions he had given them before the battle began being followed precisely and with attention to detail that would have made Akodo One-Eye himself proud. The Destroyer detachment that his company had engaged along the riverbank seemed to be disoriented by their maneuvers, and were being routed. He was eager to report his victory to the commander, but did not let his attention waver. Too many battles were lost after victory was assumed, after all.
“Is this all?”
Raemon looked to his shugenja support. The woman was young, in theory, but her hair was flat and listless, her features sunken and hollow, and she looked much older. She wore white, as she had allegedly done every day since the demise of her family. “What do you mean, Rikako-sama?” he asked, using the honorific has he always had out of respect for her loss.
Horiuchi Rikako pointed to the battle. “You intend the drive them away? To let them escape?”
Raemon frowned. “My orders were to hold this river,” he explained. “That is precisely what I intend to do.”
“For how long?”
“What?” Raemon said, his patience fraying. “What are you talking about?”
“If you permit those demons to escape, they will doubtless return with greater numbers, greater than this company can hope to defeat.” She glanced back at the plains they had crossed to get here. “Will the rest of the legion be available to defend? Or will your company be overrun?” She shrugged. “Not that it matters, I suppose. Death is inevitable, after all.”
Raemon frowned. “How will destroying them change that?” he inquired. “The larger body from which they split off will doubtless come regardless.”
“Yes,” Rikako agreed. “They will come… with no notion of who they face, what numbers we have, or what the terrain is. I am not a tactician like you are, but those seem like significant advantages to me.” She looked at him and raised her eyebrows. “Or am I wrong?”
The Lion commander sneered at her slightly, but shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I suppose it would not be disobeying orders to simply exercise caution and be… thorough.” He turned to the signalman. “Give the order to press the advantage. Pursue and eradicate.”
“Excellent,” Rikako said, spurring her horse forward.
“Where are you going?” Reamon demanded.
She looked at him as if he were a simpleton. “To pursue and eradicate, as you commanded.”
“I was given to understand that shugenja exercising extensive magic against these creatures ran the risk of exhaustion or death. Was I misinformed?”
Rikako’s confusion was absolute. “What does that matter?” she demanded. “I told you before, death is inevitable.”
* * * * *
Doji Kusari struggled to maintain his composure as he approached the unassuming tea house. He had traveled across the face of the Crane provinces to reach it in all due haste, and now that he had arrived, all his carefully measured recriminations were forgotten in a simmering anger that gripped every portion of his spirit. He turned to his traveling companions. “If you will please excuse me, my friends, I wish to enter alone. I require a few moments of… conference… with those inside.”
“Of course,” the young woman said. “We await your convenience, lord Doji.”
Kusari smiled. “Thank you for your understanding.” He turned back to the tea house after a short bow. He despised Mura Sabishii Toshi, not only for the climate but for the length of travel necessary to reach it. Normally he struggled to keep his irritation under control, but today perhaps it would serve him. He swept inside without announcement and let his eyes grow accustomed to the dimmer light.
There was some stirring from within, and the air was thick with the smoke of recreational inhalants. “Who interrupts our meeting?” someone asked.
“I am Doji Kusari, husband of Doji Domotai, Mistress of the Crane Clan.”
“Oh!” one of them said, standing suddenly. Kusari’s eyes adjusted to the gloom and he could make out the inhabitants. There were staff people lingering around the room’s edge, but within there were only three men. Two were portly, bearing the mons of the Daidoji and Ide families. The third was a wiry, dangerous looking man in Mantis colors. “Oh!” the Daidoji repeated. “My lord, I am…”
“I know precisely who you are,” Kusari said, cutting him off sharply. “I know who all three of you are, and I am delighted to inform you that you have accomplished something I spend a tremendous amount of time trying to avoid doing.”
The Daidoji blinked rapidly. “Uh… what is that, my lord?”
“You have made my wife exceedingly angry,” Kusari said. “It is something I have rarely seen.”
The Ide looked vaguely concerned. “I think there must be some confusion here, my lord…”
“Absolutely not,” Kusari said. “My wife personally stationed a young woman here to oversee the activities of merchant patrons such as yourselves. I believe you will remember Doji Asami, would you not?”
“Oh, yes,” the Daidoji said. “She is currently…”
“She left her post,” Kusari said, his voice raising. “She was stationed here because my wife believed that the sea air might improve her health. As it turns out, she was so distressed by her inability to control your manipulative excesses, your naked greed, that she left her post and wrote my wife a letter.” He withdrew a scroll and showed it to them, then opened it and began to read.
* * * * *
My lady Domotai-sama,
I will be eternally grateful to you for your kindness and your consideration, and for the faith you have shown in me. It is the greatest shame I have ever known that I have failed you. The task you have set before me here in Lonely Shore City is beyond my abilities. The merchant patrons here, or at least the highest ranking among them, are disgraceful men, men without honor or decorum, and I have proven unable to control them. They do not respond to me, they belittle me, they meet without me present. They have shown nothing but contempt for me and for the duties you have set before me within this city. Nothing I have done has proven capable of controlling them. For this, I am truly, enormously sorry.
These men have no sense of the scope of war that the Empire faces. They think only of profits, of coin and rice, and of withholding resources until the price is most in their favor. They presume to question tactical decisions, such as their recent withholding of vital resources to be sent to a particular region in the Scorpion lands, because they felt that there was nothing of value to be gained in defending that region. They refrained from the scheduled shipments because they believed that they could make a greater profit by waiting to ship the resources at a higher price when a more significant holding was threatened. I am shamed beyond words at their actions, and my inability to curtail them. I am truly sorry, my lady.
By the time this letter reaches you, I will have committed jigai in an attempt to spare my family the shame of my failures. Please do not look upon them with judgment, for they will serve you well in the future.
* * * * *
The three patrons stared at Kusari as he rolled the scroll up and placed it back in his obi. “Doji Asami is dead?” the Daidoji said breathlessly.
The Mantis chuckled. “I would not have thought she would have the fortitude.”
Kusari crossed the room in a flash and struck the man across the face with the flat of a tessen that he drew from his obi. “Idiot!” he barked. “You three and your treasonous nonsense have cost my wife a loyal and trusted vassal, and probably an entire province for the Scorpion!”
The Mantis glared at Kusari, but the other two seemed horrified. “My lord, we… we did not mean… it was not our intent to…”
“Silence!” Kusari shouted. “Be grateful my wife could not be here in person or she would have likely killed all three of you by now! The shame you have heaped upon the Crane with your activities is outrageous, and she does not tolerate such petulance from her vassals.” He paused and smoothed his robe. “Fortunately, I can correct that problem at once.” He turned and beckoned toward the door, and two others entered. He gestured to the young Mantis woman and bowed. “The Imperial Treasurer has graciously allowed one of his most trusted vassals to come and assume all control over the trade activities in this city that deal with the war effort. Any shortage she finds as a result of your activities will be compensated for by the Doji family to ensure that there are no further disruptions.” He bowed. “My thanks, Yashinko-san.”
Yoritomo Yashinko bowed in return. “The Treasurer is grateful for your swift and decisive action, my lord.”
Kusari smiled, but it faded at once when he turned back to the patrons. “My other guest is a representative of the Emerald Champion. Both he and his lord are extremely eager to discover exactly to what extent your activities have jeopardized the safety of the Scorpion lands. You will all be remanded into his custody.” He turned and bowed again. “Saito-san.”
Bayushi Saito bowed, but never took his eyes from the three patrons. “It is an exquisite pleasure to assist you in this matter, my lord,” he said, his voice a threatening, sibilant hiss.
Kusari turned to the patrons and looked at them as if they were no more than offal. “I think we are finished here,” he said with disgust. “I hope you enjoyed your tea. I dare say you will not have any for some time.”
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