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The Destroyer War, Part 14
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The battle for the Fortress of Blackened Sight raged out of control. It was a chaotic fury, a maddened struggle between the dug-in Scorpion forces and a massive force of Destroyers that had returned more than three times larger than they had been at their last defeat here. As the Destroyers always did. They were perhaps the perfect enemy, the only thing that could overcome the tenacity and brilliance of the Empress’ forces in the southern front. The only front now, really, Togashi Sakata reminded himself. The battle against the Dark Oracle of Fire in the north seemed at an end, with no sign of significant enemy forces for many months now.
Sakata sat atop the highest tower of the fortress, well out of sight of any but the most keen-eyed participants in the battle far below. His fingers drummed against his large, custom-made clay sake bottle, which he regarded with a furrowed brow. He had enjoyed sake his entire adult life, long before he had joined the Togashi order and certainly since then. He had long since stopped listening to those who claimed he drank too much. His natural gifts, increased by his mystical tattoos, allowed him to overcome the negative effects of the drink, and the things that he thought and saw when in the throes of the sake were, he felt quite certain, his personal path to enlightenment. It meant nothing what others thought. Or at least it never had before, not until the woman had appeared to him.
She had come to him last night while he had been well and truly inebriated. She was beautiful, he knew that much. Her features had been soft, but her eyes were piercing, and her hand was the most brilliant, lustrous black, just like her hair. She had whispered such sweetness, praising his ability to overcome his weakness for drink, delighting in the strength it gave him. Was he capable of more, she wondered? What was the true limit of his strength? The idea was like a plague, like a sickness that infected his mind. What was he truly capable of?
Well, enough wondering. He lifted the bottle and drained a third of it, feeling its warmth and glorious numbness filling his body from his legs to the crown of his head. He smiled, and hurled himself off the tower. The wind tore at his flesh, but he only laughed. As the stone raced by, he mentally reached out for the power of the hummingbird, and he felt the skin where a tattoo of that same bird tingle as it came to life. His fall slowed dramatically, and by the time Sakata reached the ground, he bounded from the top of one Destroyer to the next, far too fast for their clumsy weapons to reach him. He moved rapidly over the vast legions of the Destroyers, and found himself at their rear rank. He allowed the spirit of the bird leave him, lamenting somewhat that the flurry of rapid movement had robbed him of some of the sake’s warmth.
At the end of the Destroyers’ ranks, far from the fortress, there was a cloaked figure. Sakata recognized the pattern of tattoos on the man’s flesh, but they were not the same as those of an ise zumi. They still thrummed with power, which he could sense even at this distance. “Thou are the first to lay eyes upon me in this land, monk,” the commander said. “For that, thou should be commended. Thou shall not live to tell others what thy have seen, however.”
Sakata shrugged. “Drink with me?” he asked, holding the flask outward.
“What?” the enemy said, balking.
“Drink with me!” Sakata returned. “It is a delightful blend!” He lifted the bottle to his lips and took an enormous drought.
“Imbecile,” the commander dismissed. “Farewell.” He lifted an arm wreathed in tattoos that crackled with some unholy power.
Sakata belched forth a massive gout of fire, both the breath of the dragon tattoo he bore and sake rejected by his body for being consumed too quickly. The sake saturated the commander’s cloak even as it burned, and he began shouting in an unfamiliar, inhuman sounding language. To Sakata it sounded a great deal like profanity, but he could not be sure.
Laughing, the monk drew upon the power of the hummingbird once more and fled.
* * * * *
The battle for the River of Gold continued unabated into its second hour. The battle went well for the forces of the Empress, as they had the advantage of superior positioning, superior knowledge of the terrain, and the advantage of surprise. Numerous companies dispatched from the Imperial Legions, under the command of a young but competent captain named Akodo Raemon, held the line and punished the Destroyers terribly for their desire to take the river. If the battle had been fought between two human armies, then perhaps the river would have become the River of Blood by now. But no, the Destroyers did not bleed.
Isawa Mizuhiko watched from a hill overlooking the battle that was taking place on the opposite side of the river. He was grateful for the din of the battle, for it gave him reprieve from the occasional whisper that surfaced in his mind. He had not spoken to another person for days, perhaps more than a week. It was difficult to tell the progression of days at times. Mizuhiko avoided others because the blade found all unworthy, and called out for their demise at his hands. None were fit.
Mizuhiko turned in surprise to see a young woman standing a short distance away. She was clearly a participant from the battle, but bore no mon. She was a beautiful woman, but something about her rapturous expression immediately filled him with alarm. She was not looking at him, but at the cursed sword he carried. “What did you say?” he snapped at her.
“You carry it,” she said, her voice a reverent whisper. “So beautiful. So… perfect.”
“This?” Mizuhiko said, gesturing the Judgment. “You think this… is perfect?”
“It sings to me,” she said. “It calls out for me to serve it.” She finally looked up at him. “You hear it too, do you not?”
He looked at her carefully. “I hear it from time to time,” he admitted. There was something significantly wrong with this young woman, he had decided. “Who are you?”
“I am Setsuko,” she said simply.
He placed his hand on the sword. “Do you wish to carry it?” he asked her. The measure of her response would determine if she lived or died, he had already decided.
The longing in Setsuko’s face was evident, but finally she broke her gaze from the blade and looked down. “I am not worthy,” she said with a sigh. “I seek perfection, but have not attained it. Perhaps one day…”
Mizuhiko frowned in disgust at her words, but the blade was mysteriously silent. It did not judge her, it seemed. Why? It was maddening! “What is your purpose here?”
“War,” she said at once. “When I heard the sword’s song, I had to see it. But I should return. I have… obligations.” She looked back at him. “You should unleash the sword upon the enemy.”
“What?” he demanded. “Do you have any idea what you are saying?”
She shrugged. “I know it exhorts you to violence. I know it cries out to be used, and that denying it drains your very soul.” She turned and pointed to the enemy. “Give them to it. Quench its thirst and feel no guilt. They are not human. What harm can there be?”
He considered it for a moment. “I do not know,” he admitted, “and that frightens me more than thought of what would happen otherwise.”
“Do not be a slave to fear,” Setsuko admonished. “Give it to drink.”
“What?” Mizuhiko demanded. “What did you say?”
Setsuko seemed confused. “I said, use it. What did you think I said?”
“Go away,” Mizuhiko whispered. “Please.” Setsuko did as he asked, leaving him alone on the hill with the weapon. Sweat had broken out on the Phoenix priest’s brow, and he stared at the sword in his hand, a sword he did not remember drawing.
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