The ongoing saga of the Emerald Empire’s desperate war against the invading forces of the demon goddess Kali-ma, as determined by the results of our Kotei Season tournaments!
The Destroyer War, Part 15
By Shawn Carman
Only a short time ago, the lands around the River of Gold had been beautiful, worthy of being depicted in a hundred paintings, mentioned in a thousand poems. That was before the Destroyers had come. The battle for possession of the river had persisted for weeks now, begun by the valiant Fourth Imperial Legion and continued by all manner of forces loyal to the Empress. At present there were detachments from three Imperial Legions, the second Lion army, and the coalition of Dragon and Phoenix forces that had arrived in the area after the Imperial proclamation formally declaring the northern war with the Yobanjin tribes a victory. That so many samurai could come together and put aside petty squabbles and issues of command in order to embrace their common purpose in pushing the Destroyers back from the region once and for all. That the land over which they fought had long ago been trod into mud and filth no longer mattered. It would be beautiful again one day, once the Destroyers were gone. That was all that mattered to the honorable samurai of Rokugan. Or that was what Mirumoto Meisetsu told himself in those quiet moments when he wondered if there was any hope of victory.
Meisetsu’s blade rang out as it struck the cold, dull metal of his opponent. His shoulders were numb from the repeated impacts of his duels so far this battle. He was fast, and he found avoiding the blows of his larger, slower opponents relatively easy, but he had difficulty singling out the weak spots in the things’ armor. It seemed to require a particular flair that was absent in his style, and Meisetsu has absolutely no doubt in his mind that this shortcoming would one day end his life, probably in the very near future. “Perhaps today,” the Dragon warrior muttered to himself as he narrowly avoided a strike that would have surely cut him in half.
Meisetsu rolled underneath the blow and came up behind his opponent, focusing on one of the identified weak spots where the base of the thing’s spine would be if it were a man. Even has he began his swing, however, he knew immediately that something was wrong. He was faster than the Destroyers, but now it was as if the monstrosity was standing still. In fact, it was as if the entire battlefield was moving with all the speed of a lava field from his home province. “What… what is this?” he whispered.
The battlefield grew as dim as twilight. Maisetsu turned about, looking for anything that might help him determine what was going on. He saw the general’s command staff on a distant rise, like statues in the failing light. But one of them was different. Somehow Maisetsu could see her perfectly despite the distance. He remembered her from when he had passed near the command staff earlier. She was elegantly beautiful, almost breathtakingly so, but it was not her physical beauty that had caused him to notice her. There was something else about her, something he could not identify, that was captivating. Now he knew that somehow she was involved in this oddity. “What is this?” he repeated.
The Void has touched you, Isawa Kumai’s voice whispered in his mind. I can sense it within you, yearning to know the world.
“What does that even mean?” the Dragon warrior demanded. “You make no sense!”
The Void is all and nothing, Kumai replied. It is as the tapestries my mother created as a child. So simple and yet so brilliantly complex, all the threads woven together to make a flawless whole. Can you see it?
Maisetsu looked about and realized that he could. In the dimness, he could perceive the subtle strengths and flaws of the Destroyers. He could see perfectly where he needed to strike in order to disable them. The world began to speed up around him, but his elevated perception remained. He crippled the Destroyer looking for him, then two more in the time it ok him to take a single breath. “Thank you, my lady,” he said.
Show me, her voice whispered in his mind.
* * * * *
Kakita Idzuki stood tall atop his horse and surveyed the fighting. “The right flank needs to be reinforced or it may break,” he observed. “Signal the reserves to take their place there.”
“Hai, Guardsman-commander Idzuki-sama!” his attendant virtually shouted.
The older Crane rolled his eyes. “Call me commander, I said. I do no want men to die because you were busy calling me by some ten word title.”
Idzuki was certain that as a child he must have been as ridiculously enthusiastic and overbearing as the young men and women under his command, but he honestly could not recall it. Perhaps that was a luxury that came with age. Or perhaps he was just senile. Was there any difference? “Once the reserves are in place, signal for a push. If that flank is shored up, the enemy will have no chance of advancing, and we can break them.”
Idzuki was eager for a victory. His detachment was smaller than those assigned to many of the other Empress’ Guard operating on the front, and they had been relegated to largely insignificant support roles thus far. This, their first major duty, was in defense of some tiny, largely unknown village called Zokujin Mura. It was supposedly named for the creatures that were alleged to live in the nearby mountains. Personally, Idzuki had never seen a zokujin in all his years, nor met anyone who had. Peasant superstition, most likely, but ultimately unimportant. Thinking of them reminded him, however.
“What became of the Crab who was in the village yesterday?” he asked.
“He left this morning for the mountains, commander,” one of his adjutants said.
“Hmm.” Idzuki frowned. The man had been seen interviewing several of the villagers. Idzuki had sent a summons to speak with the man, but other business had come up and he had not thought about it until now. “Does anyone know his name?”
“I am not aware of it if so, my lord,” the adjutant replied.
“It was Kuni Kiyoshi,” the scout officer said suddenly.
“Kuni Kiyoshi? The Kuni daimyo?” Idzuki turned to look at the young Daidoji officer. “Why did you not tell me?”
“I was unaware that it was important, commander,” the boy replied frankly. “There were more pressing issues at hand, after all.”
“I suppose,” Idzuki said grudgingly. Something about the entire affair concerned him, however. Why would a Crab lord be in such a remote location? It caused his magistrate’s instincts to flare up. Unfortunately, now was hardly the time.
“Sir,” the scout officer said again. “I believe another one of those pressing matters is about to come up.”
“What do you mean?” Idzuki followed the scout’s gaze to the south and immediately grimaced. “Assessment?”
One of the other officers looked at the massive dust cloud to the south. “It could be dozens of those large beasts that the Destroyers use as shock troops,” she offered. “That would be roughly in keeping with our intelligence on those forces.”
“Yes, or it could be a smaller number of much larger beasts,” Idzuki said. He thought back to the battle with the god-beast outside Ryoko Owari Toshi and grew chilled at the thought. “Suggestions?”
“Our line cannot stand against a charge of that magnitude,” his chief officer stated flatly. “We need to retreat. The village will be lost.”
“Unacceptable!” Idzuki insisted. “Our morale will never recover from such a blow. This detachment will be utterly spent.”
“Sir,” the scout said again. “I think… I think something is happening.”
“What?” Idzuki said, a little too sharply. He scanned the horizon, looking for whatever the scout might mean, and then he saw it. The mountains on either side of the pass leading to Zokujin Mura seemed to be… moving. Yes, moving. There was no other way to describe it. It was as if they were shifting, ever so slightly, and then… they simply gave way.
Thousands of tons of rocks fell from the mountains like a tidal wave descending upon the shore. The dust cloud created by the avalanches dwarfed the one the approaching beasts produced, and the enemy’s reinforcements were consumed utterly by it. They were wiped away as if they had never existed in the first place. The pass was completely blocked, which of course meant that the ironclads that Idzuki’s men were facing had no way to retreat.
“I believe Kiyoshi-sama just brought a rather significant contribution to the field,” Idzuki observed. “Now let us prove that we are worth his consideration. Ready your weapons and follow me, men. Sound a full charge. Today we lead from the front!”
With a zesty roar, the command staff of Idzuki’s detachment charged into battle.
* * * * *
The Karandetsu Market was a thriving hub of commercial activity during ever season. Merchants from all across the Empire came to conduct their business amid the extensive web of contacts and resources created by the Scorpion to foster exactly that sort of environment. In times of war, such activities were more important than ever, but given the enormity of the threat facing the market, and indeed all of Scorpion lands, the city would obviously be evacuated. Or so Bayushi Keirei had expected when he arrived. To his great surprise, he discovered that the market was open for business. Although the total population of the city appeared to have been reduced by roughly a fourth, the remaining three quarters of the city was making up for the change with a frantic level of activity that Keirei had never seen. To watch the merchants going about their business, apparently more consumed with the nature of their economic duties than with fear for the impending arrival of a nigh-unstoppable enemy, was somehow more disturbing than the horrors of war that Keirei had yet witnessed.
The assassin, for that was what he had come to accept was his duty now, flexed his leg muscles systematically to prevent any cramping or sluggishness from them. It was an ingrained habit, one he scarcely noticed, that kept him from losing the edge in the unlikely event that he was surprised. In all honesty, Keirei could not remember the last time an opponent had managed to catch him unawares, but arrogance had been the death of men more skilled than he.
The men and women scurried in the streets below, obsessed with their own business. Keirei crouched atop a rooftop, concealed in the shadow of an adjacent building created by the late afternoon sun. They would not see him, even if they looked. One in particular had attracted his attention, however. It was a lone man, standing against a wall and watching the streets even as Keirei was watching. The man’s posture suggested that he was a formidable warrior, and his careful assessment of those passing him suggested that his presence was not simply one of convenience. As Keirei watched, the man continued his surveillance, then suddenly, unexpectedly, looked up and stared directly at him.
Keirei silently drew one of his small knives, testing its weight. The stranger knew he was there, but it was impossible for the warrior to see him. He could only sense his presence. Such a thing was possible with enough training or practice… or if he possessed some manner of supernatural ability with which Keirei was unfamiliar. He could kill the man easily with a thrown blade, but he needed more information first. He stepped ever so slightly out from the deepest recesses of the shadow, enough so that the stranger would be able to make out his outline. And then he gestured. Come up, he signaled to the other man. Come up.
A handful of moments later, the hatch that allowed access to the roof from the shop below opened cautiously, and the warrior from the street stuck his head up. He glanced around once, surveying the entire roof in search of someone, but he could see nothing. Slowly, carefully, he crept up onto the roof.
Keirei was at his side in an instant, his knife held to the man’s throat, his other hand holding the wrist of the hand that held the warrior’s weapon. “Drop your steel,” he said quietly. “Drop it or I will kill you. I will not take a chance.”
“You aren’t her,” the warrior said. His tone was one of supreme disappointment and fatigue. He dropped his blade. “Just as well. I would rather anyone but her kill me, if it comes to that.”
“Be quiet,” Keirei ordered. “I will ask you one question. Your response is irrelevant, because I will know if you lie. Tell me now… are you an agent of the Destroyers?”
“What?” the man said, genuinely surprised. “No! Who would do such a thing?”
Keirei frowned and pushed the man away, sending him staggering across the roof, several yards away from his weapon. “There are rumors that the Destroyer has agents moving among provinces, sowing the seeds of conquest.”
“Metal demons do not blend in well, I understand,” the ronin said.
“What is your name?” Keirei demanded.
“You are an idiot, Yoshe,” the assassin replied. “There are many living creatures, man and beast, that serve the Destroyers.” He hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. “We have identified gaijin agents of several different nationalities, and we know that the Yobanjin served the Dark Oracle. It is possible that there are disguised Yobanjin or even blasphemers working for the Destroyer.”
Yoshe frowned. “And it is your duty to seek these potential traitors out?”
“I was diverted from… from another duty,” Keirei said. “But yes, if such traitors are within the market, I will find them.” He paused. “Who are you, and how did you find me? Only one man in ten thousand can do such a thing.”
It was Yoshe’s turn to shrug. “I have spent many years hunting an enemy with similar talents. You might say I have picked up a few talents of my own.”
“Good,” Keirei said. “Then you can assist me for a time. I am convinced that there is an advance agent of the Destroyers in this city. You will help me find that person and get whatever information we can from them.”
He expected Yoshe to protest, but the ronin did not. “My trail has gone cold, the least I can do is offer what assistance I can to the forces of the Empress.” He regarded Keirei with disdain. “Such as they are.”
The acrobat actually laughed, something he had not done in a long time. “Such as they are,” he repeated. “Yes, I think that will do.”
* * * * *
The Doji general smiled appreciatively. “Thank you, my friend,” he said. “I always find that a momentary indulgence of the arts can clear the head when difficult decisions need to be made.”
Shosuro Takuma, Scorpion actor extraordinaire, smiled and bowed. “The poet was a member of your honored family, Nakaru-sama. I am but the messenger.”
“I have rarely heard Shizue’s work performed with such vibrancy,” the Crane commander insisted. “Thank you. I think a few moments of respite was just what I needed to clear my head.”
Takuma’s mask did not smile, but his eyes twinkled brightly at the compliment. “You have finalized your plan for the defense of the shrine, my lord?”
“So to speak!” the general said, rubbing his hands together briskly. “I intend to employ a strategy developed by Shiba Danjuro of the Shogunate. We will evacuate all personnel and assets, leaving just enough of a token defense to attract the Destroyers as they pass through this region. We will then use archers to set fire to the shrine and capture them in an inferno that will end them.”
Takuma maintained his expression despite the ludicrously derivative plan. It was increasingly clear to him why this particular Crane had such a lowly position in the army and why he was relegated to such minor engagements. It seemed the cream had risen to the top and found a place elsewhere in the Crane armies. After so much warfare, though, he supposed they were desperate for officers. “A masterful strategy, my lord.”
“Thank you!” Nakaru said briskly. “Honestly I am quite surprised that your people did not evacuate upon our arrival.”
“Your arrival was unexpected,” Takuma explained. “We could hardly abandon our new defenders, now could we?”
“Quite right, quite right,” Nakaru said. “I have men currently removing the contents of the shrine’s library to the military command outpost some miles north.”
Takuma grew very still. “The library was already removed, my lord. Your men did that early on, as you recall.”
“Yes, well, we found a secondary cache of scrolls in one of the shrine’s lower levels. I suppose the monks did not think it important! Still, someone should have told me.”
“I see,” Takuma said. “Why to the military command, my lord?”
“Oh,” he replied, “I am going to have them catalogued and evaluated before being sent on. No sense in allowing disorganization to take hold, after all.”
Takuma smiled. This useless buffoon had just compromised the most secret results of the shrine’s research, documents that Takuma had hoped to have removed the following evening under cover of darkness. “Are you certain that is wise, my lord?”
“It is the only way!” Nakaru said. “I am sure your family will be quite grateful, but of course I am only doing my duty.”
“As am I, my lord,” Takuma said with a bow.
Some time later, a junior officer rapped on the chamber door and entered. “Commander, we have the first shipment of scrolls ready as per your instructions. Shall we send a patrol to move them north?”
The Crane commander looked up from his desk. “I think I have changed my mind. Please remand them to the custody of the Scorpion. Carrying scrolls is beneath a Crane warrior, don’t you think?”
The officer looked surprised. “Uh… yes, my lord. I do, actually.” He looked around. “Was the Scorpion actor not here?”
“What? He left almost an hour ago. Have you been getting enough rest, officer? If you are too fatigued to notice simple things like that then you will not be much help when the battle comes.”
The man flushed and bowed. “I am sorry, my lord. I must be more fatigued than I realized, and…”
The Crane waved it away. “He is a Scorpion after all, and they slink like shadows. Think nothing of it.” He held out a scroll. “See to it the scribes reproduce enough copies of this tactical plan to distribute to all my officers. I want everyone to understand their duties when the time comes.”
“At once, commander!”
Discuss the events of this fiction in our Story Forum!