The penultimate chapter of the saga of the Destroyer War, as determined by the results of our ongoing Kotei Season tournaments!
The Destroyer War, Part 17
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The village of Zokujin Mura was protected by the most unusual of defenses that Kakita Yosuga had ever seen: a massive wall of stone and earth that had been created by a supernaturally powerful earthquake high in the mountains. The strength that would have been required to create such a thing was almost beyond the ability for the mind to grasp, and the notion that the wall had been created with no damage inflicted to the village only a short distance away was utterly baffling. Almost as baffling, really, as Yosuga’s presence here on the front.
The idea made sense from a certain perspective, she supposed. Her position as the clan’s master of ceremonies in Tsuma and various other important holdings mandated a certain status, and it had long been the custom of her particular family branch to maintain a military rank appropriate to their status. Ostensibly, she was a taisa within the Crane military, but she had never truly served in a military capacity. In her younger years, only a short time ago really, she had been a noted duelist who had been in high demand in certain circles, but for the better part of a decade now her sole responsibility for the clan had been to oversee various contests and tournaments. So despite her rank and the requirement that she take her place with her assigned units, she had been assigned an ‘advisor’ who essentially made all command decisions, which she then parroted. All in all it was a ridiculous arrangement, but one that was necessary to maintain her family’s status and reputation. It was the only reason she had not pursued an exclusion from higher ranking authorities within the clan.
An alarm sounded throughout the village. It was a painfully familiar sound, even though Yosuga had not been there very long. It was the alarm raised when an attack by the Destroyers upon the barrier that had, thus far, prevented them from taking the village. It was the third time the alarm had sounded so far today, and it was scarcely past the midday meal. Despite the recentness of her arrival, Yosuga felt quite weary of the sound and the chaos and death that inevitably followed in its wake. She felt worn in her very soul, and she saw worse in the men around her. This village had been under siege for nearly three weeks, and despite that the forces of the Empress had vowed to defend it at all costs, they were exhausted from protecting it against an inexhaustible enemy.
“We will not stand against another attack,” she muttered under her breath. The others around he could not hear it, but if they had, they would not have objected. She knew that truth in her very bones.
The voice came as a surprise, and addressed the hidden thoughts of all in attendance. A man walked among their ranks, his expression perfectly serene, his demeanor absolutely unconcerned. He wore conservative robes, but everywhere that his flesh was visible, the ink of tattoos peeked out at observers. “The end of this war draws near,” he said, looking at them each in the eyes. “This is a time for mortal men to seize the reins of destiny. This is a time for mortals to turn back the machinations of gods and assert their role in the universe.” He folded his hands behind his back. “Who among you will stand forward and claim your birthright? Who among you will tell your children and grandchildren that you stood tall on the twilight of Kali-ma’s invasion and refused to allow any loss of ground without a fight so fierce that it would shake the pillars of the Heavens themselves?”
Yosuga felt the spirits of the men around her surge, and felt her own soul answer in kind.
“Zokujin Mura may fall,” Togashi Mitsu, the Oracle of Thunder, said, “but it will not fall today, and it will not fall easily.” He looked carefully around the assembled men. “Who will stand in its defense?”
Despite herself, Yosuga felt her courage rising, and she drew her blade along with the others, lifting it above her head and shouting with valor. “To the wall!” she shouted to the Crane around her. “Assume the third defensive position! Today the enemy is turned away!”
* * * * *
The name Silent Village was remarkably apt, Tsuruchi Nobumoto reflected, but the quiet did little to assuage his foul temper. His affiliation with the assembled forces of the Empire had resulted in his placement here, several days’ ride away from Kyuden Ashinagabachi. The ancestral estate of his family was directly in the path of a major Destroyer offensive, as he understood it, and he was trapped here, cut off by enemy forces and the chaos of war, unable to aid his brothers and sisters in defense of his home. It was beyond infuriating. A Mantis lord should not find himself in such circumstances!
The fierce scowl on Nobumoto’s face ensured that others gave him a wide berth, which was just fine with him. Even if his mood were not dark enough as a result of the situation, his sleep had been greatly troubled of late. Three nights in a row, he had been cursed with terrible nightmares about the impending arrival of their enemies. Normally, Nobumoto had little difficulty putting such things aside and enjoying life despite the possibility of impending doom; during the events of Rokugan in his lifetime, such a skill was absolutely necessary to ensure survival. It troubled him greatly, perhaps more than anything else, that this had changed.
Today, as the past two days, Nobumoto sat in front of a small shop and regarded a simple abandoned building near the village’s edge. He had seen it in his dreams. In his dreams, the building collapsed suddenly, and the Destroyer’s beasts emerged from the ruins. The tigers that walked like men. The things that might be elephants. Others that he had never seen or heard of. They overran the village. They killed everything in their path.
They killed him.
Nobumoto had never considered himself particularly wise or superstitious, but he had lived a long time and seen many terrible things, but he had never died in a dream before. He was unsure what manner of omen it was, but he did not care for it. The dream last night had been particularly intense, somehow almost real. He had awakened in the middle of the night, covered in sweat and a scream lodged in his throat. He had been unable to return to sleep. As he had for two days, he simply sat and stared at the building, waiting each minute for his dream to become real. After more than an hour, one of the shop’s occupants politely inquired if he could assist Nobumoto with anything. Without really thinking about, Nobumoto answered him without taking his eyes from the building. “I would like you to go immediately and purchase as much lantern oil as you can find, and place it in front of that building there,” he said, his tone entirely conversational.
The shopkeeper was clearly horrified. “My lord… I… I do not think…”
Nobumoto sat down a pouch that was heavy with koku. “As much oil as you can find,” he repeated. “Immediately.”
The shopkeeper disappeared dutifully, and Nobumoto was alone with his thoughts for a few moments. At least until the diminutive priest appeared at the edge of his vision. “Pardon me, my lord,” the Kitsune said softly. “The officers of the detachment have requested your presence at the command tent. There are tactics to be discussed, or so they say.”
“It can wait,” Nobumoto said, watching as the shopkeeper returned and placed a small barrel at the empty house’s doorway. He looked up at the Mantis lord with a fearful expression. Nobumoto smiled and waved him away. The man looked enormously relieved.
The Kitsune shifted uncomfortably. “I am sorry, my lord, but I was rather given the impression that it could not wait, and…”
“You Kitsune are particularly fond of the earth kami, or vice versa, or what have you. Is that correct?”
The priest frowned. “Yes, but…”
“Sit,” Nobumoto said.
The priest did as commanded, although clearly troubled by it. He sat beside Nobumoto for nearly an hour, during which he sipped lightly at a tea provided by the grateful shopkeeper. He began to ask a question several times, but never finished it, each time instead choosing discretion over valor.
Nobumoto never took his eyes from the house. So it was when there was a tremor through the earth and the house began to shake and tremble, he did not hesitate. He drew an arrow in a flawless motion, spearing the table’s low candle on its tip, and fired. He compensated for the candle’s weight without even thinking of it, so supreme was his skill. The arrow struck the barrel, and in the seconds that it took the lantern oil to catch fire in a rush of heat, fire, and air, Nobumoto had placed an arrow neatly into each of the beast’s eyes. Then the flame took it, and he could hear the screams of the other beasts behind it.
Beside him, the Kitsune was on his feet and had managed to keep from screaming, although his face clearly betrayed his terror at the inexplicable events in front of him. “There’s a tunnel!” Nobumoto heard himself saying, and of course it made perfect sense. “Collapse it! Bury them!”
“At once, my lord,” the priest said, and threw up his hands. His voice, formerly so meek and soft, now spoke with a presence that distracted even Nobumoto from the events he was witnessing. The earth shook and then sank down as the priest collapsed whatever underground conduit the beasts had used to reach the village undetected. The master archer privately hoped that whatever had dug the tunnel was still within it, for he did not wish to see such a thing repeated. Regardless, some of the things survived and began digging themselves out at once. Nobumoto raised his bow, but lowered it again when he saw the dozens of soldiers rushing from the village to deal with the threat.
“How?” the priest demanded. “How did you know, my lord?”
Nobumoto had no answer for him.
* * * * *
The cave was not a natural thing. In fact, the term cave was grossly inaccurate. It might be better to say that it was a primitive hut carved from an enormous boulder, which was in turn the only thing on a tiny island sitting at the end of a peninsula that jutted out into the sea. The ocean waves licked up at the rocks that made up the little area, sometimes stealing away the fragments of glass and clay that appeared to be colorful stones. They were the only thing that made the little island truly remarkable. Without them, the cave itself would likely go unnoticed. Unless, of course, one was looking for it specifically, as Tsuruchi Arishia was.
Arishia grimaced at the sight of the stone spires on which she would have to step to reach the cave. It was exceptionally dangerous, but the bag she carried weighed upon her. She had an obligation, and to abandon it simply because it was difficult to do otherwise was not something she found acceptable. She sighed lightly and steeled herself, then stepped out onto the first of the spire steps. She almost slipped and fell when moving from the third to the fourth, something that would likely have killed her outright, but then she was standing outside the cave. The archer hesitated for just another moment, then stepped into the dim interior.
The smell assailed her nostrils at once, and almost made her gag. It was a thick, tangy odor, like unwashed flesh and matted hair. She struggled to contain her nausea, but it passed after a few seconds. Arishia stepped carefully, and heard the clinking of empty bottles at her feet. Something shifted in the darkness, something large, and Arishia was filled with fear for a moment despite her knowledge of what awaited her. “You bring good-water?” a stilted voice in the shadows asked.
“I did,” Arishia said, hefting the bag. With her other hand she reached in and withdrew a small clay bottle, one of four within it. She tossed it toward the voice, and heard the meaty slap of a hand catching it. “I have more, but…”
“You not sure, hmm?” the voice said. “You not think En’you speak real? Think En’you speak story, like humans tell?”
“No, I believe you,” Arishia said quickly. From her conversations with the locals, she understood two things: the shojo were wrathful sea spirits that should not under any circumstances be angered, and that En’you had a powerful gift for prophecy, as well as other ill-defined abilities. “But… I do not understand how you can have warned my cousin. When I came to you the first time…”
“Humans not understand the world,” En’you said, as if it explained everything. “World all one. Seas all together. Whisper in ear of one, all hear. All whisper to human, even human not so stupid that can’t hear.”
Arishia frowned. The thing made no sense, but for some reason she believed that it spoke the truth. It was all she could do, and if her bargain with the thing had in any way prevented harm from coming to Nobumoto, then a few bottles of sake were a small price to pay. “Well… I thank you,” she finally said, peering into the gloom for a glimpse of the creature. The shadows in the cave’s interior were so deep that she suspected the spirit had somehow created them; normally darkness did not trouble her keen eyesight. “Please enjoy the… the good-water with my enormous gratitude.”
En’you said nothing, but hooted to itself excitedly and Arishia heard the bottle she had thrown it being opened. With nothing more to say, she turned and left, hoping she did not have to speak with the sea spirit again.
From within the supernatural shadows of En’you’s cave, Yoritomo Aranai said quietly and watched the Tsuruchi leave. “She did not see me.”
The spirit made a strange hooting noise that Aranai realized was laughter. “Other human speak real,” it said. “You-human speak only stories. Nothing about you real.”
“Be that as it may, I do not think it matters,” Aranai said. “You had your arrangement with the Tsuruchi, and you have an arrangement with me.”
“Why you care?” En’you inquired. “You want send dreams of defending other human’s home?”
“Do I need to tell you for your magic to work?”
Again, the hooting laughter. “No. Story not matter, as long as you real with your part.”
“You have my word, prophet. You will get that which you desire. I will see to it. You can tell that I speak the truth, can you not?”
“You speak real,” En’you confirmed. “Hope you live long enough.”
* * * * *
Doji Okakura awoke from his restless sleep with a start. He sat up quickly and ran to the window, glancing at the sun to see what time of day it was. He shook his head to try and tried to clear the cobwebs from his mind, but without success. “Relax, cousin,” one of the other men barracked in his room said. “Your shift does not begin for another hour. You can sleep a while longer, if you like.”
Okakura shook his head. “No, they are coming.”
The scout looked at him askance. “Reports indicate that the front line of the enemy force is at least…”
“They will be here soon,” Okakura said vehemently. “We need to be ready.”
Why had he dreamed of his niece, so many years gone? Why was he so sure that the Destroyers were arriving imminently? And why did he have a terrible feeling that the battle here was going to be something completely unlike anything seen in the war up until this point?
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