The final chapter in the saga of Rokugan’s ongoing war with the Destroyer horde, as determined by the results of our Kotei Season tournaments! But the story doesn’t end here! Tune in next week for part 1 of Goddesses, the final story of the Empire’s war with Kali-ma!
The Destroyer War, Part 18
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Destroyers were everywhere. The settlement called Silent Village was in the midst of its death throes, with monstrosities of every conceivable size and shape rampaging through the streets. Once the front line of defense had been broken, as it had been after more than a week of assault by the enemy. Attrition and lack of resupply had exacerbated the situation, and now the forces of the Empress were in a full withdrawal from the village, which was being burned around them as they fell back.
Toku Koto staggered left as he ran down the street, recoiling from a sudden conflagration on the right. It was a tea house, as he recalled; he had taken dinner there one night roughly a week ago. No one would take dinner there ever again, for the fireball that consumed it seemed to reach the heavens themselves. Koto felt the side of his face singed, but he did not stop running. His horse was a short distance away, and he would make it no matter the cost.
There. Koto reached his horse. It was a good and loyal steed, but she was close to panicking, and Koto took precious seconds to calm her. It was during those few seconds that he heard the screaming. He looked over his shoulder to see a woman running, a baby in her arms and dragging a child along with her. One of the elephantine monstrosities was bearing down on them. The child stumbled and fell, as if in some dramatic reenactment of a great battle. The mother, refusing to leave her child, turned and with a wild look of savage panic, she drew a simple kitchen knife from her belt.
“No,” Koto muttered. He charged, drawing his blade as he ran. It was no mean feat, for he had always favored the larger and heavier no-dachi. Once the blade was loosed, however, its power was a significant factor in any combat. Koto stepped onto a watering trough for horses and used it to spring over the child’s head. He swung with all his might, cutting clearly through the beast’s trunk and hewing a large piece of meat from the thing’s upper arm. Its scream of pain was terrible, even for its enemies, and Koto quickly finished it with a sword thrust upward through its lower jaw and into its brain.
“I… I…” the woman stuttered.
“Take your children and go,” Koto commanded. “Take my horse and run.”
“Master samurai, I…”
“Go now,” Koto said. “No more talk.”
One of the tiger things rushed him, but he managed to throw himself under its charge and let it rip itself open on his blade. The pressure of it against the weapon nearly tore it from his grasp, but he held tight. As he picked himself up from the ground, he saw the woman and her children hurrying away, the child atop Mikka. She was a good horse. She would take them home, and the Monkey would care for them. Perhaps he would see them there.
That seemed unlikely.
A trio of other tiger beasts were pacing around him. They were focused only on him, and in the corner of his eye he saw others following the mother and her children. He smiled. If these were the packmates of the one he had killed, perhaps he could keep them distracted long enough that all the others could escape. That would be a truly worthwhile act. It was what his father would have done, and that was enough for Koto.
One of the tiger beasts screamed in fury. It coiled for the pounce.
“Fortune favors the mortal man,” Koto said with a smile. He readied his blade and jumped on the beast before it could jump on him.
* * * * *
Mirumoto Kalen finally killed the Destroyer that had been hounding him, rupturing its head with a tetsubo he had taken off a fallen Crab, something that seemed as if it must have been hours ago. Two more were advancing slowly, almost cautiously. The first time he had faced them, the things acted without any sense of self-preservation, but now they seemed somewhat smarter. The thought set off an instinctual alarm in his chest, and Kalen threw himself to the ground just in time to avoid a strike from the third Destroyer that had circled around behind him. He let out a feral laugh, but he recognized that he was in a terrible situation and could well be dead in a matter of seconds.
“Kill me if you can,” Kalen snarled. “I will not make it easy.”
The first flurry of blows were easily avoided, but they shattered the already muddy ground beneath their feet, and Kalen began having difficulty keeping his footing during the acrobatic endeavors he was forced to adopt to evade his foes. He lashed out with the Crab weapon, but his attacks could not find critical areas with the speed at which he had to move. It would not be long now.
There was a strikingly cold wind as if from nowhere, lasting only a second, and then a phantom of blue and white moved behind the Destroyers. It raced up the length of one, and suddenly it erupted in a fountain of red, coruscating energy before dropping into the mud, its back cut from the base of its spine to the base of its skull. The culprit, a Crane samurai-ko that at first Kalen was certain was the Lady Domotai herself, paused for a moment to nod to him, then launched a storm of attacks on the second Destroyer. This one was more guarded, however, and her assault failed to penetrate its defenses. The third made as if to circle around the pair to attack the Crane, but Kalen, seemingly forgotten for a moment, punished the demon ruthlessly for its forgetfulness. He shattered the thing’s ribs with his tetsubo, although he heard the weapon groan as if near breaking from the stress of the combat.
The Crane maiden and the Destroyer pared off against one another, the demon’s brute force protecting it from the Crane’s lightning attacks, but her speed easily able to avoid its attacks. She seemed strangely tired, however, as if her sudden arrival had been extremely taxing, and Kalen felt concern that she might fall. With a robust bellow, he rushed the Destroyer’s rear and bent its right leg at an entirely unnatural angle with his tetsubo, following through with another strike to the head. The weapon was ruined, but so was his foe. It tipped forward and fell, but with the last second of life, it lashed out with its hand and struck the Crane across the temple
“No!” Kalen rushed to her side. The blood was already flowing freely down her face. “Can you hear me? Doji-sama, can you hear me?”
“Kaneka,” the woman muttered, clearly not in her right mind. “Never… never told you… need to tell you… important…”
Kalen hefted the woman over his shoulder, hoping that no Crane would take it as cause for a blood feud, then began running as fast as he could toward the army encampment somewhere behind him. He would not let her die, not if he could stop it.
* * * * *
After several weeks of preparation and the construction of trenches and barricades by the assembled forces stationed there, the unholy enemy appeared on the horizon. It was a vast force, larger than most of the units that had been seen in the past month. Clearly several sub-commanders had combined their forces in order to ensure victory, or so they hoped. Thousands of troops from all different clans were dug into the village that surrounded the castle, the landscape that had been churned into a fortified plain that would exact a terrible toll on anyone seeking to cross it. Despite the length of the war, despite the enormity of the threat facing the ancestral castle of the Tsuruchi family, loyal vassals of the Mantis Clan, spirits among the defenders were exceptionally high. The Tsuruchi were determined that the Destroyers would be defeated in such a demonstrative manner that it would turn the tide of the war itself, and their enthusiasm was infectious.
Not all shared the spirit of the day, however. There were many who felt a darkness growing in the distance, something besides the enemy that lurked on the horizon. Some whispered that Kali-ma herself was approaching, and that nothing could stop her advance. Several injuries had been reported, resulting from Crab warriors responding to such things violently. Magistrates from four different clans had been working feverishly to maintain the peace during the past few weeks, but every soldier knew that the worst part of any battle was the waiting.
Doji Okakura was among those who felt ill at ease. He had been plagued with dreams he could not understand. They did not feel like his dreams at all. They felt like something someone else had experienced, something that had been thrust into his mind like an unwelcome blade. Now he stood in the summer heat, his blood cold in his veins. This was the scene from his dream, the scene that he had seen over and over again every night for a week. It was as if he was seeing it again, and he prayed that he would awaken. But of course he did not. This was no dream. This was a dream made real.
One of the scouts in the trenches next to him squinted. “What is that?” the woman muttered to herself. On the horizon, the clouds were darkening rapidly. They went from gray to almost black in a matter of moments. And they began to spread, growing rapidly from a speck on the horizon to a vast blanket of black that covered a tenth of the sky, and it continued to grow. “What is that?’ the scout repeated.
As if from a great distance, Okakura heard himself murmur, “It is the storm that ends the world.”
“Demons take that,” the Tsuruchi scout scoffed. “No Mantis stronghold is going to be undone by a storm, of all things.”
“It ends the world,” Okakura repeated, his voice just above a whisper.
“Do not lose heart, friend,” someone else said. A young tattooed monk wound through the ranks and placed his hand upon Okakura’s shoulder in a borderline inappropriate demonstration of camaraderie. “My master always believed in the ability of men to change the face of destiny. Now he stands as the Oracle of Thunder. What could be greater validation of his belief?”
“From what I understand, the Thunder Dragon isn’t even in the Heavens these days,” a burly Crab observed. “Rather like being the oracle of a great sea serpent, isn’t it?”
The Mantis scout scowled in open contempt, and even the monk threw an irritable glance in his direction. “Mitsu-sama may be diminished somewhat,” he admitted, “but lesser power means lesser restrictions. My sensei was at the battle of Zokujin Mura a short time ago. He walks among us to inspire heroism.”
The Crab chuckled. “I hardly find babbling nonsense inspiring,” he scoffed. He nodded toward the line. “If I wanted to be inspired on the battle line, I reckon something like that would be more effective.”
Okakura followed the Crab’s gaze and drew back in shock as a massive lion warcat padded past him. Its eyes were the most brilliant green that Okakura could ever remembering seeing. The cat had barding, a strange sort of customized armor, that protected it in many places. Its paws in particular bore protective plating, completely with massive steel talons that fit over its own. Okakura had no doubt whatsoever that the artificial claws could rend the metal hides of the Destroyers. He looked along the front line and realized that there were other lions, many others, scattered once every five hundred feet or so. Additionally, not too far away, the lines parted wider, and a lone woman walked to the front. She stood, her radiant green hand clasping her trident-like weapon, and regarded the distant enemy and growing clouds for some time. “The demon goddess has come to a greater understanding of us,” she said. Her voice was soft but steely, and could be heard all across the battlefield. “She and her creatures seek to strike fear in our hearts by playing upon our loves and fears. We must not dismiss the threat she poses, for while the god-beast was the greatest of her weapons, she has many more at her disposal. But the truth remains: she seeks to break us, because she now has no choice but to doubt that Rokugan can be felled by military might alone.” Matsu Benika turned and faced the lines, panning slowly to see everyone. Okakura noticed she nodded briefly to Togashi Matsuo at his side. “Know that, samurai. Know that you have given pause to a goddess, and put doubt in her hellish heart.”
The samurai of the front line roared. It was not a battlecry or a pronouncement of heraldry, but rather a raw, primal sound of triumph. It was the sound of a soldier defeating an enemy and casting his body aside before charging to the next. It was the sound of battle, the sound of victory, the sound of war. Okakura felt the weight of the dreams slipping away, and he joined in.
The Destroyers marched ever closer to Kyuden Ashinagabachi, growing larger and larger in the distance.
* * * * *
“I hated you for a very long time, you know!” Kakita Matabei shouted over the din of battle.
“What?” demanded Kakita Korihime.
“You heard me!” Matabei shouted back. “You were the only one to ever defeat me, at least for a long time. For years, avenging myself by defeating you was my only true motivation.”
Korihime struck a Destroyer and killed it instantly, her blade slipping neatly into the seam beneath its shoulders. “And now?”
Despite the fighting, Matabei laughed bitterly. “I have much greater shames to mark my path than the one afforded me by you,” he said. “You were the only one who defeated me for a long time, but Chagatai defeated me more completely than you ever could. No offense intended to you or the skill of your sword arm.”
“None taken, I suppose,” Korihime said. She glanced around for another opponent, but the few Destroyers that remained were fully engaged with other combatants. “It seems our work is done for the moment.”
“Hardly,” Matabei said darkly. “Even if the war is over, there is much that demands our attention.”
Korihime sighed. “You mean Jimen, I suppose. And lord Noritoshi.”
“Am I so transparent?”
“You mention it often,” Korihime said irritably. “And my response is the same. I would assume you have it memorized by now.”
“Whatever has happened before, the situation is critical,” Matabei insisted. “Jimen’s manipulations are an enormous threat, but Noritoshi-sama’s behavior has only exacerbated the situation. When this war is at an end, there will be some sort of reckoning. How much will you allow it to damage our family?”
“I am loyal to Noritoshi,” Korihime countered.
“Of course you are. So am I. But ask yourself this question: if, when this conflict is finished, our family suffers because of what Noritoshi has done, what manner of misery will it cause him? When his blood stops screaming for vengeance, what will he have left?”
“It is not my place to ask such questions.”
“I understand your position,” Matabei said. “You are doing that which Noritoshi has asked of you. But ask yourself this: is what he wants the same as what he needs, and what manner of vassal will you be?”
Matabei left the field of battle, but Korihiime remained behind for some time.
* * * * *
Moto Paisei awoke to the acrid stench of fire. The air was thick with smoke, so much so that it was difficult for him to see more than a few feet away. The battle was over, it seemed, and the castle had been lost. There were occasional noises from the gloom around him, the sound of tortured metal on metal. Paisei knew that a great many Destroyers had been lost to wreak this destruction, but this brought him little comfort. If the beasts died accomplishing that which they wished, were they not still the victors? They had lost their lives today, such as they were, but it would take months or even years for this place to be rebuilt. Paisei tried to remember what it was, but the name escaped him for the moment. Something about actors, he thought.
Paisei was lying in such a way as to make it difficult for him to look down at his body, and he felt that was probably best. He remembered a few moments of searing pain before he lost consciousness during the battle, but now everything was cold and numb. He had been in enough battles to know what that meant. The urge to cough welled up in his chest, but he crushed it; that would be a terrible mistake, he was quite certain of it. So he simply remained still and waited to see what happened.
Something moved in the gloom near him. He waited quietly, breathing as slowly as he could to avoid making any noise. After a handful of moments, a thankfully human figure appeared next to him, although its features were indistinct in the smoke. “Friend Unicorn!” the voice said, relieved. “You live!”
“For… for the moment,” Paisei said with a smile. “Not for long, I suspect.”
The newcomer knelt next to him. “What can I do?”
“Find the bottle… on my belt,” Paisei said. “I desperately… need a drink.”
The newcomer nodded, and a moment later, a bottle was lifted to Paisei’s lips. He sipped at it, savoring the rich texture and flavor. It was his favorite blend of sake and spice, and it pained him to think that he might never enjoy it again. To think that his recipe would disappear from the world forever was an even greater tragedy. “I saw your valor in battle,” the stranger said. “Your courage was inspiring. I shall seek to live by your example the rest of my life. I am forever in your debt.”
“Well that is very nice,” Paisei said. He felt very detached. “I wonder… I wonder if you could see to it that something returns to my family for me.”
“Your blades,” the stranger said. “Of course, I would be honored.”
“Oh, yes, those too,” Paisei said. “I was… was thinking of my sake recipe. I keep it with my tsuba.”
“I will do that,” the other man said. “I give you my word.”
“Thank you,” Paisei said. He smiled, and died.
The stranger took Paisei’s blades, as well as several other items. He would see to it that fire claimed Paisei’s remains, and in a matter of weeks, Moto Paisei would miraculously report to his superiors, having narrowly survived terrible wounds in the battle for the Shosuro Actor Academy. It was the best of a bad situation, in the estimation of the Scorpion Clan, but he had meant what he said: Paisei’s valor had inspired him, and at that moment, standing over the body, he vowed that he would honor Paisei’s memory for as long as he retained his identity.