The final saga of the Celestial Edition storyline begins here!
Goddesses, Part 1
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Hiruma scout carefully surveyed the land to the south and then crept back down the stone outcropping like the shadow of a cloud crossing a midday garden. He hurried back to the command group and bowed sharply. “There is movement again to the south, my lord Benjiro-sama,” he reported. “I believe the Destroyers definitely know that we are here, and are moving to separate any avenue of escape we might have.”
“Moving to?” a Kaiu officer said. “I would say they’ve done it already, and quite well.” He glanced at his commander, but said nothing further.
Hida Benjiro spun his tetsubo in his hand and then replaced it on his back with a strap. “You have something to say, Seison? Please feel free.”
“I would not speak against my commander, of course,” Kaiu Seison replied, “but since you inquired I can hardly deny your order, can I? We are in a terrible position. We are cut off from all support and facing a potentially much larger force. Tactically speaking, my lord, there is a hammer and there is a stone, and somewhere between the two are our most delicate and favorite parts, if you follow my meaning.”
“A deaf and mute Yobanjin child would follow your meaning,” Benjiro remarked. “You know why we are here.”
“I know that two Unicorn patrols allegedly disappeared in this region a few days past,” Seison admitted. “Surely you must find those reports as questionable as I do, my lord. I know you too well to think otherwise.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” Benjiro answered.
“The Unicorn scouted this area weeks ago and determined that the maps the Scorpion provided were completely accurate,” Seison explained. “What need would they have to suddenly scout it again? It makes absolutely no sense. We have been given incomplete information, my lord.”
“All that matters is that we come to the aid of our oldest allies,” Benjiro said. “I will not allow anything else to interfere with that.”
The scout, who had resumed his perch, reappeared instantly. “My lord, they are on the move.”
Benjiro nodded. “As we should be.”
* * * * *
Shosuro Toson stalked through the hallways of Kyuden Bayushi, anger coming off of him in waves. His rage was like a shroud that advanced before him and lingered behind him. The guards and others in the hallway gave him a wide berth for fear of drawing his wrath, which was known to be deadly. One of the sentries that guarded the castle’s tactical room, the chamber in which he had met with his previous and current Champions more than anywhere else in the Empire, stepped forward as if to bar his path. Toson dropped the man to the ground with a nerve strike to his throat, in the narrow slit between his armor and his helmet. He glanced at the other sentry, but the man appeared not to be watching. With a triumphant glare, Toson threw the doors open and stormed in.
Bayushi Miyako and a number of tactical advisors glanced up at him from the series of maps they were carefully surveying. Miyako turned to a shugenja that appeared to be waiting for her. “Give the signal as ordered,” she said firmly, then turned back to Toson. “Is there something you require?”
“The plan has failed,” Toson said, his tone dark.
All movement in the room stopped instantly. Miyako straightened and regarded him frankly. “Do you think so?”
“Yes,” he said firmly. “We have gambled and lost.”
“I disagree,” Miyako said. “We have drawn the Destroyers completely into our provinces, where we hold the high ground. We have pulled back our forces so that they remain at least three quarters intact. I have sent the signal to activate all of our assets that remain behind the enemy, and we have managed to divert the bulk of their forces toward Kyuden Ashinagabachi. Our lands have suffered at the Destroyer’s hands, more so than any other clan than the Crab. We shall receive the sympathies and assistance of the Empire, giving us ample opportunities to expand our influence among the clans.” She smiled wanly. “And if in the process we eradicate a long-standing blemish on our past by seeing to it that Kyuden Ashinagabachi is wiped from the map, so much the better.”
“The bulk of Kali-ma’s forces have been diverted toward the Mantis, yes, but not the demoness herself,” Toson countered. “My intelligence reports that she remains mobile in the plains to the south. And because of the line of battle from which we have withdrawn, the next target in her path is Shinden Gyokei. What will happen, my lady, if the residual energies there attract her attention?”
“The loss of the Oni’s Eye would be significant,” Miyako said. “Ultimately, however, it could be endured.”
“And what if the battle were to expose our possession of the Eye, and of the materials related to the Black Scrolls?” Toson asked. “What might befall us then?”
“Then the shame would fall upon your Champion, would it not?” Miyako said. “I would think you would welcome such an outcome. You would be the logical replacement until my son is old enough to take possession of the title. You always felt you were better suited to the duty of Clan Champion, did you not?”
Toson hesitated. “I am a loyal Scorpion,” he finally said. “I will do as you command, and have done as you command, no matter what that command might be. That does not mean that I feel your every choice has been a wise one, or that you will not falter.” He shook his head. “You were not born a Scorpion.”
“No, but I shall live and die as one,” Miyako said. “Do you stand with me, or against me? I have no more time for uncertainty.”
“I am with you, my lady.”
She peered at him. “Are you certain?”
* * * * *
The Imperial City was rapidly becoming a small series of indistinct impressions on the horizon and the painfully small caravan proceeded southwest toward the Seikitsu Mountains. Shiba Erena glanced back wistfully at the city and then at the ridiculously small number of guards surrounding the palanquin at the caravan’s center. Furrowing her brow, she spurred her horse forward to pull up next to one of the horses that rode directly alongside the palanquin.
“I know precisely what you intend to say, captain,” Togashi Satsu said from atop his powerfully built steed. “You have spoken to the point, and very eloquently I might add, more than once. To persist when your objections have already been noted only devalues the points you chose to make in the first place.”
“Then I fear I must continue until they have no value whatsoever,” Erena insisted. “My lord, please, I beg you… can you not speak to the Empress? To bring her personage any closer to the battle lines is absolute madness. She must not be imperiled! This is the sort of tragedy that has happened far, far too many times already. Must we see it repeated?”
“The Empress has been granted a vision by the Heavens she serves,” the Voice of the Empress said. “Her presence is required upon the battle field if the day is to be won in the manner foretold. Her purpose is clear, and she will not be deterred.” His lip twitched ever so slightly as he said it, telling Erena that he too had doubts. Not that he would ever speak them.
“I believe this is the only matter on which I have ever heard the Imperial Advisor and the Emerald Champion agree,” Erena observed. “Surely that has some degree of weight to it.”
“The Empress selected her Chosen because she values the wisdom of their counsel,” Satsu said. “That is not to say that she will not disregard their counsel when the will of the Heavens has been made evident to her.”
Erena looked away so that her frustration and anger would not be evident. “Half of my men have already been deployed to the front lines to oversee the defense of the Empire and the Empress’ subjects,” she said. “How can I hope to defend her? If the worst should happen, I will give my life to protect her, but if that is not enough? Losing the Empress would be a tragedy of the greatest magnitude, but I would be shaming my family and clan as well. It would be the most complete disgrace imaginable.”
“Think not of yourself,” the Voice admonished.
Erena shook her head. “I am thinking of everyone but myself, Lord Satsu.”
* * * * *
The fighting in the pass leading to Kyuden Ashinagabachi was among the fiercest that those involved had seen during the entirety of the Destroyer War. The ironclads came first, forming in neat ranks that were seemingly without end. Such enemies had never marched upon the Mantis before, but the war had been long and difficult, and the Empire had learned how to fight their foe very, very well. Carefully orchestrated destruction rained down upon them from the moment they entered the pass, taking a terrible toll upon the metallic demons. There were always more, however, and they simple pushed aside the twisted and crushed forms of their fellows as if it was no more than loose earth blocking the path. Thousands of the ironclads were destroyed before they ever came within sight of Kyuden Ashinagabachi, but when the enemy reached the outskirts of the castle’s sprawl, no one could tell that the ranks had been thinned at all.
From the highest tower of the Tsuruchi family palace, Tsuruchi Fusako stared at the ranks of the enemy as they reached the outermost entrenched defenses. Finally, the enemy’s advance slowed, but Fusako was greatly saddened by the notion that this hindrance came at the cost of many lives. She gripped the handle of her bow and stared at the tiny enemies in the distance, bitterly suppressing the urge to fire at them regardless of how futile such a gesture would be.
“Command is difficult, is it not?”
Fusako turned and gave a short bow. “Based on my limited experience, I would have to agree that your wisdom prevails, my lady.”
Moshi Awako smiled. “You have always been overly formal, Fusako-san. I suppose it is the universe’s answer to your brother’s overly familiar, if endearing, nature.”
“I wish Nobumoto was here,” Fusako said. “I know he had hoped to return before any enemies entered this province.”
“If there was any way for your brother to be here, he would have been,” Awako said. “He would never allow his home to be besieged without being in attendance if there was any human endeavor that could have allowed him to return.”
“He is the master of this castle, not me,” Fusako said. “I do not wish to falter, but the men will only follow my orders. For him, they would throw themselves in a fiery pit of demons, smiling all the while.”
“Do not underestimate yourself,” Awako cautioned. “That is fear, speaking through you. It is understandable, but you must put it aside.”
Fusako nodded. “My brother told me that you and he had discussed several unique strategies that might prove effective against the Destroyers when enough of us were united in an action against them. Are you prepared to implement those strategies?”
Awako smiled. “Oh, yes.”
Tsuruchi Toburo was standing among the legions behind the front lines when one of his men grabbed his arm. “Taisa, the castle!” he shouted. Toburo looked where the man pointed and watched a series of flags in rapid succession. His face split in a grin. “Okay, children! It is time to teach these demons a few new tricks!” He leapt atop a heap of earth to survey the men under his command. He withdrew a specialized arrow from his quiver and held it aloft. “Arrows at the ready!”
“Hai, taisa!” his men shouted. Each of them drew an identical arrow. Each man and woman carried only one because they were huge compared to a standard arrow, easily the thickness of a man’s finger. They were heavy as well, laced through with strips of metal. The archers notched their arrows and prepared to fire.
Toburo looked back over his shoulder at a quartet of Moshi priestesses. “We await your convenience, most radiant ladies.” He winked.
The lead priestess levied a rather unconvincing scowl toward the older archer. “We stand ready.”
“You heard the ladies, children!” Toburo shouted to the troops. “Fire!”
The legion loosed their arrows, which flew a short distance into the air and then slowed visibly as if returning to the earth. Their weight, it seemed, was simply too great. The Moshi priestesses completed some communal prayer, however, and unleashed a massive wall of wind that not only buoyed the arrows into the air, but propelled them toward the enemy with force far superior to anything that any bow crafted by human hands could match. The arrows descended upon the ranks of the ironclad like a rain of spears, penetrating their shells and crippling dozens of them in an instant.
A cheer came up the archers, and from the units surrounding them, but Toburo laughed. “Not yet, children! The best is yet to come! Take cover, but be sure to watch!” He drew a small flag from his obi and began waving it frantically in the direction of the castle.
Far above the battlefield, Awako and a half dozen of her acolytes saw the signal and prepared to answer with a prayer of their own. Channeling the power of Thunder, they released a torrent of lightning that arced down upon the battlefield, striking the specially prepared arrows and leaping from one to another, destroying anything in its path. Dozens had fallen to the archery barrage, and now hundreds more were torn apart, rent asunder, or literally melted by the network of lightning that coursed in and among the arrows.
Now Toburo shouted, laughing outrageously, and those around him joined in. “Enough fun and games for now, children!” he shouted. “It’s back to good, old fashioned war! We’ll play more later!”
* * * * *
The Hiruma scout fired a single arrow, which disappeared through the rocks, but which he seemed absolutely sure found its mark regardless. He scarcely lost a step in the process. “They are gaining ground, my lord,” he advised.
“Noted, Ikuya,” Benjiro replied. He looked around the local terrain, then pointed to a flat hilltop a short distance away. “There.”
“There?” Seison said incredulously. “By that do you mean, ‘there looks like a completely indefensible location on which only a madman would choose to fight a battle?’ Because that is certainly what it looks like to me!”
“We fight there!” Benjiro commanded.
“Have you gone mad?” Seison demanded. “They are coming for us!”
“No,” Benjiro said in a low voice, pulling a strange white dagger from his belt. “It is coming for me.”
And he smiled.
TO BE CONTINUED