The ongoing saga of the Emerald Empire’s desperate war against the invading force of the Destroyer horde, as determined by the results of our Kotei Season tournaments.
The Destroyer War, Part 16
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The soon sat sooner in Zokujin Mura these days, as the horizon had been artificially raised by a massive avalanche only a week earlier. The avalanche, alleged to have been the work of a Kuni lord and his zokujin allies, had eradicated a large group of the Destroyers’ beast troops, and cut off all avenue of escape for another, larger force of ironclads. The ironclads had been wiped out by the village’s defenders, a small but elite detachment under the expert command of Kakita Idzuki, a member of the Empress’ Guard and a celebrated magistrate. In the hours and days that followed, the defenders had moved their front line to the avalanche itself, a massive barrier that the Destroyers had great difficulty overcoming. The disadvantage, of course, was that the ground was very unsteady and in the evening darkness, treacherous to the point that it was almost impossible to fight atop. Of course, they did anyway.
Bayushi Shigeru nearly lost his footing as the rock on which he was standing shuddered uncomfortably and began to slide. He leapt away to a more stable perch, inwardly thanking the Fortunes while simultaneously delighting in the sight of the boulder crushing a Destroyer as it gained speed and bounced down the barrier. Still, his kimono was torn in half a dozen places and he was reasonably sure that at least one of his ribs had been broken in a previous skirmish. “I should have stayed in court,” he muttered to himself.
But of course that would not do. Courtier or not, he was trained in the arts of war, and every capable swordsman was needed on the front line of the war with the Destroyers. What constituted competent he was not entirely sure, but the decision was ultimately not his to make. And so Bayushi Shigeru, a man who considered himself more of a diplomat than a swordsman, stood atop a shifting mountain of stone and waged a desperate war against metallic monsters out of some child’s nightmare. It would either prove a legendary confrontation, the stuff of myth itself, or a tragic cautionary tale. He had not yet decided which.
A cloud crossed the moon, temporarily plunging the area of the blockade where Shigeru fought into almost absolute darkness. He swore to himself, assuming a defensive stance, and waited for the cloud to pass. It did not. At first Shigeru was relieved when he realized he could no longer hear the Destroyers moving around him, but then he very quickly wondered why such a thing should be. It was then that he realized the moon was still in the sky, it simply seemed to cast no light where he was. “Oh, Fortunes,” he muttered to himself.
There was something in the darkness with him. He had just long enough for his mind to register the presence of something that seemed like a man wearing strange metal armor and wielding a long, curved blade, and then something struck him at the base of his spine with such force that the only thing more frightening than the intensity of the fleeting moment of pain he suffered was the sudden numbness that replaced it.
Something lifted him from the ground by the throat. He could scarcely breathe. He felt his vision swimming as black tendrils flickered around the edges. “Another of you Scorpion,” a sinister voice said in his ear. “Your hedonistic ways have made you weak. You deserve the death I bring you.”
The pressure at his throat was incredible, but amazingly, Shigeru heard a strange voice from a great distance and realized it was his own. “Hedonistic ways? You must have me confused with the Crane!”
“The Crane, hmm?” the voice mused. “Interesting.”
Something else moved in the darkness, and a Phoenix appeared from nowhere. She leapt at the thing holding Shigeru, the thing that wore a man’s guise but clearly was no longer a man. She struck, and from the sound of the blade cutting the air, Shigeru knew that the strike was true. There was a grunt of pain, and then the sensation of falling. Shigeru was almost relieved at how excruciating it was to be dropped onto the rocks, because at least he realized he could still feel everything.
“Flesh is weak, woman,” the thing said. “Did you think you could stop me so simply?”
Shiba Miiko flicked her head so that a lock of hair would be moved from her face. “I do not know what you are, but I know you will not kill another samurai while I am still alive.”
The laughter was terrible, and Shigeru knew he would hear it again in nightmares. “I will let you live, then,” it said cheerily to Miiko. “I will let you live, so that I can avenge this insult on your children when you are too old to do anything save be consumed by guilt and regret. Your anguish will be an exquisite pleasure.”
Miiko lunged forward with her blade, but the moonlight had returned again. She was at his side in an instant. “What was that thing?” she demanded.
“I could not say,” Shigeru managed. “Do you suppose you could call a shugenja?”
* * * * *
Bayushi Himaru gently placed the tessen and the oilcloth he had been working with back onto the desk and then looked at the only other man present in the small house he had claimed as his command center. “I am very sorry, my lord, but I need you to repeat those orders, please.”
Shosuro Toson might have been a statue for the impassiveness of his response. “Did I misspeak, perhaps? Or has battle damaged your hearing? Your orders are quite clear, commander. You will fall back from this location, leaving only a token force to defend it in order to ensure that our enemies to do not find the situation unusual.”
Himaru cleaned his hands carefully, then stood and placed them behind his back. “No,” he said quietly.
There was a long moment of silence, broken only by the soft metallic click as Toson loosened his blade from its saya at the guard. “I think I misunderstood you, commander,” the ninja lord said simply.
“No,” Himaru repeated. “I will not do this thing without clarification.”
Like a flash of lightning, Toson drew his blade and swung it at the lower-ranking officer. The blade stopped perfectly, it edge resting against Himaru’s exposed cheek. Himaru’s eyes never left Toson’s. There was a moment of absolute stillness, then a single drop of blood rand down Himaru’s cheek. “Are you thinking clearly, Himaru?” Toson demanded.
“Perfectly, my lord,” Himaru replied. “My men have fortified the whole of Karandetsu Market. We have ample supplies. We can defend this location against vastly superior numbers almost indefinitely. Yet you wish to see it burned, as so many other of our holdings have been burned. Worse yet, you wish to see some of my men die in the process. I will not give that order unless I understand why.”
“You will give it,” Toson hissed. “I promise you that.”
“If you like, I will speak to the men,” Himaru said. “I will ask for volunteers to remain behind for the defense, which I of course will be leading myself.” He paused for a moment. “I suspect all the men will volunteer.”
“This is treason!” Toson shouted, pulling his blade away.
“Treason is a failure of loyalty!” Himaru answered, finally raising his voice in return. “Every Scorpion is loyal to his superior, but if that superior is not loyal to his vassals, then what does any of it mean? Nothing!” He pointed outside the house, toward the barracks. “I would do anything you asked of me without question, but that you want me to kill those men who have proven themselves to me in battle over and over again. I have demanded of them time and time again and they have never once disappointed me. They follow my commands, they serve the Scorpion, and they excel. And if I am to kill them then I will know the reason for it!”
Toson sat down heavily. “I find this entire war utterly exhausting,” he said wearily. “And amid all the chaos of war, a man of principle.” He shook his head in disgust. “What has our clan come to?”
“I am no junshin,” Himaru said. “I have done many terrible things, and will do so again. But my loyalty is absolute, and extends below as well as above.”
“You are a ridiculous anomaly.” The ninja master rubbed his eyes. “The end of this conflict is near,” he finally said. “You know as well as I do that the demon goddess’ ranks are at last growing to a manageable level, at least by comparison. Her commanders have begun to reveal themselves because sheer attrition now requires them to win their battles. They cannot endure more costly defeats.”
“A manageable level?” Himaru said incredulously. “That is a questionable definition, if you will pardon my saying so.”
“As I said, it is a comparable description,” Toson said irritably. “The Destroyers are as yet more vast than our entire army, but not by a significant margin. The notion of victory now is not as alien as it once was. But we must be careful, and we must follow the plan without question.”
“What is the plan, my lord?” Himaru asked.
“Your impertinence is astonishing,” Toson said, waving his hand. “We have assets secreted behind enemy lines. We have reason to believe that the Crab do as well, although they are as yet not even aware of it. We need to draw the Destroyers as far north as possible. We must eliminate as many of their commanders as possible and strike from as many sides as possible. It is the only way that the enemy can be defeated.”
Himaru nodded. “Do you wish us to set a trap for a commander here? I can secret some of my finest men to strike from behind enemy lines.”
“A wise plan, and one we have attempted, but one that is exceptionally risky.” Toson gestured toward the distant horizon. “We lost an agent to some manner of man or creature we have not yet identified, one of the Destroyer’s commanders. I know that the Crab are preparing some manner of gambit in hopes of drawing out the rakshasa, but that will be a disaster, I am quite certain. We have confirmed reports that the Shogun’s forces killed a female commander, some manner of Ra’shari sorcerer, from what we have been able to determine. You have doubtless heard that the Daidoji daimyo faced and crippled another.” Toson’s expression was suddenly bemused. “A Dragon monk claims to have encountered and possibly wounded an Ashalan, but quite frankly the man is a reeking drunk and I have great difficulty placing any confidence in his words. Who can tell, with the Togashi?”
Himaru looked toward the house’s small window, to the streets beyond. “It seems so simple, at this level. Stand your ground, defeat the enemy. The reality is of course completely different, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” Toson said disparagingly. “Do not be naïve. You will follow your orders, commander. I am sorry that your men must die, but the enemy must not suspect.”
“As you command, Shosuro-sama,” Himaru said with a bow. “It will be done.”
“Your notion of loyalty is dangerously disturbed. I need you alive today, but this war will be over soon. If you ever question my orders again,” Toson said, rising and preparing for departure, “I will not hesitate to kill you.”
Himaru held his bow. “I understand, my lord.”
* * * * *
The column of horses stopped short at their commander’s signal. Under different circumstances, such a thing would be difficult if not impossible. Such a maneuver done on the parade grounds would doubtless impress an observing general, because it bespoke unity. It was the mark of a force that had waged war together and survived. Matsu Fumiyo was enormously proud to serve with each and every samurai under her command. They had fought against the Yobanjin incursions in the north for many months, and when the Shogun had placed her in command after a skulking assassin’s arrow had taken one of his previous commanders, she had been humbled. She was a warrior, not an officer, but she would not leave these men and women, brothers and sisters one and all, in need. Not if it was the Shogun’s wish for her to do otherwise.
Fumiyo turned to the Tsuruchi riding at her side. “What is it, Ohashi?”
The scout’s brow furrowed. “Someone is ahead, my lady.”
Fumiyo squinted at the horizon, but could make out nothing. “Are you certain?”
“I know every inch of this pass, my lady,” Ohashi replied. “I have traveled it since I was a child. There is nothing in our path that could be mistaken for a person. Someone is sitting in the middle of the pass ahead.” He loosed his bow. “Shall I deal with it?”
“Not yet,” she cautioned. “We have lost too many already to lose another to an impatient mistake.” She glanced at the man. “No offense intended, Ohashi.”
“None taken, commander,” he replied immediately. “Do you wish me to investigate?”
“We shall do so together,” Fumiyo said. “Futaro, keep the men ready. You have command.”
The thin Crab bowed deeply at the waist. “Only for a moment, my lady. You will return and lead us to victory.”
Fumiyo smiled. “Thank you, my friend.” She nodded to Ohashi and the two spurred their horses forward to a gallop. It was a full minute at a fast pace before Fumiyo could even make out the form Ohashi had detected. It was not the first time she marveled at his keen sight. At a nod from her, the scout pulled up short and prepared an arrow while she continued forward at a trot. “Konichi-wa,” she called out. “You are in the path of my unit, I am afraid. I must ask you to move.”
“When Shinsei stood before the mountain, he asked the mountain to move instead.”
Fumiyo arched an eyebrow. “I suspect the Crab would take issue with such a request. As for myself, I merely find it impractical.”
The woman sitting in the lotus position in the path rose quickly to her feet in one flowing motion. “I am kidding, of course. My apologies. I fear the recent solitude has had an unusual effect on my sense of humor.”
“Speaking for myself, I find little humor in war,” Fumiyo replied. She glanced at the insignias on the stranger’s clothing. “You bear both the Crane mon and the symbol of the Brotherhood of Shinsei. I find that rather unusual.”
The woman glanced down to the Brotherhood symbol. “It is more a sign of respect and loose affiliation than anything else,” she said. “I am still samurai despite my monastic associations. My name is Doji Jun’ai, and I…”
“The Keeper of Water, of course,” Fumiyo said instantly. “I was unaware you were in the area.”
“I have a formal assignment to a Crane detachment, but I also have the freedom to explore the battlefront if I so choose. I have struggled to find a way to bring hope and strength to those fighting on behalf of the Empress and the Empire.” She frowned. “It has proven more difficult than even I imagined.”
Fumiyo nodded. “Is your detachment in the area? I have orders from the Shogun to commandeer any currently unassigned units and consolidate at Kyuden Ashinagabachi. He wishes to establish a major defensive stronghold there.”
Jun’ai smiled sadly. “My detachment no longer exists. I returned from conducting a message to a legion commander in the neighboring province to discover that they had been set upon by a larger force of Destroyers and wiped out. If any survived, I could find no indication of it.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” Fumiyo said, remembering to wave Ohashi to stand down. “I am certain they died bravely, and that their ancestors welcomed them home with open arms and great celebration.”
“Thank you. It is my greatest hope. And I plan to pray for each of them in the Temple of the Keepers when this conflict is at an end.”
Fumiyo smiled. “I would be honored if you would consider joining my men, at least until we reach Kyuden Ashinagabachi.” She thought for a moment. “However, I understand there’s nothing else to be found at the end of this pass, so I must assume you were either already there, or on the way?”
“On the way,” Jun’ai confirmed. She glanced at Ohashi in the distance. “Your man is a Tsuruchi?”
Jun’ai nodded. “I must speak to you in absolute confidence, commander. This is a matter of grave importance.”
Fumiyo drew back in surprise. “What do you mean?”
“In searching for survivors, I came across personal correspondence, which unfortunately lacked any means of identifying either the writer or the recipient. The important part, however, was that the letter spoke of a conspiracy to allow Kyuden Ashinagabachi to fall as a message to the Mantis for their impertinence.”
Fumiyo was instantly filled with fury. “There are those among the Empire’s defenders who find it more important to pursue petty vendettas?” she demanded, keeping her voice low. “Who would dare such scandalous disgrace?”
“Anyone who bears the Mantis ill will, of course,” Jun’ai said.
“Then it could be… it could be…” Fumiyo paused.
“Almost anyone,” Jun’ai finished.
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