Unleashed, Part 2
The appearance of the god-beast of Kali-ma, the Destroyer’s most potent weapon, on the front lines of the southern front throws the Empire into a desperate race to secure the Scorpion lands against seemingly inevitable disaster.
By Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan
The earth shuddered beneath the feet of the god-beast. Whether it was due to the creature’s massive size, impacting the ground with a physical force previously unknown, or if the land was recoiling in revulsion at the thing’s touch was unclear. Where it stepped, the ground burned and withered. The air around it was distorted like heat off of flat stone. Its skin was black and cracked. It gave off the impression of fire, more than fire itself.
It was hard to get a good impression of what it looked like as the eyes of viewers ached like they were looking too long into the sun. Their minds could not interpret what they were seeing and convince them that it was real.
It moved neither slowly nor quickly. It was simply inevitable.
Akodo Kitaka spread white makeup on his face, preparing to face his end.
Utaka Jisoo snapped at the Lion Deathseeker. “What do you mean that this is our death? Do you recognize this creature?”
Kitaka shook his head. “I believe that you will find that no one living have seen this creature before. That does not mean that no one will recognize it. Most will know their end when they see it. Most will fight it, deny it, but they will still know it. Our death comes for us and it is up to us how we will embrace it.”
Bayushi Kaibara looked at the Lion for a moment and then said, “I only accept victory.”
Hida Kaihei snorted. “Once I would have said that there is no beast that cannot fall – no enemy that cannot be defeated. Then Kyuden Hida fell. Now, I know that we cannot lose unless our spirits break. No victory by the enemy, however impressive, shall stave off our wrath, but some battles cannot be won.”
Kitaka grunted. “Denial is a normal response. We will not find victory here.”
Kaibara smiled, grimly. “You misunderstand. I do not mean I think we will kill this thing, or even survive, just that we will know victory. To make an enemy’s conquest costly is a form of victory.”
The others paused, looking at the Scorpion and then, one by one, nodded.
* * * * *
Shosuro Toson stood waiting for a response from the one who now led the Scorpion Clan. “I mean no disrespect, Miyako-sama. With the recent developments none would question a need for a time of mourning. Another could bear these duties for you until you are ready.”
Bayushi Miyako was clad not in the garb of mourning, but the armor of her role as shireikan. The symbol of that position had been removed, however, and replaced by the mon of the Scorpion alone. She bore no rank. The only thing that could reveal her identity was her mempo, which once belonged to her husband, Bayushi Paneki. Her voice rasped as she said, “Yes. No one would question my right for time to mourn. And no outsider will recognize that I forego this for the Scorpion. The Crab lands have fallen, and I will not sit idle while the same happens to us. I did not desire this duty, but it has fallen to me. Now speak no more of him until you the day you tell me that the thing that wears his body has been found and destroyed.”
Toson, his expression completely hidden by his full-face mempo, simply nodded. “Would that I could, milady.”
“Then let us focus on the matter at hand. We were pre-warned by Yukimi, and have buttressed our defenses at Closed Pincer City.”
Toson nodded again. “Yes, Miyako-sama. If the front line breaches, the city is next in the path of the Destroyers and this beast that marches at their head.”
“And has the line held?”
“No. They appear unable to even slow it down.”
* * * * *
Hida Kaihei held a rag to the side of his head, slowing the flow of blood that streaked his cheek. His helmet was gone, lost when he was struck by a rock gouged from the earth by a random swipe by the god-beast. “Have the runners been sent?”
Kaibara simply nodded.
“My unit is ready for our charge.” Jisoo said, officially to the Scorpion, but it sounded more like a pronouncement than a report.
Kitaka was the first to step forward. He moved to Jisoo, looked at her for a long moment and then bowed deeply, formally. Kaihei repeated the actions of the Lion, though with less formality. Finally, Kaibara said, “May the gods ride with you, Utaku-san.”
Jisoo bowed to all of them and then turned to join her command.
Twenty Utaku Battle Maidens charged the god-beast’s flank. They knew their goal was to blunt the creature’s advance. Even small victories had been impossible to come by thus far.
They swept in like a scythe; steel flashing in reflection of the sun, until they reached the beast’s shadow. Without even seeming to glance their way, the god-beast swung one of its right limbs, as thick as the Great Wall itself. Black and red claws tore through the earth like an oar through water. Over half of the Utaku riders were swept from their mounts, horse and rider killed indiscriminately. Some were thrown clear, with such force that they were aloft long enough to become aware of their end.
Jisoo was one of those. When she struck the stony ground, the impact shattered what of her bones were still intact after the initial blow.
* * * * *
Asako Bairei sat in the library, surrounded by scrolls seemingly discarded haphazardly. He unrolled another quickly and scanned the contents, mumbling to himself. “Nono nothing”
Isawa Mitsuko barely seemed to move her feet when she walked. It was unclear whether the gliding effect was due to her own grace or to the support of the air kami with whom she communed, but neither drew Bairei’s attention when Mitsuko entered.
“No mention of the creature?”
“Nothing. I found some ranting about a fallen god, that may not actually be referring to Fu Leng as was previously thought, but there was nothing useful in it.”
Mitsuko winced. “I can feel the air around it curdle and burn. Air should not feel pain. We must find a way to stop this or more than just the people of Rokugan will pay the price for our failure.
Bairei flung the scroll in his hand across the room. “Do you think I am unaware of that? Our histories tell us nothing and the elements themselves are tortured by this creature. I have never felt this helpless before.”
Mitsuko sighed. “Not all the elements.”
Bairei nodded brusquely. “Ningen picked a very inopportune time to leave us.”
“Have you known Ningen to act capriciously? If he felt it was time to move on and leave his mantle to Isawa Kimi, we cannot question it. I am certain he did not do so out of ignorance. He was privy to knowledge where the rest of us could only offer conjecture. He knew we would have to turn to the Void and he believed that we should turn to Kimi rather than to him. If we would have had faith in Ningen, then we should have faith in Kimi as turning to her was Ningen’s choice.”
Bairei grunted. “Yes, it was his choice, not ours. I trust in what can be documented. Ningen’s explanations of his decisions have always left me wanting further elucidation.”
Mitsuko nodded. “Be that as it may, our only hope may lay in Kimi’s hands now.”
* * * * *
Bayushi Miyako leaned over the map displayed on the table before her. The map showed all of the Scorpion lands, though it would not be recognizable as such to one not trained in the Scorpion ways. Every marking, topographical, political, or otherwise was coded in such a way that a casual viewer would see the piece as some sort of artwork, done in a fairly abstract style. When Miyako looked at a cluster of marks, she did not see random paint strokes, however. She saw a city.
“There has been no slowing of its approach?”
Shosuro Toson shook his head. “No, Miyako-sama.”
“Then it will be on Closed Pincer City within two hours.”
“Yes, Miyako-sama. Defenses are poised and ready for its approach. We are fortunate that it moves slowly enough to give us ample time to move troops into position.”
“We have no reason to think that will be enough to stop it.” This was not a question.
Miyako thought for a moment before straightening her back and saying, “Order a full retreat of the combined forces on the front line.”
Toson nodded. “I will send word immediately that they are to fall back to Closed Pincer City to buttress its defenses.”
“No. Tell them to retreat to the west. Full retreat, but not too quickly. Make it clear that they are beaten, but not routed. Give the beast a target it cannot resist. Let it chase them while we gather what information we can. All things can be beaten, even gods. We just have to figure out how.”
Toson’s mempo ensured his thoughts were not betrayed. “The army will be sacrificed, then.”
“But the city will not.”
“And if the beast does not cooperate and makes for the city regardless? The extra defenses will be lost to them.”
Miyako’s voice rose, with a touch of anger lying as an undercurrent. “And if those extra defenses were there? Would that save the city?” She paused and the air between the two Scorpion seemed charged. “You have your orders.”
* * * * *
“Retreat? To the west?” Hida Kaihei was not one to question orders, but these came not from his superiors.
Bayushi Kaibara nodded. “These are my orders, and therefore yours, as the rest of the forces here have agreed to follow Scorpion command while in our lands fighting our common enemy.”
“Those orders would have us retreat from battle and move away from our position between our foe and its target.”
“If that is its target.” The Scorpion and the Crab both turned to see Akodo Kitaka, his Deathseeker paint streaked with battlefield grime, approaching.
“What do you mean, Lion?” Kaihei grumbled.
“Have you read any of Akodo’s writings, Hida-san? No? Bayushi-san?” Seeing a curt nod from Kaibara he continued, “By allowing your opponent to choose the battlefield, you are giving him a great advantage. By assuming that the beast’s goal is Closed Pincer City we have retreated in that direction. In fact, we have been drawing the beast right towards the place we do not want it to go.”
Kaibara listened intently and then said, “So if the city isn’t where it is trying to go, what does it want?”
Kitaka gestured to the field behind the god-beast. “What has it shown it wants? You spoke of the enemy’s conquest. I do not see a desire for conquest here. I see only death and destruction. It is not looking for land or cities. It is looking for us. It is our death. Ours and anyone else it comes across.”
Kaihei grunted. “So we change our path so it will follow. What does that change? Can we kill it?
Kaibara slowly shook her head. “No. We are bait. Draw it away from the city by sacrificing ourselves.”
No one said anything for a moment until Kaihei broke the silence by saying, “So be it. Sound the call.”
No samurai would ever admit relief when the retreat was called. That would sound too much like cowardice and no samurai would place his own life before that of his clan or Empress, but they also had eyes to see and ears to hear. They stood surrounded by blood and the cries of the dying and the crunching of their bodies. None of the blood belonged to their enemies and no death was inflicted by their blades. A true samurai would charge into battle, heedless of his own mortality, but this was not a battle. This was a massacre.
The Scorpion samurai were the most surprised by the orders to travel west, leaving the beast an open path to Closed Pincer City. But the Scorpion samurai were also comfortable with the idea that orders were not always meant to be understood. They were meant to be followed with faith that their superiors did everything for a reason. If they lived or died, it only need to serve the purpose of the Scorpion.
At first it seemed that Miyako’s orders were serving their purpose. As the samurai fell away to its right, the god-beast swung its great arms after them, bringing down the most rearward. For the first time, its path changed and with one earth-shaking step after another, it turned, as if to follow the insects that dared interfere with it.
Akodo Kitaka’s face screwed up in fury. “It is turning away! It is going back to heading for the city!”
Bayushi Kaibara, her face stone behind her half-mempo, only nodded.
“Now we need to attack from its flank! It has left itself exposed!” Kitaka was nearly apoplectic.
Kaibara shook her head. “Those were not my orders. I was told to lead the line to the west, no matter what the actions of our foe.”
Hida Kaihei never turned his eyes from the beast as he said. “Why?”
Kaibara said nothing for a full minute before saying, “She knew.”
“What do you mean?”
Kaibara chose not to speak further.
* * * * *
Shosuro Toson’s voice stayed monotone as he said, “They have retreated to the west, as you ordered. The creature has broken off and continues toward the city.”
Bayushi Miyako nodded and said nothing.
“The city defenses will fight to the last blade.”
“No. Evacuate the city.”
This time Toson was unable to hide the surprise in his voice. “Pardon, Miyako-sama? We are admitting defeat?”
Miyako glared at Toson. “It is a sacrifice.”
“To what end?”
Miyako’s voice was nearly a snarl as she said, “I would sacrifice any samurai to save the city. I would sacrifice any city to save the Scorpion. I would sacrifice our entire clan to save the Empire. I would do any of this, if there was any gain to be had. The walls of the city will stand no longer with Scorpion blades on it than if they had none. This creature will not be beaten by sword or arrow. It will not be defeated by subterfuge or trickery either. Another way must be found. It will be found or this thing will be the death of more than just one city.”
* * * * *
The god-beast tore through the outer wall of the city like paper. The stone buckled like a wave before fracturing, snapping and then exploding in a rain of rock dust. It strode into the city, kicking over buildings and sweeping others aside with long waves if its arms. Not everyone was able to get out of the city before the god-beast arrived, and the ones that were left mostly died as part of the general destruction. Stone and heavy timbers flew as if defying the laws of nature.
Those that avoided the initial onslaught were still found, as if the beast could detect and seek out any life. Whatever it found, it killed. Usually they were crushed beneath its feet or in its massive clawed hands. Some were actually bitten and chewed. It didn’t seem to do this out of hunger, other than a hunger to destroy.
Soon the city was no more than an impossible mountain of broken walls and broken lives. Where the city once existed as a symbol of openness between the Scorpion and the Crab – a false openness admittedly – it was now a symbol of failure and loss.