Darling of the Season
The unusually cool weather continues throughout the Empire as the villainous Moto Kang, a man of questionable sanity, is dispatched to the southern front of the Empire’s war with the Destroyers.
By Lucas Twyman
Edited by Shawn Carman (God help us all)
The autumn winds cross the Northern Steppes at a violent pace; the flat, open land, high above the sea, offers no obstacle to the cold mountain winds rushing in from the east. The horses of the steppes are so swift, the legends say, because they spend their lives chasing those winds. To most samurai horsemen, riding into the winds feels like charging into a hail of daggers. Only the riders of the Unicorn, clad in fur and hide, skin calloused and leathery from decades in the saddle, feel no suffering charging into the wind. The most masochistic or foolhardy among them actually enjoy it.
“I love the autumn!” Moto Kang screamed into the rushing wind. “The brisk air! The invigorating cold! The harvest festivals, food and drink for all! The wafting smoke of the campfires!”
“I beg your pardon, gunso, but wouldn’t it be best to focus on the task at hand?” cried Shinjo Hansu, Kang’s nikutai.
“I am focusing!” replied Kang. “The warm smell of smoke in the thin air always reminds me of the wandering days of my youth, my father roasting cattle-flesh outside our yurt for dinner, the smell filling the air.”
“Far be it for me to question your nostalgia, gunso Kang,” shouted Hansu, “but I think your childhood was not quite like this.”
Kang pulled back on his reins and looked across the battlefield. The small Yobanjin scouting party was being routed handily. To his right flank, the bodies of the invaders were piled – and smoldering – like cordwood. To his left, oily smoke rose from a conflagration of horseflesh and dead Yobanjin – the remnants of a routing unit run underfoot by a battle maiden, only to explode under the Utaku steed’s hooves.
“Close enough,” Kang said to himself.
* * * * *
Shinjo Ki-Chang was an earnest, patient man, one promoted young and considered one of the brightest young hopes of the declining Shinjo family. As he watched Moto Kang read over his orders, none of these qualities were apparent.
“With the devastation wrought by the God-Beast, passing messages through Scorpion supply lines has been difficult,” Ki-Chang said, rubbing the corner of his eye with his finger. “You will travel to Crab lands and meet with our representative at the front there, and either return any messages he needs delivered, or serve under him until further notice.”
“Let me see if I have this correct, my chui,” Kang said, oblivious to the obvious discomfort of Ki-Chang. “You’re sending me – one of your gunso – on an errand across the length of the Empire.”
“Yes.” Ki-Chang said blandly.
“I am not trained as a scout, or even particularly keen-eyed, so it can’t be that I’m supposed to gather useful information. Shugenja are valuable, but so are officers, and a shugenja could perform this errand in a fraction of the time.”
Ki-Chang narrowed his eyes. “What are you implying?”
Kang smiled, greasily. “I am not implying anything. I am simply admiring your pragmatism.”
Ki-Chang shifted and stretched his neck, his eyes darting to the men at the door to his command tent. “I am not sure what you mean.”
“I am good at what I do – motivating my men and following orders – but those are my only real strengths. Hansu has a keener mind and more tactical acumen than I, so he should be in my place, or even above me. I am out of your hair, Hansu is promoted, no one loses face.”
“All keenly observed,” Ki-Chang replied, drolly, “but what is the point of explaining all of this to me?”
“You know that I rather enjoy sending men to my Lords, and that I am loyal to a fault, pragmatic, and uncouth, and therefore useful. I just wanted to remind you of those facts. By keeping me at arms length, you make things easier for both of us. I can do all the things I want to do without it reflecting on you.”
“And what about preserving your face?”
“Don’t worry about me, I don’t care. I am certain that my sins are already unpardonable.”
Ki-Chang raised an eyebrow. “I was told that you were a pious and fearful man, Kang, and while you wear the trappings of one, your conduct under me has, so far, not been the conduct of such a man.”
Kang’s expression pulled tight and he merely shrugged.
“Fair enough. You think yourself clever, and it makes me like you less. This `Hansu’ was nothing more than a name on a roster, but your recommendation means that I will look into him.” He looked back down at his orders, and spoke to Kang without raising his eyes. “You are now to report to a man named Nobane. Horiuchi Nobane.”
Kang’s shock slowly gave way to a wry smile.
* * * * *
“I understand your need, and I applaud your desire to act on it. I do admire pragmatism.”
Kang was having a fantastic time, and his voice betrayed this new positivism. The Shinomen was as lovely as always, and despite being unseasonably chilly, the trip through Scorpion lands had gone without a hitch. His old superior had not exaggerated about the entertainments available in the provinces of the Shosuro – he had rarely had such an enjoyable workout!
“And I must thank you for the level of hospitality you have shown me,” Kang said with a flourish, “but I must, unfortunately, expound on my admiration. I am a man who believes that our needs must be fulfilled, but, and I apologize for this, but as a somewhat selfish man, my needs must take precedence.”
Kang grunted and kicked hard, and the bandit’s jaw severed under the cutting edge of his scimitar. Kang laughed as a spurt of blood splattered against his chestplate and the bandit’s comrades backed away slowly from him. “To be specific, my need to live outweighs your need to rob me to eat my horse and take my sword. But this is truly the most fun I have had in days! The incompetence of Shinomen thieves in a fight lives up to the stories!”
The four remaining bandits exchanged glances and tightened their grips on their weapons.
“Was this man your leader? Is that why you backed off once I grabbed him? Don’t worry, you’ll follow him soon enough.” He looked up at the heavens for a moment. “And an early snow, too! How lovely! If I were not sure that the Lords of Death had abandoned me for slaughtering all who left the plague zone, I would consider this a blessing bestowed to me; a worthy sacrifice for them!”
He began advancing on them, first ducking under a spear to chop out the legs of its wielder. With a smooth flourish, he cut the breadth of the man’s throat.
“Come now, cheer up!” Kang said, grinning wickedly at the three living bandits, “I guarantee that before this is over, you will each show me a similar Smile.”
* * * * *
There were rumors of Destroyers reinforcing the Army of Fire, but Kang had never seen one – at least not until now. Thick black smoke hung low in the frigid air as demonic figures swarmed over the war machines of the Kaiu. Hideous, six-limbed demons were locked in mortal combat with two to three Crab bushi apiece, seemingly impossible to flank or overwhelm. Kang had never before been to the Wall, but now that it had fallen, he was certain that the lands of the Crab now resembled what they once hoped to deflect.
The demons themselves were truly bizarre, in both their inhumanity and their uniformity. Where a man’s face normally would be, the creatures had instead a strange, pulsing, oval-shaped membrane. The rest of their skin was thick and hard, segmented like an insect’s carapace – and, judging from how it turned aside blows from mighty Crab bushi, tougher than any heavy armor. The demons clustered in groups of six or seven, moving in eerie, silent unison. Despite having no mouth or ears, they still coordinated their movements silently; they had no eyes, but still seemingly remained fully aware of the events around them. Towering over each group of Destroyers stood a single massive, animal-headed beast, multi-armed and armored like its fellows. Each of the massive creatures led the small units of uniform demons into combat, bellowing as they waded into the Crab lines. As they drew closer, Kang’s steed pulled back, nervously, but Kang dug into its side and urged it on, picking his way through the edge of the Crab forces.
Kang turned back coolly and found himself looking down at a salt-and-pepper-haired Crab tending to the wounds of a fallne comrade.
“You – Hida!” Kang barked back.
“Hiruma,” the Crab grunted.
“Fine,” Kang said, his shoulder slumping, “Hiruma. I look for a fellow of mine supposedly stationed near here. He has a horse and likely dresses in purple and white. You know where he might be?”
“There’s a command tent on the rise there, if he’s an officer,” the Hiruma said, glaring, “but, first, listen good. Our line may collapse on the right flank, over there. If you were to support them, you could buy us some time. Your sword arm and steed may be good enough to get us a few minutes -”
Kang stared with mild bemusement at the Crab, then turned and rode away.
* * * * *
The command tent was not an impressive piece of shelter; not a tent at all, in fact. Four wooden posts were the only structures delineating its boundaries, and bamboo mats provided the only protection for the maps laid along the ground (and the feet of the officers) against the well-trod mud.
“You!” A hulking Hida roared at Kang as he approached.
“That greeting is disconcertingly common,” he groused under his breath.
The Hida strode up to Kang, surprisingly taller than Kang’s horse and about as broad, and stared up at the Moto. “The ground’s too unstable here for you to be traipsing that animal everywhere and risking a sprain! Either get it back into the battle or tie it up over there like the others!” He pointed to the far post, where a group of several horses were tied up. One was notably larger than the others.
“Nobane!” he said, spurring his horse towards the encampment. “I know you’re there, Horiuchi!
A handsome man with a terrible beard slowly got to his feet and walked towards Kang. His armor was painted purple and black, but the layers of mud caking it made that nearly impossible to discern. “I am Horiuchi Nobane. Do you come with news?”
“Well, your family’s dead and you should probably be adopting war orphans or something instead of being here,” Kang said with as much solemnity as he could muster, before adding a deafening “HA!”
Nobane placed his hands on his sword. His jaw clenched tightly. “I should kill you.”
“Ha! I like you already!” Kang said, offering his hand down to his clansman. “I am Moto Kang, and I am to serve as your second in command!”
Nobane shook his head sadly. “Now I know I am going to regret not killing you.”
* * * * *
“Unseasonably cold, eh?”
Nobane tried his best to ignore his companion’s obvious remark. As they approached the small village, he could feel his horse shivering beneath him. Nobane dismounted and unrolled his sleeping mat, then placed it atop his steed. Kang simply shivered and scratched his horse comfortingly between its ears.
“Why are we here, again?”
“We are visiting the Toritaka -”
“I know my orders,” Kang said, impatiently, “I mean `why are we here at this worthless village?’”
“I am hungry and tired and sick of rations,” Nobane replied. “I’ve been in a war zone for months, I have eaten nothing but dried rations and whatever stringy birds the Destroyers don’t scorch from the sky.”
“Well, it looks deserted,” Kang replied matter-of-factly.
“Or abandoned,” Nobane added, moving towards the nearest hut. The frozen ground crunched beneath his boot, and not for the first time, he was thankful for his clan’s predilection for warm fur and leather. “The Destroyers, you think?”
“I certainly hope not,” Kang said from across the tiny village square, peering from horseback into another small dwelling.
Nobane took one step into the hut and retched, his breath condensing in the air. Inside the hut, a small family huddled together. Frost covered their faces, their hair was frozen, and no breath appeared in the air before them. Only the eyes of the father were open, staring straight ahead, glassy and vacant.
“The same here?” – Nobane had barely heard Kang approach – “The people of this village must have been renowned for their cool heads in the face of danger.”
Nobane looked over his shoulder and sneered at Kang, who feigned ignorance of his companion’s ire and continued. “A strange early cold snap, or do we now also have to deal with an Army of Ice?” Kang shrugged, as if answering his own question. “On the bright side, at least they won’t have to worry about the plague.”
Nobane whirled around and shoved past Kang, nearly knocking the larger man to the ground.
“What?” Kang barked, his mood suddenly sharp. “That wasn’t supposed to be a dead family joke. Are you always this sensitive?”
Nobane fingered the pommel of his blade. “Are you always this loathsome?”
Kang grinned ferally. “Only to men. Women find me irresistible.” He tilted his head and looked past Nobane. “Speaking of which”
Nobane dived at Kang, driving him into the frozen earth. Kang tried to protest, but found himself being forced to guard himself against Nobane’s frenzied blows. Nobane caught Kang with a stiff punch across the nose and the Moto’s eyes widened. Rippling like a wave, he forced his superior officer up into the air and slid to his own feet, following through into a sumai throw that tossed Nobane several feet away.
“Look! Just look!” Kang roared, pointing past Nobane to the far end of the village.
Nobane hesitated, fearing deception, then turned and looked. Hundreds of feet away, a slight, feminine form walked slowly out of the village. Its gait was delicate, but its shoulders shook as if it were sobbing.
Nobane turned back to Kang, astonished.
Nobane scrambled to his feet, and both men ran for their horses.
* * * * *
A Unicorn steed is no common Rokugani pony. A full head taller, bred in far-away lands for strength and speed over the course of a millenia, the steed requires a more skillful rider and more attentive upkeep, but is far faster and more combat-suited than the native stock. However, even a native pony could chase down a walking man like he was standing still.
This made Nobane and Kang’s pursuit all the more vexing. The woman strode forward at a slow – even leisurely – pace, but each step kept her the same distance from the two hotly-pursuing riders. As they rode, the wind picked up, and a vast snowstorm suddenly appeared, obscuring much of their vision. They had to push their steeds as fast as they safely could – perhaps too fast, considering how much energy the horses were using in the rapidly changing weather – in order to keep from losing sight of the slowly-moving light at the end of the wind-tunnel.
Then she stopped. The horses skid to a halt, at the edge of a small cliff, and were either rider less experienced they would likely have tumbled down the ridge to their deaths. As they caught their breath, the woman stood silently, facing away from them. They looked down into the valley below and were both rendered speechless.
At its bottom, a huge detachment of creatures – one of similar size and strength to the small army that Nobane had done battle with over the preceding weeks – sat silently. Naturally-twisted forms bent further, crushing under the weight of ice that coated each demon. Monstrous animal maws cried out silently against the heavens, their motionless corpses trapped until the first thaw. The only signs of life were other small, feminine forms walking slowly between the frozen giants.
The woman turned back to the two Unicorn. She was intensely and coldly beautiful. Her lustrous, black hair seemed to absorb the snow-reflected sunlight, and her skin was as smooth and pale as porcelain. Her lips were a rich red, and on her cheeks, individual tears were frozen in their tracks.
“I regret that we could do nothing to save the loyal vassals of the Lady of the Heavens,” the woman said, her light voice carrying an echo that the men did not hear as much as feel. “Our duty required that we succeed regardless of sacrifice.”
“My lady, I am sure that you are worthy of any sacrifice,” Kang said, enthusiastically, as he dismounted.
The woman’s eyes darted, confused, from Nobane’s eyes to Kang’s, then back to Nobane.
“I am here to deliver a message -”she continued.
“Then we should go in from the cold!” Kang interrupted, “A light dinner, some tea, some sake, you can proclaim, that’s the proper place for any proclamation! I promise you that would be decision you won’t regret!”
Despite being a being of great wisdom, the woman had no easy reply.
Nobane, terror in his eyes, quickly dismounted and clasped Kang on his shoulder. “The Lady has something important to say,” he whispered.
The woman nodded to Nobane, and continued. “When the Celestial Heavens chose their new agent on Ningen-Do, Jigoku also saw fit to choose a new representative, as is its wont.”
“I’d say we got the better end of that deal,” Kang said with quiet appreciation.
“Quiet!” Nobane whispered.
“However, when the representative of Jigoku moves to destroy all that belongs to the new Lady of the Heavens, so will the Heavens respond in kind with aggression. The winter will not be a pleasant one for the agents of the Destroyer! Let it be known that -”
“And now that your work is done,” Kang said, with a quick nod towards the valley below, “it can certainly be pleasant winter for you.”
The woman raised an eyebrow, and Nobane slapped Kang on the back. “Stop it!”
Kang smiled and opened his arms, “Come with me and I will show you how the mortal realm also has its heavenly places!”
“Stop this madness! That woman is obviously a snow maiden!” Nobane said in a sharp whisper. “She’s a divine spirit!”
“A spirit who is a maiden!” Kang said with satisfaction.
Despite the cold, Nobane began sweating. “You are insane. I cannot be a part to this blasphemy.” He bowed to the woman, who nodded back in understanding, flashing Nobane a grimly thin and forced smile. “If you aren’t struck dead by the divine spirits, Kang, I suggest you reconsider your conduct today,” he added as he mounted his horse.
The snow maiden and Kang watched as Nobane trotted down the ridge, the two of them standing in silence until the Horiuchi was little more than a dot on the horizon.
“So,” Kang said, “it’s just you and me”
“Enough,” the snow maiden replied, her eyes narrow. “I’m originally from the realm of Chikushudo. I already deal with enough animals.”
“Animals, you say? Well”
The snow maiden placed a single finger against Kang’s lips. “I suggest you hold that remark. Your sword may protect you from our influence, but your luck will not always hold out.” She turned and looked back at the valley. “The Divine One already knows of our actions. It is obvious that most mortal men do not deserve to know all of our plans.”
There was a sudden gust of wind, and the woman was gone.
“My sword?” Kang said, looking down at his scimitar.
Standing alone on the cliffside overlooking a thousand dead demons, Moto Kang shrugged, then turned and re-mounted his horse.