Heroes of the Empire
On both the northern and southern fronts of the Empire’s war with forces from beyond its borders, the appearance of additional Lion troops changes the balance of power.
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The snow had not yet covered the ground, not this time, but it blew down from a grey and seamless sky in such quantity that the ground remained uncovered merely as a reprieve from the Fortunes. As he emerged from his command tent, Akodo Shigetoshi was grateful for the damage that his trusted armor had received a fortnight previously, for its repair had finally prevented the wretched breeze that had always somehow managed to blow through on the left side. It was little comfort, to be sure, but in such conditions the Lion Champion was grateful for however little was available.
To the north, riders approached the portion of the camp set aside for the high commanders of the assembled armies. Shigetoshi waited to speak with their commander, to find a spot for the man, whoever he might be, in the current command structure. It would be distressingly easy with so many of his men dead or wounded. There had been so much death already.
A short distance away, Hida Benjiro emerged from the Crab command tent. He sipped at something in a cup. Given the weather, Shigetoshi would assume it was tea, but he was not altogether certain that Benjiro drank tea. “Reinforcements?” the gigantic warrior asked.
“Such as they are, yes,” Shigetoshi said. “The last we are likely to receive from the Lion lands before winter’s end, barring unforeseen circumstances.”
Benjiro nodded. “May the Fortunes have mercy on their souls, then.”
Shigetoshi nodded. “Indeed,” he said quietly.
The riders arrived only a few moments later. There were fewer than Shigetoshi would have though, no more than two hundred at most, but a welcome sight nonetheless. The leader dismounted from the fore of the formation, and in his stance upon the ground, Shigetoshi recognized a familiar, slightly uneven gait. “Otemi!” He called. “This is a welcome surprise!”
Ikoma Otemi, former regent of the Lion Clan, smiled and bowed low before his lord. “It was my great honor that Hagio-sama appointed me to lead the reinforcements.”
Shigetoshi’s expression dimmed somewhat. “It is my enormous pleasure to see a trusted friend at the fore of my reinforcements,” he said, “but I am concerned for the security of our homeland without so great a mind as yours overseeing its defense.”
“Hagio-sama and Kenji-sama have that matter well in hand, I think,” Otemi replied. “You have little to fear, my lord.”
“I do not fear,” Shigetoshi said, “but I have learned that there is no end to the variety of hardship that can be experienced in this era.” He forced a slight smile. “You may have guessed that morale is something of an issue at present.”
“So it would seem,” Otemi nodded.
“Fortunately, I think we have the answer to that difficulty,” the Champion said, his smile growing more genuine. “Come, old friend. Let us speak of strategy.”
* * * * *
Mirumoto Kijima deflected a strike toward his back with his wakizashi, holding it parallel to his spine with his left hand while his right guided his katana into the heart of a Yobanjin raider. Despite his three kills so far, there were simply too many of them to hold off indefinitely. Another of them landed a telling blow to his ribs on his left side. His armor turned the inferior blade away, but the air was driven from his lungs just the same. One of his brothers in arms shouldered the attacker away before he could redouble his assault against Kijima, but it was only a matter of time.
“Fall back!” Kijima ordered. “Controlled retreat to the castle!” It was a fruitless order and he knew that. His patrol was relatively small, given how many men had been taken from Shiro Kitsuki’s defensive force and sent to the northern front. How a guerrilla party of Yobanjin raiders had reached so far south he did not understand, but when the two groups had first encountered one another, the Yobanjin had outnumbered the Dragon almost two to one. That advantage had been cult in half, but the tide was turning against his men. The castle was more than two miles away, and there was no way that they could endure long enough to traverse that distance.
“It is too far, commander,” one of his men said at his shoulder. “We cannot endure the attack that long.”
“Then make them suffer for every life they take!” Kijima shouted.
A strange battle-cry rang out across the mountain, one that Kijima had not heard before. It was no Dragon cry, and for a moment his heart sank with the thought that more Yobanjin had arrived. But it was Rokugani, and after a moment, one of Kijima’s men shouted out. “Gunso! The Lion!”
The statement made no sense whatsoever, but Kijima cast about in desperate hope, and indeed, what appeared to be a full squadron of mounted Lion warriors were riding full speed toward the battle, weapons drawn. The Yobanjin around them began shouting, arguing with one another, scattering in every direction as chaos overtook them. Then the Lion were there, riding between them with expert precision, striking out like artisans of steel, taking only the enemies with masterful strikes and disturbing not so much as a single Dragon’s position. “Drive them to the rocks!” he heard the Lion officer shout. “Leave none alive!”
Only moments later, it was all over. Kijima checked on his men. Four dead and six more wounded, a terrible burden. It would strain those well enough to defend Shiro Kitsuki even further, but that was not something Kijima could worry about just yet. Now as a time for celebration for lives spared. He approached the Lion, but they were already moving their forces north. “Friend Lion!” he called out. “I owe you my thanks, and the lives of my men!”
“No gratitude is required,” the commander answered flatly. “Enemies of the Empire must be struck down no matter where they appear. It is fortunate that your men were spared, but that was not my goal.”
Kijima’s cheer evaporated, and the smile slipped from his face. What manner of insult was this? “Be that as it may, let me offer you the hospitality at Shiro Kitsuki. It is the least that the Dragon can offer.”
“We will continue north toward the battle. Nothing else matters,” the Lion officer said. “We have no interest in the hospitality of the Dragon.”
The dragon duelist attempted to stem the flicker of anger in his spirit. “Who are you, that I might inform my lord of your aid?”
“Hiroshi,” the man answered. “I am Akodo Hiroshi, and my men call themselves Hiroshi’s Legion.”
* * * * *
Otemi gazed at the maps spread out before him. “What is the tactical value of this village which you seek to recapture, my lord?”
“Tactically its value is highly questionable,” Shigetoshi admitted. “It does have certain features which make it advantageous to possess, to be sure, but its primary value to me is as a symbol for our armies.”
“If I may, my lord,” a young Scorpion woman near at hand said, looking to Shigetoshi.
“By all means, Ritsuko-san,” the Champion said.
Shosuro Ritsuko bowed. “The village sits amid a broad plain that interrupts the normally hilly southern regions of the Scorpion provinces,” she explained, gesturing to symbols on the map. “It provides a significant degree of visibility, save in the poorest weather. The Destroyers cannot advance upon it, or indeed this entire province, without being seen well in advance.”
“It will greatly simplify the southern defensive line, then,” Otemi observed.
“The difficulty is the same for us, however,” Shigetoshi noted. “We cannot approach it with any more ease than our enemies would be able to.”
“Their sentries will see us coming,” Otemi said. “Forgive me, my lord, but this seems an expensive battle to wage. Perhaps too expensive.”
“That was my thought for a long time, yes,” Shigetoshi agreed. “Ritsuko has changed my mind.”
Otemi looked to the young woman, who wore a strange mixture of colors that included not only the traditional black and crimson, but much white as well. “You have some strategy that will allow us to approach undetected?”
“You may call it a strategy if you will,” Ritsuko said. “I will kill all their sentries.”
Otemi stared at her mutely for a while. “That is what passes for strategy in your family?” he finally asked.
“I know how it sounds,” Shigetoshi said, his tone somewhat embarrassed, “but I have come to have a great deal of faith in Ritsuko’s abilities.”
“How will you accomplish this task?” Otemi asked.
“All you need know is that there will be no sentries,” Ritsuko said. Her eyes carried a certainty that could not be denied. “You need not concern yourself with anything more than that, Ikoma-sama.”
“Your word is sufficient for my Champion.” He glanced away from her as he spoke. “No more need be said.”
“Too much knowledge can be a burden,” Shigetoshi agreed darkly. He reached up and adjusted the patch covering his eye.
“My lord,” the shugenja attending him said, “you must rest. Your wound has not had the chance to heal, and should it become infected, there will be nothing we can do to combat it.”
“Leave it be,” Shigetoshi commanded. “I can rest when the assault is concluded.”
“My lord,” Otemi said, “I know better than anyone the detrimental effect a wound can have on one when it cannot be properly treated. Please, my lord, rest. Allow me to conduct this strike in your stead.”
“I am the commander of the Lion army,” Shigetoshi said. “It is my duty, and I will not shirk from it.”
Otemi frowned and hesitated. “Duty and honor,” he said finally. “We learned the importance of those words so many times as younger men, did we not?”
Shigetoshi chuckled and adjusted his patch. “Many times, yes.”
“Remember the fighting at Otosan Uchi?” the Ikoma asked, grinning.
Shigetoshi nodded. “All too well, yes.”
“And that time with the bandits near the southwestern provinces?” Otemi said. “Truly, the Heavens blessed us that night.”
Shigetoshi’s smile faltered somewhat. “Are you attempting to remind me of the debt I owe you from your saving my life when facing the Avalanche Death bandit gang? That seems quite questionable behavior.”
“I would never bring that up, my lord,” Otemi said with absolute genuine sincerity. “I have said many times that I do not consider you in my debt at all.”
“But I do,” Shigetoshi said. “That is what is important, is it not? My honor.”
“If I can in any way alleviate that discomfort I will do so without hesitation, my lord.”
Shigetoshi’s brow furrowed. “You wish to lead the assault, then.”
“I would be enormously grateful for that right, my lord,” Otemi said at once. “And of course any debt that you perceive, however unwarranted that debt might be, would be fulfilled.”
The Lion Champion stared at this friend for some time, then finally turned away. “Fine,” he said. “The assault is yours to command.”
Ritsuko looked to Otemi appreciatively. “Are you Lion by birth?”
“By birth and the grace of the Heavens,” Otemi answered. “My honorable wife Yasuko was born of your family, though.”
“Shosuro Yasuko,” Ritsuko said, nodding. “That explains much.”
* * * * *
Mirumoto Mareshi rode to the outskirts of the Dragon encampment, several of his officers riding in his wake. He had received word of the Lion troops’ imminent arrival, as well as the strange behavior they had exhibited throughout their travels in the Dragon lands. They had barely spoken to anyone, refused all attempts to engage them in anything but the most cursory discussions.
“Lion,” one of the officers at his back snarled. “Deceitful, warmongering fools.”
Mareshi glanced over his shoulder. “Put your anger away, Yozo. It is not helpful now.”
Mirumoto Yozo glared, but bowed his head respectfully. “As you say, my lord.”
Mareshi nodded to one of his men as the Lion were spotted on the horizon, and the man spurred his horse forward. He rode to meet the Lion, but maintained a respectful distance. The herald remained in the distance for some time, then finally turned and came back to the Dragon command staff. “My lord,” the herald said haltingly, “the Lion officer will not meet with you.”
“What?” Yozo demanded.
“What reason does he cite?” Mareshi asked.
“Hiroshi claims disinterest in engaging the Dragon forces in any way,” the herald said, his expression embarrassed. “His men wish to pass through to the front line and engage the enemy immediately. He requests permission to pass.”
Mareshi frowned. “And if I decline?”
The herald licked his lips. “If you decline, Hiroshi and his men will go around, he says. They say that there are many passes in the mountains and that they can and will find another if necessary.”
“My lord!” Yozo exploded. “Let me duel this man! Let me defend your honor!”
Mareshi waved the comment away. He gazed into the distance at the dim figure of the man commanding the Lion. He could sense the feelings of the kami, as he always could, but this time he listened rather than tuning them out. He had heard of Akodo Hiroshi, a man who had fought bravely in the war with the Destroyers, a man with a sterling reputation as an honorable warrior. Why was he acting in this manner? It made no sense. “Something is wrong,” he finally observed. He drew a deep breath. “Nothing can be served by being oppositional. Allow the Lion to pass.”
“My lord!” Yozo said. “Are you certain this is wise? Whatever the reason there can be no excuse for such disrespectful behavior!”
“Enough,” Mareshi said. “We must all make sacrifices in the war with the barbarians.”
* * * * *
The driving snow did not deter the enthusiasm of the Lion support column marching to the Scorpion village. Shigetoshi leapt down from his horse and surveyed the area. There were dead Destroyers everywhere, and many buildings had been damaged or burned entirely. But the village as a whole was largely intact, which he had not anticipated. “Where is Otemi?” he called out to some of the Lion nearby.
“Here, my lord,” Otemi called out. He limped toward his Champion, blood staining the armored plates covering his right arm. “Wounded, again, but as yet unbroken.”
“I never doubted victory would be yours, old friend,” Shigetoshi said. He stepped forward and clasped the other man by the forearm. It was a Unicorn custom, but one that both men had come to appreciate in their time spent working alongside or fighting the Unicorn, and they used it freely as a sign of their long friendship. “This is a great day. The men will celebrate this victory throughout the winter.” He raised an eyebrow. “And of course my debt is fulfilled as well, which is a pleasant addition.” He glanced around again at the Destroyers. “So much more difficult to dispose of than traditional corpses. You will learn to appreciate that.”
“What becomes of them?” Otemi asked.
“The Scorpion deal with them. I have not asked any further.”
“Ah,” Otemi said. “I hope the Scorpion have not offered us new weapons.”
“They have,” Shigetoshi said. “I respectfully declined.” He smiled. “Now, let us present the victorious commander to the men, shall we?”
* * * * *
One of the officers lifted the flap and half-entered the tent. “Lord Mareshi,” he called. “The scouts have returned.”
Mareshi nodded and sat down the weapon with which he had been gesturing to the map. “Show the gunso to me at once,” he commanded. “I would hear his report.”
The officer nodded and disappeared into the exterior of the camp. Only a moment or so later, one of the lightly armored scouts entered the chamber. Like all his kind, he had a somewhat wild look in his eye, and seemed uncomfortable within the confines of the tent. “My lord, I bring news.”
Mareshi placed both hands on the table. “What of Hiroshi and his men?”
“As the Lion said, my lord, he and his men made straight for the front lines,” the scout explained. “They moved with great speed, preventing any word of their arrival from reaching the enemy’s forward camp.”
“Were you able to keep pace?”
The scout hesitated for a heartbeat, as if contemplating one response and discarding it for another. “I said that they moved with great speed, my lord, not that they assumed the form of the wind. I assure you, my men kept pace with them in accordance with your wishes without difficulty.”
Mareshi smirked slightly. “Forgive me. Please continue.”
“The Lion assumed a formation I have never before seen,” the scout continued. “With the form and the speed with which they traveled, they were able to break through the front lines of our enemy and fight to the forward camp. Hiroshi and his men fought like demons, my lord. I have rarely seen the like. Many enemies fell before them. I would wager that more than half the officers of the Yobanjin, such as they are, fell beneath their steel at that battle.”
Mareshi’s eyes widened. “How would you characterize the enemy’s present disposition, gunso?”
“Disarrayed, my lord,” the scout replied.
“Marshal the first through sixth legions,” Mareshi commanded. “I want this opportunity exploited to the fullest.” He paused and jabbed the map with his finger. “Throw those filthy barbarians out of our lands.” He turned back to the scout. “Is there anything further?”
“Hiroshi and his legion perished, to a man,” the scout said. “You no doubt expected that.”
“I did,” Mareshi confirmed.
“It is just as well,” Yozo interrupted from the shadows. “Filthy Lion.”
“Enough,” Mareshi said sharply. “Did something of their death merit notice, other than the obligatory notification of the Lion Clan?”
“It did,” the scout said. “We watched from the rocks. The enemy stripped Hiroshi and his men of their armor after their deaths.” He hesitated. “Hiroshi and the others they were afflicted, my lord.”
All movement within the tent halted. “The plague?” Mareshi said softly.
“Hai, my lord,” the scout confirmed. “One and all, they bore the signs. Concealed by their armor, but revealed without it.”
“Perhaps they gave the accursed plague to the Yobanjin,” Yozo muttered.
“That is why they did not truck with us,” Mareshi said. “They denied our hospitality, virtually all contact with us, because they had the plague.”
“So it would seem, my lord,” the scout said. “I thought you would wish to know.”
Mareshi nodded. “You were right.” He turned to the scribe within the tent. “Your only duty at this point is to make a record of Akodo Hiroshi and his men. Of their heroism, their valor, and their deaths. You will do this at once, and we shall see it spread to the Empire.”
The scribe bowed sharply. “I will see it done, and done well, my lord.”
Mareshi nodded. “Very well. Now, let us take vengeance for their deaths.”