The saga of the final days of Rokugan’s war with the Destroyers continues!
Goddesses, Part 2
By Shawn Carman
One of the accursed tiger-men demons was standing over the Hiruma scout, slavering in anticipation of the kill that was only seconds away. The scout showed no fear. The bow he had been wielding lay to the side, its string broken, and he had drawn a long knife from his belt, unable to bring any longer weapon to bear. He would make his killer suffer for the privilege of ending his life, that much was obvious. But of course it would never come to that.
Hida Benjiro, slathered in gore and lost to the red rage of combat, leapt from atop a small boulder and brought his tetsubo down with the force of a bolt of lightning. The tiger demon saw him at the last moment and turned to tear him to shreds, but it was far too late for such a thing. Benjiro’s first and only strike shattered the demon’s jaw, then tore it away from its body with a wretched tearing sound and a spray of ichor. He followed it up with a savage kick to the thing’s midsection, feeling the snap of ribs and relishing the sensation even as it fell away, broken and dying. “On your feet!” he shouted to the scout. “We’ve work to do! Die later!”
“Hai, commander!” the scout shouted, drawing his katana. “You might remind Seison as well!”
Benjiro turned to see Kaiu Seison high above the ground, clutched in the talons of one of the demons. The pressure being exerted on the engineer was clearly enormous, as plates from his layered armor were being shed like leaves in the autumn. The demon screamed in rage as it lunged in again and again to bite the Crab, but each time was driven away by a massive strike from the Kaiu’s warhammer. “Seison!” Benjiro shouted, rushing the creature’s flank and smashing its ribs with one swipe of his tetsubo. “Stop being an engineer and fight!”
Seison dropped from the creature’s claws, staggering on the ground and gasping for breath. “Their bones must be… very strong. Could build… impressive tower out of them…” He then smirked. “Only kidding, my lord.”
“There might be a better time later,” Benjiro hissed, killing the beast he had crippled.
“You assume there will be a later,” Seison countered. “I have never been an optimist.”
Benjiro scarcely heard him. At the base of the plateau on which they were fighting was massed an enormous number of the demons, seemingly just waiting. As he watched them, they began to part ways from the rear, as if allowing something to pass unimpeded as it approached the plateau. He reached down to confirm the presence of the weapon in his obi. “Optimism is a poor use of our time,” he agreed.
* * * * *
The siege at Kyuden Ashinagabachi had become a deadlocked siege, with a massive army of Destroyers held at the outskirts of the castle village. Much of the days were quiet, punctuated with outbreaks of intense violence and fear as the demons attempted to penetrate the Mantis defenses and lay waste to the castle beyond. Thousands of samurai were barracked in the lands around the castle, fighting day and night as the Destroyers made their intermittent assaults. The Tsuruchi, accustomed to seclusion in the mountains, had laid aside a massive supply of food and water to ensure that they could not be trapped in their estate, but with the sheer number of forces there to assist in the defense, the stores were already beginning to run low. In a matter of weeks, it was whispered, there would be nothing to eat or drink. The more fatalistic among them scoffed, certain that the war would be concluded long before that, one way or another.
Suzume Sahara sat on a battered wooden box behind a massive, chaotic wall of earth that had been hastily constructed by peasants only a short time before the siege began. The Destroyers only rarely made use of ranged fire, but Sahara was grateful for the wall just the same. There was no sense in tempting fate, after all.
The thought made Sahara smile. Tempting fate was almost literally his duty on behalf of the Spider. He had been a member in good standing of the Sparrow Clan for what seemed like a long time, having sworn his oath of fealty at the Spider lord’s request. Ever since he had struggled greatly to balance both of his oaths, and to fulfill his obligations to both the Spider and the Sparrow. He only rarely felt that he had accomplished this.
The young duelist turned to see a familiar face running in his direction. Shiba Ikuko was a warrior of incredible focus that he had gotten to know rather well over the past few weeks. “The gunso says that the Mantis are preparing one of their tricks,” she said, frowning slightly. Sahara knew that many of the Mantis Clan’s unconventional uses of magic in battle made the more traditional Phoenix uncomfortable. “We are to be ready to exploit the advantage.”
Sahara nodded. “What is our objective? There is little out there in the way of defenses, so I do not think we can hold it even if we take it.”
“Some of my people are moving up to erect another wall, if we can,” Ikuko said. “If possible, we want to retake at least a few hundred feet. That will let us search for any survivors from the earlier actions today.”
“At the very least we can retrieve their blades,” Sahara said. He was enormously grateful to be able to do even that much, although he strongly suspected there would be no survivors to be rescued. The fighting in the afternoon had been gruesome indeed. He looked at Ikuko and smiled. “I will stand beside you if you will have me, Shiba-sama.”
Ikuko returned his smile. “There are few others in this rabble I would have, Sahara!” She then began scanning Kyuden Ashinagabachi, and her smile faded to a look of consternation. “There,” she said, pointing to one of the highest towers.
Sahara followed her gesture and watched as the tiny, distant form of a priestess hurled herself from the tower into the void. She did not fall, however. Sahara knew that it must be Moshi Awako, the regent for the Moshi family and the orchestrator of most of the battle’s magical defenses. From this distance she seemed to drift among the clouds, winding her way away from the castle to hover far, far above the battlefield. And then the lightning began.
“Fortunes!” Ikuko swore, and looked away. The sky was filled with brilliance so majestic that it was difficult to look at. Sahara looked at it, however. He could not look away. The flashes of light seemed to take shape, and form the image of a massive, coiling dragon amid the clouds. The lighting sprang from it and scoured the earth clean in the region they were preparing to retake, but he could only look at the dragon.
As he watched, the dragon turned, and seemed to look directly at him. Are you worthy? a voice came unbidden in his mind, filling every corner of his soul. Are you worthy, little Spider?
“Sahara, now!” Ikuko shouted. She drew her blade and scrambled over the wall, with Sahara running close behind. His sword arm worked without thought, operating on instinct alone, but his mind was filled with the magnitude of the question.
Was he worthy?
* * * * *
Benjiro had lost count of how many of the tiger demons he had killed when he was suddenly struck by something with such incredible force that all the air was driven from his lungs in an instant, and he found himself somersaulting through the air out of control. It was fortunate that he landed in the dirt and not on the rocks, although fortunate was not how he felt when he came crashing down to the ground in an undignified heap, gasping for breath and struggling to get his bearings.
“I recognized your stench from quite some distance,” a baleful, familiar voice said. Benjiro had heard it in his nightmares for months. “I wondered briefly if you were attempting to lead me into some sort of trap, but no… you are simply stupid enough to be cut off from your allies and left at my mercy.”
Benjiro managed to get to his feet, spitting blood into the dirt. “Can’t it be both?”
“You sicken me,” the rakshasa said, looking at him with obvious contempt. The shape-shifter had assumed its tiger-headed form, eerily similar to the much larger creatures scattered across the plateau, each holding one of Benjiro’s men immobilized or pinned to the ground. “You and your men reek even more than the rest of your kind. You are foul, brutish creatures unfit for anything other than combat, at which you are woefully inadequate.”
“Fortunes, if I had known you would talk me to death I’d have just killed myself when I got up this morning,” Benjiro snarled. He drew a short knife of ivory from his belt. “If you want to kill me, then come do it like a man, you coward.”
“Like a man?” the beast sneered. “Coward? You prove yourself a fool with every word. Do you think you injured me last time? There are scars but they will heal. I have no need to fear you.” The demon held up its claws and roared. “I will enjoy killing you, though. No mortal dares touch me!”
Benjiro tossed the knife back and forth between his hands. “I’ll do more than that.” He beckoned the demon forward. “Come on, then.”
The rakshasa roared and lunged forward. Benjiro leapt to the side the second he saw movement, but even that was not quite enough. He felt the beast’s claws tear at the greaves, ripping away the armor at his left shin. At the same time he stabbed out with the short knife, which felt hopelessly small in his hand. He felt it tear something, but it was cloth, not flesh. He rolled the second he struck the ground. It was almost not enough, as there was a deep booming sound and he was showered with earth and rock shards as the thing attempted to crush him beneath its feet. He struck out again with the knife and this time was rewarded with a howl of mixed fury and pain.
“Insect!” the rakshasa roared. “Rodent!” Benjiro barely managed to deflect a blow from the thing that tore apart the plates of his armor. It tore the flesh of his arm next, and he stabbed it through its upper arm, drawing another howl of agony. He threw himself backwards, but not before it struck him with a backhand that, for a moment, he feared had snapped his back like a twig. He rolled in the dirt and sputtered, spitting blood and soil out of his mouth onto the ground. He could still feel the knife in his hand but his fingers were numb and he could not command the arm to rise. “Not… not finished… with you…” he mumbled.
“Please,” the rakshasa said, his voice dripping with contempt. “If this were merely a physical confrontation, perhaps you might keep pace with me for a time, but you have no concept of the power at my command. You are merely mortal, and I… I am rakshasa!” It scooped Benjiro up with one hand around his throat, its other hand holding the wrist of the hand holding the knife. It bared its fangs. “Do you have any final words, vermin?”
“When you… got here…” Benjiro rasped, barely able to get air from his lungs, “…you thought… trap…”
“A laughable overestimation,” the demon spat.
Benjiro’s increasingly white face twisted into a smile. “You… were right…”
From the sides of the plateau, a cloud of arrows suddenly took to the air. They rained down on the beasts waiting at the base, piercing them in a hundred places and staining the ground with their blood. They spilled from the air down upon the tiger-beasts on the plateau, sparing the Crab warriors who darted beneath their enemies to avoid the onslaught. And a smaller number, their tips gleaming white in the sunlight, bore down upon the rakshasa, slicing his flesh and eliciting a feral scream of pain. “What is this?” it roared.
Benjiro ripped his hand free of the thing’s grip and kicked it in the stomach with both feet, knocking himself free. He was up in an instant and stabbed the beast in the stomach, causing yet another scream of pain. “You cannot kill me!” it shouted, throwing Benjiro away. “You have no chance of ending me! I am eternal! You cannot kill me!”
“I do not have to kill you,” Benjiro said. “I only need to delay you long enough.”
At his words, a small unit of Unicorn came riding up the opposite side of the plateau at full speed, their steeds kicking an enormous cloud of dust up into the sky. They were warriors and priests, but the man riding at the front was remarkable from his fellows even at a distance for the iron mask that covered his face.
“Doomseeker!” the rakshasa screamed, and this time it was not pain or outrage in its voice, but fear. It turned to flee but Benjiro was on it in an instant, tackling it by the legs and stabbing it repeatedly in the legs and back with his now-bloodied knife.
“Your part in this is done, lord Benjiro, and done well,” Iuchi Katamari said, his voice booming. “Stand aside, and I will finish this unclean beast once and for all, as my order demands.”
Benjiro kicked the demon in the face and leapt away, for its final lashing claw strikes would surely have killed him. The demon writhed on the ground, thrashing in agony as the Doomseeker’s rituals bound it and began stripping its immortal essence from its flesh. “Do you remember?” Benjiro demanded. “Do you remember what I promised you? I will be there when you die, I said.” Benjiro sat down roughly on a rock and buried his dagger into the earth. He wiped blood from his face and watched the beast impassively. “I hope it takes a long time.”
The rakshasa’s screams carried all across the plains for many hours.
* * * * *
Furumaro returned to the young samurai with a smile. “I have spoken to the abbot,” he said. “The brothers here are quite busy, as you can imagine. They are content for us to go about our affairs as long as we do not interfere with their rituals or preparations.”
“Preparations?” Akodo Shunori asked. “What preparations might there be?”
“It was their word, Akodo-sama, not mine,” Furumaro said with a short bow. “However I imagine their proximity to the current battle lines have made them somewhat paranoid about evacuation.”
“I can certainly understand that,” Doji Ayano said. She looked around with a sigh. “I adore temples. So serene and peaceful. This is a good place to rest until we determine what to do.”
“Ugh,” Bayushi Kurumu (sic) returned. “Serene? Boring, perhaps.”
“Did you inquire as to whether or not the Empress had been in this area?” Shunori asked.
“I did not.” Furumaro seemed surprised. “I assume that it is not general knowledge she is traveling in the region. Would that not place her at greater risk? But no, they did not mention it, and I feel confident that someone would have.”
Isawa Kyoko nodded. “If the Empress had been here, this temple would be considered sacrosanct. Even with the war, there would be faithful adherents all about the temple.” She shook her head. “The Empress has not been here.”
Kurumi fanned herself lightly. “We have searched every major road and all major stops in this region,” she said. “I assure you, the Empress is not in this province. Her path and ours clearly diverged at some point. She could be anywhere in the Scorpion lands, but I feel confident she is not nearby.”
“It is possible she is traveling covertly, I suppose,” Yoritomo Saburo offered.
“Why would the Empress travel covertly?” Shunori demanded. “That makes even less sense than her being in this region in the first place!”
“Be cautious,” Saburo warned. “I would hate for you to say something in haste that would make you kill yourself later.”
Shunori scowled, but did not reply. “The Empress’ business in this region must surely be connected in some way to our business in the Fingers of Bone,” Kurumi pressed on. “I cannot believe that the two are unrelated.”
“I agree,” Kyoko said. “The Empress possesses insight beyond our ken, and I think we are witnessing destiny unfold before us.”
“If we are in some way involved in her arrival in this region,” Shunori said darkly, “then each and every one of us is responsible in some small way for placing the Empress in harm’s way.”
The comment silenced them all for a moment. Saburo scratched his chin. “That is quite sobering.”
“We have to do something,” Shunori insisted. “We have to do something to protect the Empress!”
“We do not even know where she is,” Kurumi insisted. “What exactly would you propose we do?”
“It is a difficult situation in which you find yourselves,” Furumaro said with a sage nod. “The Empress is somewhere relatively nearby, but you know not where. The Destroyers are likewise nearby, and you fear that they will find your Empress.” He shrugged. “Unless you can find her, or somehow distract the Destroyers from her presence, I fear you will remain in a difficult situation.”
“We cannot find her!” Ayano said, clearly distressed. “Kurumi knows this area as well as anyone, and she could not help us. What else can we do?”
“We certainly cannot attract the attention of the Destroyers,” Saburo said.
“Can we not?” The others looked at Mirumoto Ichizo, surprised. The practical young warrior shrugged. “I can think of something we could do.”
“Ahh,” Furumaro said with a chuckle. “You Mirumoto! Always thinking in unusual ways!”
“What are you talking about?” Shunori demanded.
“Oh,” Kyoso (sic) said. “Oh, no! No, no, no! We mustn’t!”
“All must make choices,” Furumaro advised. “I am certain you will all reach the correct one, regardless of the circumstances for either.”
“What are you talking about?” Shunori repeated, his voice louder.
“The scroll,” Kyoko said. “He means we can open the scroll!”
There was the sound of steel being drawn, but Saburo put himself between Hiruma Akio and the Dragon warrior. “Put that away,” he barked. “If you are going to be a fool then go back the way we came and try to find the Spider patrol’s trail, as you wanted to then.”
“We will not open that scroll,” Akio swore.
“What is more important?” Ichizo asked calmly. “The Empress, or the sanctity of our souls?” He looked at Shunori. “The Akodo already knows the answer to that question, I wager.”
Shunori’s face was white with anger, but he said nothing. He fumed for a moment, before Saburo stepped in front of him and met his eyes. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he nodded. Saburo nodded in return, then looked at Kyoko. “Give me the scroll, please,” he said quietly.
“No!” Akio shouted. “Do not do this!”
Saburo took the Black Scroll from Kyoko, his face ashen. “I will not see the Empress dead because we are weak.”
“You do not know where she is!” Akio said. “She may have turned back to the Imperial City for all we know!”
“I pray that is true,” Saburo said. “But I think you know it isn’t.”
With shaking hands, he broke the seal of the scroll.