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The Battle at the Tomb, Part 3
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan

The Great Carpenter Wall

Duty atop the Kaiu Wall was considered at once among the most sacred assignments a Crab warrior could receive, and among the most dreaded. The survival expectation of those serving varied considerably depending upon which length of the Wall one served, but there was no section, not so much as a single mile, that could be considered safe. At any point, a sentry might hear the distant rumbling from deep within the Shadowlands, and the alarm would be sounded. So many times over the centuries, the sinister forces of Fu Leng had ridden forth and crashed against the Wall, and so many times the Crab had pushed them back. Losses were inevitable, of course, but the sons of Hida had never shirked from the terrible sound that emanated from the south.

Today, however, the thunder came from the north. The sentries braced at the sound of it, and prepared to signal their brothers along the Wall that another attack had come. Even as they stood ready to light the signal fires and send runners, however, the Crab warriors looked up in confusion, scanning the southern horizon for any sign of an enemy. Then, slowly, they turned to the north.

The thunder was cavalry, somewhere between two and three hundred. The sentries tensed, glancing from one to another and preparing for an attack. It was not until the army grew closer and the Emperor's banner was seen that a cheer went up from the Wall. The Emperor's defenders had arrived at last.

One man did not cheer. Yasuki Jinn-Kuen grimaced at the approach, then glanced across the Wall into the Shadowlands. His was the expression of a man weighing cost and benefit, and after a moment he merely shook his head in resignation. He turned back toward the advancing army and raised a hand in greeting as they pulled up short. "Hail, Yasuki Hachi-sama, Emerald Champion."

An exhausted looking Hachi leapt down from his mount, wiping the dirt and perspiration from his face. "Jinn-Kuen," he nodded. "We will need new horses. These have been riding almost non-stop since the Scorpion lands. They need rest and water or they will die."

"I expected as much," Jinn-Kuen said, glancing over his shoulder at the other Crab as Hachi mentioned the Scorpion. "I have made the necessary arrangements." He waved to a group of youths, who advanced and began taking the obviously exhausted horses away. "The jade I promised is ready. We will leave as soon as you are ready."

"We are ready now," Hachi insisted.

"No." A burly Unicorn samurai leapt down and somewhat reluctantly relinquished his steed to a Crab child. "The men are too tired, Hachi. They need rest."

"There is no time," Hachi said flatly. "The Emperor needs us now. It may already be too late."

"Very well," Moto Chen said. "And when we reach the Emperor, assuming those great rats can even take us to him as they claim, we will all be too weak from hunger and exhaustion to lift our weapons in his defense."

Hachi scowled. "There is no time, Chen," he repeated.

"If we leave now, every man and woman in this force will perish, possibly before we reach the Tomb and certainly within moments of our arrival." Chen stared at the Champion unabashedly. "What is more important to you, success or punctuality?"

Hachi's features twisted up in irritation, then crumbled into an expression of almost complete despair. "Three hours," he croaked. "Tell them."

Chen nodded. "You will not regret this decision," he said, and turned to arrange it.

"Hachi-sama," Jinn-Kuen said quietly as the Champion turned away. "We may have a problem."

Hachi smiled wanly. "What might that be?"

Jinn-Kuen gestured discreetly to the dozen or so armored Scorpion warriors among Hachi's forces. "Those men will not be allowed to barrack anywhere in the Crab lands. I suggest you keep them under guard to avoid& unpleasantness."

"Lord Kuon has given orders," Hachi began.

"Yes," Jinn-Kuen interrupted. "He has given orders that your forces be given free travel throughout our lands and that you are to be given any supplies you require. They do not mention anything regarding hospitality, and I assure you that there is none to be had for the Scorpion. We have had a bit of a& shall we call it an infestation, of assassins in recent months."

"These men are warriors," Hachi said, gesturing to their heavy armor and weapons. "They are soldiers, not assassins. One can hardly go leaping from rooftop to rooftop with a poisoned blade in one hand and ill will in the other when one is clad in nearly fifty pounds of lacquered armor."

"Looks can be deceiving," Jinn-Kuen said.

"See to it they are fed and housed," Hachi snapped. "Anyone who so much as speaks an ill word to them will be executed for treason."

Jinn-Kuen bowed demurely. "As you wish," he said.

True to plan, three hours later Hachi's forces, joined by those of the Crab and bearing an adequate amount of jade to protect the entire force, passed through the rarely opened gate in the Great Wall and began the arduous ride south. And if the Crab sentries that discovered the Scorpion had left their armor behind found the matter odd, it was not of concern to any among Hachi's forces.

----------------

A little more than a day's ride inside the Shadowlands, the army stopped briefly for a moment in order to let the horses catch their breath. Despite the hardy stock that the Crab insisted upon, the beasts were covered in perspiration and their breath came ragged. Chen dismounted and walked the line, looking for any that were in poor enough condition to change out for the limited number of relief horses the group had brought.

Hachi watched him quietly, shaking his head. The man's intentions were noble, but ultimately futile. The Emerald Champion knew well enough the steeds would not survive the trip. Indeed, he wondered if any of the riders would survive either.

Sekawa rode up alongside Hachi and glanced along the horizon. "This place is worse that even my darkest imaginings," he said quietly. "How can anything survive here? How can the Emperor still be alive?"

"He must be," Hachi said. "I cannot believe otherwise." He turned to the Nezumi standing near the army's fore, sniffing at the air carefully. "Krn'n," he called. "Where do we stand?"

The scout's whiskers twitched. "We stand here," it said plaintively.

Hachi grimaced, clutching the reins so hard his knuckles were white. "What I mean to say," he said slowly, "is that I would like to know if we are on the right trail."

"Oh," the Grasping Paw scout said. He turned and engaged in a short chattering with a Broken Shinbone scout, who pointed to the south. Krn'n then withdrew a battered scroll and glanced at it carefully. "Yes," he finally said. "Scout say the human Chief-of-Chiefs come this way. Map say this the right path as well."

Sekawa's eyes widened. "May I see the map, please?"

The scout's eyes narrowed. Sekawa smiled and pulled a decorative pin from the fold of his kimono. "I only wish to look for a moment, and then I will return it. As payment, you may keep this." He tossed the pin to the scout, who examined it eagerly, then gingerly offered the scroll to the Jade Champion.

Hachi peered over Sekawa's shoulder curiously. "I have wondered what he was looking at. What is it?"

Sekawa ran his hand across the ancient parchment delicately. "This& this is old," he said breathlessly. "Very old." He looked up to the scout. "Where did you find this?"

"Tribe find it in big-big forest, many yesterdays ago," the scout shrugged. He placed Sekawa's pin in his mouth and bit it carefully, as if testing the metal. "Old human warren."

"Hachi," Sekawa said, turning to let the Emerald Champion see. "Look at this." He pointed to a large crow emblazoned in flawless, if a bit faded, inkwork on the bottom. "Do you recognize this?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Hachi scoffed. "That cannot be genuine. It is a forgery."

"This is the mark Shinsei used in his writings," Sekawa insisted. "I have seen it in the oldest records the Brotherhood keeps. If this is a forgery, it is flawless. And the age of this scroll& I do not recall the last time I saw something so ancient."

"You are suggesting that Shinsei created a map to the tomb, and that the Nezumi happened to have it handy just when we needed it? Do you not find that idea completely preposterous?"

"I would have once," Sekawa agreed. "Not so any longer. Destiny is a powerful force. None of us can stand against it."

"It is not destiny I fear," Hachi said. He turned and waved his hand, signaling that the group was moving on. He turned and craned his head, frowning slightly. "We are close. I hope we can reach the tomb before the storm breaks. I do not wish to be caught in the rain in this place."

"Storm?" Sekawa frowned.

"I hear thunder in the distance," Hachi said, nodding toward the southest.

"That is no storm," Chen said darkly. "Would that it was."

----------------

Hachi braced himself and prepared for death. He whispered a quick prayer to both his ancestors and whatever Fortunes might still hold sway in this twisted, evil place. Many times in the past few years, he had been close to death. None had held the unwavering, absolute certainty of this moment. Hachi would die here. There would be no escape.

An army of oni raced across the plain toward the tomb. Hachi could see them, even at this distance, racing toward the enormous tomb that his army stood in defense of. He could see the writhing tentacles and the mal-shaped arms tearing at the ground. He could see the slavering maws and the dead, sightless eyes. He could see death approaching. It did not matter. All that mattered was that he die in service to his Emperor. It was better than he deserved.

"Hachi-sama!"

The Emerald Champion turned toward the sound, difficult though it was to tear his eyes away from the horror rampaging toward them. One of his men, a Phoenix, was pointing to the south. Hachi frowned and squinted, trying to see what it might be that could be of interest. And then he saw it.

Cavalry. A hundred, perhaps more. It was the Lost, racing toward them with even greater speed than the oni. Hachi frowned, but he felt little despair at the sight. He had resigned himself to death already. What did it matter from what quarter his death arrived. "Brace yourselves to receive the charge," he ordered. He did not specify which charge.

The Lost cavalry grew closer by the second, and it soon became evident that they would reach the tomb considerably quicker than the oni. Hachi and Chen ordered their men to turn, placing their front rank to receive the Lost rather than the oni. Hachi knew once his forces were flanked the engagement would be over within seconds, but better to live those seconds free and fighting than to perish with a whimper. "Tonight we stand with our ancestors!" he screamed across his formation. "Will we be proud, or ashamed?"

The roar that rose up from his men betrayed no hint of fear. They lifted their swords and shouted to the heavens that they were coming, and in that moment Hachi had never been prouder. He knew it was a lie. They were afraid to die in this place, and that they would rise again as abominations. But if it must be here, in defense of the Emperor himself, then so be it. He lifted his blade as well, then stepped forward to stand on the front rank, his posture prepared as if facing a duel. The Lost were almost upon them. Hachi could make out the faces of their leaders.

Daigotsu Rekai, the traitor.

Moto Tsume, the abomination.

At the last moment, the Lost veered suddenly and darted toward the east, leaving Hachi and his forces to cough as the dust cloud they had raised washed over them like a wave. Hachi stepped forward, enraged at such disrespect from his enemies, then watched in awe as the Lost cavalry rushed headfirst into the oni horde. The screams and roars as the two forces met were almost overwhelming, but Hachi knew he had but one chance for his men to earn any measure of victory today.

"Charge!" he screamed. "Charge! Death to the demons! Send them back to the pit!"

For the first time since he had passed beneath the Great Wall, Hachi felt a stirring of hope.

----------------

The oni was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. It was gigantic, nearly twenty feet tall, but spindly thin all across its body. As it moved across the battlefield, it killed everything it touched. Mirumoto Hirohisa watched as the beast tore a Crab warrior in half, then stared in awe as the arm the thing had used to destroy its foe shifted and changed, adopting the familiar colors of the Crab's armor and the thick, lacquered spikes that had adorned it. With another arm it cut down a Scorpion, and that arm became streaked with black and red, thinner and faster. It was a perfect killing machine, drinking in the essence of everything it touched and using that to kill again. Hirohisa wondered how such a beast could be killed or even slowed.

A shadow flitted across the battlefield, darting up the beast's arm and across what passed for a neck, although there was no head to speak of atop it at the moment. There was a flash of bright steel from the shadow and then it was gone, leapt down and disappeared into the chaotic battle once more. Thick, black ichor pumped from the wound the shadow had inflicted, and the beast's flesh rippled with the forms of the dozens it had killed already. It cast about for its foe, but found nothing.

The shadow appeared again, the bright flash of steel cutting deeply once more, but this time the beast had absorbed enough speed to lash out and cut its attacker. The lithe Scorpion warrior was sent cartwheeling, finally slow enough for Hirohisa to make out her form. Even from here he could see the deep cut along her side. The woman's hand flickered insider her obi once, twice, three times. Each time a knife sprouted from the demon's hide near its neck. The wretched thing roared in outrage, although how it did so with no mouth Hirohisa did not know, and lunged forward to crush the Scorpion with its tree-like legs.

Hirohisa was moving at once. He darted between the corpses and the jagged rocks, trying to think of nothing but his task. The certainty of death was shoved ruthlessly aside. The only fleeting thought was his hope that he might survive this battle, and the war with the Crane, and see his watchtower again. Hirohisa had hated his post there for much of his command, but he longed for the quiet serenity now. Life was not without irony.

"Shun!" he shouted, leaping nimbly over a low, slavering oni that reached up ineffectively toward him with ribbon-like tentacles. "Shun, grab hold!" He threw himself into the rapidly decreasing divide between the Scorpion and the lumbering death above her, grabbing her arm and twisting to avoid the oni's leg. He felt Shun's hand close around his, and he rolled, wondering idly if the stone bits biting into his back and shoulders would infect him with the Taint.

He was on his feet in an instant, grinning triumphantly as he looked back to the oni. His smile died when he say the blood pooling around the thing's foot. He glanced over at Shun, only to grimace as he realized he had not been fast enough. He dropped the grisly trophy and drew his blades again. "You die today, beast," he snarled under his breath.

----------------

Only a short distance away, the Nezumi shaman Chitik watched with distaste as the Dragon warrior darted in and out, trying to kill the much larger beast. Anyone with any sense could see that the thing was too big. Did one warrior try to kill a bear? Of course not. Ridiculous.

"Aid me, creature!" a human hissed. The man did not look familiar, and his robes were smeared with all manner of things humans normally tried to avoid. "We must fell the demon!"

Chitik's eyes narrowed, but he had been paid to aid the humans. Paid quite well, actually. "What you want Chitik to do?" he asked cautiously.

"The demon's name is powerful!" the human said, pointing to the creature. "But it is its weakness as well! Together we can fell it!"

The shaman's whiskers twitched involuntarily. This was the sort of thing that could make one's Name quite powerful indeed. "What I do?"

"Its name!" the human shouted. "Its name is Yojireru no Oni! Try to take it!"

Chitik frowned. That manner of magic was beyond his power, although he had often convinced humans otherwise. Even under these circumstances, he could hardly reveal his secret; he might never be paid! "Chitik will!" he proclaimed proudly, wondering what he would do.

The shaman reached out through the power of Name and assessed his enemy. It was so powerful! Chitik had never felt anything like it before. The demon had an incredibly strong Name, and many other smaller Names besides! It was as if it devoured them, stealing bits and pieces of others as it defeated them. Chitik scowled at the sacrilege of it. There were limits to what a Nezumi could endure, even one such as himself!

"Can you do it?" the human demanded.

"Chitik will!" the shaman roared. He seized the beast's Name and began fraying it around the edges, trying to unravel the patchwork fabric that only he and his magic could see. He could no longer see the world normally, but he could hear the monster screaming in pain. He attacked it with the savagery of a Crippled Bone berserker, hurling his own Name against the much more powerful foe's.

"What is happening?" the human hissed. "Is it working?"

"Too strong!" Chitik wailed after several moments. "Chitik can't hold it!"

"Are you still linked?" the human said, grabbing the shaman by the fur on his shoulder. "Are you connected to it?"

"Yes!" Chitik snarled through clenched teeth.

"Good." There was a sudden stinging and pressure in Chitik's back. He felt woozy, and there was the sensation of liquid running down his back. "Then this will hurt the demon as well."

True to the human's words, the demon roared even louder, quaking and slumping onto the ground where it spasmed uncontrollably Chitik felt weakness washing over him, passing through him into the oni, then slowly slid to the ground.

"Our orders were to aid the samurai," Chuda Isoruko said with a twisted smile. "You hardly count, I think. Sacrifices must be made, regardless."

As he lay on the ground, his life slipping away, Chitik wondered if perhaps the humans would at least send his payment to his tribe.

----------------

Hiruma Sakimi grunted with satisfaction as she pried her tetsubo loose from the skull of another demon. She heard a shout of alarm from behind her, even among the chaos surrounding her. The scout turned and saw a small group of Hachi's forces split off from the main force. One, a Miya by his markings, was valiantly fending off a pack of podlings with one hand while holding a banner aloft. Sakimi scowled at the idea, certain the herald was throwing his life away for a banner, until she saw the insignia: a brilliant mid-day sun shining down on the Imperial chrysanthemum.

It was the Emperor's personal standard, borne aloft by his servants among the Imperial families.

Sakimi shouted, trying to distract the creatures assailing the herald, but to no avail. Even as she ran toward him, she saw the creatures cut deeply into his legs and back again and again, but he did not falter. He swung his blade again and again, hacking his way free of them. Just when it seemed that he might emerge victorious, a shadow fell over him. Sakimi cried out a warning, but it was too late. A winged sanru no oni swept down and tore his head off with a single blow of its powerful claws.

"Filth!" Sakimi shrieked. She leapt atop a boulder and hurled herself into the air with every bit of strength remaining in her legs. She sailed through the short distance between the two, severing the sanru no oni's arm and leg on its left side with her katana as she did so. She landed with a graceless thud in the thick, reddish mud and released her tetsubo, reaching out with her free hand to grab the standard before it fell to the ground. It was a crime for one not of Imperial blood to touch so sacred an artifact, but Sakimi did not care. Better that she be punished for her crime than the Emperor's standard to fall in the bloodied, tainted earth so far from the palace. Sakimi shouted a war cry and raced back to the army's main force, her blade in one hand and the standard in another.

----------------

"Hachi!" Chen roared. "We cannot hold them forever!"

"We do not have to!" Hachi shouted. "Gather the officers! We are going in after the Emperor!"

"What?" Chen demanded. "What will that accomplish?"

"We must know what is taking place within the Tomb!" Sekawa answered. "If he will be within it for too long, we can withdraw inside and collapse the entrance! If not, we must be ready to run at a moment's notice! Regardless, he could be injured or require assistance!"

"Fine!" Chen bellowed. "Officers, to me! Matsu Takuya, hold the line!"

The young Lion officer saluted briefly, then turned and cut another oni down. He glanced at Benika. "Go!" he shouted. "I will watch your pride!"

"They will not obey you!" the beastmaster returned.

"They need not!" Takuya answered. "They need only follow!" With that, the young Lion leapt atop a demon nearly three times his size and began plunging his blade into its back repeatedly, all the while screaming an ancient Matsu war cry. The lions, already half-drunk on the scent of blood, followed suit and leapt at the beast, tearing at it with their claws and teeth. Benika shouted in delight, then turned and followed Chen, Hachi, and Sekawa into the tomb.

Slowly, the other Emperor's defenders broke away as well, entering the tomb in twos and threes, until all were lost within its depths, seeking the Emperor amid shadows that had not been disturbed in a thousand years.

The battle raged on.

----------------

They found the Emperor deep within the tomb, in a shadowed chamber filled with strange, ancient artifacts covered in varying layers of thick dust. "My Emperor," Hachi said breathlessly, dropping to one knee. "Are you all right?"

The Emperor gave no sign that he had heard his Emerald Champion. "These are the signs he left for us," he muttered. Under his arm he held a thick scroll, discolored and wrinkled by age. "These are the paths we must choose."

"Emperor-chief!" a Broken Shinbone warchief chirped loudly. It gestured to the battlefield above them even as a thunderous roar shook dust from the ceiling down upon them. "Listen!"

Naseru tilted his head and listened. Even from these depths, he could hear the roaring of oni, and the screams of dying samurai. Men and women that were giving their lives for him at this very moment, only a short distance away. "The demons have come for me," he said. It was not a question.

"Yes," Chen confirmed, his expression grim.

"Is there time to escape?" Naseru asked. "No," Chen said darkly. "They are too many, and too close. They will pursue us and kill us all. Still, we must try."

"No," the Emperor said sharply. He gestured to the artifacts scattered around the chamber. "Take these. Return them to the Empire. Study them, and keep them safe. They are our salvation. They are the key to Rokugan's very survival."

"Forgive me, my Emperor, but perhaps you misunderstand," Chen said cautiously. "There is a legion of demons above us. Their number is without measure. We cannot escape."

"There is a way," Naseru said. "One way, the only way remaining." He handed the scroll beneath his arm to Sekawa and whispered something to the Jade Champion. Sekawa stared back at him in confusion. "We will buy the time needed to take these items back to the Empire by giving the demons that which they desire."

Hachi frowned. "What is that, Toturi-sama?"

Toturi Naseru drew his blade. "My death."

On the battlefield above, the sky grew dark as a black shadow crept across the sun.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!