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Oaths
By Shawn Carman & Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan

Twilight was the most dangerous time atop the Great Carpenter Wall. During the night it was impossible to see more than a dozen feet or so into the Shadowlands, but a trained Crab warrior knew to depend upon his other senses in such a situation. One could be trained to hear even the faintest whispers of an enemy's movement through the darkness. One could learn to sense the heavy presence of a demon lingering in the edge of the shadows. One could even learn to taste blood on the air, if there was an attack in the middle of the night. In the failing twilight, however, the eyes betrayed all other senses. It was almost impossible to train a man to ignore what he could see in favor of something else.

Hida Dayu switched the ono he carried from his left to right hand, restlessly scanning the southern horizon for any sign of activity. The Shadowlands had been quiet of late, and like all Hida, he had long ago come to dread the periods of inactivity that arose from time to time; they almost always preceded a massive attack. Dayu squinted against the maddening amber tone of the sky, his warrior's instinct driving him to search for any detail, any inconsistency. Something ominous was lurking in the wastes, he could sense it. He resisted the urge to grind his teeth in frustration at the waiting.

More than an hour passed as Dayu stood virtually motionless atop the section of the Wall that was his to defend. He glanced periodically at the sentries to his distant left and right, but the distance was too far for him to see if they felt the same tension he did. He had begun to fear he was becoming paranoid when, less than an hour before nightfall completely obscured everything around him, he heard the sentry on his right shouting.

"Movement in the treeline!"

Dayu rushed to the edge and peered, squinting and cursing at the conditions. He could make out movement, just as the sentry said, but the targets were small, much smaller than any oni he had faced atop the wall to date. He turned back to the small barracks behind the Wall, one of many that dominated the area. "Ready archers!" he shouted. He held his ono aloft and waited, conscious of the sound of men positioning themselves behind him. If the enemies breached the Wall, if he should fall, he knew that the oni would be cut down by a hail of arrows only moments after.

Dayu was joined by two more sentries, then another six, as the figures from the trees moved slowly closer. Despite the poor light, as they drew closer, they became somewhat more distinct, and it was with shock that Dayu realized they were men, three of them, all wearing the tattered and broken remnants of Crab clothing. All three were covered in blood and clearly injured as well, something that caused Dayu to wince; even if these men were still in their right minds, the chances that their wounds would result in them becoming Tainted were very high. "Halt!" Dayu shouted. "If you are Crab, as you appear, you know you can proceed no further!"

The three men stopped. The one in front looked up at the Wall, seeming almost confused at first. "We have arrived," he croaked after a moment, his words carrying on the soft evening breeze. "Brothers, we have succeeded."

"Who are you?" Dayu shouted. "Identify yourselves!"

The lead man held aloft a cloth-wrapped bundle in shaking hands. The cloth was as stained and bloodied as his robes. "I am Kuni Daigo," he called out, his voice stronger now. "And I have come to share with my Champion the tale of his brother's death."


* * *

Despite the lateness of the hour, there was little empty room within the Crab Champion's audience chamber. Officers and attendants from throughout Kyuden Hida and the surrounding area had learned, as if by magic, that survivors from the march of the Damned had returned, and everyone wished to hear what had happened.

Kuni Daigo and the two men who followed him, men named Hida Kengo and Hida Tsubaru, stood waiting for their Champion to speak. The three had been given clean robes so as not to sully the Champion's chamber with their blood and the blood of others, but beyond that, they stood exactly as they had when they had emerged from the Shadowlands.

Hida Kuon did not speak for several moments. He sat in the great stone seat that was meant only for the Crab Champion, and stared at the three men without expression for what seemed like hours. His wife Reiha stood at his shoulder, her expression inscrutable. Finally, Kuon spoke. "Tell me what has happened to those who walked alongside you."

Daigo nodded slowly. "Under the command of your& Kyofu," he said cautiously, "the Damned marched south through the Shadowlands, destroying any living or unliving thing that we encountered. Goblins, trolls, ogres, oni, nothing was spared. We marched for days without significant rest, following the maps provided by the Emperor Toturi III that would lead us to the City of the Lost. Long before then, we reached the obstacle that the Hiruma call the Wall of Bone."

Kuon nodded. "Daigotsu's mockery of our Wall."

"Perhaps more functional than that, my lord," Daigo offered. "Upon our arrival, we discovered a large force of the Lost defending the wall against a massive army of oni. Kyofu assessed the situation, and commanded us to assault the oni's rear flank."

There was a murmur throughout the chamber, but Kuon silenced it with a slight twitch of his hand. "The Lost or the demons," he said quietly. "That is not a choice any Crab should ever have to make. This proves nothing of Kyofu's motives, either his loyalty to us or his betrayal. Continue."

"There is little else to say," Daigo admitted. "The battle was& fierce. Men and women died all around me. Demons perished by the score. Within moments, the ground was trod into a thick black-and-crimson swamp. I saw things& thing I would never& that I can't&"

"Be at ease," Reiha said softly. "Who stood with Kyofu in the battle?"

"I did, my lady." Hida Kengo stepped forward.

"What was his fate?" she asked.

Kengo lowered his head. "He did not survive, my lady. I brought his blade, the blade you gave him to carry, as he asked before the battle. I brought it to Daigo and have protected him since we returned, as has Tsubaru."

Reiha nodded. "What can you tell us of Kyofu's death?"

Kengo's face twisted. He began to speak, then stopped. He started again, but no sound came out. Finally, he turned his head away and shook his head. "I do not have the words," he said softly.

The sky seemed to roil as thick black clouds churned above the battlefield. The soil was so drenched in blood and torn from the shockwaves of powerful oni that the sky and ground could scarcely be told apart from one another. Kengo shouted and laughed and wept, one flowing into another. He held onto the rage inside him, embracing it like a lover. It was his anchor, a familiar red sanctuary that kept him from losing his mind as everything was torn apart around him. He killed again and again, not feeling the waves of blood that coursed over him, not noticing that his flesh was torn over and over by the barbs of his enemies.

Kyofu roared like a mad god and leapt upon a winding serpentine form that tore through the Crab ranks. Even as a dozen men fell to the thing, Kyofu buried his blade into its mass. The thing shouted, its voice strangely feminine, but there was no appreciable effect other than a thick gout of what might have been blood. The thing's four arms tore at Kyofu, peeling away his armor and sending ribbons of flesh flying way from him like insects fleeing a recent kill. Kyofu swung again, severing one of the demon's four arms, and this time its scream was unmistakable. It gored him through the chest with the horns atop its head, sending a spay of viscera from the man-made-demon's back. He shouted in pain and anger, and then lunged in closer, seizing the creature's throat in his fangs and tearing like a starving beast.

Kyoso no Oni shrieked as she tore Kyofu from her body, ripping him apart as she did so. Then she knocked aside two other Crab, narrowly missing Kengo, and fled, rivers of blood streaming from the terrible wounds Kyofu had inflicted. Kengo chased her for a short distance, but she was too fast, and another of her minions blocked his path. He killed it, and then another, and another, and another.
Death was all around him.


"Then Kyofu is dead," Kuon said. His voice betrayed no emotion, no regret. "He fulfilled his vow as he said. He returned the blade gifted to him. Even if he did not reach the City of the Lost, his death was an honorable one. He will be remembered as a Crab, for it is a Crab's duty and how he fulfills it that determines his worth, not what sins are washed away by them."

"There is more," Daigo said softly.

Kuon raised an eyebrow. "Continue."

"Despite his death, we did not abandon Kyofu's orders," the shugenja continued. "Once Kyoso no Oni was routed, her forces were in disarray, and they were defeated. Those few of us who survived turned to the Lost, but they were gone."

"Gone?" Reiha demanded.

"Disappeared during the fighting," Daigo confirmed. "We thought to give chase, and continued to the City of the Lost." He paused, frowning. "It was abandoned, my lord. There was nothing there save a few goblins and other creatures that had taken up residence in what was obviously an empty city."

"Abandoned?" Kuon roared. "What do you mean, abandoned?"

"The Lost are gone, my lord," Daigo said flatly.

This time Kuon made no attempt to quell the murmurs. His wife looked at him in confusion. "What can this mean?" she asked. "Why would the Lost abandon their city?"

Kuon shook his head slowly. "I do not know," he said after a moment's consideration. "I know only that my instincts tell me it is a greater threat than we can know for now."


Kuon scanned the scroll, looking only for the numbers that hid within. He tossed it aside and picked up the next one. What he found inside did not ease his mind any more than the first. It also found itself on the floor. It felt impossible to concentrate on such things, given the enormity of the news he had just heard hours before, but he had little choice. The burdens of the Crab Champion were his to bear, after all.

"Good evening, Lord Kuon. I know that look of consternation well."

The voice was deep and resonant, and Kuon recognized it immediately. "Good evening, grandfather. Please, join me." As the large form of Hida Kisada strode into Kuon's great chamber, the Crab Champion waved his attendants away. Once only the two greatest living Crab warriors occupied the room, Kuon spoke again. "It is good to see you, grandfather. We have not spoken since your sojourn to the Dragon lands. Did you find that which you sought?"

"I found her," Kisada said simply. "It is fully documented here," Kisada handed Kuon a scroll, "to do with what you wish. You have a new cousin among the Dragon. Her name is Kitsuki Yoritoko."

Kuon took the scroll but did not open it. "A Dragon?" He shrugged. "It could be worse I suppose. She could be a Scorpion."

"The Scorpion," Kisada said flatly, his voice oddly without overt malice. "Their pitiful campaign continues unabated."

"Did you think it otherwise?" Kuon asked. "They sent assassins to have you killed. Such an outrage will not stand. We will see the Scorpion ground beneath our heel."

"Yet, you have not done so. Why?"

"I thought you would wish to be present. The gravest insult was against you, after all."

"True." Kisada said. "They have killed many fine officers because they cannot take my life. Something must be done, I suppose."

Kuon frowned. "Why would you hesitate? They deserve their fate."

"I have seen many things, grandson. War does not hold the appeal to me that it once did. Do they deserve their fate? Certainly, but do we not all deserve such a fate?" He shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts. "Enough prattling, though. To avoid war at this point would be unthinkable."

"So, we march."

Kisada shook his head. "To send the armies of the Crab against the Scorpion would be unconscionable now. With no one occupying the throne, the Empire is at its most vulnerable. Our enemies beyond the Wall lay in waiting. They would consider this a strong opportunity to strike. The Wall must be protected. The Crab cannot weaken in their duty only to avenge a slight against me."

Kuon watched the former Champion. "You appear to have thought this through, grandfather. What do you propose?"

Kisada nodded grimly and explained his intentions.


The number of barracks near Kyuden Hida was almost beyond counting. The sheer number of troops stationed near the castle was such that it could easily surpass any other installation in the Empire, save perhaps for the similarly huge Shiro Matsu in the Lion lands. One of the barracks was unique, however, attached as it was to an exceptionally large and well-maintained stable. The men within were disciplined soldiers, men who were accustomed to the ways of war in a variety of settings. And yet, at the unexpected sight of Hida Kisada standing in the doorway of their barracks, they simply sat, stunned, uncertain of what to do.

"Tsuru's Legion," Kisada said. "I remember the day my brother requested permission to create this unit. I was skeptical. Cavalry is not something the Crab have ever made use of, and to be honest, I saw little point in doing so. I could not deny my brother's tactical brilliance, however, and so I granted him permission. It was not a decision I ever had cause to regret."

"Kisada-sama," one of the officers said, kneeling instantly. The rustling of dozens of men following suit was the only sound breaking the silence.

"The Scorpion have transgressed against us," Kisada said. "I care little for their attempts on my life, but the murder of those who serve me will not stand. I will take one hundred of our clan's finest cavalry. We will strike where we will and destroy the Scorpion a piece at a time. They will not be able to mobilize quickly enough to apprehend us, and even if they do, one hundred Crab on horse is worth a thousand Scorpion on the ground. Should we fail, we will have given the Scorpion precisely what they want, but we will not fail, because the Crab will not suffer impunity from those too weak to stand and face us." He paused for a moment, surveying the room. "Who will be among those to ride into battle with me?"

Every hand in the barracks rose.

Kisada and his forces left for the Scorpion lands before dawn.

 

Togashi will return!


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Togashi will return!