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The ongoing saga of the Empire’s struggle against the invading hordes of the Destroyer Kali-ma, as determined by our Kotei Season tournament series.

 

The Destroyer War, Part 12

By Shawn Carman

Edited by Fred Wan

 

The air was thick with smoke. It burned the eyes and choked life from the lungs. Somewhere nearby, Hida Harou knew that the Palace of Crimson Shadows was burning. He wondered what manner of horrible things the Scorpion might have been hiding within it to make the smoke so acrid and stinging. It was probably best that he did not spend any time thinking about it, and in any event it did not matter; he looked down at the wound in his side and then looked away. He could not bear the flecks of white that he knew were his ribs. No man should look upon his own bones. It would curse his descendants with bad luck. He did not worry about his own luck, of course, for Harou knew his life was at its end.

In a moment, Harou thought, he would get up. He would get up and he would take revenge for his rapidly waning life. He would die, but his enemies would remember it forever, those who survived. He would be welcomed into the arms of his ancestors, buoyed by the dozens he would slay in his last moments. It would just take a moment… just a few moments longer to get his wind back.

It was the damnable golden Destroyers that were responsible for this. They were smaller than the others, faster, and seemed more intelligent. They used tactics and strategy, rather than assaulting anything in their path like mindless beasts. In the moments after he had suffered his wound, Harou would have sworn that he saw a human leading the golden ones, someone leading them as a general might lead his troops. But surely that was simply the trauma of the moment afflicting his mind. There were rumors that such individuals existed, but they had not been sighted to his knowledge in months, if they had ever truly existed in the first place.

The sounds of the battle had changed. Harou could tell that the Destroyers had been engaged on the western flank. The last reports his commander had shared with the officers had indicated that a major detachment from the Imperial Legions had been nearby, under the command of Akodo Areru. It sounded as if they had engaged the enemy, but of course it was too late for the palace and for Harou’s unit, not to mention a great many other units as well. He worried that the blood would cause his blade to rust, but of course he would not live long enough to see such a thing. Somehow he kept forgetting his impending death, remembering it anew every couple of minutes. It was a strange thing to contemplate.

“Hida Harou.”

The voice was somehow quiet despite the din of battle all around him, and the sounds of war seemed to fall away at the emergence of the voice. He blinked away the smoke, trying to find its source. The smoke was so thick he could not make anything out at first, but then there was a figure that seemed at one with the haze. He could not focus on the man. “Who…” he sputtered.

The figure grew near, but no more distinct. “I am Toritaka Horioso,” the voice said, still so quiet that he had to strain desperately to hear it despite their proximity to one another. “Do you wish to fight on, brother? Do you wish to defend the Crab now and forever?”

The earth and sky were spinning quite badly now. “Always,” Harou croaked. “Always.”

“The path before you is difficult, more so than anything you have ever known.”

Harou managed a coughing laugh. “I am Crab,” he rasped. “I would not know easy if I encountered it.”

The stranger held out a hand, and Harou accepted it. He was pulled to his feet, and all at once he felt himself again. No fatigue, no pain, no weakness. He looked at his hands, so clean and strong. “This is… strange,” he muttered. He glanced down at the ground where he had lain.

“Do not think of it,” Horioso recommended. “You will not need it any longer.”

Harou stared at his body, lying dead and unmoving in the dirt. “So be it,” he said.

 

* * * * *

 

Utaku Kohana cursed herself inwardly, then immediately regretted it. She had no desire for her last thoughts in the mortal realm to be a condemnation of herself. That was not the path of an honorable soul, and she had always strived to be such. When she and her traveling companions had crossed paths with the remnants of a battle maiden patrol, she had felt compelled to join her kinsmen. Shunori had advised against the loss of arms. Hideo had seemed indifferent. Saburo had left the choice to her, and she had chosen to go with her kinsmen. Furumaro had offered her a strange sort of blessing, but then the monk was a strange man in the first place, so that was little surprise. She had particularly appreciated his kindness, for she had always tried to live a pious life.

Of the eleven of them who had traveled to the City of Masks to rendezvous with a larger Unicorn force, merely four remained. The city had seemed innocuous at first approach, but the Destroyers held it. The Unicorn forces they had been there to meet were either routed or wiped out, and Kohana was not sure which was a more favorable option. Living in defeat was not a fate she considered acceptable. Which was ironic, considering her present circumstances.

The four of them rode like the wind, with strange and terrible beasts loping behind them. They were like tigers in appearance, but taller than a man and broader by far. They walked on two legs and fought like men, but they ran on all four, faster than anything Kohana had ever seen except for the steeds on which she and her sisters rode, and those horses were exhausted. Even as the thought occurred to her, she heard a terrible scream as one of the beasts took the rearmost horse and rider in a flurry of blood and shredded flesh.

Marveling at her own foolishness, Kohana spun in the saddle, facing rearward toward the trio of demons chasing them. She nearly lost her position atop the horse, but managed to fire three, then four arrows in rapid succession at one of the beasts. It roared in fury and slowed somewhat as it shook its head and struggled to rid itself of the painful arrows. Another of the things lunged forward and swung at her, but she leaned back, her back pressing against the horse’s mane, avoiding the strike. The thing’s talons barely glanced the horse’s flank, leaving short but painful gashes nearly four inches long. The horse screamed in pain and accelerated. Kohana roared in fury over her horse’s suffering. She struggled to regain her balance even as another of her sisters fell to the thing’s talons.

“We cannot outrun them!” Utaku Jin-lao shouted. “They do not tire!”

“We have to try!” Kohana insisted. She glanced around the terrain, seeking a way for them to split up, but the ground was rocky and unforgiving, and there was no other viable route for travel at this speed other than the one on which they already traveled.

“There is only one way for either of us to survive!” Jin-lao shouted. She smiled sadly. “Your father saved my mother’s life once, do you remember? When they were our age!”

“What?” Kohana shouted. “No!”

“It’s time that debt was paid!” Jin-lao shouted. She pulled her horse short and leapt off, tumbling slightly but regaining her footing as the panicked horse fled. She drew her blade and leapt at the attacking beasts. She let out a fierce kiai as she did so, perhaps surprising even the inhuman monstrosities with the fierceness of her battle fury.

Tears streamed down Kohana’s face as she rode onward.

 

* * * * *

 

A sea of iron washed over the tiny Remote Village, drowning everything in its path. There was no resistance. If the Destroyers had been searching for something in other places, they seemed confident that it was not within the village. The ironclad beasts never slowed their advance, running at a slow lope and shattering everything in their path. The wooden structures that the village contained were destroyed, exploding as the Destroyers smashed anything in their path and advanced inexorably. Anything living within the town was crushed underfoot, but this was limited mostly to vermin and a few smaller animals that had crept into the evacuated building once the denizens had fled. The only thing that gave any sign of weathering the village’s death was the large torii arch near the center. Its legs were reinforced by large piles of stone, and it was brushed past by the Destroyers not because it was invulnerable, but simply because it would take too much time to knock it over and give no result.

This was anticipated. Shosuro Nishu hung motionless to the back of the arch, his clothing perfectly selected to be invisible in the moonlight against the stone arch. One of his brothers-in-arms hung in the precise same location on the opposite side of the arch. They had been selected because of their great physical similarities, and the fact that their weights were almost completely identical. The two of them would remain here, motionless, until the ironclads had long since passed. Some time tomorrow night, if the plan was successful, they would disembark, far behind the enemy’s line. All other attempts at significant infiltration of the Destroyer lines had failed, but Nishu and his cousin would not. He felt certainty in his soul, like a stone at his very center, giving him strength.

The darkness was watching them. The thought sprang unbidden into Nishu’s mind. It made no sense, but he was absolutely certain of it, to the very center of his being. He felt chilled, and he tensed every muscle in anticipation of something terrible. His skin tingled, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. He had been taught the perils of the Goju and the Ninube, but this was something different; the tiny fleck of crystal that he wore around his neck would radiate hate in the presence of such enemies, and right now it was like a tiny fleck of ice against his flesh. This was something different. Something new. Something terrible.

The darkness spoke. “Did you think this would work?” When there was no response, the night air was filled with a thick, terrible laugh. “The goddess believed that you would never offer ample resistance to warrant the intervention of her chosen followers. That you wretched, filthy little things would never warrant the attention of those such as me. I think perhaps it was the maiming of Kheth-tet that changed her mind. Regardless, I am pleased beyond measure that you have exceeded her expectations. I find boredom unbearable.”

Nishu immediately checked the weight and location of every weapon he was carrying, evaluating them mentally and determining which, if any, would be of use in this situation. With nothing to base his assessment on, he did not find his chances of victory to be particularly high.

Something moved in the darkness. It was as if he was watching ink spilled into water, a darkness containing an even deeper darkness that moved against it. The shadow moved to the vertical surface of the arch and took shape. A man stood there, standing on the surface of the arch despite that it caused him to stick out at a ridiculous angle, parallel to the ground. Even in the darkness, Nishu could see that the man’s skin was like ebony. He drew a blade, a strange, curved blade Nishu had never seen before, and he knew that his life was at an end.

The thing that might have been a man was struck from behind as Nishu’s cousin hurled himself at it, seemingly disrupting its balance slightly and surprising it. With the palpable aura of menace that it radiated, the thing was likely accustomed to others fearing it, perhaps cowering before it before it destroyed them. But it had never faced the Scorpion.

Nishu recognized his cousin’s gambit and leapt down from the arch at once. He heard the tearing sound of the enemy’s blade and knew that his brother in arms had sacrificed himself to save him. Nishu ran as if the demons of Jigoku were on his heels, not only because he thought the thing might pursue him, not only because he had no wish for his kinsman’s death to be in vain, but because it was his duty to do so.

The Lady of Secrets must know what had happened here.

 

* * * * *

 

The village of Hanayoshi, celebrated source of respite for magistrates of all sort from all across the Empire, was in its death throes. Kinuye watched dispassionately from a small rise overlooking the village. It was with tremendous amusement that she remembered that buffoon of a Dragon, Wotan was his name, had stood on very nearly this exact spot when he had foolishly squandered his power to defend the village. It had been a ridiculous gesture, one born of arrogance and hatred, and the enormity of it had laid him low in such a way that he had still not recovered, or so she heard. Wotan had always been prone to such theatrics, so eager to impress others with his power. He was powerful indeed, of that there was no question, but if one man could so easily eradicate a force of Destroyers, would the war have gone on as it had? Of course not.

There were many who might call Kinuye equally foolish, even among her Spider allies. She sipped at the tea, wincing at the taste but desperate for the energy it would bring her. For the past week, ever since Wotan’s departure, she had made her way around the village, sprinkling it with her blood. She had nearly bled herself to death, but the tea accelerated her body’s replenishing. Even with it, drunk in copious amounts over the past week, she was weak. The Phoenix forces in the village had not recognized her. There had been an Inquisitor among them at first, but such men moved around a great deal, so no one had missed him when he left. His life’s blood had been helpful in some of the earlier stages of the rituals she had been conducting.

And now it was time for them to begin in earnest.

Kinuye whispered the final prayers of the week-long ritual as the Phoenix defenders waged a losing battle against the invading Destroyers. If any of them noticed the corresponding unsteadiness in the earth that accompanied the blood that fell from her wounded palm onto the earth at he feet. She felt slightly dizzy, but did not succumb to fatigue yet. As her blood called out to the rest of it throughout the village, the roots and vines of countless plants surged upward through the earth, made strong by her magic, and began to destroy everything in sight. Buildings, flesh, iron… all was either crushed or pulled into the earth by the power of her ritual. The village was torn to shreds, as were its defenders, as were its attackers.

Kinuye laughed as she slumped to the ground and lost consciousness.

 

     

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!