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|Blood & Shadow Part II|
|Written By:||Rusty Priske and Shawn Carman|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan|
|Released:||September 24th, 2009|
Previously; Blood & Shadow Part I
The ground itself shook from the approach of what might be a god in the flesh, and the air was filled with a strange buzzing sound, something like thunder but lower and more maddening. Bayushi Eisaku shook his head in an attempt to clear his mind, but the sound invaded every corner of his thoughts, muddling them. He glanced down at the woman on the ground, whose blood was flowing out onto the stones even as he stood in the a growing darkness that should have been broad daylight. "What just happened?" the Scorpion warrior demanded.
Hiruma Aki did not look at the fallen shugenja, concentrating instead on the great horned creature moving towards them. "She called upon blood magic. If we are to die, let us die pure, rather than sacrificing our souls to save our bodies." If any of the samurai on the hill took issue with Aki making that decision for them, they did not say so.
Akodo Shunori looked quickly from side to side. "This hilltop is indefensible! We need to find a more suitable place to make our stand if we are to fight that thing!" The Lion began to speak, but the massive creature moving toward them halted any hope of that with a laugh, one that intensified the terrible buzzing sound tenfold, causing the samurai wince in pain. She then spoke in that same unknown language before pressing two of the six arms sprouting from her sides together, almost as if she were praying. Ribbons of blood began to coalesce in the air, crackling around her like lightening.
Moto Juncheng's eyes widened before he yelled out "Move! Move!" Somehow his voice managed to pierce the cacophony, and the eight samurai scattered as the glow around the enemy's hands turned into a torrent of red energy, leaping away from her like a living thing and striking the mountaintop where they once stood, leaving a wide swath of torn, bleeding earth behind them. The rock was turned to dust instantly and even the already damaged ground of the Shadowlands seemed to shudder under the onslaught. Hiroe's body disappeared instantly.
Akodo Shunori found an outcropping near the base of the hill and quickly motioned the others who scrambled near him to find a momentary respite behind it. Kitsuki Taiko glanced quickly at Eisaku and Utaku Kohana and said quietly, yet urgently, "Where are the others?"
Kohana shook her head. "I am not sure. I think they went the other way."
"What is that thing?" Kakita Hideo rasped as he peeked past the old, crumbling wall he and the others had sought cover behind.
Moto Juncheng's voice was low. "I think... I recognize the language, though I do not understand it. I think Hiroe said... Kali-ma."
Yoritomo Saburo looked at Juncheng and said, "Kalyna? What does that mean?"
Juncheng shook his head. "No, Kali-ma. I have heard stories, but I did not know..."
Kakita Hideo frowned. "What stories? We need to know what we are facing."
Juncheng sniffed. "From the time when my clan wandered far past the boundaries of Rokugan, there was an evil creature from the Ivory Kingdoms called Kali-ma. It was said that it was the physical representation of one of their gods and there were cults around it that worshipped death."
Saburo's eye widened. "The Kingdoms?" he asked. "Are you talking about the Destroyer? Is that thing the Destroyer?"
Hideo shot his eyes between Juncheng and the creature on the horizon. "There are Unicorn who worship death."
Juncheng scowled. "There is a world of difference between the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang and this Kali-ma, if stories are to be believed. I have heard of groups of assassins who kill in her name, hoping that will curry favor with her. For a creature like this to approach Rokugan is..."
Aki's eyes never left the demon like being. "I have heard other stories. Stories that I know to be true." The other three samurai all turned to him, but he did not wait to see if they were listening. "There was an oni lord named Kyoso no Oni. The similarities in appearance cannot be coincidence."
"Kyoso no Oni is no more." Hideo shook his head. "I do not know the details but the reports were quite adamant that it is no longer a threat."
"This creature is a threat, whatever name you wish to call it." Aki's grimace deepened. "I am Crab, and the Crab know what to do with a demon. It will not reach the Wall. That much I promise you."
"Wait!" Saburo reached for the angry Crab, but was unable to stop him from stepping out from behind their concealment.
"We cannot stay here. The creature will find us." Shunori's voice carried no doubt. "We have to either find an avenue of escape or a way to stop it."
"Or both." Eisaku's eyes almost seemed to sparkle in the grey light of the Shadowland wastes.
Taiko pursed her lips. "Where there seems to be no correct option, the true choice is often hidden or obscured. Do we know what this creature wants? Is it mindless or is there a specific goal that it seeks?"
"Not mindless." Kohana said. "When it spoke there seemed to be order to it. It is a language, just not one we can understand."
"What about tone?" Taiko replied. "Did you detect that it was making demands, or questioning us?"
"Neither. The laugh seemed pretty blatant." Eisaku scoffed. "You are looking for a puzzle where there is none, Kitsuki. Sometimes force is force and evil is evil. We need to put this thing down, in order to protect Rokugan. If we can do so and still live, all the better, but priorities are what they are."
Shunori's unnaturally aged face squinted at the beast and then nodded. "I have been following its movements as it looks for us and it is following a methodical pattern. We have to assume it knows what it is doing and it will find us. The only option is to attack. That way we can dictate the circumstances of the battle, as much as possible."
"What would you suggest?"
Shunori answered Taiko without looking. "We cannot be sure where the others have gone, but I am certain they cleared the blast just as we did, and the oni has not located them. We can only assume that they will follow our lead. We need to set up a flanking action where we draw its attention towards us, allowing the others to strike it from behind."
Taiko frowned. "And if they do not see the opening?"
Kohana shook her head. "No. They will see. Juncheng will not allow the opening to be wasted."
Shunori turned back to the others and nodded. "Then this is what we must do."
Aki sprinted from one place of concealment to the next, struggling to time his efforts with the periodic turns the demon made away from his location. She did not seem to be actively searching for him, but then he could not tell exactly what she was doing. Ultimately it mattered little. Stealthy pursuits, planning tactics... these were not Aki's strengths. He did not know what he would do if he could get close enough to the thing, but he rarely needed a plan. Killing was his second nature. His instincts had never failed him before.
Suddenly the thing was nearly on top of him. It could not have covered the ground between them so quickly, and yet now it towered over him like a tower made of diamond-hard flesh and talon. Instinct drove Aki to coil himself to spring at the demon, but his mind could not issue the command. The presence of the thing crushed downward upon him like a weight from the heavens. It was as though there was another soul forced into his mind, surveying his innermost thoughts and secrets.
You are but a child, a voice in his head spoke. It was so vile, so wretched, that it made him want to scream in pain and misery, but he would not. If the men of this land have children that can find me, perhaps the challenge will not be as insignificant as I imagined. The thing laughed, and the sound nearly drove Aki mad. That is fortunate, for I crave challenge. I hope your empire will resist more than the last I brought to ruin.
Aki bit through his lip to keep from screaming.
Juncheng swore at the sight of Aki wilting under the demon's onslaught. He grabbed the hilt of his blade. "We must go! Now!"
"No," Saburo said flatly.
"What?" Juncheng demanded. "We must help him!"
"This is why we were sent here. The Destroyer has come." The Mantis shook his head. "She cannot be stopped, not by us. We must warn the Empress!"
"The Empress will never see such as us," Hideo responded. He drew his blade in an instant. "Leave if you must, but I will not flee unless I know where Taiko is." He pointed toward Aki and the demon. "And she may be nearby."
Saburo closed his eyes. "Come with me, please. Do not throw your lives away. You must understand that this is more important than us!"
"I understand that very well," Hideo said. "And I do not plan to throw my life away, but I go regardless." He nodded to Juncheng. "I follow you, Moto-san."
Hiruma Aki ground his teeth against the pain, blood flowing freely from his ears. He prayed for death, but would never go willingly. "I... will not... submit," he forced himself to say.
You would, the thing's voice whispered in his mind. If I wished it, you would.
"Never," he croaked. "You will... have to kill me."
And I shall, but not before I draw your litter from hiding.
Kali-ma lifted one of six taloned hands and gestured at the ruins around the two of them. The stone disintegrated at her command, reduced to ash and dust. Shunori and the others, who had drawn nearer to the demon than Aki would have imagined possible, were exposed in an instant. Even over the roar, Aki could hear Shunori swearing.
You hope to pit your steel against me, the thing said. How insulting. I am Kali-ma, the Destroyer, Last Aspect of Shiva. I will permit a handful of you to return to your empire with word of my coming. You shall be my heralds, my prophets. The rest shall serve as your empire's first tithe of blood to me. But I shall honor you above all others, and you shall feel your flesh torn not by my horde of enslaved souls, but by my pure elite. Die in rapture, knowing that you are honored above all.
There was a roaring sound then, not the blood-heavy rush that accompanied Kali-ma's words, but rather a chorus of bestial sounds surely sprung from the nightmares of madmen. Cresting the hills behind Kali-ma came a torrent of rampaging creatures, built with giant bodies like those of men, but with the heads and features of animals. Tigers, elephants, and other things no Rokugani had ever seen were among them. The things screamed for blood, and the samurai faltered.
"What are they?" Taiko whispered.
"Death," Shunori answered.
"What do we do?" Kohana demanded.
"We flee," Shunori said. "This was a mistake. There can be no victory here."
Somewhere deep inside him, Aki found a reserve of strength that had not yet been depleted, and he seized it with absolute force of will that no man of his few years should possess. He struggled to his feet, pain threatening to cripple him forever with every movement. Then, impossibly, he hefted his weapon above his head. "I am Crab!" he spat, blood streaming from his ears, his nose, his lips. "No demon is my master!"
Kali-ma chuckled. You are worthy, her voice boomed. I anoint you.
With a casual blow from one talon-tipped finger, the Destroyer cut Hiruma Aki in two.
"Fall back!" Shunori commanded. "Take the path between these hills! They will be forced to narrow their ranks or lose time scaling the bluff!"
"They are too fast!" Kohana insisted. "We cannot outrun them!"
"We will try, damn it!" Shunori insisted.
"No," Taiko said. "She is correct. There is no hope of outrunning them. We must find another way."
Shunori glanced around at his environment carefully. He gestured at two forms crossing the divide between the open plains to the south and their current position. "Reinforcements, after a fashion," he said, nodding to Juncheng and Hideo, the latter of whom seemed not to notice as he inspected Taiko to make sure she was uninjured. He glanced back at the stampeding horde in the distance, and, almost reluctantly, to the immobile form of the laughing Kali-ma. "It will not make a difference."
"What should we do?" Kohana asked. Shunori wondered if she was as beautiful as she seemed in that moment, or if impending death merely enhanced her natural charm.
"Some of us must go," Shunori said flatly. "The rest of us will buy time. The Wall is close enough that any delay may allow the messengers to reach safety."
"Saburo has gone," Hideo said with obvious disdain. "He may be at the Wall already."
"Are you willing to wager the safety of the Empire on that?" Kohana asked.
"Hiroe and her maps are gone," Shunori said. "Aki is gone. I know the path back to the Wall. Does anyone else know the way?"
"I remember," Taiko said.
"Then you will lead them back," Shunori said. "I will remain here and coordinate the defense."
The Dragon shook her head. "That cannot be."
"What?" Hideo demanded. "Why?"
"I can find holes in the enemy's defenses as well as Shunori, for all the good it will do," Taiko answered. "What if we are attacked on the return trip? What if we must circumvent the Destroyers' ranks to reach the Wall? I am inadequate to the task." She gestured to the Lion. "You must lead them back."
Shunori considered it only for a moment. "Your reasoning is sound," he agreed. "I will go. Kohana, Hideo, you are the fastest. You are with me." He paused for a moment. "Juncheng, Eisaku... Taiko... I am sorry."
"Do what must be done," Juncheng said. "Remember what I told you." He took off at a jog. "I am going to push that boulder down to further narrow the pass!" he shouted.
Shunori turned to the Crane. "Hideo."
"Rot in hell," Hideo snarled. "I will not go."
"Remember your duty!" Shunori barked. "We do not have time for this!"
"I will not go," Hideo repeated.
Shunori frowned, but suddenly Eisaku appeared behind the Crane and struck him sharply over the back of the head. "Take him and go," he said. "We do not have time for this, as you said."
"We cannot carry him you treacherous filth!" Kohana barked.
"He will be fine in a few minutes," Eisaku said. "Go!"
Shunori shouldered Hideo and nodded to the others. "Your ancestors will welcome you with open arms, my friends. Thank you."
Taiko watched the three retreating as she tested the weight of her wakizashi. "Why did you do that?" she asked the Scorpion. "I am grateful, but... why?"
Eisaku shrugged. "He saved my life in the Kitsune Mori. Can you imagine living my entire life indebted to a Crane? Even worse, indebted to a dead one? The debt would have defaulted back to his family. No, that is not for me." He smiled, his demon mask making the expression utterly horrible. "I die free, at least."
Juncheng strained, feeling sudden pain in his bandaged injuries, but the boulder would not move. "Help me, Shi-Tien Yen-Wang!" he implored. "Let me come to meet you with a clear spirit!"
"Push with your shoulder, imbecile," a gruff voice said as someone joined him beside the rock. "You'll only injure yourself."
"Saburo?" the Unicorn asked. "I thought your duty was more important than our lives?"
"Well, I value both," Saburo said in a surly voice. "Ideally I hope to save both."
"Leave us," Juncheng said as the two finally freed the boulder. "They will be here soon."
"I am not a coward," Saburo said.
"I never thought that you were," Juncheng said. "But you were right. The message is more important." He offered his hand. "Thank you for coming back. Now you must go."
Saburo took his hand. "I will not forget you."
Juncheng watched the Mantis leave for the second time. "I hope not," he muttered under his breath. "What is the point of dying gloriously if no one remembers?"
Bayushi Eisaku never wished to be a hero. The Scorpion had no use for such things. In truth, he seriously considered abandoning the Dragon and the Unicorn to their fates to make his way back on his own. He did not know the way for certain, but he had no question that he could find it. Whether the others lived or not, at least he would be able to return to the Scorpion and inform his Champion of the truth.
The truth. What a ridiculous thought, Eisaku sneered. What truth was there in a world where something such as this could happen? It was beyond ridiculous. And yet... he had not lied to Taiko about his motivations. He despised the Crane and all they stood for. The knowledge that a Crane had saved his life in the Kitsune Mori all those months ago had nearly been all he could bear. Now, at least, he would be free of such a burden. He had passed it to the Crane instead. It was a fitting revenge, since in saving his life Hideo had also denied Eisaku the opportunity to hear Kitsune Narako's prophecy, which of course he would have shared with his Champion. That the others had heeded foolish superstition and kept it to themselves all these months was madness. At least he could take comfort in the fact that, with them bound for the Imperial City, there was no way that the others could hope to keep their secret from the Scorpion much longer. In that, there was comfort.
Eisaku hurled himself into the air, avoiding the first clumsy strike from one of the strange demons. A quick, precise strike cut its eyes and left it howling in pain, flailing about and striking the others. Chaos was such a useful tool, the Scorpion reflected. He saw Juncheng dancing about in the loose earth disturbed by the passage of his boulder, the larger creatures having enormous difficulty retaining their footing long enough to crush him. And he saw Taiko barely evading the strikes of the creatures, doing so not from any warrior's instincts, but her ability to anticipate their attacks. Her follow-up strikes were largely pointless, but they did pain the creatures and thus make them less measured in their attacks. That would benefit Eisaku.
It could not last, of course.
Within a matter of minutes, one of the demons managed to catch Junchen with a crushing strike that sent him flying against the rocks he was using for cover, shattering his body hopelessly and leaving him ruined and dying in the dirt. Taiko, too, could not anticipate everything, and was similarly shattered by a tusked demon's strike. Eisaku lasted the longest, bringing down no less than three of the demons before he felt his insides torn away by another of the tusked ones. Dying, darkness closing in, he removed his mask, and used the horns atop it to blind the creature that claimed his life.
Bayushi Eisaku died laughing at the ridiculous creatures that had killed him.
The demons started to turn away from Taiko, leaving her broken body in the mud, but a light flashed from the fallen Dragon's eyes. Through a bloody mask, Taiko felt the tattoo on her face move, as if alive. Where she had felt her lifeblood ebb away, she was seized with a new vitality.
"Iroshi," she whispered. "You deceived me."
Taiko attempted to smile but the wounds on her face would not allow it. Instead she merely switched her wakizashi to her strong hand and threw herself at the demons' flank again.
One of the creatures was slain almost instantly from her precise strike to the base of its neck, its impossibly massive form shuddering and collapsing to the ground with all the force of an earthquake. Another of them turned and snarled at her in a rage, as if to demand why she would not die.
Taiko tried to reply but her face was too damaged. She felt the strength from the tattoo fade as the demon tore through her body with its ebony claws. Taiko felt her extremities plunged into a strange and numbing coldness. She sensed herself falling away to the ground, although she did not truly feel it.
She asked herself, "What tattoo would I receive to commemorate this, I wonder?"
Then she died.
Shunori nearly collapsed in relief as the Wall came into sight. The demons did not appear to be close behind them, and inwardly he wondered if it had been the Destroyer's intent for some of them to return intact, but lacking any inkling into the motivations of such a creature, he saw no point in lingering on such a thought. He heard Saburo whispering a prayer to what sounded like the Thunder Dragon, although such a thing was extremely unconventional, even for a Mantis. Kohana said nothing, but Shunori could see the tears on her cheeks. Despite the ebbing danger, she was no less beautiful to him than she had been in that moment when he thought he was about to die. He wondered what that meant.
The group had taken a longer route in order to reach a point at the Wall that was outside of the direct confrontation between the Destroyers and the Great Clans. Despite the longer trip, Hideo had said nothing since the first moments after he had recovered. When he realized what had happened, the Crane had screamed Taiko's name and fought to return to her side. Shunori had no choice but to strike him across the face, instantly bruising his handsome features, and commanded him to remember his duty. Hideo, to his credit, had complied, but Shunori suspected the matter was far from over.
While Saburo shouted at the sentries on the gates for them to be allowed back across the Wall, Shunori decided that he must at least attempt a reconciliation. "Hideo," he began, "I am sorry about Taiko. I know that you cared for her."
"You know nothing," Hideo said.
Shunori licked his lips, considering his words. "I know that she chose her fate. Would you deny her that?"
"I do not begrudge her fate," he answered. "I chose mine as well, but then you knew better, did you not? You decided what my fate should be."
"I know what our duty is," Hideo cut him off. "I will fulfill it, as she would have wanted. But do not believe that we are friends. Once this matter is concluded, it would be in your best interest if we never saw one another again."
Shunori said nothing as the Crane passed through the Wall's gates and into the Crab lands beyond. Instead, he stood atop the Wall for several long moments, gazing to the south and praying for the souls of their dead comrades.