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|Defenders of the Empire|
|Written By:||Shawn Carman|
|Released:||Dec, 2004 ()|
|Story Year:||First century|
Previously: Way of the Dragon.
Dawn of the Empire, Part Seven of Ten Kaimetsu-Uo frowned, a disturbed look upon his weathered features. “Each clan took a duty from the Emperor, but it seems as if my ancestors in the Crab were given none. Did Hantei not trust Hida as he did the others?”
“It is hard to judge the minds of gods,” Unmei replied. “I cannot say. Only one thing is certain. The destiny that awaited Hida’s children was a powerful one. Though they did not seek it out… it soon found them.”
Defenders of the Empire by Shawn Carman
Rokugan’s southern border…
Hiruma sat heavily upon a log, exhausted from another day of constant effort. The lands that Hida had chosen were beautiful in their own way, but lacked the abundant natural resources of, say, the Crane lands. As a result, construction took a great deal longer. The fanciful palaces favored by Hida’s sister Doji were not to the Crab lord’s liking. He trusted only stone, and carving large blocks from the Twilight Mountains was an arduous process. Hiruma and his scouts scoured the mountains for suitable outcroppings that could be broken down without risk of causing an avalanche, and then others would come and quarry the stone. If not for the prodigious strength and tenacity of Hida’s chosen followers, the process would have taken an eternity. Even so, it took too long for the impatient scout’s liking.
Another warrior sat down across the fire from Hiruma, grunting slightly as he took his seat. He unlaced his exquisitely crafted do-maru and lifted it over his head, depositing it unceremoniously on the ground, then began unlacing the armor plates guarding his shins. These too were dumped on the ground.
“I recognize you,” Hiruma finally said. “You were the armorer who equipped my unit when we first arrived.” He glanced at the armor in the dirt. “I thought a man’s armor was to be treated better than the man himself.”
“That is true,” the man replied. “And right now, being dumped in the dirt would be a considerable improvement on how I feel. At least then I could rest.” He bowed his head to the scout and regarded him for a moment. “I do not recall meeting you in the past. You may have met my son, who I am told bears a striking resemblance to me. Or it could just be that I have met so many men since the Emperor awarded our province to Hida that I stopped keeping track. I am Kaiu.”
“Hiruma.” He grinned and took a bite from a dried fish roll. He offered another to the smith, then tossed it across the fire when the older man nodded. The scout took another bite and chewed in silence for a time. “Your son?” he finally asked Kaiu.
“Yes,” Kaiu said with a proud smile. “He assumed control over the build site and banished me here to the camp.” His expression grew thoughtful but irritated. “He is apparently of the opinion that I demand too much of the peasant work crews, and that if I do not stop for rest occasionally, the castle will collapse before it is completed.” The old armorsmith rolled his eyes.
“That may be true,” Hiruma said. “I have seen you at work many times since I arrived here, and I have never seen you rest. Stone will tire before you do, Kaiu.”
Kaiu paused for a moment, considering this. “Personally, I think his concerns are exaggerated, but I suppose it will give me an opportunity to pursue other endeavors.” He gestured to the armor. “I think I have a way to improve on the basic design of this. I must make notes before I forget.”
Hiruma shook his head. “I have worn many suits of armor in my time, Kaiu-san,” he replied. “Except for the suit you made for me, none were light enough to suit my needs. Still, I would rather be burdened with your anvil than have you exhaust yourself. Rest now. One day, our sons may well benefit from your craft.”
“Sons?” Kaiu raised his eyebrows. “Children are the most difficult craft of all. You have a family as well, then?”
Hiruma smiled broadly. “I am not married. But I am not lonely, either.”
Kaiu’s booming laugh thundered across the mountains. Hiruma laughed as well, a much quieter sound. It was refreshing after so long a period of work. As if summoned by their laughter, a robed shugenja appeared at the edge of the fire’s light, face painted in a garish display of white and green. “I see the efforts of the day have not robbed either of you of your sense of humor,” he observed in his deep, toneless voice.
Hiruma frowned. “There would be little point in life without laughter.”
“A warrior needs humor as a swimmer needs an anvil,” the robed man countered.
“He might,” Kaiu replied, “as long as he leaves it at home — he may find it handy later.”
The shugenja waved the comment away, and Kaiu quickly changed the subject. “I have spent the past few weeks working with the crews constructing lord Hida’s castle,” he offered. “What duties have occupied your time, friend Hiruma?”
“Scouting,” Hiruma replied. “My unit has been scouring the mountains for suitable resources.” He gestured to the south. “I hope to be sent south soon, to see what lies there. Thus far we have avoided it. The Shadowlands have become an evil place of late.” He looked to the newcomer. “And you?”
“I am Kuni,” the stranger replied. “Pray you are denied your wish, Hiruma. There is an illness plaguing the southern lands. I cannot identify it, try as I might.” He ignored the scout’s irritated expression. “Beyond that, I have assisted with the crafting of difficult stone. My magic allows it to be worked much faster, though no doubt not as skillfully as Kaiu’s tools. Our lord already makes plans for his castle’s completion. He has spoken of additional castles at distant points across his lands.” The shugenja folded his hands within his sleeves. “The other clans have already established such arrangements. Lord Hida has been most impressed with the endeavors of his brother Akodo and sister Shinjo, in particular.”
“And what then?” Hiruma asked. “What will become of the Crab? Are we to become farmers and artisans? Kaiu has the skill for such tasks, but I do not.” He glanced up at Kuni. “I suspect you feel the same. You have the look of a warrior.”
“Our duty is to Hida,” Kuni said firmly. “Whatever he commands, we must obey. That is the promise we must all make in exchange for remaining within the lands given him by the Emperor.” He grew silent for a moment. “As you said, however, I have no wish for a life of drudgery.” Even as he said the words, the shugenja looked to the south again.
“Should I avoid the southern lands?” Hiruma asked suddenly.
Kuni glanced back at the scout irritably, but his expression softened. “They have always been a deadly place, and the Nezumi and ogres were never the kindest neighbors,” he said after a few moments’ consideration. “But they have changed of late. There is something out there. Some evil. Will it come to us, I wonder? Will the Shadowlands become truly shadowed and reach out to consume our own?”
Kaiu shook his head. “I have no head for these oddities. Stone and steel I understand. Shadow and darkness…” He waved his hand. “I need something I can touch with my hands if I am to understand it.” He rose and gathered his armor. “Tomorrow promises to be another arduous day, my friends. Perhaps we should take a much-deserved rest. I know I shall.”
Kuni glanced at the smith, then back at Hiruma. “You are correct, Kaiu. Such matters often seem graver in the dead of night. We can discuss the matter further in the morning, if you wish. I think the three of us can offer an interesting range of perspectives on the matters that concern our new clan.”
“In the morning, then,” Hiruma said, looking out to the south again. He knew for him, at least, sleep would not come easily.
Hiruma came awake with a start. It was not yet dawn, and the camp outside his tent was still cloaked in darkness. His every sense was in sharp focus, energy surging through his limbs. Something was wrong. He had been awakened by a sound, and although he could not recall it consciously, his instincts told him that something was terribly wrong. The scout quietly took up his blades and moved to the tent’s opening. Like many of Hida’s followers, he had taken a meager tent instead of a permanent dwelling. He would not have a home before his lord did.
A distant shout carried through the night air. It came from the south, near the camp sentries. Hiruma darted out of the tent and stood with his back to the dying fire, peering into the darkness. In the distance, he could make out hazy, indistinct forms moving against the star-filled sky. Just as he managed to make out something huge moving against the backdrop, another shout pierced the night air. This was the jagged, blood-curdling scream of a man dying.
“Scouts!” Hiruma shouted. “We are under attack! Kaiu! Kuni!” The smith and shugenja appeared from their tents in seconds, followed shortly by over a dozen of Hiruma’s finest hunters and scouts. “Your shadows have found us, Kuni!”
The look of confusion on Kuni’s face was strangely troubling to Hiruma. Kaiu was inscrutable, calmly assessing the situation as he quickly laced up his armor. “What is happening?” he asked calmly.
Hiruma started to speak, but never had the chance. A beast, as tall as ten men and equally wide, crashed out of the darkness and into the firelight. It roared at the samurai with a dozen mouths that covered much of its torso, flailing about with dozens of tentacles that covered the rest. It lashed at Hiruma with a limb the size of a tree trunk. The scout leapt away, neatly dodging the blow, but only by a matter of inches. He struck as he moved, severing a sixfoot length of tentacle. The beast roared in agony, its remaining limbs flailing wildly as it stomped about in pain and rage.
Kuni shouted an incantation, gesturing at the creature. A jagged pillar of stone erupted beneath it, rocketing upward with incredible speed and force. The creature was impaled instantly, spraying the ground and sky with foul ichor. It twitched for a moment, then was still.
“What is that?” Kaiu asked in the moment of silence.
“Dead,” Kuni replied, a note of satisfaction in his voice.
Hiruma shook his head. He turned to the other soldiers. “Fan out. There may be others.” The men leapt to do as he instructed, but Kuni signaled for them to be still. Hiruma glanced at him irritably. “What?” he demanded.
“Be silent!” Kuni hissed. “Do you not hear it? Do you not feel it?”
Hiruma stopped and listened. There was a distant roaring on the wind. It sounded like the sea from a great distance, but grew steadily louder. And more, he could feel it. A cold dread blossomed in his chest and spread to his limbs, demanding that he flee at once. “Something is coming,” he said.
“No,” Kuni breathed. “The shadows are already here.”
The battle raged throughout the Crab settlements for hours, well into the morning. The struggle was more difficult in the daylight, for Hiruma had never seen such atrocities as those that butchered his men. They had been driven back at almost a run until they had reached the encampment surrounding the still unfinished Kyuden Hida. Even as the first rays of sunlight had reached across the mountains to the east, there had come a fierce battle cry, a cry that sent a new wave of strength surging through Hiruma’s limbs.
The Lord of the Crab had joined the battle.
Hiruma watched as his lord single-handedly destroyed more of the foul beasts than any twenty men. Hida, fighting side by side with his son Atarasi, towered above his soldiers, as large as the ogres that assaulted them. Even as he watched, the Kami shattered the skull of an oni with his tetsubo, then grabbed an ogre in a bear hug and crushed the life from it. Hida’s mood seemed to fluctuate between outrage over the attack on his people, and rapture at the chance for such grand combat.
Despite Hida’s power, it soon became clear that his men would be overrun even if he were not. The Crab Kami shouted for his men to rally about him, destroying all foes that came within their reach.
Hiruma was the first to reach his side, and Kaiu and Kuni met him there an instant later. Focused, fighting as one, the tide turned, and the warriors of the Crab Clan soon stood in a field littered with vanquished foes.
“What will become of the Crab indeed?” Kaiu asked, grinning at Hiruma.
Hiruma lifted his sword, and saluted his brother-in arms.
To Be Continued in: Fires of the Phoenix.
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