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|Path of the Destroyer Part II|
|Written By:||Shawn Carman|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan|
Previously; Path of the Destroyer Part I
Hida Benjiro stood in the shadow of the Great Wall, the sounds of battle from behind him almost inaudible to his ears. Familiarity could make one overlook even the most intrusive things, it seemed. At the moment, Benjiro's interest was far more captivated by the virtually unprecedented spectacle unfolding before him. Under different circumstances, it would be cause for concern, or perhaps anger. Considering what was going on only a short distance behind him, however, Benjiro was uncertain how he should feel about it.
Escorted by Hiruma sentries, two large forces of samurai were moving through the Crab lands, headed to the Wall. The golden and purple banners of the Lion and Unicorn could be seen fluttering in the breeze. They were not armies, not in their entirety, but the supply wagons that accompanied them extended nearly to the horizon all the same. That much, at least, Benjiro could appreciate. It was not as if the Crab had invited them over for tea, after all. "Hidora!"
The scout was at Benjiro's side in an instant. He wiped a bit of blood from his cheek absently, the jade inlays on the plates guarding the back of his hands gleaming in the dim early morning. "My lord?"
"Please inform lord Kuon that his guests have arrived," Benjiro said. "I will handle barracking as per his request, but I am quite certain they will expect to meet him some time in the next day or so." He glanced at the scout. "Be sure to inform him that is doubtless what they expect, not what I am recommending."
"Of course," the scout said with a rapid bow. "At once, commander."
The scout disappeared as Benjiro hefted his dai tsuchi to his shoulder with a sigh and strode forward to meet the approaching mounted command staffs. The Unicorn arrived first, of course, and swiftly dismounted. "We bring you greetings from the great Khan, noble Crab," the young man said, bowing stiffly.
Benjiro returned the gestured and raised an eyebrow. "I was given to understand the Khan would be arriving in person."
"Unfortunately, there are very grave matters in the Unicorn lands that prevented his departure," the young man said. "May I present his proxy, the commanding officer of this force and the lady of the Utaku, Utaku Yu Pan."
Benjiro regarded the woman impassively, then turned back to the young officer. "Does your lady make a habit of having others speak for her? Is all this beneath her?"
The Shinjo met Benjiro's stare evenly. "You admit that you expected the Khan, and yet your lord sends you. Are the Unicorn beneath him?"
Benjiro scowled for a moment, then broke into a grin. "A bit of steel in you, is there? Perhaps you'll do well here."
The Lion command arrived, pulling their horses up short and preventing further comment. The head rider dismounted smoothly and nodded respectfully. "Hida Benjiro. An honor to see you again."
"Thank you, Shigetoshi-sama," Benjiro said with a bow. "Allow me to welcome the Lion, and the Unicorn, to the Crab lands."
"I would have called it inadequate, but I thank you just the same," Yu Pan said.
The Lion Champion turned his attention to the young Unicorn officer, and finally he seemed to smile slightly. "Dun-san," he said. "I see you have been awarded a position commensurate with your skill. Congratulations."
"Thank you, Shigetoshi-sensei," Shinjo Dun said with a bow.
The Lion Champion glanced at the Unicorn's belt. "You do not carry your Lion blade, I see."
"I can think of few better suited for such a task." Shigetoshi turned back to Benjiro. "Where can my men take to the Wall?"
"I am to see to it that your men are barracked, and then conduct a briefing of you and whatever officers you wish to attend," Benjiro said. "At that point we can discuss a rotating schedule in order to relieve some of the secondary Hida and Hiruma units."
The Lion Champion raised an eyebrow. "Is that level of preparation necessary? My men are ready to fight now."
"If you will forgive me a questionable metaphor, my lord," Benjiro said, "the Crab would not presume to attack the Dragonfly lands without consulting the Lion first. We expect only a similar recognition of our respective expertise."
There was a momentary blaze in Shigetoshi's eyes, but it disappeared almost at once. "Under different circumstances, I would take issue with your words, but not the sentiment behind them," he said. "Lead the way, please. I wish to begin as soon as possible."
Shiba Yoma sipped his tea and sighed appreciatively. There were few houses finer in all the Imperial City than the Seven Dancing Carp Teahouse. He adored their unique blend. Any excuse to come here was welcome, and the fact that his companion for the afternoon would likely not drink any of it only meant that the entire pot was his to enjoy. "Would you prefer another blend, Bushiken-sama?" he asked, knowing full well what response he would receive.
"Thank you, no," Asako Bushiken said. He too took a drink, but in accordance with his custom, he drank only water. "I am well enough at the moment, but your concern is appreciated. If I might, however, I would suggest that we address the matter for which I was invited. I have matters to attend to."
"Of course," Yoma said pleasantly. "Have you enjoyed the festival?"
Bushiken smiled politely, but it was clearly forced. "I am not particularly a fan of excess, but I understand the need to celebrate such an important victory. I have enjoyed visiting the Imperial City, but I will enjoy returning home more, I think."
Yoma nodded. "You are not alone. I understand that the Crab Champion has already returned home."
"Yes, I heard that as well. I believe I was told that he was within the city less than three days. Still, he came when the Divine Empress commanded it. I suppose he will be slandered in court, but none can claim he did not obey his Empress."
"Are you aware of the reason behind his departure?" Yoma asked as he poured another cup.
Bushiken looked at him strangely, as if finally interested in the conversation. "Some say the Wall is under attack. Others say that the Crab perpetually insist that the Wall is always under attack."
"And what do you believe?"
The monkish Phoenix frowned. "I try not pay attention to gossip and rumormongering," he said. "Still, were I forced to choose, I would say that those few Crab I have known in my lifetime did not seem prone to easy exaggeration."
"That is my observation as well," Yoma said. "And if I may, I have known quite a few more Crab than you, sama." He paused for a moment. "Well, I suppose the Yasuki can be quite prone to exaggeration. But the Hida? No."
"Is this the purpose of your invitation, then?"
"The two are related," Yoma admitted. "You are aware, of course, that many, many important personages from within our clan are present. Yourself, of course, as well as Lady Chieh, Lady Tsukimi, four of the Elemental Masters the list goes on. As you can imagine it is something of a drain on the resources we possess here at the capital."
Bushiken raised an eyebrow, a simple expression that was somehow most intimidating coming from the well-conditioned Phoenix, a man whom Yoma inwardly reminded himself was a master of several devastating hand-to-hand techniques. "Some might think that you were suggesting I was a burden on the clan."
"In no way would I think such a thing, much less suggest it," Yoma said hastily. "Forgive me, I know you prefer direct discourse. It can be difficult to break a longtime habit, you understand." He leaned forward. "I would like to request the assistance of some of your more& martially gifted kinsmen, to serve as yojimbo."
"I see," Bushiken said. "You have insufficient men to protect our number here in the city?"
"We have ample men to protect our estate and guests in the city," Yoma said, "but little else, and I would like to dispatch a small force of shugenja to the Kaiu Wall to assist the Crab in their battle, and to learn what is in fact going on there."
"I seem to recall that the last time we attempted to intervene in a matter concerning the Crab, it went poorly," Bushiken observed.
"I am aware," Yoma said, flavoring the comment with the vaguest hint of surliness. "I do not believe we should allow that incident to prevent us from doing what is right. The Masters I have spoken to agree."
"To which Masters would you refer?"
The question caused a stab of panic in Yoma's breast, but he stifled it quickly. "I have spoken to both Mitsuko-sama and Bairei-sama."
"Whose interests would both be piqued because of what could be learned from such an expedition." Bushiken rubbed his chin. "Still, they are the Masters, and they lead the clan. Of course I will offer you the Asako's assistance, Yoma-san. How many men do you require?"
Yoma smiled. "How many would be available, and when could they leave?"
Moto Chen smashed his fist down on the table with such force that many of the scrolls carefully arranged there fell to the floor. Several servants in the room suddenly found very important business to attend to somewhere else, and discreetly exited the room. The other samurai in the room glanced at one another, save for one, who approached Chen cautiously. "I know you are frustrated, husband," Akasha began.
"I surpassed frustrated days ago, perhaps weeks!" Chen said, pounding the table a second time. He stabbed the map with a finger, indicating a region of the clan's holdings. "Something must be done. Something has to be done!"
A young priest with curiously colored eyes seemed almost not to notice the Khan's outburst. "Tsusung and Akikazu are doing what they can at the site. We have done& are doing& all we can to find a solution. Your allocation of resources has been most generous. I am confident a solution will be discovered before we reach the point of no return."
Chen clenched his fists. "I understand the situation, Ietsuna. What I do not understand is why nothing has been resolved. How many times has something like this happened? And every time it was dealt with. Why now? What have you failed to see?"
The Iuchi daimyo frowned slightly and began to respond, but was interrupted by another. "Do you think we fail to see the gravity of this situation?" she demanded. "Me, of all people?"
"Please forgive Rikako, my Khan," Ietsuna said at once. "This is a very emotional matter for her."
Chen's jaw was set. "Take her and go. Anything that you require is yours, but go now."
The two priests left, leaving the Khan and his wife behind. Neither spoke for several moments. Finally, Chen spread his hands on the table and lowered his head. "They would have found something by now if I were Chagatai," he said quietly. "They would have fought harder, worked longer. Something."
"They would have done no such thing," Akasha insisted. "And your predecessor would have had sent Rikako into the west for speaking to him in such a manner. Where would that leave us? Without our finest researcher. No, you are not Chagatai. And I am not sorry."
Chen looked at her with adoration, but his eyes were clouded with worry again almost at once. "There must be an answer," he said. "If there is not, then I cannot even imagine the consequences."
"If one exists, they will find it," Akasha reassured him, but in her heart she did not feel the confidence she portrayed before her husband.
The monk Hongo crept across the surface of the stone like a shadow, his every movement perfectly controlled. The heat radiated by the noonday sun, and by the rocks that had been absorbing it for hours, did not appear to affect him despite his heavy wrappings. In fact, the monk did not notice it at all, so intent was he upon his prey.
Some distance below the monk and his brothers, another group of men traveled a narrow and dangerous path that wound through the mountains. Even at this distance, the brilliant gold and green of their armor could be made out. Dragon. The identity of his prey meant very little to Hongo, of course; he hunted his targets because it was the will of his master, and because he lived for the thrill of the hunt. He reflected for a moment how fortunate it was that Torao was not with him; the monk's hatred of the Dragon Clan was without measure, owing to the incredible offense the older man had taken when the Divine Empress had received the blessings of the Heavens and ascended to the throne.
The Dragon were approaching a particularly narrow portion of the trail, one that would barely allow them to ride by single file. It was the perfect place to attack. They would be decimated, and the inevitable accusations of who had killed them, or perhaps who had failed to protect them, would cause no end of consternation in the Imperial Court.
Which of course was the reason for the attack in the first place.
Silently, smoothly, Hongo reached and drew his bo from where he kept it strapped to his back. It was halfway free when he paused, noticing a change in the men below him. They were far to distant for their voices to be heard, but one among them was pointing to the pass below, and his demeanor was quite animated. Hongo squinted, but could see nothing. He glanced over his shoulder to one of the others, and jerked his head toward the edge.
The other monk, Nagataka, nodded and slid upward beside Hongo so that he could see into the pass below. Hongo had never met anyone whose senses were as keen as the other monk's, a gift from the Dark Lord that Hongo envied quite a bit, although he would never admit such. Nagataka's eyes narrowed, and he sniffed the air cautiously. He turned back to Hongo, his eyes narrow. "Yobanjin," he whispered, his voice barely audible. "The burning men."
Hongo looked down into the pass incredulously, yet he could see nothing. "Are you sure?"
Nagataka nodded. "The Dragon are& alarmed. They are going to follow the Yobanjin. There are several dozen at least, too many for the Dragon to ambush."
Hongo frowned. The Army of Fire had been driven from the Empire. What were these men doing here? It made little sense, and that angered him.
"This is an opportunity," Nagataka whispered. "The Dragon are distracted. Vulnerable. Do we attack?"
Hongo considered it. "No," he finally answered. "Not yet. We follow."
On the outskirts of the Kitsune Mori
The bowl from which Yoritomo Saburo had been eating noodles shattered on the ground, but he was already ten paces away, shouldering aside the simple doors that led into the hut's interior. The courtyard, if it could reasonably be called such, was virtually abandoned on account of some seasonal rite the Kitsune family was overseeing deeper inside the forest. Normally the solitude was to Saburo's liking, but when he had heard the cry from within the hut, his blood had run cold. Even as he rushed into the dim interior, his head filled with visions of the shadowy monstrosity he and others had confronted here more than a year previously. If it had returned for the prophet, there would be nothing he could do to stop it by himself.
Kitsune Narako sat rigid atop her lavish tatami mat, her eyes wide, bright, and for the first time Saburo could recall in months, incredibly lucid. The prophetess had been languishing in and out of troubled sleep for more than a year, her periods of wakefulness increasingly infrequent. It was only the doting efforts of her fellow Kitsune that kept her alive.
"Saburo!" Narako said. "Saburo, it is here! They are here!"
"What?" Saburo said, brandishing his weapon and the aged spirit ribbon he wore at his belt. "The shadows?"
"No!" she nearly shrieked. "The horned god! The fanged demon! The forgotten daughter! They have come! The Empire will suffer at their leisure!"
He had no idea what she was talking about, but Saburo's blood ran cold regardless. "What do you mean?" he encouraged gently. "Please, try to be more specific. Can you tell me what it is you've seen?"
"The Destroyers," she croaked. "You have to see. You have to see and bring the word. Gather the others and go, go behind the Wall. See. Understand. Tell. Tell the Empress!" The last instruction was nearly a scream.
"Of course," Saburo said. "Whatever you wish. What can I get for you? How can I make you for comfortable?"
Narako lapsed back on her mat, clearly exhausted. "The fire was a lie," she whispered, "but the end is real. The end is real, and it has come for us all." And then she was gone, returned to the feverish rest the claimed her so much of the time.
Saburo frowned, his mind racing. His first impulse was to go to Kitsune Ryukan, the daimyo of their family, but something in him would not allow it. He remembered the final prophecy that Narako had issued more than a year ago, and her warning that if its portents were shared, that disaster could be the only outcome. Could that be the case now? Could he take the chance?
"No," he said quietly.
Continued in ; Path of the Destroyer Part III