|Path of the Destroyer Part III|
|Written By:||Shawn Carman|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan|
|Released:||August 21st, 2009|
Previously; Path of the Destroyer Part II
The Imperial City of Toshi Ranbo
Kuni Daigo rubbed his bleary, red-streaked eyes and ran his fingers through his long, matted hair. He stared absently at the scrolls and various vials on the wooden table where he worked, his features slowly twisting into a mask of rage and hatred. In a fit of rage, he raked everything from the table into the floor with a crash, snarling incoherently.
"Overly dramatic, don't you think?"
Daigo turned to the door and regarded the man there with obvious disdain. "I did not invite your opinion, Chancellor."
Bayushi Hisoka raised an eyebrow. "True enough. I did come to check your progress, however. I must assume from your behavior that there is none."
"I should be at the Wall," Daigo insisted. "My place is in battle with the Shadowlands."
Daigo scowled. "There is nothing I can do," he finally admitted. "Nothing seems to be effective. This plague... it is perfect. It is beyond my ability to cure. Perhaps beyond anyone's ability."
"Do you know how many will die?" Hisoka asked the Jade Champion.
"Far better than you," Daigo said contemptuously. "The rate of infection is astonishing. The lethality of it even more so. And of course, there are the... effects... it has on those it kills."
Hisoka's shoulders seemed to sag ever so slightly. "Then it is true?"
"It is," the Jade Champion nodded. "Roughly a third of those who perish become undead. Plague zombies, if you wish to use the ludicrous term coined during the Clan War. I find it simplistic, but accurate."
"Your interest in semantics is duly noted," the Chancellor said dryly. "Are you certain about the rate of... reanimation?"
"As certain as possible, under the circumstances," Daigo confirmed. "It is possible that it could be greater. The information we have is at best partial. The Crane and Scorpion cannot be trusted to give completely accurate accounts." He paused for a moment. "Present company excluded, naturally."
"You might be well served to remember to whom you speak," Hisoka said menacingly.
Daigo's eyes blazed in the dimly lit room. "As might you."
Hisoka regarded the Jade Champion for a moment. "Point taken," he finally said with a slight nod. "Shall I assume, then, that you will renew your efforts?"
"I should be on the Wall," Daigo repeated.
"Your surrender dooms untold thousands, including the entirety of the Horiuchi family." Hisoka reminded him. "Is that the legacy you wish to be remembered for? And even if you care nothing for your own reputation, as I strongly suspect you do not, what of the clan you serve? Your shame is theirs as well."
Daigo stared at the jumble of damp, ruined scrolls in the floor next to his table. "Tell the Empress... I will have a report by the end of tomorrow."
"I should hope so," Hisoka said. "For the sake of the Empire."
Outside the Horiuchi provinces, the Unicorn lands
Moto Kang severed the head of the shambling undead with a single stroke. He regarded it with obvious disgust as it tumbled to the ground in a heap. He glanced about for more opponents, but found only the twice-dead. He sneered, sheathing his blade in annoyance, then spat on the immobile form of his decayed opponent. "Scarcely a challenge," he muttered to the dead thing on the ground.
"Kang!" A man bearing the mon of an imperial magistrate stormed toward Kang, his blade drawn and dark with the blackish blood of the dead.
"Wonderful," Kang hissed under his breath.
The magistrate was clearly furious. "What exactly do you think you are doing?"
"Securing the border, as we were commanded," Kang said. "I believe you were there when the orders were given. No one must be allowed to exit the province,' was it not? What part about that was confusing, Hotei?"
Moto Hotei's hand tightened on the hilt of his blade. "I understand our orders perfectly," he said. "I also understand the concepts of compassion and common decency, something that you clearly and utterly lack. That was someone's brother or sister," he said, pointing at the fallen zombie.
"Was is the key word in this situation, I think," Kang said flippantly. "It is nothing more than a walking disease, now, and I hardly think that anyone related to it would wish to think of it as a relative." He shrugged. "It is only meat."
"Get away from me," Hotei said, his jaw set. "And you would be well advised to keep your distance. If I see or hear anything questionable from you, I will have you arrested for blasphemy." He paused. "I may have you arrested regardless if you do not leave at once."
"What a paragon of justice," Kang retorted. "I am certain your conduct as an Imperial magistrate will make the entire Moto family proud."
Kang's eyes narrowed and he began to retort, but thought better of it, and retreated from the area. Hotei glared after him for a moment, and then returned his gaze to the Horiuchi provinces in the distance. Already today he had been forced to order the destruction of no less than a dozen abominations that had wandered free from the area. It was his duty, and yet it was horrible beyond reckoning. How could his ancestors forgive him for such a sinister act? And yet, could they forgive him for failing to do as commanded?
He could only hope that nothing more would emerge.
The Imperial Court was utterly silent, a rare occurrence even under strange circumstances. Many milled about in the area, but few spoke. Only moments before, the Unicorn representative, Ide Eien, had delivered his grim report of the situation in the Unicorn lands. Even the most pessimistic among those assembled had been shocked by the gravity of the situation.
"The Empress is greatly saddened to hear of such loss of life among her subjects," the Voice of the Empress said, his tone heavy. "That good and honorable people should suffer such a fate is an inexplicable enigma, a mystery of the mortal realm that none can understand until our souls reach the next world and achieve enlightenment."
"If it is the Empress' will, I can ensure the blockade of the Horiuchi provinces is not breached," Shosuro Jimen said. The Emerald Champion's voice lacked its normal levity for once. "The Unicorn need not be forced to dispatch the abominations wrought from their own ranks."
"The Empress thanks her Champion for his consideration," the Voice answered, "but she fears that the solution must be more severe than that." He paused for a moment, looking down. "In order to save the Empire from the spread of this insidious plague, it is the will of the Empress that the Horiuchi lands be put to the torch."
A whisper passed through the court. "My Empress, please!" Ide Eien said.
The Voice lifted a hand. "This is not something the Empress chooses lightly. The Horiuchi are loyal vassals, and in their memory the Empress will retire for five days to mourn and pray, but their lands are lost, their ranks infected, and at present they pose a threat not only to their kinsmen, but to the Empire itself. It is a terrible, nightmarish thing, one that causes the Empress tremendous pain, but the greater good of her people must be considered."
A form stepped forward, pressing between the others assembled. "My Empress," Moto Jin-sahn said, his voice thick, "I must fulfill this duty."
The Voice listened for a moment to the word that no one else could hear, then bowed his head. "The Empress cannot permit it," he said quietly. "There is no question that the Shogun would fulfill his duty, but for the members of a clan to spill the blood of its own is not something she can command. It must not be so."
"Then allow me to do it," the Emerald Champion said, stepping forward again. "If this horrible thing must be done, then allow me to do it in your name, Empress. You know that I will not fail you."
"The Empress knows this," the Voice said. "The Scorpion have ever been loyal vassals, but they have been villains far too often, and hated unfairly as a result. No, this task must not fall to the Scorpion, for the Empress will not see them hated unjustly."
"Who then, Empress?" a member of the Lion delegation asked. "You know that the Lion stand ready, if this thing must be done. All the clans will serve you, whatever your will?"
There was a murmur of assent, albeit a reluctant one, through the delegations. The Voice lifted his hand. "The loyalty of the clans has never been in question in the mind of the Divine Empress. The task will be given to those who must perform it, and the Empress will select these vassals only after due consideration. You will now excuse the Child of Heaven, for she has much deliberation ahead of her."
The Imperial Advisor stood in the waiting chamber with a pleasant smile on his face. The man called Susumu, also know to certain parties as Daigotsu Susumu and once known by a very different name altogether, had long since accepted that his service to the Empress was not going to result in his death out of hand. He had accepted the strictures placed upon him by the Empress and had violated none of them, so the summons to speak with the Divine One had elicited only curiosity, not fear or anxiety. Under different circumstances, he reflected, he would regard the fact that he had been kept waiting part of some minor power play, intended to demonstrate the superior hand of his host. But of course the Empress had no need for such pettiness.
On the other hand, Togashi Satsu might.
The shoji screen barring the way into the primary chamber slid open with a whisper, and Susumu entered without hesitation. He strode through the lavishly appointed but relatively small chamber and knelt before the dais on the other side. "My Empress," he said softly.
"Perhaps," the Voice of the Empress said. "But then, perhaps not."
Susumu raised his head. "Those are your words, not hers."
"My duties permit me to offer my counsel to the Child of Heaven," Satsu said darkly. "My counsel is that you are unworthy to stand before her, and should be driven into the wild like the animal you are."
"You speak your words with her voice, and yet it is I who am unworthy."
Satsu glared. "Do not forget to whom you speak."
Susumu smiled ever so slightly. "A middle aged man who insists on baring his chest that all might see? I will struggle to keep it in mind."
It was as if a storm passed over Satsu's face, but the outline of a hand held aloft from behind the Empress' screen halted the discussion immediately. "Forgive me, Empress," Satsu said quietly.
"And me," Susumu added. "I would never wish to insult the Empress with petty arguments."
Satsu listened. "Upon the ascension of the Empress and her appointment of you as Imperial Advisor," he said, clearly struggling to conceal his distaste at the memory, "do you recall what the Empress' command was regarding your colleagues who did not bear the mark of Jigoku upon their souls?"
"Your command was that they put down the banner of the Spider upon pain of death, and pray for the opportunity of redemption," Susumu answered at once.
"Is it your contention that this edict has been followed?"
The Advisor frowned slightly. "That information is not available to me, my Empress," he said. "My duties in your court have far separated me from my former colleagues, as you well know."
"So it would seem," the Voice said. "It is the Empress' will that those few among the Spider who are not beyond redemption take the first step toward that most sacred of goals."
"Of course," Susumu answered. "What is your will?"
"Those among the Spider who are yet pure may take up their banners for one day and one day alone," Satsu continued. "They will report to the Unicorn lands, and they will put the torch to the Horiuchi provinces. Nothing must survive."
Susumu took a great breath. "As you will it, so shall it be done," he said. "This shall eradicate any hope of an ongoing alliance with the Unicorn."
"Perhaps, and perhaps not," Satsu repeated. "That remains to be seen, but this duty must be performed, and to entrust it to one of the Great Clans would inevitably lead to resentment and violence. This must be avoided."
I see," Susumu said. "And should the ire of the Unicorn, or any other clan for that matter, fall upon the Spider, what of it?"
"What of it, indeed?" Satsu replied. "Will your people decline this most generous opportunity for beginning their path of redemption?"
"Of course not," he replied. "If it is the Empress' wish, then it will be done. The cost will be high, but the Spider will bear it without complaint."
"Very well," Satsu said. "The Horiuchi have ever been good and loyal vassals. You will ensure that their demise is one worthy of such trusted subjects. Should you fail in that, then it will fall to the Unicorn to see that the slight to their memory is avenged. Is the enormity of your task made clear to you?"
"Abundantly, Empress," Susumu answered. "And on behalf of the clan I once served, I offer you my enormous gratitude for this opportunity."
"The Empress sincerely hopes that you will make the most of it."
As you can see from the accompanying edicts, my associates have been tasked with the purification of the Horiuchi lands. You have no doubt heard of this impending duty as a result of the Empress' announcement in the Imperial Court. I can only imagine the pain and suffering this has caused you, and if I could assuage your agony, I would give anything to do it. Sadly that is beyond my power as Imperial Advisor, and I can only fulfill the will of the Divine Empress.
You may recall many of my associates from the time when we shared a closer alliance than at present. Since that time you may have heard many accusations regarding our association from outsiders. Please, pay them no mind. Of all the clans, you best understand how the others view those they consider outsiders. We are much the same in that regard.
The men who are prepared to fulfill this most horrific task have accepted the duty with a heavy heart and great misgivings about such pain visited upon our friends among the Unicorn. Each and every one of them has accepted that this may be their final task. If it is your will that they must perish in the aftermath of this task, that their lives must be given in recompense for the loss of your Horiuchi brothers, then we have all accepted this cost. These are good and honorable men, and if their deaths can ease your suffering, if by dying they can preserve what we all consider the sacred bond between our clans, then they do so willingly.
You and all of yours are in my prayers.
Moto Hotei carefully rolled the letter back up and offered it to the woman before him, but she declined. "If it would not be an imposition, please see if that can reach your Khan," she said. "My lord Susumu-sama wishes him to know how deeply he regrets this situation, as do we all."
Hotei shrugged and tucked the scroll into his obi. "How many are you?"
"Fifty," she answered. "We preferred to keep the ranks small to avoid the possibility of contamination, and to ensure that should your clan choose to claim our lives in exchange for your kinsmen, our loss will not threaten the association as a whole."
"How practical," Hotei said contemptuously.
Shiraki smiled sadly. "I am sorry."
Hotei glanced at her irritably. "Your scars are significant."
"They are," she agreed.
He looked away and rubbed his eyes with his hand. "No, I... forgive me. That was uncalled for, I should not have..."
"There is no need for an apology," she said quietly. "Please. All is well."
Hotei looked around at the Unicorn forces milling in the area. "I am not certain I would say that all is well. There will be... difficulties between us, I am afraid. The forgiveness of all those who bear the Khan's symbol will not be forthcoming as quickly as some."
"When my family died, I was unable to forgive those responsible for many years," Shiraki said. "That any of your number are able to overcome your anger will be a testament to your clan's compassion and honor."
Hotei nodded. "Go," he said hoarsely. "Do what you must. I hate you for it, but I thank you as well, for I do not know if I could do what must be done were I in your place."
Shiraki bowed and retreated. "Move the wagons into place," she called to the others. "We will require the pitch to ensure that the cleansing is sufficiently thorough."
Only a short time later, the Spider forces were will within the boundaries of the Horiuchi provinces, and well out of sight of the Unicorn forces at the border. "Scouts, report," Shiraki said gruffly.
One of the men stepped forward. "No living Unicorn within at least two miles, as near as we are able to tell," he said. "The village to the north appears completely decimated. Nothing living remains."
"Very well," she said. "Prepare the wagons."
The scout bowed sharply. "Commander, what is your plan to avoid contamination? I understand that our orders call for us to be sequestered in an abandoned monastery outside the Unicorn border for sixteen days after this task is completed, but how can we ensure that we do not fall to the plague ourselves?"
"Do not be foolish," Shiraki barked. "Death means nothing to us. However, since our status as uncorrupted makes us valuable to the Dark Lord, he has graciously taken steps to ensure that we are not claimed by this blight." She waved to the men at the wagons, who removed the thick cloth covers at her signal.
From within the wagon poured more than a dozen bakemono, their tiny green frames clad in an assortment of tattered cloth and armor, with various weapons held at the ready. One of them immediately began striking the others and snarling at them, cowing them into obvious submission. "You," Shiraki said, pointing at that one. "What are you called?"
"Shukku," the thing growled at her.
"You understand your task, Shukku?"
The little thing grinned, all teeth and malice. "Kill all the sick humans, the dead humans, burn everything, yes?"
"Yes," Shiraki said, pointing to the village at the north. "Complete your work quickly and you shall eat well this evening."