To Die a Samurai
By Tim Munro
"Hide in your little palace, Crane. My dogs shall be feasting on your bones by sunrise."
Doji Ianama read the answer to his final plea for mercy, and folded the small scrap of rice paper, laying it on the table. He sat in quiet contemplation, watching the ethereal shadows created by the room's lone candle shimmering in the night. The sounds of the battle outside were muted in this quiet corner of the castle, yet they were ever present, a constant reminder that all was not as peaceful elsewhere in the palace. Ianama stared into the candle's flame, mesmerized by the dance of the little fire spirit within. He envied the spirit's lighthearted simplicity. It knew that it would soon be extinguished forever, yet it danced all the same. Ianama wished he had the spirit's serenity.
A bloodthirsty, inhuman howl of fury tore into the night, accompanied by the crash of splintering wood and shattering iron. Screams of pain and terror rent the silence of the room, echoing and reverberating through the halls. The enemy had broken down the gates. The last of the castle's defenders were making a final, futile effort to hold off the inevitable. Their death screams sent icy daggers of pure terror slicing into Ianama's chest.
"It had come to this, now?" Ianama said aloud to himself. There had been peace but a month before. Only one month! His life had been good then, he now realized. Though he had spent his time grumbling about his assignment to this minor village on the coast of the Crane lands, he had been safe. He could busy himself in the work of a magistrate, secure in the knowledge that the village was far away from any wars or conflicts. Though the work was boring, and the village life tedious, at least he had been safe.
His secure and stable life had ended a month ago. The Crane had a long and profitable history of commercial partnership with the Mantis. Yet, one fateful day, all trade with the Mantis suddenly ceased, as the constant stream of ships landing at the village's docks went dry. The ports lay empty, and the merchants raised a hue and cry, demanding to know the reasons for this outrage. Officials were sent to find the reason for this mysterious stoppage of trade. Every last one went missing without a trace. Anxieties in the region grew, as wild speculation prevailed over sober contemplation. Then, the assaults on the coastal towns had begun. Small fleets of strange vessels, never seen before in Rokugan, attacked and ransacked the small villages. The few survivors spoke of terrible monsters and nightmarish demons, killing and burning with fevered abandon.
Ianama had, at first, dismissed these stories as the fevered ravings of frightened peasants. Still, as the attacks persisted, and grew in their scale and audacity, he became increasingly worried. He was frightened at the prospect of what was developing on the islands just over the horizon.
Just yesterday, a day choked by fog and clouded with dread, a frantic Mantis sailor landed his tiny craft at the foot of the town's main dock. Ianama rushed out to attend to the man, who was bleeding from several wounds to his arms and legs. His clothes were ripped, and his hair was wild and filthy. He stank of blood and terror.
The man had lost what sanity he had before, and fell into a frenzied speech. He raved about an island infested with the creatures of the Dark One, terrible creatures of the darkest evil. He fell silent for a moment, and then, in a voice so low it was barely a whisper, he spoke of a warrior, a man with eyes of fire and a blade like cold lightning. He stared intensely into Ianama's eyes, his gaze seeming to reach into the very depths of Ianama's soul. After a few tense moments, the man faltered and collapsed. He died right there on the spot.
Ianama had ordered his guards to stand on full watch, and sent a hastily constructed letter to his Daimyo, pleading for reinforcements. He had spent that night in fevered prayer to the Fortunes, praying that his village would be spared from whatever dark forces were gathering in the lands of the Mantis.
This day had passed as dark and gloomy as had the one before. He had given what few troops he had the best weapons available from the storehouse, and had gathered as many of the villagers as he could into the courtyard of the castle. When he felt that he could do no more, Ianama returned to his chambers, to prepare himself for the onslaught.
The darkness came at midnight. Ianama was summoned to a battlement at the top of the castle, and the sight that met him there caused him to despair. A mighty fleet of ships, their torches glowing a bloody red in the night, was descending on his village like a plague of locusts. The first of these ships had already landed, and a mass of dimly lit figures could be seen streaming out from the vessels, advancing far faster than any man could run. Fires lit up across the village, as the rampaging armies of evil set houses to the torch as they advanced.
Archers ran across the parapets of the castle, preparing to make their stand against the hordes now rampaging across the village. Guards barked orders, straining to be heard over the gibbering, demonic noise of the invaders. The demon army spread like water, filling into streets and alleyways as they advanced on the castle. The defenders hardened their stances and prepared to meet the onslaught.
The first bows twanged, and a roar went up from the guards of the Daidoji as the first wave of the assault crashed against the castle. Wails of terror were matched by the piercing shrieks of monsters being impaled by the arrows and spears of the Daidoji. The soldiers were being hard pressed to defend the walls of the castle already, and hordes of reinforcements poured in from the coast, extinguishing any hopes for survival. The soldiers fought grimly, vowing to make these demonic creatures pay dearly for their conquest.
Ianama's attention suddenly shifted to a large vessel on the coast, one lit by a multitude of torched burning with a sickly green flame. In the putrid glow given off by the torched, Ianama could see the figure of a man stepping onto the docks. Ianama was consumed with a sudden, overwhelming terror at the sight of this man. His fear overtook his courage, and he ran to his chambers, shaking with fear. He collapsed on his tatami and wept.
After a few minutes, he composed himself, though the icy fear still washed through his blood. The noise of the battle outside was muted here, yet he could tell even then that his forces were losing. He had scribbled out a note, pleading for mercy. He gave it to a young messenger, bidding that the boy move with haste before all was lost.
Now, Ianama had his answer. The reply had come written on the back of his note, thrown over the walls along with the messenger boy's head. Ianama knew now that there could be no hope. His master's reinforcements could never arrive in time to save the village. They would die this night, every last one of them.
Ianama cursed his cowardice. He should be out there, fighting with his men! Instead, he sat huddling in his room, consumed by childish terror. He looked again towards the candle, watching the flame dancing atop the wick. He sat motionless on his tatami, lost in thought. The sounds of battle were louder now, as the fighting spread throughout the castle. The clash of steel mingled with the rending of claws in a hellish symphony of death. Ianama contemplated the candle one last time, and stood up on his feet.
Ianama walked over to a corner of the room, where his
swords lay in their places. He took his katana from its place, running his
fingers across its handle. He stuffed it into his obi, tying the saya into
place. His wakazashi soon joined its brother, resting in the folds of his
kimono. Dark shapes began to stir, casting grotesque shadows through the thin
paper walls. Ianama stood up to his full height, straightened his kimono, rested
his hand on the hilt of his sword, and turned to face the demons.
The paper walls separating his chambers from the hallway ripped open, torn into shreds by a pair of wicked claws. A demonic creature, it's form hunched and wiry, stalked into the room, its malicious eyes fixed on its prey. Ianama stood in the middle of the room, his eyes fixed forward in a stony expression. The creature reared back on its haunches, coiling like a cobra waiting to strike.
The demon leaped forward, screaming a bloodthirsty cry. Ianama's katana flashed out of its sheath, slicing upwards with blinding speed as its master drew it across the beast's chest. The demon wailed in pain as its torso separated in two. The beast collapsed to the floor, and promptly died.
The creature's screams alerted others of its kind, who began to storm into the room. Ianama's katana sang, slashing left and right in a blinding hurricane of swirling death. A pile of twisted bodies piled up at Ianama's feet, yet for every beast to die at his hands, two more came to replace them. The sheer numbers of the creatures overwhelmed Ianama, and a vicious blow to his back sent him sprawling to the ground.
Ianama felt the beast's claws tearing into his body, and he felt his lifeblood draining onto the floor. The pain was incredible, yet he bore it in stoic silence. His swords had been knocked away from him, and there was no way he could regain them. It would be only a matter of seconds. He looked back to the hallway, and what he saw there, through the cloudy haze of his fading consciousness, was something out of the darkest nightmares.
He had been a Mantis, once, that much was obvious. He still wore the armour of one of the scions of Yoritomo, and a samurai's daisho hung at his side. Yet his armour was covered in blood and ichor, and the swords he wore glowed with an aura of darkness and malice. His massive frame was knotted with powerful muscles, and, as he walked towards Ianama's broken body, his step was easy and confident.
The creatures parted in front of the dark man, jumping off of Ianama's punctured and bleeding back. The man crouched down beside Ianama's head, and Ianama barely found the strength to turn and look him in the eyes. The man's face was covered in scars and pustules, and reeked of putrid death. His eyes glowed a dull red, and they flashed like glowing embers when he spoke.
"You have failed, little Crane," rumbled the
dark one, his voice a harsh, hateful rasp. "We will use this pathetic
little hamlet as a starting point, a landing place for my armies. Your failure
has doomed your precious empire."
Ianama broke into a faint smile, and then coughed weakly, spitting up a thick clot of blood. "I....did...not....fail..." he whispered.
The dark man chuckled, pulling his sword from its saya. Dark energies swirled around its blade, hungry for the taste of more blood. "And how did you not fail, little Crane?"
Ianama coughed again. He could feel the black sleep closing in on him. He drew in his final breath, and turned to face his enemy.
"Because.....because I died.....a samurai......"
"As you did, little Crane," said the dark man, as his sword swept quickly downwards. "As you did."