The Truest Test - A Tale of the Crab
All was quiet on the Great Carpenter Wall, as it had been for weeks. In fact, the long periods of inactivity, coming so close on the heels of the recent rash of renewed and stronger attacks, had seemed very ominous indeed to Hida Kuroda. The Crab Champion could almost sense the building power deep inside the Shadowlands. He looked over the parapet even now, staring at the twisted horizon as if he could somehow pierce whatever veil of secrecy the damnable beasts were cloaking themselves in.
"Kuroda-sama," came the familiar voice of Hida Reiha, "you cannot will them to reveal themselves. They will reveal themselves in time, as they always have. And we will endure their assault, and ultimately defeat them, as the Crab always have." The young samurai-ko adjusted her katana where it rested in her obi, scanning the horizon restlessly despite her words.
Kuroda smiled at her. Reiha was an exceptional soldier, one that had a great
deal of potential. He had added her to his personal guard to ensure that she had
every opportunity to grow in her service to the clan. One day, she would no
doubt lead many legions of Crab in battle against the Horde. Or perhaps one of
the other clans.
That thought brought a sour taste with it. Kuroda's smile turned to a look of intense distaste as he thought of the conflict with the Crane. The prancing fools. If they succeeded in their gambit and managed to overcome Kuon, the ability of the Crab to support their population would be dangerously weakened. When the Horde overran the Wall and ran amok throughout Rokugan, where would the Crane's precious courtiers be then? Would they talk the beasts of the Shadowlands into letting them live? Hardly.
Kuroda sighed heavily. It was the same as it had always been. The Empire gladly allowed the Crab to protect them, yet mocked and took advantage of them at every opportunity. It was simply another part of the burden of the Crab: to suffer fools.
"That is a sight I cannot grow accustomed to." Reiha's voice broke into his thoughts. Following her line of vision, Kuroda saw a trio of Crab warriors sleeping at their posts upon the Wall. Two weeks ago, such a gross failure of duty would have resulted in a severe disciplinary reprimand. Now, however, they were merely following orders.
"The vast majority of attacks made by the Shadowlands have begun at night. I expect something similar very soon. And even if I am wrong," Kuroda gestured again toward the empty horizon, "we have Hiruma scouts positioned in every tower. Should the hordes attack, they will awaken their brethren in sufficient time. We have nothing to fear."
Reiha nodded. "No doubt it is as you say, my lord."
* * * *
Kyubei thrashed fitfully in his sleep. He had been unable to work the fields for some days, afflicted as he was by a terrible fever. His wife and children were out gathering rice for their masters, the Crab, leaving him unattended in their tiny hovel. Due to the fever, Kyubei had been sleeping most of the day, however, so this was not a problem.
Today, though, Kyubei was not resting peacefully. His dreams were plagued with images of dark things, unmentionable beings of great power that were hunting him. In his dreams, he ran from them, hiding wherever possible. No matter what he did, they continued to draw closer. As the dream progressed, Kyubei's thrashing became more urgent. He moaned in his sleep, a dreadful, terrified sound. Sweat poured from his brow. At last, the dream ended. Kyubei sat bolt upright in bed, a scream upon his lips.
From inside the hovel, there was a ripping sound, followed only by soft, dark laughter.
* * * *
Hiruma Nichi was not pleased with this newest turn of events. Normally, duty upon the Great Wall was uneventful at best, and downright mind-numbing at its worst. Whenever he felt his senses growing dull with the boredom, he had always taken just a moment to focus them upon his surroundings. The chatter of the Hida guards in the watchtower, the tactical discussions of the Kaiu engineers who frequented this section of the wall, even the mercantile banter of the Yasuki was welcome if it helped him to refocus on his duty. But now, everyone was sleeping, which made it very difficult for Nichi to concentrate.
Below, Nichi heard the snickering of the peasant children. No doubt the young ones were amused by the sight of the huge Hida warriors sleeping in their armor. Nichi grinned. It was an amusing sight when you thought about it. In the corner of his eye, Nichi could see the children playing on the bracing columns at the base of the wall. He should probably send them away, but he could hardly fault them for being children.
A strange gurgle caught Nichi's ear. It sounded as if it had come from below him, and it could certainly be any number of bizarre creatures thrashing around in the mud of the Shadowlands. But it almost sounded like it had come from within the Wall itself. Could it have been a snore? It hadn't sounded like one. Nichi turned to investigate just in time to see one of the children disappear into the lower section of the wall.
Except that it wasn't a child at all, but a goblin.
For the briefest of moments, Nichi was stunned. He didn't move, incredulous that the wall could be attacked from behind. In that moment, he heard a thud that could only be the end of another samurai's life at the hands of a goblin's club. That broke Nichi's paralysis.
"Attacked! We are attacked!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. "The beasts have penetrated the Great Wall!" Nichi drew his katana and leapt down from the top level of the wall even as the Hida around him stirred and gathered their weapons.
Nichi prayed it would not be too late.
* * * *
The attack had come so quickly that Kiyoshi was still unsure exactly what had happened. There had been an attack from inside the wall, that much was certain. A legion of goblins, a handful of ogres, even a few oni had somehow gotten inside and attacked the sleeping Crab guards. Their advantage had not lasted long, but they had exploited it to its fullest. When the Crab had finally forced the invaders from the wall and beaten them back into the village…that was when the true assault had begun.
Legions had simply appeared on the plains before the Wall, attacking and overwhelming the Crab defenses before they even realized that the enemy was there. Even now, powerful winds tore at the watchtowers, quenching the warning fires and preventing the use of the colored smoke that the Hiruma used to signal other towers of an attack. There was no way to pass news of the assault down the wall.
Every conceivable variety of Shadowlands beast was among the vast horde that attacked them, including many that Kiyoshi had never seen before. As a witch hunter, it was his job to know the strengths and weaknesses of each such creature, and that he did not recognize them all filled him with a cold dread.
Even worse than the hideous variety of foe they faced were the easily identifiable leaders of the assault. Scattered among their subordinates were some of the most powerful entities known to the Crab: the Dark Daughter, looking somehow more sinister than ever before; the dread general Tsukuro, one of the oldest and most dangerous foes in the entire Shadowlands; two or three creatures that could only be described as particularly nightmarish oni; and a handful of maho-tsukai, each casting spells of blackened death upon the Crab they faced.
Kiyoshi turned his attention to a pack of bakemono that rushed toward him. Despite their new appearance and increased ferocity, they were no match for one trained in the techniques of the witch hunters. Even as he dispatched the last of them, the maho-tsukai that followed them turned his attention to Kiyoshi.
The sorcerer's tear-streaked eyes glanced quickly about the battlefield as Kiyoshi freed his blade from the last bakemono corpse. He lifted a fist glowing with foul black energy and locked eyes with Kiyoshi. There was no joy or pleasure in his gaze, only resignation. His countenance seemed remarkably free of the Taint.
"Forgive me," the sorcerer said simply. The energy of the spell caught Kiyoshi dead center. The witch hunter had no chance to avoid it; the sorcerer was simply to fast and too proficient in his black art. The force of his magic lifted Kiyoshi from the wall and hurled him several hundred feet across the battlefield to land in a heap at the base of the wall's inner side. He groaned in pain. His jade talisman had saved him from the Taint, but the impact had no doubt broken several bones. He would likely die of internal bleeding if he did not escape the battle soon.
At the base of the wall, Kiyoshi saw a contingent of Crab preparing to enter the tunnels beneath. Through the pain, he managed to make out Lord Kuroda himself among them, a broken katana in his hand, herding his personal guard into the wall to escape the slavering horde that had broken through their ranks. The tunnels were thought to be the safest portion of the wall, laden with traps and impossible to navigate without one of the Kaiu engineers to serve as a guide.
Kuroda and his guard could not see the oni that stood atop the wall, watching them. As if it was waiting for them to enter.
"My lord Kuroda!" shrieked Kiyoshi, ignoring the pain searing through his body. "It is a trap! NO!" He lurched to his feet, determined to reach his daimyo despite his agony. The roaring in his ears was replaced by a high, cruel laughter.
"I think not, little one," called a dark woman, her hands and kimono drenched in blood. Her smile was damning. With a flick of her hand, the mud in front of Kiyoshi erupted into a gigantic sanshu denki, one of the so-called muck monsters of the Shadowlands. The beast would be a challenge even at full strength, which Kiyoshi was not. He could not save Kuroda. Indeed, he might not even be able to save himself.
The beast lunged for him, and Shahai laughed.
* * * *
"This way!" called Kaiu Ryojiro. He was at the head of Kuroda's personal guard as they rushed through the tunnels in an attempt to escape the carnage. The sounds of death and battle were all around them, echoing through the tunnels until it was impossible to tell where they came from. Kuroda was disgusted to flee the battle so, but he knew that there was no victory to be had. The only chance for the Crab to stop this was to get word farther down the wall and set up appropriate defenses.
"Reiha," Kuroda said in a low voice as they moved through the tunnel. "When we arrive at the eighth watchtower, I will coordinate the defenses while you ride to Kyuden Hida and gather reinforcements. We will need to defend not only the wall, but the land behind it. Half of a mile should be sufficient."
"My lord," Reiha began, "my place is at your side!"
"Do not argue with me, girl!" Kuroda barked. "You will best serve me by doing as I say! We have no time for…" The Champion's voice trailed off suddenly as he held up his hand, signaling for silence and stillness. Something moved in the tunnel behind them. It was gigantic, and bore a frighteningly familiar outline.
"Kisada-sama?" whispered Kuroda. "Grandfather?"
"Impressive, for a human," came a voice that could not possibly have originated in a human throat. Kuroda held forth his torch. In the tunnel a short distance behind them, the massive figure blocked the entire tunnel. It was not Hida Kisada, although its frame was every bit as massive. It was as wide as two of the largest Hida samurai, and nearly twice again as tall. Blue, spiked armor covered the entire beast, or was that its flesh? It was impossible to say. Two foul red eyes burned beneath its helmet, boring into Kuroda. "I am Kyofu, the Onisu of Fear. I have come for your life, Hida Kuroda."
Reiha gasped in outrage and moved forward, but Kuroda stopped her with his arm held aloft. "No," he said simply. She began to protest, but he fixed her with a piercing gaze. "I said no. I will not shirk from my destiny. I will not disgrace my ancestors. You all must go and do as I have commanded you. I will face this abomination." Kuroda glanced at Kaiu Ryojiro, then glanced quickly at the tunnel wall to his left. A very pale Ryojiro nodded wordlessly, as if in confirmation.
"Kuroda-sama, please," implored Reiha.
"Go now," he ordered. "My brother will need you."
The other Crab spent a mere moment regarding their Champion with a mixture of awe and reverence, then disappeared down the tunnel as quickly as possible. Reiha looked back with tears welling in her eyes. She would not weep, however. She was Crab.
"How very noble. How very pointless." The Onisu began to move forward toward Kuroda. "When I have torn you to pieces, I will only chase them down to share your fate. Your pathetic drama was utterly useless."
"You cannot defeat me, beast." Kuroda assumed the most advanced fighting stance of the Hida school. "I am not afraid of you."
"It does not matter. This is the edge of the Shadowlands. Fear is everywhere." The creature offered a fleeting glance toward Kuroda's retreating comrades before setting its stony gaze upon Kuroda once more. "I cannot be defeated."
"We shall see," said Kuroda. He reached out quickly and depressed a hidden panel in the tunnel wall. There was a great rumbling of counterweights as two huge logs exploded from the walls of the tunnels. Each was tipped with a flat covering of pure jade. The two logs smashed together on Kyofu's head with a thunderous crash. For a moment, the giant of a figure was lost in the dust stirred by the logs' eruption and the force of the impact. Kuroda grinned.
"Pitiful." Unbelievably, the onisu yet lived. The jade tips of the deadly trap had crumbled upon contact with the creature's dark armor, and the logs had splintered on each end with no appreciable effect. Kyofu lifted one arm and wrenched the log free of the wall to hold it aloft disdainfully.
Kuroda's face fell. "Impossible."
"Nothing is impossible for the nightmare of the Crab, fool." It swung the log as if it were a children's toy. The end struck Kuroda, sending him crashing into the wall with deadly force and rolling him some distance down the tunnel. Blood streamed from the Champion's mouth, and he felt himself dying. His insides were crushed. No medicine could save him.
"You…will not have…my brothers, beast," Kuroda gurgled. "And you…did not defeat me. I chose…my own end." With a quaking hand, he reached out to activate another of the Kaiu traps, one that would collapse the section of the tunnel between the onisu and the retreating Crab troops.
It was also the section of the tunnel were he lay dying. Even as the rumble of the collapsing tunnel reached his ears, he heard with alarming clarity the onisu speak one last time.
"Do you believe death can save you from us?"
The tunnel fell, and Hida Kuroda heard no more.
* * * *
At the eighth watchtower, Hida Reiha still refused to weep as the tunnel she had just exited collapsed. In her hands she carried the broken ancestral katana of the Crab, given to her by Kuroda as he had taken hers. In that moment, she had known he would never leave the tunnels alive, although she wished more than anything that she could have taken his place.
Standing, Reiha wiped at her eyes and turned to face the others. "Dispatch a rider to Kyuden Hida immediately. Establish a half-mile defensive line extending from the watchtower directly away from the wall. We must be prepared for a land offensive as well as an attack along the Wall itself. When you reach Kyuden Hida, send a courier to Hida Kuon in the Yasuki lands immediately." Reiha clutched her lost lord's blade to her side protectively. "I have something that is now his."