At least they are safe.
The Crane kobune, Kobayashi Maru, sailed into the distance from the docks as the Demon of Toshi Ranbo watched.
They will never understand the sacrifice that was made here. Only that Asahina’s wrath judged the Crab unworthy. If only the boy had listened… He sighed, Too much of his father in him. Too much anger and smug self-superiority in his heart.
I pray to dear Satsume that my son never becomes such a monster.
He thought about that a second longer than he should have
Would you have approved of my methods, my old friend? You too would do what you must for your Clan, however I don’t think even you would approve. But then you never said, perhaps that is why you never asked. To keep your honour as pure as your clan was safe.
No regrets have I though. I wonder if you are watching from Tengoku, watching and blessing me with the courage it will take to see this through to its bitter end? I do not know.
He straightened himself, standing upright, taking the katana left to him by the young Daidoji he had ordered to the boats.
But what I do know is that the Crab will be here soon and I must prepare myself for their arrival, not reminisce like a doddering old fool!
In a laugh, loud and unheard, the Demon of Toshi Ranbo stalked back towards the Temples.
* * *
Hida Yakamo was not one for strategy.
His father had always mocked his younger brother, Sukune, for his constant reliance on tactics, his dedication to the teachings of Sun Tzu, Akodo and even that hated fool Bayushi Tengen.
But in all their strategic games, he had never been able to beat the fragile whelp. He had always backhanded his brother afterward to show his superior strength and was then applauded by his father.
His father would say, ‘let that be a lesson to you, Sukune. No matter how well read you are, no matter how gifted a tactician, all it takes is a strong arm and a will of iron to grind you to dust.’
What Yakamo had never understood till this moment, was how woefully underprepared he truly was for command.
Where did I go wrong? He thought to himself. What did I do wrong?
He had taunted the Crane the night before. He had already shamed them in capturing one of the vaunted Daidoji warriors; his scouts luring the fool to his camp to be captured.
He watched as Ikoma Soto’s Imperial Legion had pulled back, allowing him the field of battle.
He had ordered his men to eat and drink and be glad, to make the noise as befits and army to terrify the foolish Crane so that they would try to flee rather than stand and die as samurai.
But as dawn came and the coastal birds sang, things seemed to go wrong.
He had sent his Hiruma out first. Made sure that they were prepared to face the day ahead.
And like true Crab his scouts had shown no sign of weakness even when the poison entered their systems. He would see their corpses later, after the main attack, their bodies wracked in agony, such twisted expressions on their faces it reminded him of some of the horrors he had faced in the Shadowlands as a child. But never on his own men, he had thought, never on the Crab.
At some point his food supply had been poisoned. Yakamo wasn’t to understand this till many of his men began reporting that they had aching stomachs, dizziness and thirst. Before the sun was high entire squads had succumbed to bloody flux, after their sunken eyes yellowed and breath began panting as though they had just fought an army. The small amount of Kuni that accompanied his forces could scarcely keep up with the numbers of dying men.
Perhaps he should have been calmer, regrouped his forces better. But he let the fires of anger and revenge consume him. He ordered his soldiers, the ones that could stand, to arm themselves and present for an immediate attack.
His men were dressed, ready for combat in little under an hours’ time.
Even though more than a third of his forces had perished from the poison of the filthy Crane and their obvious Scorpion allies, he was as unstoppable as the tide, his forces the wave at his back, he led from the front, his grey crab banner held high his mon on display for all that were in attendance.
Then it went wrong, so wrong.
Without the Hiruma to scout for them, the traps that had been cleverly concealed began to slay he invaders. Arrows unseen, pongi sticks covered in filth, small pit traps filled with spikes each aimed at the Crab samurai’s legs and feet, slowing them down. Some of these traps would kill, of course, but they were more an annoyance than a real threat. He ordered his men to spread out and begin ransacking the temples for it’s valuables – statues, heirlooms anything of value.
He took his elite guard into the Temple of Asahina, in the centre of the complex.
Kneeling before the image of Asahina himself, the Demon of Toshi Ranbo waited.
Yakamo cockily walked up to the old man, laughing as ha had seen his father do a hundred times over. But this was not an easily cowed Asahina, no. This was something far more sinister.
The Demon spun to face him. It spoke in such a graven tone Yakamo had not heard the likes of before was not sure that he would hear again.
‘Young fool. If you had only walked away. If you had headed wisdom over the brashness of youth. If you could have seen the joy that these simple people lived and let them be…’
He had snorted derisively at the old man, ‘And why would I have ever done that? What possible reason could you give me to do such a stupid thing?’
The old man looked deep into his eyes and smiled, lifting a small torch into the air before throwing it at the statue behind him.
‘You would have lived.’
Then all he saw was a brilliant light before his world was plunged into darkness.
* * *
A sound snapped him back to the present. A brief one, he had almost passed off as his imagination getting the best of him.
Then heard it. Again and again and again. The sound of one then two, then a cacophony, terrible sound that had been silent until now.
There were men all around him and they were screaming in agony, in pain, in torment.
He shouted words of comfort, words of comradery, words of inspiration – only to realise that he was hearing something else.
His own scream of pain.
He felt panic start to sink into his core.
He tried to take to his feet but he found that he could not, his legs seem not to obey his command. It wasn’t until he looked down that panic turned to terror.
Where were his legs?
Why were their blackened stumps where his knees should be?
Tears began to stream down his face, covering himself in his own self pity.
He struggled to wipe the tears from his eyes, realising too late that there were no arms with which to wipe his sorrow away.
He quit struggling and lay back down, movement going on around him even as he realised that he was beyond hope.
Then the pain that his shock had taken from him flooded back like a tidal wave in the monsoons.
And then the world he knew was darkness.
* * *