Deaths Cruel Grip
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Death’s Cruel Grip
The horse raced into the darkness, departing the sounds of whizzing arrows and clanging katana. Date Haramune. That’s the name of the daimyo who had issued the command and rode to the slaughter of his daimyo, his daimyo’s family, and his own family. Date. Daimyo of Mutsu, retainer to Uesugi, he had ridden under their damned crest.
Minutes ago, amid the cacophony of battle, Houjou-sama had whispered the name in Kiyosado’s ear. The newly imparted knowledge stung like a snakebite, and the poison pulsed into his heart. She gave him her mount and he leapt up on it, only one thing burning in his mind. She had tried to shout something to him as he spurred the armor clad horse to the north. He had heard all he needed to hear; The name of the man upon whom he would exact the ultimate punishment branded his vision.
Kiyosado took the road north until it began to twist northeast. The path was heavily trodden here. The ambushing army had traveled the main road in haste to take their positions on either side of the valley. Kiyosado gave no further thought about his companions’ plight. They had the strength to repel the might of the army, and they could not lose.
The samurai rode until the sky brightened and the sun peeked over the crest of Mount Fuji to the south. He rode until the very same sun slumped down behind the forest-crested mountain range to the north. He rode until the horse’s legs began to buckle under the strain of the weight of the armor and of the rider. He left the animal resting by the road and he ran. He ran throughout the night, his boots dully thudding against the cool dirt road. One passing caravan gave him strange looks, but did not disturb the running man with fire blazing in his eyes.
He had come just into the Mutsu territory, skirting the roads when he encountered several armed platoons. No time to waste on these drones. Nothing would delay his plan. The outline of Kurokawa-jyo contrasted with the rolling hills. The mountain stronghold of Mutsu. Not enough to keep him out. Kiyosado scaled the mountain feverishly. His hands sizzled against the cool rocks, releasing small spouts of steam as he climbed.
At the crest, he surveyed the grounds quickly. The walls were high, and the moat was deep. There was a sewer opening at the base of the stone moat. A lone gray squirrel looked up at him from the bottom of the man-made trench, then scampered off into some underbrush.
Kiyosado hit the bottom with a thud and despite a semi-skillfully executed roll, he heard his forearm fracture upon impact. He cursed himself for clumsiness, but felt no pain. No time for pain. He dropped to his knees, grasped the sewer grate, and felt the iron rapidly expand in his hand, popping it loose from the hinges in a few seconds. He tossed it aside and crawled along the damp, moss-covered stone.
A few minutes later, the samurai emerged from the empty bathhouse, murder boiling in his fiery eyes. He gazed upon the keep where Date-dono slept safely guarded, or so would the daimyo assume in his ignorance. Standing in the courtyard, not so much as an ashigaru roamed the grounds. The thin night watch was lined up atop the walls, chatting idly and trading stories. They didn’t know death had crept into their safe little stronghold on the mountain.
Unimpeded, Kiyosado strode towards the keep. His pace accelerated as he imagined the daimyo writhing in unending agony as his blood boiled yet recovered simultaneously. He almost didn’t notice the shadow move at him. Almost.
The shadow lunged and Kiyosado pivoted on his heel, barely avoiding the edge of the nagi-nada as it grazed his cheekbone. He brought his elbow down hard on his assailant’s left arm, then slid back. The attacker spun the lengthy weapon about in their right arm, shaking off the rounin’s blow to the left arm.
“Whose blood is it you seek, demon?” The figure stepped forward out of the shadows. Adorning the crest of Uesugi on his dou-maru, the samurai spun his nagi-nada expertly and menacingly. “You are not so bold as to come here for the head of the daimyo?”
Kiyosado saw this cocky bastard as no more than a roadblock between him and their target. Without a word, the rounin strode forward with flames licking from the corners of their eyes and heat radiating around them, causing the cool air to condense into a localized fog. Kiyosado’s blast hit the samurai full force, but the attack exploded in a cloud of steam that lifted off the apparently unharmed, unnamed samurai.
Curious. A second blast exploded similarly, evaporating instantly and adding to the thickening fog. Shouts from the battlements arose and the clamor of footsteps and calls-to-arms could be heard approaching from all sides. No matter. Not a single man or the entire might of the guard here would stop them tonight.
The armored man opposite him erupted in mocking laughter. What manner of disrespect is this that he shows us? Kiyosado wondered to themselves. This man would not simply keel over and die like so many men before who dared stand between the possessed samurai and their doomed target. To the surrounding mob of ashigaru who managed to make out his form through the fog, the opaque shape of the invader dissipated into an incorporeal cloud.
“Neat trick, demon. I have some as well. You shall know me as Oni Yoshishige before you fall under my blade.” The self-proclaimed Yoshishige raised his blade and a waterspout spun about it out of the steamy mist. He slung it at Kiyosado. The rounin tried to jump out of the way, but took the blast full in the face. It felt for a moment as if they had been hit by a twenty-foot wave and their body literally rolled about midair as if it had been sucked into the undertow of the surf. Disoriented, they dropped facedown to the ground.
Unable to maintain their concentration, they returned to the corporeal world and pain washed over them. They could hear cheering. Then cheering suddenly turned to screaming. Something blurry and white streaked into a group of figures to his right and scattered them about like ragdolls. Footsteps scrambled, officers shouted orders, and frightened yelps of men drowned out a shout of surprise from Oni Yoshishige.
Through the fog, Kiyosado made out the colors of familiar armor adorned by a familiar crest. The crest of Imagawa. Houjou-sama! Kiyosado’s mind rallied and their vision focused as they lifted themselves off the ground. Gritting their teeth through the pain, they managed to stand. No one paid them any mind. Every ashigaru that was not already dead had either fled or crawled as far away as possible from the sight Kiyosado beheld.
Houjou-sama leveled her spear at Oni Yoshishige. About her swirled ice shards, glowing magnificently against the dim light of the oil torches. The Tonbo-giri dripped with the blood of what could have been fifty men. Oni grinned, blood running down from his right eye, covering the entire left half of his face with glistening red. His own aura resembling that of a maelstrom spun angrily about him. He raised his spear and pointed it forward, mirroring Houjou-sama’s aggressive stance.
“Satake Yoshishige-dono, daimyo of Hitachi. You stand between us and our prize, you ugly son of a bitch.” Houjou-sama’s eyes flashed with ki energy and for the first time in his new existence, Kiyosado felt a proverbial and somewhat ironic chill run down his spine.
Oni nodded towards Kiyosado, “This one belongs to you then, Honda-san?” He spat in Kiyosado’s direction.
“This one spent his life to save mine. He is a long lost ally and friend returned to me. We are here to watch Date-dono’s pain as he begs for death that will not come.” Houjou-sama motioned towards the keep.
“Date will endure none of your evil tortures. I will plant each of your heads on pikes and send them back to that crafty bastard Yoshimoto, courtesy the daimyo of Mutsu.”
Oni sent a spout of water spiraling at Imagawa’s finest samurai. She skillfully cartwheeled to the side despite her heavy armor. Another blast of water was met with a jet of ice and the collision of the elements rocked the castle foundations with a loud crack. For a moment, the blasts met at a standstill, but without warning, the humidity became palpable and the water jet surged ahead, overtaking the ice stream and tossing Saya across the courtyard into the bathhouse wall. There was a sickening crunch. Kiyosado suddenly remembered themselves and clenched their fists for a moment, letting the seething heat of their blood run to their extremities, healing their bruises and setting the fractured bone. They looked up at Oni just as the powerful samurai turned his attention back to the rounin.
“You keep weak company, demon. The fiercest of Imagawa’s samurai. Ha!” Oni threw back his head with the same mock laughter as before.
Kiyosado didn’t miss a beat. Oni’s self distraction proved to be just enough for the internal combustion of his blast to braze the flesh of Oni, who stumbled back in surprise. Oni leveled his gaze at Kiyosado and growled like a beast.
“Yours is the company of weakness. Ours is the company of madness. I am Kiyosado, come to hear the dying but never dead screams of the one who both gave the order and rode to mercilessly slaughter my Houjou-dono and the entire Houjou and Ishikura clans.” Kiyosado stepped forward as Oni righted himself. The fiery ball readied itself to ignite from the inside the daimyo Oni, who responded with his own spectre of water energy, countering the pulsing mass of heat that threatened to consume his flesh.
Kiyosado strained against the force of Oni’s mystical aura for what couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, yet to them felt like hours. Like pushing a wooden wagon through a stone wall, they could not manifest their explosion. The fire slowly fizzled out, and died with a puff of steam; Kiyosado felt a wave of exhaustion. They glanced over at the motionless figure of their Houjou-sama up against the stone. They were destined to fail her again. Kiyosado slumped to their knees and Oni strode over, nagi-nada at Kiyosado’s throat. Oni Yoshishige’s wicked grin was not the last thing Kiyosado wished to see before taken by death’s cruel grip.
Fortunately, it wasn’t.
Faint whimpering coming from Houjou-sama’s direction turned Oni’s attention. It was the crying of a child, a young girl. Oni’s eyes widened and he dropped his weapon. Kiyosado let his body fall forward, his head turned as his cheek bone smacked the dewy grass. He last saw a faded image of the wall disfigure, cradling with cold stone arms the meek form of Saya curled into a fetal position, as one would a child. The wall contorted and reached out for him as well, and everything went black.