Part 28: The Killers.

Owari Province, Spring (February) 1546

The moon was shining brightly on the spring night sky, but no matter how bright it was, it couldn’t pierce the infinite darkness of Ena forest. Thick branches of the trees split the moonlight into countless tiny rays, trickled through the murky veil. Between the ambient light and the unending darkness, James and his men dashed between shadows, approaching their final target in the region, using the howling wind to cover their tracks. It had been two weeks since James left Nagoya with his Ryukage squads to scout the Shinano forests before their main army march through. They spent most of their time eliminating espionage network hideouts of both Kiso clan and Takeda clan. With those spies out of the way, James could march his army into South Shinano without being detected.

“Three enemies detected, two o’clock. Long range engage formation.” he heard the relay information from the scout in their squad.

James slightly nodded, then quickened his pace to take the lead of the assaulting formation. While travelling in the forest, single file formation was optimal for speed and maneuver ability. However, long range engage formation changed the eight-men squad into two small three-men fire-team in triangle formation, with two long range over-watch. The fire-team would use longbow to eliminate the enemy from long range without detection. The over-watch team would observe the situation and provide cover fire if needed. Staying concealed was their primary goal, because when being outnumbered without any geographical advantage, stealth was their only means of survival.

James heard the whistle of arrows in the air as he moved in position. Bravo team had taken down the perimeter. James led his team deeper into enemy’s territory, eliminating patrols as they moved in. As soon as they secured the watchtower, they used mirror and moonlight to signal Bravo team and over-watch to move in. Without radio communication, that was the only means of stealthy communication James could think of for close proximity combat.

Once they secured the perimeter, they moved into assault formation. With this formation, James would lead the five-man assault team as the main firepower of the formation. Two other members would be the support team, who kept themselves hidden and provide flank cover for the main team. The last member of the squad would be over-watch, who would hide himself outside of combat area and signal the whole team in case of emergency.

“Area clear, m’lord,” Ishimaru reported as they finishing the last enemy in the kitchen.

“Were there anyone who tried to escape?”

“Two tried the trapdoor south of the camp, but I killed them before they could even see me. Besides that, I saw no movement outside the camp.”

“Good. Gather all the information we can from their camp, then return it to dust.”

“At once, m’lord,” his bodyguards slightly bowed, leaving James alone in the blood-bathed kitchen. He walked around the room trying to reposition the corpses and hack the bodies with their own katanas, until some became unrecognizable. He threw some here and there by the destroyed dining table, and pinned some others on the wall with their own yaris. When he finished with the dead inside the kitchen and dining hall, he left the building and did the same to the ones died in the perimeter. He retrieved all the arrows they used, cleaned them up and put back into his quivers. By the time he finished with the camp, the air stank of blood and decay. The ambivalent moonlight through the branches and the dimly lit light coming out of the buildings worsened the scenery, made it look like a mass murder.

It was a massacre anyway.

“What the…! Are you alright m’lord,” Midori exclaimed as she and the other bodyguards finished collecting all the information in the camp and met James in the courtyard. “Who did…?”

“I’m fine. How does it look?” James replied.

“Terrifying, m’lord.” Ishimaru walked around to examine the place. “It looks like a big skirmish, with a vibe of personal vendetta.”

“Good. That’s how it should appear,” he laughed mischievously. “Light the camp up. We’re leaving. I’ll debrief on our way back to rendezvous.”

James looked at the burning camp one last time before departing into the night. Even though they had been on the scouting mission with Ryukage squads for more than two weeks, this was the first time James’ bodyguards directly participated in a camp raid. Therefore, this was the first time they saw the standard cleaning up procedure after a Ryukage raid. Even though Ishimaru and the others directly participated in training the secret squads in fighting mechanics, they didn’t know all about the Ryukage, until that night.

Ryukage initially was formed from the model of modern special taskforces. It was designed to be an independent secret organization consists of killing squads of eight, whose operations were kept secret from all bureaucratic levels of the bureaucracy even the intelligence network, and only received direct order from James. They did what their intelligence network couldn’t do with independent agents such as raiding camps like they did that night, or hunting down high value targets deep inside enemy territories. With squad of eight, their survivability was greater, and thus the chance of success in difficult missions was higher. They were exempted from Oda law or any existing law but their unique codes of conducts and loyalty to James alone, even if Oda Nobuhide died. Their loyalty was their only honor, thus allowing them to be able to do things beyond anyone’s imagination for the sake of the mission.

Due to their unique role in James’ plans and the nature of their missions, Ryukage possessed a unique arsenal that no traditional clan’s military did. Their swords were thinner and lighter than a traditional katana, made for piercing through armor rather than hacking flesh. Their longbow was a derivative from Mongolian bows, smaller than a traditional yumi but required more pull strength to cope with their stealth strategy and maintain a sufficient long range. Their arrowheads were small, jagged, and poisoned, making every shot extremely lethal. They also employed a various range weapons such as blowpipe or shurikens to compliment with their primary weapon set. Because of this unique weaponry, one of Ryukage’s important code of conduct was to conceal the death wounds they caused, and never left anything behind even an arrow after a successful mission. That was one of the reasons James rearranged the camp they raided into a massacre and dismembered most of the corpses.

It rained that night as James was explaining some of the procedures of Ryukage to his bodyguards, because from that raid on, they were a part of Ryukage itself. It rained so heavily that he could not see further than a few meters away.

“You should get some sleep, m’lord. You look weary,” Ishimaru as he approached James from behind, who was starring at the pouring rain, detached like a statue under one.

“What do you believe in Ishimaru?” James asked out of the sudden, startled the young man.

“What do you mean, m’lord?”

“What keeps you fighting for the Oda? You’ve seen a lot fighting by my side. You know what I can do and what I will do to achieve victory.”

“I fight for you, m’lord. We grew up together, and you’ve always been like a brother to me. I know you bear the weight of restoring Taira glory on your shoulders. You have great ambition, but only until now you find the way. It may not be as beautiful as stories in a Noh theater, but I have faith in you and the path you chose.”

“Thank you,” James walked closer to his bodyguard and placed his hand on the other man’s shoulder. Their eyes met briefly, but James felt as if he could see all the memories Nobuhide and Ishimaru spent together when they were younger beneath that calm dark eyes. “I’ll check on the others before going to sleep. You should rest soon too. We have to depart early tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, m’lord,” the bodyguard bowed as James walked back into the camp, wandering around aimlessly. Besides Hatake and Masayori were outside guarding their perimeter, the rest were doing their own things in their room. It was as if they were just normal people enjoying their free time. Or were they normal people to begin with?

James returned to his room in the camp to see Midori was already there sleeping at her usual spot in the corner of the room.

“Midori?” he touched her shoulder lightly but still got her startled.

“I’m sorry, m’lord.”

“Don’t be,” he smiled. “We’re all tired. You should lay down properly. Sitting up like that while sleeping isn’t so comfortable.”

“Can I snuggle under your blanket then? It looks warm.” She sat up and stretched herself, giving him a mischievous smile. “But I have to help you undress your armor first.”

“It’s alright. You don’t have to do that. We don’t wear armor on these missions, you remember?”

“Of course I do. Who do you take me for?” With that naughty look, she kissed him before he could say anything.

Sky was red, ground was muddy, air was stunk.

Lightning cracked, sky broke, tears fell on his shining armor.

Metal was cold, sword was heavy, eyes were blurry.

Thunder roared, horses cried, men screamed.

His battle trembled as if the sky was falling on its knees. He saw himself urging his horse forward, leading the chaos around him sprinting into darkness. Lightning tore the darkness apart as their hooves turned earth into mud soaking with blood. The grasses turned black and withered beneath their path.

He heard himself roared along with her by his side, shaking the sky with power as raw as that of a million men. His body fell into rhythm of the stead beneath him. His vision cleared as the world became darker and darker. His skins hardened with the chill surrounded his body, turned his sweat into frost.

He saw the hollow armors riding against him on their steads. He saw himself swinging the swords as his army and theirs collide. He saw his sword cut into the shadow and the enemies bit the dust. He saw the shadows and the metal bled, the blood splashed on his face. The cold liquid ran across his face, touched the pupil of his eyes, and dyed his hair red.

It touched his lips, seeped through his skin. The saltiness, the warmth, the sweetness…

The shadows surrounding him expanded beyond the grasp of his eyes. They rode with him into the infinite void in front of him as the armor rusted and turned to dust, the horses’ skin fell off into the air and became carcasses. They contracted around him, pushed and squeezed him into his infinite darkness, with shadows, with blood, with lightning…

He felt her arms around his waist, her breath at the back of his head, her voice in his mind.

For glory, for hunger, for thirst…

For us…

For you…

He could feel his blood rushing through his veins as he was staring at the ceiling, with her naked body in his arms. He exhaled, licked his lips, and kissed gently on her lips before he closed his eyes. She was sleeping so peacefully.

************************************************

Author: Dat Le

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