Alerted by Youko’s cry, Koshou scanned his surroundings. His eyes were drawn to several men charging out of a nearby alleyway. Seeing weapons in their hands, he swung his broadsword, eviscerating the first and impaling the second and third on the back swing.
Youko charged into the melee and cut down the remaining two.
“These bushwhackers are everywhere.”
“Very much so.”
The main boulevard ran straight from the White Tiger Gate to the Rooster Gate. Urging the panicking civilians to move toward the palace, Koshou wiped off his sword. As expected, even a winter weapon eventually lost its edge. They regrouped with their colleagues and crossed the main boulevard. The fire pressed south along the streets. Where the street dipped down, Koshou came to a halt.
They saw the silhouettes of mounted riders coming toward them, dragging down the small shops that lined the streets as they went along. Without all the debris, the street would be close to eighty paces wide, and it’d be rare for a fire to breach the gap. For the time being, the fires raging to the left and right of the street had not approached close enough to singe them.
“Those bastards are fast,” Koshou growled. “Aim for the horse’s legs.”
“Roger!” came the acknowledgments from around him.
They stared each other down. The horsemen made the first move. As soon as the order was given, the earth trembled and the horses launched forward. Koshou and his companions sized up the situation and readied themselves.
Youko stepped off to the side, leaned over and addressed the ground at her feet. “If you would, please,” she said.
“Yes,” the voice answered in return and faded away.
The horses bore down on them. The horse in the lead suddenly crashed to the ground. “What?” puzzled Koshou. The fallen horse tripped up the one behind it. The third horse just managed to skirt the pileup, but then for some reason tumbled to the ground as well—as if its hooves had been yanked out from under.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Strike while the iron’s hot,” Youko’s cool voice said next to him.
Koshou glanced at Youko but she had already taken off after the fallen knights.
When Kantai arrived on the scene, the street was a confusion of friend and foe: fallen steeds and the onrushing civilians, panicked soldiers returning fire.
“You seem to be handling things.” Kantai dismounted from the kitsuryou and jumped down next to Koshou. The kitsuryou turned and set off back to the palace.
“Not our doing. We seem to have some friendly spirits on our side. The horses took it upon themselves to bite the dust without us lifting a finger.”
“Huh.” Kantai readied his lance. Made of forged steel down to the hilt, the lance was Kantai’s personal winter weapon.
“And with so little light, I haven’t been shot at in some time now.”
“A good thing too, having good luck and a fair wind at your back. Let’s take the fight to the Rooster Gate!”
“I’m with you!” said Koshou and started off at a run. Kantai followed after him, skewering the unseated knights milling about in disarray.
A soldier bounded to his feet. Youko batted away the spear tip thrust at her. Having lost his weapon, the soldier ran away. Youko didn’t bother chasing him. She looked up. The Rooster Gate wasn’t far off. She could see a catapult there but no projectiles had recently flown in their direction. She smiled to herself. At her heels a voice said, “Soldiers have begun a headlong retreat from the outer gate.”
“Thanks. And how are you holding out?” Shirei were not invulnerable. Winter weapons could mortally wound them. An alert soldier could sense them coming, even hiding in the shadows.
“A few scratches. Nothing serious.”
“Sorry for the trouble. Could you do another job for me?”
“The provincial guard stationed at the Rooster Gate?”
“Yes.” Youko indicated the nearby enemy with her sword.
“By your command.”
The voice disappeared. At the same time, a soldier drew his sword and closed on her. Their blades clashed, throwing off sparks. Steel ground against steel. She turned his sword aside, he stumbled off balance, and she swatted him in the back with the flat of the blade. He didn’t retreat but slashed at her again. This time, she parried the attack, aiming for the hilt. He dropped the sword and ran off yelping.
“You don’t seem to enjoy killing people,” Kantai called out to her.
“Better to resolve a conflict without a death than with one.”
“If we’re not culling the enemy’s forces then what’s the point?”
“I’m hoping to chip away at their morale instead.”
“Aren’t you a strange one. Handling a sword the way you do and yet spouting such sentimental nonsense.” There was laughter in his voice. “Who were you speaking with just now?”
“Nobody. I’ve got a habit of talking to myself.”
“Oh?” Kantai said, stepping away from her. Three soldiers ran at them waving their swords. He mowed them down with his lance, like wheat before a sickle. The heavy armor groaned. Struck above the knees, the three crumpled into a heap on top of each other.
Youko was amazed. That Koshou possessed the strength to wield a hundred-pound broadsword was impressive enough. The way Kantai twirled around that solid steel lance was beyond incredible. It must weigh at least three hundred pounds. As burly a man as Kantai was, he didn’t weigh three hundred pounds. Carrying a steel lance as massive as himself and whirling it about the way he did defied common sense. And yet he showed no signs of running out of energy.
“He’s some kind of monster,” Koshou said in an amazed tone of voice. He was breathing hard by now. He held a scimitar in his hand.
“What happened to your broadsword?”
“Ah,” Youko nodded.
She ran down the street. Three thousand had stormed out of the palace. They established a fire line in the middle of the main boulevard and moved forward to extinguish the flames. The Rooster Gate was before them. Youko’s platoon had been significantly reduced in number. Nevertheless, they had to hold the gate and the city streets between them and the main gate of the palace.
For the time being, the firestorms in the city behind her seemed to be abating.