The Burning Throne, Episode 14: Duty and Faith

Continued from: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/the-burning-throne-episode-13-the-mountain-spirits/

I love this one. First up is a little recap journal from my character, but then after that is a short fiction from the PoV of one of the Mountain Spirit ronin.

After Steve’s epic from the gaijin invader’s perspective, and then this one, we pretty much can’t have any NPC come along who doesn’t have the potential of getting their own epic backstory. Yes. This is a short story about a guy who guarded a hut.

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Fifteenth Entry

From the journal of Hida Makoto, Crab Clan. 

I write this by the light of a shielded candle. It appears that our enemy controls the skies, and we cannot risk an open fire. It is cold and I ache from today’s battle. Zukozuko and Tsuruchi Machio have not returned from their scouting mission and I am concerned that something has happened to them. I do not have much time, so I must continue.

This morning we broke our fast in the village of the Mountain Spirit ronin group. The fed us millet, food fit for swine, but at the time, we assumed it was all that they had to spare. Nobu’s hospitality left something to be desired, and it was obvious that the former Tamori did not care for our presence. I have tired of his constant complaining about the Dragon clan. Disliking the strange Dragon is one thing, but I did not like his tone when he spoke of the Empire or the Celestial Order.

Breakfast was interrupted by cries about Sky Riders, and the villagers took cover beneath a large canopy. It appears that the Yobanjin ride some form of giant bird mount and the ronin were prepared to hide from these scouts. I was not able to get a good look at them in the distance.

During the commotion, Ide Todo noticed that there was one suspicious hut in the humble village. It was kept locked and two ronin were posted there to protect it. As soon as the eagles disappeared from the sky, the guards immediately returned to their positions.

Ide Todo, Kitsuki Tsuze, Kuni Magatsu, and I went to investigate the hut. The guard at the door refused to admit us, despite intimidation and coercion, and though we could easily have killed him, (and he was aware of this fact) he held firm in his loyalty to his ronin brothers. I respected the guard’s devotion to his duty and so we decided to spare his life. Magatsu-san contacted the earth kami instead, and asked them what was inside the hut. Nemurani. Magical items. It appeared that the Mountain Spirits had already looted the High House of Light.

This was unacceptable. Those nemurani belong to the Dragon clan, and Todo-sama had been tasked with recovering them if possible in our quest for the shame sword. We approached Nobu’s hut. The ronin commander told us to go away, daring to flaunt the authority several great clans had bestowed upon us. Magatsu offered to simply burn the house down, but to avoid conflict with the entire ronin group Ide Todo decided to be more discrete and sent me instead. It is sad when a Son of Hida is the discrete option.

I knocked. Politely. And demanded Nobu come out and face the great Ide Todo. He did. With swords in hand. Nobu threatened us and blasphemed the Celestial Order. Kuni Magatsu shouted that Nobu’s sword was magical and that he was showing signs of taint. Could it be the mighty shame sword? Nobu’s mad rantings drew the attention of his men, who clearly did not believe their leader was being influenced by dark magics. The Paper Lanterns were spread throughout the crowd. Ide Todo argued with Nobu, demanding that he stand down in the name of the Empire. Nobu ordered his men to attack, but Akimi was hesitant to comply. Ide Todo ordered the Lanterns to hold their positions.

I did not wish to see this village slaughtered. I did not wish for any more of my companions to die in another pointless battle, wasting their lives for nothing instead of against the real enemies of the Empire. Though I thought that the already formidable Nobu might be armed with the mighty shame sword Penance, which Kuni Magatsu had warned me could more than double a man’s strength and abilities, and that it would probably result in my death, I challenged Nobu to single combat. I could only hope that during our fight his dark magic would become apparent to all.

Nobu was more fearsome than I’d predicted, but Kisada smiled upon me and Kuni Magatsu enchanted my grandfather’s tetsubo with angry fire kami. (to a Crab, there is no such thing as cheating when it comes to fighting anything with the Taint) I was struck repeatedly, but Crab armor is well made, and I was able to strike Nobu with several mighty blows, each of which should have been enough to utterly cripple any normal man.  Ide Todo argued with Akimi as we battled and the ronin grew increasingly angry. Kuni Magatsu called down the power of Jade upon Nobu and revealed his corruption for all to see.

Nobu was the best warrior I have ever fought. Bleeding from several cuts, I could barely stand. Nobu’s body was regenerating like some foul Shadowland’s beast before our very eyes. Akimi ordered the Mountain Spirits to ready their bows. Now they understood the truth. Then Magatsu-san saved my life, by ordering the kami to rip a mighty rock from the earth, and hurled it at Nobu. He was crushed beneath, and I used that opportunity to finish him off.

The ronin were shamed. I berated them for their selfishness. Ide Todo called them to repentance. All begged for forgiveness. Three of the Mountain Spirits immediately swore fealty to the Paper Lanterns. The shame sword was placed in a special container provided by the Mirumoto daimyo. The hut was explored, revealing tons of food, and several nemurani looted from the High House of Light, including a scroll case made of jade, a shield from the Burning Sands, and an untainted Meranae statue that weeps human blood. (Well, Magatsu said that it tasted like human blood at least. The Kuni scares me) We have secured these for transportation to Shiro Tamori. I destroyed the tainted amulet we found on Nobu’s chest with the righteous tetsubo of Moshibaru Junaro and the fury of Magatsu-san’s fire kami.

I am eager to hear the song that Ikoma Katsu will sing about this day. It will be fascinating to hear how Ide Todo single handedly battled a tainted, regenerating, swordsman with the strength of an ogre, and won by hitting him with a boulder. Sigh… I need my own bard. 

Later that day we took the shame sword to a shrine, where Magatsu spoke to the spirits trapped within. They spoke in riddles and lies. I do not trust this sword, and it fills me with a terrible unease. The sooner we are rid of this cursed blade, the better. 

#

Duty and Faith

The young ronin Danjuro had once been known as Tamori Danjuro, promising student of the Mirumoto Taoist sword method, and member of the Tamori house guard. Great things had been expected of Danjuro before the war had come along and changed everything. He had loyally followed his lord, Tamori Nobu, into exile and joined the Mountain Spirits. In the span of three years, Danjuro had gone from guarding the halls of a mighty Dragon fortress to guarding the bamboo door of a dilapidated peasant shed, and now two very terrifying Crab were about to murder him.

“I do not know what is in the hut,” Danjuro repeated for the third time. “But I am to guard this hut.”

“In the name of magistrate Ide Todo, we demand to see what’s inside,” the larger Crab growled. The giant was called Hida Makoto, and it was said that during the previous night’s battle he had hit Rohata so hard with a tetsubo that brains had come out Rohata’s mouth.

Danjuro swallowed. “It is forbidden.”

“Move aside or else,” the second Crab said. The one called Kuni Magatsu was not quite as big as Makoto, but he was far more terrifying. Dragon clan mothers often whispered horrifying tales about the mad Kuni to scare naughty Dragon children. His head was shorn like a monk, but this was no monk. His face was painted like a kabuki actor, but this was no actor. Magatsu was fear cloaked in flesh.

“You saw what my friend here did this morning?” Makoto asked. “He is friends with your mountain. You are walking on my friend’s friend. You call yourself the Mountain Spirits, but your mountain likes Magatsu-san a lot better than he likes you. Do you really want to make him angry?”

The great earth kami had been the most terrifying thing that Danjuro had ever seen. Even the Yobanjin horde paled in comparison. “No. I really do not. But I have my orders.”

The Crab warrior’s voice was cold. “I do not wish to kill you…” The rest did not need to be said. But I will.

Danjuro knew he did not have a chance. “I will not move.”

“You would die for the likes of Nobu?” Makoto scoffed.

“He is in command.”

“He is a blasphemous fool,” Magatsu spat. “He disrespects the Empire.”

That was over Danjuro’s head. He had pledged his loyalty to the Mountain Spirits first. “I do not see an Emperor here,” he suggested with as much bravery as he could muster. He had been taught that a samurai must be prepared to face pain, humiliation, and even death to fulfill his duty.

The Crab took a step forward, towering over Danjuro. “What would you do if I just pushed my way inside?” Makoto asked.

He was a capable swordsman, but not that capable. “I would try to stop you.”

“You wouldn’t be able to.”

“Then I would surely die…” Danjuro grew hopeful. “But then you would have to fight all of the Mountain Spirits, and there are three times as many of us as there are of you!”

“Then it would be a fair fight,” the Hida said simply. “You might be able to defeat the Paper Lanterns, but at the cost of most of the warriors in your village. Do you think whatever’s in this hut is worth that?”

“I do not know. It is not my place to decide.” Danjuro swallowed again. His mouth was suddenly very dry. He didn’t even know what was in the stupid hut. “I have my orders and I will obey them. If I have to die to do so, then so be it.”

“No one has to die. Let’s make this easy for both of us. Look away for a moment. Say that when you got back from hiding from the Sky Riders, we were already inside. Nobu doesn’t have to know. We get to look inside. Everyone is happy.”

It was tempting. Danjuro looked to his companion for support. The other Mountain Spirit was quivering. Otaya had turned grey and appeared as if he was about to be sick. He would be no help. It seemed that Danjuro needed to be strong enough for both of them.

The war, and the Dragon defeat, had shaken Danjuro’s faith. He had followed Nobu ever since, because Nobu had been his lord, and Nobu would never betray them and leave them to die like Togashi Satsu had. Danjuro had always felt that his path to enlightenment lay through loyalty, but it seemed that with the Dragon Clan, loyalty only worked in one direction, with leaders expecting it, but not giving any in return. Nobu on the other hand, had always been loyal to his men and a protector of the weak.

Of course Danjuro had his doubts. Nobu had become… erratic recently. Their leader seemed to be filled with an ever increasing hatred for all outsiders. He had begun to say things that felt wrong, things that went against the teachings of Shinsei that Danjuro had studied since he was a boy.

However, it was not Danjuro’s place to judge his superiors.

He gripped the hilt of his katana with renewed determination. “No. That would be dishonorable. Kill me if you must, but I will not do such a thing.” Danjuro prepared himself for the kami’s fury or a tetsubo to the face. “Now, go away, Crab-sama… Please?”

The Hida slowly nodded. He turned to the Kuni, whose painted face remained inscrutable, and then back to Danjuro. “You have a remarkable devotion to your duty. Such a thing is rare outside of the Crab. You bring much honor to your people.” The ronin was very surprised when Makoto gave a very respectful bow. He actually sounded impressed. “Thank you.”

The two Crab walked away to speak in hushed tones with their leader. Danjuro could not hear what they were saying, but the Unicorn, Ide Todo, did not look happy. Magatsu said something else, and the Unicorn nodded. The Kuni removed his tetsubo and began reading from a scroll wrapped around its shaft. The earth shifted at the Kuni’s feet and he started having a conversation with the ground.

“Oh, thank the little prophet,” Danjuro whispered to Otaya, who had finally started breathing again. “I thought he was going to have the mountain swallow us or something.”

Several minutes passed as the Kuni communed with the earth. The Paper Lanterns kept glancing at the hut, and then toward Nobu’s house. Then, seemingly angry, the group walked back toward the center of the village. Makoto tied the straps on his helmet and then pulled on his armored gloves before unslinging a gigantic spiked tetsubo. The other members of their strange order caught the determined sight, and moved to protect their Unicorn leader.

A sudden, nervous energy filled the village. Women began shooing their children indoors. Akimi appeared at the head of a group of their warriors. A dog began to bark. 

“This is not good…” Otaya muttered. “They wouldn’t be stupid enough to start a fight with all of us. They’ll be slaughtered!”

Danjuro shook his head. The slaughter would not be limited to one side. The entire village would be drenched in blood. “I’m afraid that these samurai have a duty to fulfill as well.”

#

Nobu was inhuman. He was too fast, too strong, and had shrugged off blows from the tetsubo that would have dropped oxen. The Crab stumbled away, gasping, chest heaving, blood running down the inside of his armor and splattering into the dust. Nobu circled, blades spread wide in the niten style, teeth barred in a maniacal grin, eyes wild.

Something was terribly wrong.

Danjuro knew it, deep down inside. This was not the Tamori Nobu that he had followed into battle. This was not the leader of the Mountain Spirits that had cared for his men like a father. Nobu had said blasphemous things. He had maligned and insulted the teachings of the Tao. He had mocked the Kami, insulted the Fortunes. Danjuro felt nauseous.

“The blade is tainted!” the Unicorn leader shouted. “Can’t you see that?”

Akimi did not respond. Her face was like stone. Danjuro had his katana ready, but he was too confused to know what to do with it. Ten feet away, one of the Paper Lanterns, a Lion bard, was watching him with a no-dachi held low at his side. Danjuro had decided that if Akimi gave the word, he would cut that Lion down without hesitation.

It was his duty.

There was a grunt of pain as Makoto was struck with Nobu’s wakizashi. The Crab’s sandals dug into the soft dirt as his armor absorbed most of the impact, but a few droplets of red blood seemed to hang suspended in the air before falling to be devoured by the dust. “The Empire has already fallen! This is my kingdom now,” Nobu snarled.

“BLASPHEMY!” the Hida roared. He swung the flaming tetsubo in a mighty arc. Nobu was struck in the torso so hard that everyone in the village could hear the ribs explode. The ronin leader was knocked off his feet and flew back inside his house to crash hard against the floor.

No one could have survived that hit…  But Nobu got right back up and walked back outside. The Mountain Spirits gasped in surprise.

“The evil of Jigoku!” the Kuni said as he extend his hands. Jade colored light streamed forth, leaping and popping, as it covered Nobu. The light seemed to crackle and burn across Nobu’s torn chest. “Behold! He is tainted!”

Everyone in Rokugan knew about the Taint, even if it wasn’t spoken about in polite company, and in the same way, everyone understood the power of jade. It was obvious that Nobu had been corrupted.

Faith shaken, cheeks burning with shame, Danjuro lowered his sword. His leader had fallen under the sway of Jigoku. Danjuro’s understanding of honor, of the Tao, everything… He had been wrong.  

Nobu twisted his neck and vertebra snapped back into place. One arm extended, Nobu rotated it as the bones of his forearm ground back into solid pieces. Strips of flesh, ripped free by the spikes, pulled back into place with a sickening sucking noise. Nobu opened his mouth and poured out more lies, but all Danjuro could hear was the blood rushing in his ears. The Unicorn was saying something, pleading with the Mountain Spirits for calm.

The only words he understood were Akimi’s. “Mountain Spirits.” The gunso’s command cut through the haze. “Sheath your swords. String your bows.” She sounded so very sad.

Hida Makoto and Nobu clashed again. The Crab brought his tetsubo straight down in a powerful overhand swing, but Nobu lifted and crossed his blades, catching the spikes inches from his helmet. The Crab strained with all of his might to force the swords down, but Nobu, unfazed, simply shoved him away as if the mighty Crab were a small child.

“Enough of this.” The Kuni gestured at the ground, and with a rumble, a rock of considerable size, as large as two men, was torn free from the earth. He pointed, and the rock flew through the air with blinding speed to strike Nobu in the chest with a wet thud. Nobu disappeared beneath it. “Be gone.”

Grimacing, Makoto looked toward the Kuni and gave him a small bow of thanks. It was said that the Crab lived closer to death than any other clan, and he could see that was true in this samurai’s eyes. He had known Nobu would be inhuman. Danjuro understood why this Crab had challenged Nobu to single combat now. He had been trying to prevent another battle that would have consumed the entire village. He had been hoping that in his death, Nobu’s foul magic would have been revealed to all. And with this realization, Danjuro’s shame increased.  

The wounded Crab limped around the boulder to where Nobu’s head and shoulder’s were free. Blood was pouring out from under the rock, but still, Nobu was trying to fight. Makoto lifted his tetsubo one last time and shouted, “CRAB CLAN!” He brought it down hard and Nobu’s skull exploded into a red and white cloud.

It was over.

Except for the cold mountain wind, the village was deathly silent.

The blood-spattered Crab reached the center of the circle and slowly turned, glaring at them all. The ronin looked at their feet. “This is the man you have followed!” he bellowed. “Deluded by pride and consumed with foul magic, and you! You have listened to his lies. I heard him complain about how the Empire abandoned you during this war. For that he was prepared to mock the gods, yet you followed this blasphemer. You have only been fighting this invasion for a few years. My Clan has been at constant war for twelve hundred years. Twelve hundred years! And within a few short years of struggle, you turn your back on your clan and the Empire?” Makoto was furious. “How dare you? You have disgraced yourselves and your ancestors. You disgust me. I am shamed by your actions.”

Without another word, the Crab pushed his way through the crowd and made his way to the stream to tend his wounds. None of the ronin would meet his gaze.

At first Danjuro did not know why he could not see, but it was because his eyes were filled with hot tears. The Crab was right. The Mountain Spirits had been dishonored. Even before Nobu’s corruption had been exposed, they had believed his words. The path Danjuro had chosen to follow in search of enlightenment had been the incorrect one. What was the use of duty, when it was pledged to the wrong cause? In trying to follow compassion to protect the weak, he’d abandoned his Clan and his teachings. They had become little more than bandits. He was a failure of bushido.

Most of the other Mountain Spirits had families and children to attend to. They would carry on. Danjuro had no one. He did not even have a Lord who could grant him the honorable release of seppuku. What good was a swordsman without a lord or a purpose?

Akimi stepped forward and asked Ide Todo what they could do to atone for their misdeeds. The Unicorn began to speak of the Paper Lanterns, their noble goal, and the mighty task that still lay before them. Akimi immediately knelt at the feet of Ide Todo, held out her katana, and swore fealty to his cause.

Danjuro looked to where the wounded Crab was rinsing the blood from his battered armor. He had been prepared to sacrifice his life, not just out of loyalty to his commander or his brothers, but to protect a village of misguided ronin he didn’t even know. The Order of the Paper Lantern understood duty and its warriors had faith in their purpose. 

And Danjuro’s path became clear.

He was the next to humbly present his katana at the feet of Ide Todo.

#

Up next, some journals from Paul and Nick. I thought that was this week when I posted last week, but I’d gotten things out of order. http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/the-burning-throne-episode-15-sword-of-penance/

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