The Burning Throne, Episode 28: City of Shrines

Continued from: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/the-burning-throne-episode-27-the-proper-end-of-a-bokken/ 

This week’s episode is from our GM, Dan Wells. (author of the Serial Killer series and Partials).  After Machio blundered himself into getting kidnapped, Zuko, the monk turned wanted criminal turned ronin turned Spider clan, went after him, but then wound up going off on his own. This was Dan’s way of catching us up on what that character was up to. Specifically this is continued from this one:  http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/the-burning-throne-episode-17-gisei-toshi/  Basically Zuko is a pawn in a cosmic game.

City of Shrines

Fosuta Zuko perched on the roof of the temple—not “the” temple, really, for there were dozens in this city, perhaps hundreds. Gisei Toshi was an enigma: a hidden city with high walls and no doors; a closed community that spoke only to itself, produced all its own food, and traded with no one. Its entire purpose seemed to be protecting its own secrecy—and its temples. Zuko had come to think of it as the City of Shrines.

Shrines that no one could ever visit, and that nobody but the monks who lived and died here would ever know existed.

But then who had planted the map, and how had Zuko found it? And what did the words mean, written in his own blood on the wall of a cave he’d never seen before:

My Death is Coming Soon.

Zuko touched the map, safely tucked in a scroll case, wondering again if any of his questions would ever be answered. He had scoured the City of Shrines, explored the greatest temples, and spied on the wisest of monks, but he was no closer to understanding any of it. The city had filled him with awe, then frustration, and now dread. It was a locus of a power in a world that hung by a thread. The people here, the power, the secrets—if they got out, he could only imagine what would happen. The Empire was besieged on every side, even as it tore itself apart from within. Was his map, and that blood-drenched message, an answer to their problems? Was it a key to his own power?

Or did it mean nothing at all?

The moon hung low in the sky, a wicked scimitar of light nearly shrouded in darkness. Zuko peered again at the map, then down at the temple before him. Seen one way, the map led only to the city, marked with a delicate kanji: “Here.” Seen another way, the map pointed at the center of the kanji itself, to a spot within the city. It had taken him days of study to pinpoint the spot, but there was no mistaking it. The shrine before him was dark and stunted, almost as if the city itself were afraid of it—or was trying to forget it. He glanced at the city, but no one was around. Night had fallen, and the city had gone to sleep. A single light burned in the shrine below him, faint and sickly. Zuko leapt to the ground and walked in.

“Ah,” said a voice, thick with age and phlegm. Zuko looked to the back corner of the shrine to see a fat monk, disheveled and greasy, his eyes milky white and blind. “Jiro, here already?”

Zuko said nothing. Let the old man talk; perhaps he’ll say something valuable.

“Quiet tonight,” said the monk, waving a flyswatter with one hand while scratching himself with the other. “Suit yourself. But tell me, Jiro, why is the moon so full?”

Zuko glanced back outside; the moon was a slim crescent. If anything it had been slim for too long—it was still waning, and had been for three weeks, as if it didn’t dare to disappear completely. He looked back at the monk and answered softly, wondering how the old man would react to an unfamiliar voice.

“It is not full, but nearly gone. Soon we shall have a new moon, and it will wax again and become full in time.”

“A new moon,” said the monk, swatting at his chest and neck. He mumbled again: “A new moon.” He sat blankly, staring at nothing with his round, white eyes. Zuko waited, wondering what the old man would say next, but after nearly a minute of silence Zuko grew restless. He walked to the side of the stunted stone building, peering at the grime-caked kanji that littered the wall like scribbles. He could read it, he thought, if he could only clear away the moss, but as he reached to touch it something stopped his hand—an inner warning; a deep-seated revulsion that drew his fingers back with an involuntary shudder. The wall did not want to be touched, and his body did not want to touch it.

“It is you,” said the monk, his voice changing in tone: still gruff and ill, but now curious and perhaps even…awestruck? Zuko couldn’t interpret it. He looked at the old man only to see him staring back, his eyes still dull and blank but his face pointed directly at Zuko’s own.

“What?”

“The full moon,” said the monk. “Walk back—all the way to the other side.”

Zuko frowned, shooting quick glances to the shadows in anticipation of an ambush, but he saw nothing. He shrugged and, curious to see what the monk was talking about, crossed back across the entryway to the far side of the shrine.

“The full moon,” said the monk again, grinning. Several of his teeth were missing. “I thought it was the moon, and then I thought the moon was you, but no. You have been touched by her, and her touch is there for those who can see it.” He grinned again, shaking his hand disapprovingly. “There are few who can anymore.” He settled back against the wooden screen behind his seat, leaning against it heavily. “You are not Hitomi, but you are not Jiro either. Tell me your name, moon-man.”

Zuko watched the old monk cautiously, trying to decipher the hidden meaning behind his words. “You speak in riddles.”

“The hardest riddles are those unintended,” said the monk. “I speak plainly, and it is you who chooses to confuse yourself.”

More riddles, thought Zuko, or truth I cannot fathom. He looked at the monk firmly. “Touched by the moon?”

“And sent by her, I’ll wager,” said the monk. He swatted idly at a fly on his face. “She is wrapped in darkness, and she is losing. If she has touched you, spoken to you, used you, it is because she needs your help.” His face grew dark, and for the first time Zuko saw a wave of fear pass over the man’s features. “What has she sent you to do?”

Zuko thought back through his story, piecing the tale together: he didn’t remember anything about the moon, but he didn’t remember anything else, either. He had come on his own volition, but only because of mysteries—or clues?—that he had found in that cave. Was he searching for the truth, or was he being manipulated for someone else’s ends? The thought gave him pause, and he glanced at the shadows again; the shrine seemed smaller than before, darker and more oppressive. The lone candle flickered weakly, and the fat monk leered from his corner.

“Sent by the moon,” Zuko whispered. He drew his katana and held it before him, half in menace, half in nervous defense. “This is no moon shrine, monk. What it is?”

“This is no shrine at all,” said the monk, “it is a tomb.” His voice was hoarse and terrified. “Here lie imprisoned the remains of Bunrakuken, the Prophet of the Dead Moon, who sought to raise Lord Onnotangu from the dead.”

Zuko advanced, katana firm in hand, his eyes glancing warily at the dank, grimy stone that surrounded him. “Why would you honor such a monster here?”

“This is no place of honor,” said the frightened monk. He leaned back as far as he could, his eyes locked on the looming blade made pale and yellow in the candelight. “This is a prison. Bunrakuken was a bloodspeaker more powerful than death itself. Some say he was not even born. If his bones are removed from this building—” He stopped, and Zuko thrust the katana against the sweaty folds of the old man’s neck. The monk whimpered and continued. “If his bones are removed from this building, and from the wards that contain him, he will rise again and return to his ritual.”

Zuko’s voice was a hiss. “And raise Onnotangu from the dead.”

The monk quivered, feebly correcting him. “Not Onnotangu, but the dead moon; the ritual was very specific. It referred to Onnotangu when the bloodspeaker created it, yes, but after tonight? Who can say?”

Zuko glanced behind him, to the moon so dark and low in the sky he could barely see it. The walls seemed to press close around him, almost as if they were reaching for him, hungry to clasp him close and smother him in darkness, just as the moon beyond was clutched in…he didn’t know. Something.

My Death is Coming Soon.

“The world is besieged,” whispered Zuko.

“The world is nothing,” said the monk. “The war in Heaven has begun.”

#

To be continued next week with another B Team game, which I even wrote haiku for.  http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/the-burning-throne-episode-29-b-team-night/ 

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