The Burning Throne, Part I: Diary of a Crab

I’ve mentioned before here on the blog that I participate in something I like to call Writer Nerd Game Night. It is a group of novelists and book reviewers, and once a month we get together, get our serious nerdery on, and play Legend of the Five Rings. (which the lovely Mrs. Correia refers to as “Letters and Numbers”)  For those of you not familiar with it, think D&D in a world of magical samurai.

I was doing a book signing one night with Dan Wells, author of the I Am Not A Serial Killer series, and when it came up in coversation that I had been a gamer back in college, he invited me to come and play with them. It had been 12 years, but I had a great time. This has been a tradition for the last year now.  The group consists of me, Dan, his brother Rob Wells (author of the excellent Variant), Paul Genesse (author of the Iron Dragon series and editor of the Crimson Pact) and Steve Diamond (Crimson Pact) and Nick Dianatkhah of Elitist Book Reviews, and Abe Ragine (artist and video game designer).  Over the campaign there have been a bunch of special guest stars, who I’ll introduce when I put up the fiction. 

Oh, yeah… The fictions… Well, let’s just say that when you get a bunch of nerds this literate together, there is bound to be some writing going on. I think I started it with the following bit, which was character background for my first WNGN. I wrote this on a plane and during a layover in Atlanta. So this is what happens when a bunch of professional novelists get together and play imaginary magic samurai.  

From here on, the fiction kind of spiraled out of control, and between all of us we now have a small novel worth of stuff, with much of it being actually really good. Since I’ve got all this material anyway, I will be posting this stuff as a serial every Friday.

Background: They had already played a few games without me. One of the characters (Togashi Shichiroji, by Nick) was a mystical flaming fist Dragon monk, who interupted a duel to the death to save his friend (Tsuruchi Machio, by Rob).  This was a major crime, and the monk fled. During the escape he was horribly burned and disfigured. He has since returned, and is travelling with the group as a masked ronin named Zuko. (the other PCs don’t know, otherwise honor would demand they execute him). 

The leader of this group is a pacifist diplomat named Ide Todo of the Unicorn Clan. (Steve).  He has been sent on a mission to get supplies to a warfront. For those of you familiar with the setting, Dan (the GM) has combined The War of Dark Fire with the Race for the Throne story arcs.

And here is where I joined up… Regular readers won’t have a clue what some of this stuff is about, but just treat it like a fantasy novel.  Don’t worry. You’ll catch up.  I hope you enjoy our glorified fan fiction. 🙂


First Entry

From the journal of Hida Makoto, Crab Clan. 

I do not know much of storytelling. I’m certainly no Ikoma bard. If I’m going to keep a journal, I probably shouldn’t start in the middle with me fighting maho and riding on a boat far from home, led by a Unicorn that can’t fight, along with a Mantis that wants to be a gaijin, a Kitsuki that loves the ladies, a ronin with half a face, and a crew of miscellaneous samurai, minor clan warriors, and a Doji and a Mirumoto that as near as I can figure have been exiled for adultery. If you’re going to tell a story like that, you really need to start at the beginning, otherwise whoever reads this scroll after I’m dead will just be very confused. They will say, how did a simple son of Hida end up at the ass end of Lion lands battling pirates?

The answer is a strange one. In order to tell this story, I must go back to the Wall.

I am Hida Makoto, son of a forgotten failure of a Crab that does not deserve to be named. He was considered one of the best of our clan, and great things were expected of him, but then one day he failed in his duty. None will speak of his mistake, but many Crab died as a result. He was ordered to commit seppuku, but instead he ran away, a coward, never to be seen again. Some say that he joined the Lost, others say that he became a bandit, or lived as a peasant as his father before him. I do not care. To me, he is dead. 

My mother is Hida Nari of the Elite Guard. Toritaka Sujin married my mother when I was very young. Their children were placed ahead of me in status, and though I was the oldest child, I have always been considered the lesser son.

My forgotten father was the son of the legendary warrior Moshibaru Junaro. To some weak-kneed non-Crab he is remembered as the eta torturer who subverted the celestial order and rose to the station of samurai during a twenty goblin winter, but he’s affectionately remembered as Hida Neck-Breaker to everyone that’s ever fought on the wall.

I am the half-brother of Hida Kenzan, hero and magistrate of our small village in the Twilight Mountains. Luckily for Kenzan, we have different fathers. Only Toritaka Sujin wasn’t a coward.  My siblings are all great warriors and bring much honor to our clan, whereas I am but a sad reminder of our former shame.

Other clans say that the Crab are simple and crude. We are not. We are pragmatic. When every day can bring sudden death from the Shadowlands, there is no time for mincing words, nor can we afford the luxury of weakness cloaked as politeness. I was born under a dark cloud. I had not created this shame, nor had I committed my father’s sins, but they were mine to bear all the same. As he failed, so was I expected to as well. Sometimes, perhaps, we Crab can be a little too pragmatic.

I have worked very hard to overcome this. I have sworn before the shrine of the Fortune of Persistence that I will not fail. Most of my brothers in arms accepted me and I was proud to fight by their side. Others, especially those that knew my father, were not so forgiving…

My sensai tried to break me, yet the mountain did not break.

My gunso tried to dismiss me, yet the mountain did not move.

The Shadowlands tried to kill me, yet the mountain did not die.

Three years passed on the Wall. To some I was a brother. To many I was tolerated slightly more than the eta that shoveled the dung from our stables. For me, I was content to serve. 

My service thus far had been inconsequential, consisting of minor skirmishes against the Shadowland’s beasts testing our defenses, until last winter my unit of heavy infantry was given an assignment. We were to support a group of Seppun guardsmen and their charges. It is rare for an Imperial delegation to bother attending Winter Court in Kyuden Hida. We were told an Otomo courtier wished to inspect the wall. Inspect? What did he think he would find? Was he a Kaiu? Did he think he was going to point out its flaws, or maybe dare to judge the men that stood upon it?

He was even going to bring his daughter. We were told that though she was eighteen years old and of the Imperial family, she was not yet betrothed, which meant she was probably ugly as an ox. The Otomo’s group was sent to us, because it was felt that we were currently at the least active spot along the border. Our orders said that the Otomo’s safety was of the utmost importance. My unit laughed at this idea. We had no time for sightseers.

Nevertheless, my gunso is a man who understands duty. The Hida would surround the Seppun, who would surround the Otomo. Hiruma scouts would be on patrol and a Kuni witch hunter would never leave the courtier’s side. The Imperials had been given so much precious jade that they could barely walk. I, being of a very minor importance, was to guard their baggage.

They arrived. As expected, the Imperial was an obnoxious man, who in his pampered softness annoyed us all. He did not understand the Shadowlands or the danger it represented. His group was just as bad, giggling nervously at the swirling poison fog below, or pointing and sneering at the Crab who they considered as crude inferiors. Until the monster came… Then for one brief instant they understood what it means to be Crab. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

That was when I saw her.

At first I thought that my eyes had deceived me, for nothing so beautiful could exist so close to the fires of Jigoku. She was like no woman that I had seen before. Whereas Crab women are loud and strong, this one was like a pale flower. Thin and delicate, a winter chrysanthemum. She did not point and laugh like the others, pretending to be brave, while hiding nervous glances to the south. No. She was the epitome of regal calm.

She walked to the edge of the Wall. One of her Seppun yojimbo called her Lady Yuni, and urged her not to scar her eyes with such ugliness. Her voice was a whisper. She answered that it was her duty to look, because one who served in the Imperial court had to face the truth of things. No… This Otomo Yuni was not like the others.

The beast of Jigoku came from the air on wings of skin. The Hiruma heard it first and began herding the Imperials to safety, but the beast was too quick. It landed amongst us before the Imperials could reach the doors of the tower. The battle was joined. The Seppun were unprepared for such violence and many fell quickly. My brothers and I formed a line so the Imperials could flee, and we pushed the beast back. It was a fierce battle. HIDA!

I was struck down. One mighty blow from the Oni broke my tetsubo in half and rent through my helmet. My blood came pouring out. My brothers were knocked away. The Oni towered over me and raised one claw. It was an honorable death. A Crab’s death. Yet, it was not to be. An arrow hit the Oni in the mouth, distracting it from finishing me. My brothers rushed the creature and our witch hunter smote it with fire made of jade. It was hurled from the wall and fled screaming back into the wastes.

As I lay, bleeding, I turned my head to see which brave Hiruma I owed my life. Instead, I found Otomo Yuni, wielding the bow of one of her fallen Seppun guard. The rest of the Imperials had run away, but she was determined to do her duty to the empire. She fired one last arrow after the retreating demon, and I saw the barest hint of a smile cross her perfect face as the jade arrow struck home and the demon squealed.

This was a descendent of emperors.

I struggled to remain conscious as my wounds were bound with jade powder. As Otomo Yuni was pulled to safety, she took the time to say, “The most horrible thing I have ever seen is something you battle every day. The empire thanks you, oh brave sons of Hida.” I remember no more as I passed then into the realm of dreams.

My wounds were grievous. My skull had been broken. As I slept, I dreamt of Otomo Yuni. I barely knew her, but I knew that I loved her.

Hida Kisada, Fortune of Persistence, appeared to me. He told me that I had a great destiny to fulfill. The winter chrysanthemum, the archer of the Wall, was destined to become a daughter of Hida. She was to be my wife. He expected much of me and this was to be my duty. It would be difficult. Much sacrifice would have to be made. I was to go north toward the War of Dark Fire to prove my worthiness.  

Of course, I told Kisada that I would not fail. You don’t argue with a Fortune.

By the time I awoke, weeks had passed, the snows had melted, the passes were clear, and the Otomos were gone.

I went and spoke to my brother. He was glad to see that I’d recovered, but then I told him of my vision. He told me that he thought I’d been hit in the head too hard. We argued. Growing angry, he said I was a fool. Of course, Imperials had married Crab before, but those were daimyos, generals, and champions, not… He did not wish to finish, but I knew what he’d been about to say.

“The spawn of an eta? The son of a coward? Is that what you think I am?” I immediately regretted that. My remarks were shameful. It was not fair for me to speak this way.

Kenzan was furious. He had always treated me with the utmost respect. He had been the prodigy that had stuck up for me at the dojo, he who had gotten me the honor of being assigned to the Wall. “Do you wish for me to lie to you? Do you wish for me to tell you some Doji fairy tale where a minor samurai rescues a princess? Your place is here.”

“Would you have me disobey a Fortune?”

Kenzan’s face grew red. “I am still the head of this village, poor and as unworthy as the Otomos surely think it is. If Kisada wanted you to go on this fool’s errand, he’ll still need to get my permission first!”

I took a seat in the middle of his audience chamber. “Fine. I’ll wait here until he tells you so himself.” He stormed out.

I sat there for an entire day. Kenzan returned the next morning, and was surprised to see that I hadn’t moved. I heard the resulting argument between him and his Yasuki advisor. The walls of a Kaiu fort are thick, but not thick enough to stop a voice like Kenzan’s when he was angry. From the one side of the argument I gathered that the advisor thought I was an embarrassment anyway, why not send me off? I’d either prove myself, and thus end the talk about my cursed bloodline, or I’d die trying. Either would be an improvement at court.

Kenzan returned, and this time he was holding a tetsubo. That was not a good sign. I didn’t think that he’d just club me, but we are Crab, and he did have mother’s temper… Instead he placed the tetsubo in front of me and said. “Yours is broken. Take this. It belonged to Moshibaru Junaro. You have my blessing. Return with honor or not at all.” 

“I will not fail, brother.”

Kenzan shook his head, called me many names, and said that I’d better not screw this up. We spoke for a time. I promised that if he needed me to send word.

My lord questioned me, yet the mountain did not yield.

A Yasuki caravan was heading north so I rode with them. They were happy to have another warrior along. It was the furthest I’d ever been away from home. We travelled through Crane lands (which were very pretty and filled with vapid white-haired samurai busy getting into idiotic duels at the slightest provocation) and then I left the caravan and travelled alone into Lion lands (where a bunch of samurai play at war while speaking of honor). I stopped at many shrines along the way, seeking guidance at each to see which way my journey should take me. It always felt like north.

The journey was long. Doubts ate at me. At times I wondered… Was Kenzan right? Was I mad? While I was off playing the wandering samurai, my brothers were fighting demons without me. Would some who would surely die have lived if I had been there, holding the line? Each morning I awoke, looking south, toward Crab lands… But the mountain should not bend, so I continued on.

One night I was at a Lion keep, enjoying the hospitality (and trying my best to not get into fights with those self-righteous fools) when a group of unfamiliar samurai arrived from the river. Their leader was a small man, frail and almost sickly in appearance, wearing the flamboyant purple robes of the Unicorn Clan. His voice was quiet and his words were soft. His name was Ide Todo. He did not even carry a katana.

Suddenly, I received an impression, surely from Kisada himself, as if a great voice spoke directly into my mind. “THAT MAN IS TO BE YOUR LEADER. FOLLOW HIM.” I laughed so hard that I almost choked on my sake. The Lion samurai regarded me strangely. I was fairly drunk, but I was certain that I had heard the voice. It seems even Fortunes have a sense of humor. “NO… SERIOUSLY.”

Hmmm… So I listened to the small Unicorn speak. There had been a battle against many pirates. They were taking supplies to the war front on behalf of the Imperial Regent. And then it clicked. Commissioned by the Regent! Helping this Unicorn on his quest would be like helping Otomo Yuni personally.

A Fortune tested me, yet the mountain did not bend.

Thank you, Hida Kisada. I will not fail.

Continued here:

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