The Drowning Empire, Episode 24: From Finery to Ruin

The Drowning Empire is a weekly serial based on the events which occured during the  Writer Nerd Game Night monthly Legend of the Five Rings game.  It is a tale of samurai adventure set in the magical world of Rokugan.

If you would like to read all of these in one convenient place, along with a bunch of additional game related stuff, behind the scenes info, and detailed session recaps, I’ve been posting everything to one thread on the L5R forum,

This week’s episode was written by Pat Tracy, from the perspective of the “barbaric” Moto Subotai and is a Haibun poem about their expedition into the haunted ruins of Otosan Uchi. You want wordsmithing? Pat Tracy was born to make words awesome. 

Continued from:

From Finery to Ruin

A Haibun

It begins. I am behind the silence of paper walls, only the rustle of fabric and the light touch of a bare foot upon bamboo boards. It is night, and I lie awake on the sleeping mat, considering the journey and the destination. I have known the good and bad in men, and in myself. I have seen both failure and glory, both bravery and weakness. I have been blessed to be a part of important deeds, and have great friends who teach me honor. I have been cursed to know that all my days and actions are based upon shifting foundations, and that all could fall into ruin in a moment, should the great, dark secret I carry ever come to light. It is too much to imagine that it will not. One day, I will be disgraced. Until then, I will live as I have been trained to live, do as Bushido dictates, and conduct my life in compassion and sincerity. A great irony, I suppose, that sincerity, the trait I hold highest, must wrap itself around the great lie I perpetrate every day. I may sigh about these things, but I can no more change it than I can prevent droplets of blood falling toward the grass after I have cut some brigand to the bone.

My wakefulness proves useful, as the sound of running feet now fills the halls of the Lion Clan war castle. Stern voices, a dangerous message, and we are soon into the night, running. The very army I have fought with and shared laughter at the nightly campfires for two years–they will be hot to spill my blood. How quickly the winds shift. How quickly turns the heart of man.

Study now the fool
samurai built upon sand
destined to know shame

Sudden enemy
news of the duel and the death
changes everything

We are on our way, riding hard into the night winds. It is good. It is good to be reminded of life’s fickle nature, and be thus more alive. Whether fleeing from a misfortune too large to change or with bare steel against an enemy, the sound, the movement, the deep thudding of your heart within your chest–these things are necessary. They are the lightning upon the horizon and the glory of the dawn. Through fear and fury we live. As our horses gallop across the darkened land where the morning will turn all hands against me, I feel alive and thankful. If given a hundred choices, I would always choose this life. I would choose the bellows of a horse’s churning breath, its skin flecked with lather. I would settle for no less than a bow thrumming in my hand upon release. I would relish only the quiet whisper of the katana as it cuts the air and weaves its gossamer netting of doom.

Ripped upward from rest
to either flee or be killed
I ride for my life

I would change nothing
I grin into the black wind
with death at my heels

I find the shadow of doom has receded, and the sun shines once again. All the things that are of great and momentary importance fade, and are replaced by some new event. There is only an illusion of finality, of permanence. All of life is being painted upon a rice paper sheet that is quickly consumed in flames. The very beauty of the world is in that moment when it slips away, leaving us with a fragmentary understanding of what has happened, and a deep longing. The cherry blossom quickly falls, and is carried upon the air for only a moment.

Beauty and wonder
astride my horse, I recall
all things slip away

There is a lodestone in the world, and we few seem drawn like iron filings, ever being thrown back into one company. The Fortunes have need of us for some purpose, and we can do but little to thwart such mighty hands. I am within the circle of faces once more, in company with the best of my generation, the finest friends a man could ask for. We are called from the far corners of the land, and we come at the behest of the Shogun. She may send us into the fire, but we will go there in good company, and I am pleased. It is hard to remember a time when I did not know these warriors, when I was not part of all this. We speak a moment, and the doors open. Now she will make her demand, the woman who, with the smallest flourish of her hand, could send us to our deaths this very day. We catch sight of her, and my heart beats hard. Not in fear, but joy.

Jade, silk, and lacquer
the great city’s finery
the empire’s might

Within the fortress
with quiet word and brush stroke
the future is made

What death or glory
shall we find in darkened halls
what wisdom attain?


It is a rough city, just outside the shadow of the haunted capital. Every eye upon us is a vulture’s eye, imagining the koku that could be gained from our death, considering what the flesh of our horses would taste like. Were this a Unicorn camp, we would gather the trash and set it ablaze, turning our backs to the site forever. This is a city of people, too many of them living too close together. It will remain, for good or ill. It will fester with its secret strategies, with the whisperings of the desperate and the depraved mixing into one long and discordant tune.

A tainted outpost
outside a ruined city
honor’s lamp is dim

One of the vultures beckons us into sake house, and we are seated. In a moment, I know that we are among the enemy, in peril. Pretending ignorant good nature deflects some of their hatred, but Toranaka is no good at such deceptions. He is a blade, and it takes but little to see his sharp edges bare. These scoundrels know how to put the fire in his eyes. He is a man of will, and we walk away from the rough squawks of the carrion birds, into the dirty street once more. With every step, their gaze pounds against our backs like volleys from the far side of the lines of battle. Were this our home, we would have to kill them to the man, quickly and under cover of night. They would have to fall alone in alleys and occupy unmarked and shallow graves. It is sure they would plan the same for us.

The leering faces
our enemies surround us
their words are weapons

The hard bitten ronin are the best men in town, clinging to duty after so many brothers have fallen, clinging to the shreds of what the Empire meant here, before Otosan Uchi’s walls toppled and its splendor fell to ruin. To them, we are children, fools looking into the mouth of hell on a whim. Perhaps that is what we are, but no whim directs us, only the gravest of need. We have seen the face of the future, felt its iron-hard knuckles upon our cheek. We understand that our lives are but little matters compared to the threats to Rokugan from without and within. We are fools, but fools willing to die for the Shogun, and perhaps that will make us strong enough to survive the journey we undertake.

Those who brave the tide
who contain the endless blight
volunteer to die

Toranaka has impressed the ronin. He can always do this. The smell of the war college hangs about him, the grim knowledge, the unshakable will to win. He allows men to live when they would otherwise be killed. That is his skill, his gift. We
stand over maps. Fingers are turned to arrows, routes are plotted. I am useless in these things, able only to react when the plan goes wrong. The ronin will send their best, and we will need him, because we go into the house of venomous ghosts and demons.

At the map table
the gunso chooses our path
gambles all our lives

We are but dancers
slaves to music from afar
tools set to purpose


The corruption has found a way into everything. The water is poison, the stone slick and almost glowing in the shade with the taint of the hellish realms. This place, with just enough of its grandeur remaining to remind us that nothing we build will stand forever, makes one feel as if a mudbrick were in his stomach, weighing him down, filling him with doubt. Everyone in Rokugan knows the stories of how Otosan Uchi fell, of its violent death throes that brought the demise of thousands, of the whole generation of Shugenja that sacrificed themselves in the vain attempt to recapture the city and cleanse it of the wafting stink of Jigoku. For naught. The moment we stepped foot inside this, the shame of the Empire, that crawling doubt, that sense that no effort on our part would do anything but provide grist for a demon ghost’s mortar and pestle–this unaccustomed cynicism has lain heavy upon our hearts. Even Toranaka, who rarely has time for doubt, looks younger, less sure of himself than I have seen him. Twice, I have seen Oki reach for his flask, then put it away and quickly scan the sight lines. Isao-san visibly cringes each time we pass a stagnant pool or overgrown fountain where the water ripples on a windless day. Only Shintaro shows a hint of his characteristic good nature. For him, a historian down to his bones, even the tragedy we walk through is fascinating. In him, perhaps, there is more hope than in the rest of us. More good. A few of us know that there are times you cannot save even a good town, a happy village. There are times when the unseen symptoms of its demise have already chewed away at all its foundations like a colony of termites. Here–there is no saving this place. Perhaps no saving anyone who looks upon it.

Here, Empires fail
mortal man’s favor faulters
evil’s claws dig deep

Our dreams always die
man’s work is not eternal
stone turns to powder

Here is the Winter
the death place of our dreaming
forever shadowed.

There are worse places, I am told. Even within the darkened walls of this city, worse places. I do not care to know them. The shattered museum squats above us like a malignant and tremendous insect, alive and writhing. There are whispers in the darkness, the seeds of madness pushing in at every soft place. Mouldering objects catch the eye and change. The weak mind wanders. Every dream is an opportunity for the damned to enter, to rule me. Every fear an open door that the phantasmal enemy attempts to rush. The voices from out of nowhere tell of the glory that could be mine, should I only do a few small things for them. The shadows congeal and form themselves into a bow with which I would never miss, a blade whose edge would never dull, a pen with which I could write poetry to rival the timeless masters. A window into a twilight scene opens, me walking in the tall grass with Shinjo Namori, our estrangement at an end, she laughing and reaching to touch the back of my hand. The face of my mother, recanting the terrible secret she told me before the Topaz Championship. A pleasant voice, a familiar one that I know should have meant so much more, had I only known her secret when I was a boy…humming the tunes that would always soothe me and let me rest, saying all things would be well, for I was a good boy, a boy destined for great things one day.

I have become lost
remaining here, forsaken
all my dreams come true

Believing the lie
beckons like a sleeping mat
after a hard ride

The great temptation
to be a child once more
sheltered, innocent

Then, Tora’s voice. A chant, rough. Another voice joins it…Uso-san. And Isao. I find I am chanting. We are all chanting, and it drowns out the voices for a moment. The tendrils of my spirit that were being pulled away like yarn being pulled from a skein return again, and I am not mad, nor a child. A fool yet, perhaps. Certainly damned, but myself once more. Onward we go, deeper into the foulness, for this is what we have been asked to do, and our lives are ones of duty.

The unyielding task
duty saves us where will fails
a chanted word, hope


The door we walked through is no longer there. All around us, shuffling, scuttling like a thousand rats within a heap of refuse. Here, the darkness seethes. From out of the dim recesses of the huge room, a voice. The latest madman who thought to change Otosan Uchi, to save it. He is far beyond saving himself, a ghostly curator who has listened to the whispers, lent his voice to the chorus of lunacy. Before his eyes are only the rainbow visions that one gets while being choked into unconsciousness. He has the information we seek, and so we must humor him.

Curator’s voice speaks
from out of his own dark hell
a dreaming spiral

Shintaro has the heart to speak to this horrid creature, to enter into the farce of his words, as he goes on about the glories of the museum, about how wonderful the place is. I can see Oki-san looking for him in the shadows, trying to find a line of attack. Toranaka’s face is clenched, his hand tight against the silk of his katana’s grip. Isao whispers silently to the kami, gathering them about him like armor. Uso looks almost amused by the whole affair. Only the seemingly casual easing of his nodachi in its scabbard betrays the tension. Shintaro does well, getting the curator to speak, to tell his tale. The dagger that touched the flesh of the Imperial Heir was here, and a gaijin came for it. The man made of metal, the thrall of the Dark Oracle of Water.

The Sparrow’s good heart
pitted against the malice
of a ghostly lord

The story we seek
hidden within madman’s words
secrets of our foe

Sacrificial blade
crooked steel named “Corruption”
stolen from the past

“There is so much work left to be done, my young friends. I will need your help, all of you.”

“We must be on our way, though. We must find the man who removed the dagger, one of your artifacts, and bring him to justice,” Shintaro counters, just a hint of desperation in his voice.

“That is the least of our concerns. There are thousands of artifacts to be catalogued, scrolls beyond easy counting,” the curator says, his voice rising, beginning to show an edge.

“We mustn’t tarry here long. There is work that must be done beyond.”

“Ha…I promise not to keep you long. Only forever.”

There is no saving things now. It will come to fighting. I yell something disparaging about his museum, and he releases a shriek.

“How dare you insult the grand museum of Otosan Uchi, the finest in all the Jade Empire? Guards! Hack them to the ground!”

And then we are fighting, rushing, falling back. Arrows fall all around us. Corpses arise from the piles of trash and leap at us. Our arrows thud into them with not much more effect than what they would do to a straw bale. Our blades hack deep, but there is no more lifeblood to free, no more pain to cripple them. Shintaro screams something about wheat and dashes the head from the zombie’s shoulders. It slumps to the ground, giving us hope.

The bisento falls
like a scythe across its neck
head and body fall

The others rush, we escape the shambling dead for a moment, focusing our arrows against the curator. I shoot at the ghost and see my arrow rip into him. Oki peppers him with deadly shots, as do the rest. Isao lifts huge stones from the rubble and rains them down upon our enemy, shouting for the Kami’s aid. Toranaka rushes forward along the raised platform, his sword flashing. In a frantic moment, it is over, the angry ghost departed, the animated corpses fallen and inert. The door behind us appears. Our Yotsu ronin is sorely injured, and Isao does what he can to mend him. Together, we lift him to his feet and begin the perilous trip out of the haunted city.

With tangible blades
arrows of bamboo and steel
we have killed a ghost

To the glimmering
we gaze outward from shadow
into the real world

We have new nightmares
and a few more scars to show
but we have survived


To be continued next week:

If you want to check out some of Pat’s regular fiction, you should try out Mungo the Undying in this anthology:

Monster Hunter Legion, Out in Paperback!
Holy crap. Read this novella, because it is awesome.

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