Way of the Crab
Again Masurao found himself on his way through Lion lands, except this time he was headed south to the lands of the Crab, on his way to fullfil his enigmatic promise to Hoshi. It had been several weeks since his last travel through the lands of his clan's enemy and Masurao decided that he would see how the peasants of 'his' small village were doing.
Masurao was whistling a merry tune when he entered the village, but the sound stuck in his throat as he saw the carnage before him. The village's small streets were dyed red with blood and there were eta taking away the stains from the ground. Taking a deep breath and preparing for the worst Masurao approached one of the eta.
"What has transpired here?" Masurao asked with slight hesitation. "Where are the peasants of this village?"
The eta looked up from his duties startled and replied, "Oh, samurai-sama!" Immediately the man fell to his knees and with lowered head he continued, "It was terrible, sama. My lord decreed that the peasants in this village showed too much sympathy for the Dragon. He sent several samurai over to force their obedience… or kill them."
"Were they successful?"
"Oh no, sama," the eta exclaimed with more joy than his lord would've allowed. "The peasants appeared to be quite able to defend themselves and did not surrender to the samurai. The samurai attacked, but they were defeated. The blood we are cleaning is samurai blood, only several were killed because they refused to surrender, I imagine the rest will be punished by our lord…"
"What happened to the peasants then?"
"I am not sure, sama, but rumour has it that they have actually made it to Dragon lands and have found a new place there…"
After hearing the news, Masurao thanked the eta with a smile and continued on his journey, confident that his former students and friends would be safe.
* * *
When Masurao finally reached the lands of the Crab he had prepared to receive anything but a warm welcome. The news that the Crab and Crane were engrossed in a full-scale war had traveled the Empire and the Crab would be most weary of strangers.
Only when he could see the Kaiu Kabe along the horizon did the large ise zumi decide to stop his travels and seek out a Crab to discuss his request with. He found one at a nearby encampment.
"Dragon-sama," said the large Hida as he looked Masurao in the eyes. "Might I inquire your name and business here?"
Masurao bowed to the samurai and answered, "I am Togashi Masurao, I have traveled here from my homelands with a special goal in mind, Hida-sama."
"Hida Chousen, Masurao-san. What was this special goal, if I might ask?"
"Why," Masurao said with a large grin, "I am here to undergo the 'twenty goblin winter'."
Chousen frowned, did his ears deceive him? A samurai from another clan wanted to undergo the Twenty Goblin Winter? "But what about your lord, Masurao-san?" he asked. "Will he allow such a thing?"
"He practically ordered me to do this, Chousen-san."
The large Crab sighed and rubbed his neck. "You'd better come with me, Masurao-san."
* * *
"You should've charged! You could have won the battle and crushed those Dragon! But you neglected your duties, Maigo!"
"Repeat those words once, Matsu," Maigo replied reaching for his sword, "and I swear they will be the last you'll spit forth!"
Matsu Hyodan took a slight step backwards, he had not suspected this opposition from Maigo. The Akodo was known for his uncanny ability with the sword and keen mind for tactics, but he nonetheless stood by passively as Hyodan's brother was killed by that Togashi dog!
Before either of them could do something to the other, Kitsu Dejiko stepped into the tent. "Out," she said with unrelenting voice to Hyodan and when she was alone with Maigo she continued. "Don't let Hyodan get to you, he's just upset. You did what was right. Tomorrow we'll…"
"I don't wish to fight the Dragon anymore, Dejiko-san," Maigo said with a sigh.
"What," Dejiko exclaimed, "but why not?"
Maigo turned his head aside, "The only reason that I, Reikan and the others are still alive is the Dragon commander. He and his troops could've easily killed us all, but he chose not to. I will not fight the man to whom I owe my life… I'd rather take my life to repent."
"That won't be necessary… I have heard that there is something strange happening at the Hall of Ancestors, unexplained attacks… Matsu Domotai is leading our troops there and I belief he could use a strong arm and good scout."
"I shall find Reikan and immediatlely go, I shall report to Domotai and help him defend the Hall of Ancestors. Thank you."
* * *
It had taken the Hiruma messengers just over a day to get to a message to Kyuden Hida and back, Masurao admired their natural speed and stamina. Of course, a Dragon could be faster, but not without tattoos and a toll.
Chousen opened the scroll and quickly read through it. "Well," he said, "you are allowed to undergo the Twenty Goblin Winter. However, in your case there are some exceptions. You are allowed to keep your own family name, since you are still loyal to your lord, but you have the honor to be called a Hida in spirit and body. Should you succeed, of course."
"Of course," Masurao replied thoughfully.
"You will be given jade for protection, special rations, Hiruma armor and a bag for the heads. The rest you need to supply for yourself. Any questions?"
"I have many questions, Chousen-san, but none would apply to this moment in time, or those coming the following days," Masurao answered grinning.
Chousen sighed and rubbed his temples, he had spent most of the day in conversation with the tattooed man and his words were like riddels and his sentences seemed to hide some deeper truth, a truth Chousen could not seem to grasp.
"You do realize what you are getting yourself into, don't you?" Chousen asked, not really caring one way or the other.
"Fully," was Masurao's only response.
"You could come face to face with your worst nightmare out there…"
Masurao visibly and audibly swallowed, "You mean there are more Crane courtiers on that side of the Wall?"
Chousen could not contain his laughter and when he had regained his voice he sputtered, "No… seriously… even worse than that…"
Masurao narrowed his eyes and glared at Chousen from the corners of his eyes, with a soft, even voice he said, "You mean… Scorpion… courtiers…?"
Another burst of laughter came from Chousen, attracting attention from other Crab in the camp. "Seriously, Masurao-san, if we were not in a war of our own I would have gladly lent you Dragon fellows a hand."
Masurao smiled, "Your sympathy is greatly appreciated, Chousen-san. But let's not talk about such somber matters! We are on the eve of my glorious admission to the Hida family… or my shameful demise! I could use a good meal before I go on my quest."
"If that's your last request, than so it shall be," Chousen chuckled.
* * *
Togashi Masurao looked into the distance. The vast plains of the Shadowlands were before him. From one of the siege towers on the Wall he could oversee a great deal of the lands he was about to travel in search for twenty Goblins' heads. When he had told the Crab that he wanted to undergo the Twenty Goblin Winter he amazed them to the point they'd simply laugh out loud. Now he was standing on one of the Wall's towers, surveying the quest before him, equiped with jade, specially prepared rations, the light armor of a Hiruma scout and the daisho that was presumably his father's by his side he was about to enter the Shadowlands.
Chousen and as many Crab bushi as the situation allowed were gathered on the tower and one of them joked, "Well now, shall we show the quickest SAFE way to the other side of the Wall, or will you climb down?" Laughs went through the assembled crowd. Masurao slightly turned his head and said over his shoulder, "No, that's okay. I know a quicker way," and he smiled in an enigmaticly. While the Crab looked at each other in confusion, Masurao stepped onto one of the parapets and started chanting. Surprised the Crab moved a bit closer, but a sudden burst of flames forced them back a few feet. Masurao had sprouted gigantic wings of flame from his back! He stepped over the edge of the siege tower and soared down to the ground, where he landed safely, hundred feet below the top of the siege tower and many amazed Crab.
* * *
Masurao opened the large bag and dropped in another goblin head. "That's nine... Only eleven more to go... They should've given me a larger bag... now I'll have to strap the last few onto my armor..." Masurao mumbled to himself and any onlooking Crab might have thought him dangerous, but there were no Crab around...
It was Masurao's third day into the Shadowlands after he went out of sight of the Great Wall. One time when he used his abilities to detect his surroundings through the Void, he had noticed a young Nezumi, following him, and he smiled, knowing why he followed him. By his second day, Masurao had stumbled onto a Goblin 'encampment', it was some sort of gathering point. Though there were never more than twenty Goblins present at a given moment, many left and many entered the 'camp'. All to Masurao's advantage, but not to his surprise, as he knew very little of Goblin society and thought nothing of it.
While moving around the camp Masurao was thinking, 'Even though I should never acknowledge it to any but a Crab, the scouts are not honorless for sneaking, it's a matter of life and death. And I shouldn't admit having done the same here either... except to the Crab.'
Suddenly he was alarmed by a grunt behind him. Masurao turned around and saw that hundred paces away an Ogre stared at him, "Whut you do's here!?", it demanded. 'Just my luck', Masurao thought, 'of all the Ogres in the Shadowlands, I get to fight the one intelligent Ogre'
The Ogre had hardly asked his question before he decided that he should just kill this puny, little man. He charged at Masurao, wielding a rusty, dented no-dachi in one hand and a club in the other. He smashed the club at Masurao, but when the club hit, it only met ground, Masurao had swiftly jumped out of harm's way.
The Ogre turned to face Masurao, who drew his wakizashi and then his katana. Suddenly, just as the swords left its saya, it burst into a bright flame, fueled by Masurao's inner fire. The Ogre blinked once before it charged again, it came in closer this time, trying to swing his no-dachi at Masurao, but he quickly moved to the Ogre and grabbed it, rolling onto his back and using his leg as leverage he sent the Ogre flying. Masurao was on his feet immediately and turned around, only to see the Ogre scrambling back on its feet.
"Damned! One would think you'd have lungs to loose your breath from, beast!" This time it was Masurao who charged, the Ogre simply braced himself and readied his no-dachi, when Masurao was in range he gleefully swung his no-dachi taking of Masurao's head... were it not that Masurao had ducked the swing and immediately sweeped the Ogre's legs from underneath him.
Again the Ogre was on the ground, but this time Masurao moved quicker, darting next to the body he quickly struck at the Ogre's neck with his katana. The Ogre lifted his arm to block the attack, and though the sword burned away the Ogre's flesh and muscles, and though it sliced through the bone, it no longer head enough force to cut through the Ogre's neck.
The Ogre howled in pain, and attempted to smash Masurao's face with his fist, but before the blow could find the Dragon's face Masurao had already killed the Ogre: when the Ogre had 'parried' the cut of the burning katana, Masurao's wakizashi had found the Ogre's eye and its brains behind it.
The blood burned of his katana and Masurao's cleaned his wakizashi, then proceeded to cut off the Ogre's head for his collection. Though he wondered how many Goblin heads the Ogre's was worth, he simply continued to lure Goblins into an ambush and take their heads. On one of the Goblins he found a bag with shiny baubles, smiling to himself he left the bag behind, knowing the Nezumi would find it. He proceeded to strap the heads that didn't fit in the bag onto the his armor and his obi. The Ogre's head however, he strapped onto his back, a little surprise for his Crab cousins.
* * *
Four days after Masurao had left there was a cry near the tower he had flown off. "Well, how does this work!? Are you going to show me the quickest SAFE way to the other side of the Wall, or do have to look around myself? I can, of course, always CLIMB back up! "
He turned around and leaned with his back against the Wall, waiting until he'd see someone arise from a secret tunnel. Masurao was perceptive, but those tunnels were nigh impossible to find unless you knew their position, which he didn't. Several Crab bushi and a shugenja came from the tunnels and motioned for Masurao to get in. When he passed the Kuni, the shugenja hissed, "You're a fool to scream as loud as you did! Do you want to attract all the Oni around here? Zakkenayo, you're already taking after those Hida!" The bushi laughed and Masurao's face split with his lopsided grin.
When Masurao was back on the other side, he was taken to a small courtyard, where, again, several Crab assembled, with his bag still slung over his back, the Ogre's head was still hidden. He faced the crowd with his back unseen, as he took of the heads strapped to his armor, the Crab counted... "Eight... Nine..." Masurao proceeded with the heads in his bag and again the Crab counted... "Seventeen... Eighteen... Nineteen... Twenty!!" Cheers erupted from the gathered crowd and Chousen stepped forward, "Congratulations, Masurao-san, that's a nice collection of heads you've gotten there... Relatives?" The Crab and his clansmen laughed heartily. Masurao smiled and replied, "Well, I did see your brother out there, do I get any bonus points for him?" And he turned around, showing the large Ogre's head on his back. Chousen looked at it a bit dumbfounded and laughed, Masurao and the other Crab laughed with him.
"You've already got a sense for Crab humor," Chousen laughed. "Now it is time you learn to drink like a Crab! And a real Crab drinks sochu, a real Crab's sake! Not the watered down 'beverages' served by the Crane!"
And together they headed to the nearest sake house.
[To be continued…]