Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Twenty Goblin Winter
“Welcome to Kyuden Hida,” boomed a voice from a balcony overlooking the fortress courtyard. The squat man waited a moment as the scores of people below ceased their chatter and milling about. The last time Kaiu Takanaka had made this address had been to visiting dignitaries and their retinue at the onset of winter court. Now, as the bite of winter dulled before spring, the guests of the Crab Clan had responded to an invitation altogether different. Most were ronin in stained and patched kimono, their expressions varying from excitement to desperation. “I am Kaiu Takanaka, karo of this castle,” he continued. “Most of you know why you’re here, but some of you may have no idea what that means, so I’ll spell it out for you. Earlier this winter, some fool trollop calling herself the Bride of the Fallen Kami got it in her empty Crane head that she could take the Wall. Led an army of oni against us, till one of our own smashed her head like a grape and they all tucked tail and ran. Problem is, we lost a lot of good men, enough that our Champion, Hida An, has declared a Twenty Goblin Winter to be in effect. The concept’s simple enough that a Doji could wrap his head around it, but, just to make sure that the whole process ain’t lost on you, I’ve prepared some visual aids. It ain’t as fancy as some flashy Scorpion deal, but, on the Wall, we make do with what we’ve got.” The karo clapped his hands and a doorway at the base of the fortress slid open with the grinding of steel on stone. A bald, brute of a man exited into the courtyard, his armor clanking with each step. An ugly, wriggling thing struggled behind him, it’s lank, wiry hair clenched firmly in the man’s heavy kote. It emitted a shrill keening, like that of a struck dog as it slinks away to hide and lick its wounds. Without preamble, the Crab warrior flung the creature onto the dirt before the closest of the assembled ronin. It quickly scrabled to its feet, casting about for some means of escape, beady red eyes darting about the courtyard. A few of the ronin nearest to the thing drew back with a look of disgust. One looked up to the balcony. “Takanaka-sama, we’re to kill twenty of—” “DEEDS, NOT WORDS!” the karo bellowed. “Kami above, if I wanted to have a tea party and listen to someone talk, I’d have invited some geisha over instead!”
As he shouted one of the ronin strode toward the goblin, unsheathing a large field sword and tossing its saya aside. The goblin’s shrieking rose in pitch for a moment before suddenly cut off by a sharp thud as the ronin’s blade cleaved into the ground, followed by a duller echo seconds later.
“Well, it looks like we got actually got a bushi among the lot of you!” Takanaka jeered. “The rest of you want to just stand around, flap your lips, and watch someone else do all the work, I got news for you: Kyuden Doji’s the other way! But, any of you suddenly figure out how exactly to swing that sword at your hip, the Crab Clan might find some use for you! All you gotta do is bring me twenty of those,” he pointed to the ground where the goblin’s severed head lay. “Hells,” he raised his finger towards the massive gates of the fortress where the skull of a massive oni rested, “you bring me one of those, you can have my job. You decide you’re up for this, I say again, welcome to Kyuden Hida. Shakasu-san will take you to our quartermaster who will care for your daisho and outfit you with jade to safeguard your purity and weapons better suited for dealing with the filth of the Shadowlands.”
The large, bald Crab gestured for the crowd to follow him back into the fortress. Most did, though Takanaka noticed a handful returning from whence they came. The ronin who had struck down the goblin, unsurprisingly, was among those following Shakasu within. “You there,” Takanaka called out. The young ronin stepped aside from the others and bowed. “You got initiative, boy. I like that. What’s your name?” “For now, Takanaka-sama, it is Atsutane.” Straightening, he looked up at the karo, fire dancing in his blue eyes and a smile slowly spreading across his face. “Ask me again after nineteen more.”
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