By Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan
Hida Hiyao peered through the gloom from atop the Great Carpenter Wall. He sniffed the air before striding twelve paces to grab a torch from its sconce.
“What is it?” The gleam in Hida Takuji’s eye betrayed his hopeful nature. “Are they moving?”
“They are always moving, Takuji-san. The question is whether they are moving towards the Wall.” Hiyao held the torch up and looked down into the night. “I don”t see anything.”
Takuji grunted and went back to walking along the Wall’s edge. Another burly Crab, wearing a different family mon than the two Hida, approached. “How is the Shadowlands tonight, Hiyao-san?”
Hiyao lowered the torch and glanced over at the newcomer. “Restless. I can”t really explain it, but there seems to be something happening out there. I think there will be an attack.”
Kaiu Hisayuki smiled grimly. “There are always attacks. That is why we are here, no?”
Hiyao nodded. “We are the Crab.” It was a simple statement, but it answered the question quite succinctly.
Hisayuki shook his head. “It amazes me sometimes. The Wall is the only thing that separates Rokugan from the evils of the Shadowlands. The Crab keep the Wall standing. Yet, the empire squabbles and fights, arguing about who should be Emperor or who should hold Toshi Ranbo. None of it matters if this wall doesn”t hold. Don”t they realize it? We fight and die while they bicker and ignore what we do for them.”
“We die atop the Wall so that others might live. Whether they are worthy of this sacrifice is not our place to judge.”
“Then who judges?” Hisayuki snorted, then waved the comment away. “Ah, do not take my rambling to heart, Hiyao-san. I think it is just the night. I am a little on edge.”
Hiyao nodded. “That’s what I was talking about. There is something in the air tonight There will be an attack.”
Hisayuki gazed out, past the Wall. “I can”t help but think that the Empire would be better off if the Crab ran things.” Hiyao’s eyes darted quickly over to the Kaiu. “What? It is not treason. There is no Emperor to speak against. I was as loyal to the Emperor as anyone, but he is dead and Rokugan is lesser for it. The clans fight and argue and Daigotsu sits and waits for the right time to strike. The Empire needs a strong leader. Someone who understands what is important.”
“someone like Lord Kuon, perhaps?” Both Crab straightened somewhat as a third approached and spoke.
Both bowed and said, Sozen-sama.”
Hida Sozen returned the bow and said, “Is that what you think would be best for the empire? What if I told you that Lord Kuon has no desire to take the throne? Would that change your opinion?”
Hisayuki’s eyes narrowed and he leaned on the shaft of his great hammer. “Why would he say that? The opportunity to lead the empire with the correct goals and the strength to do what needs to be done would seem to be too important to pass up.”
Sozen smiled. “And who would he leave to guard the Wall? I believe that Lord Kuon thinks that this is the most important job in the Empire, even more so than Emperor.”
Hiyao nodded but Hisayuki shrugged. “I can see that, but still, what of another Crab… someone chosen by Kuon?”
Sozen shook his head. “That, I will not disagree with, but it is not our place. There is enough for us to do here without worrying about what happens in Toshi Ranbo. Everyone has his place, Hisayuki-san, and our place, right now, is here. I think we all can sense that there will be an attack tonight. You get a sense of these things after you have served on the Wall a while, eh Hiyao-san?” Hiyao nodded and Sozen continued. “When we face the goblins or oni or whatever has the temerity to assault us here, we will help them continue on their life’s path, straight to the next world. We fulfill our role. They fulfill theirs. Let the courtiers fulfill theirs.”
There was a moment’s silence as Hiyao tensed and waved them quiet with a quick hand motion. “It is happening now. Alert the sentries.”
The assault came upon them in near silence. The smaller creatures in the assault rode on the back of an oni that seemed to be bred for this exact purpose. It was long with extended forelegs, but little in the way of offensive powers other than rows of sharp teeth at the head. It approached the wall and bakemono, ogres, and all sorts of smaller oni used its back as a ramp to get on top of the wall.
The Crab were prepared, however. Their vigilance had forewarned them and there was a squad of defenders where the oni reached the wall. Hida Sozen stood where the beast’s head touched the Wall, allowing the goblins to come up only one at a time… Only his enemies could see Sozen’s smile, and the pure joy on his face chilled the blood of his foes.
He made sure that none witnessed it for very long.
Hida Kaoru watched as her fellow Hida fought an ogre that had found his way to the top of the Wall. The creature’s great club felled one of her family after another, and still she watched. Tonight was her first time serving on the Wall following her gempukku, but she felt no trepidation. She did not look for glory or safety. She only looked for the appropriate opportunity.
Hida Takuji strode the wall with a blaze of fury in his eyes. Other Crab stood aside, as his tetsubo, in merciless, brutal swings, ended the life of a score of bakemono… As each fell, he moved on to the next, never slowing, never looking back.
Hiruma Aki, like Kaoru, had only recently arrived to this post. As a Hiruma, he normally served at the castle of his family, on the wrong side of the Great Carpenter Wall. However, all Crab stood on the Wall at times, so that they would never forget why they exist and where their first duty lay. Aki relished in any chance to fight the oni of the Shadowlands. He avoided the other creatures where he could, and let his blades taste the flesh of the misshapen creatures that came from the Festering Pit.
Hida Hiyao dodged under the swinging club of the huge ogre. His katana could not reach its target and each swing of the heft of wood could end Hiyao’s life. It was more tree than club and the veteran Hida was keeping only inches ahead of the lumbering blows. He could see Kaoru watching from the right and he wondered why she did not attack. It was her first posting and there were times when a sentry was not prepared for the immediacy of an assault on the wall. Sometimes those new sentries froze and did not fulfill their duty. When that happened they usually did not get the opportunity to live with the shame, as they did not survive the attack. Unfortunately their inaction would often mean the death of other, braver warriors.
It was rare that those inadequate sentries were Crab, however. They were usually samurai from other clans who came to serve on the wall as some sort of exchange or a search for a duty worthy of a samurai.
No, Kaoru was a Crab. She would not fail.
Hiyao started maneuvering himself so that every evaded blow moved him a little farther to the left. This was dangerous because if the ogre realized what he was doing, he could alter his attack to take advantage of it. Luckily, ogres were not known for their tactical prowess but rather their brute strength. Many in the Empire believed the same of the Crab.
The rest of Rokugan was wrong.
As the ogre turned to follow the slippery Hiyao, Kaoru saw the opening he was making, and it was exactly what she had been waiting for. She darted to the rampart and vaulted onto it. She then sprinted along its top until she was in reach of the ogre’s back. As she ran, she swung her tetsubo in a wide arc, connecting with the back of the creature’s skull. It staggered forward and started to turn to face this new assault. Hiyao took advantage of the distraction to strike a blow on to the wrist that held the club. The ogre bellowed out in pain as the wood fell to the ground, narrowly missing a leaping Hiyao. Kaoru jumped down from the rampart and swung her tetsubo again, this time striking the back of the creature’s knees. As the ogre’s legs buckled and it tried to regain its footing, Hiyao slipped inside of its flailing arms and drove his katana into its unprotected throat.
Both Crab leapt away as the ogre fell backwards against the ramparts and toppled over, off the wall and into the darkness.
Hida Daizu ran up the stairs within the wall and burst out, directly into a battle. He did not pause as he waded into the enemy, dispatching them on each side. Crude weapons struck at his armor but could not penetrate it. Daizu did not battle with the joy of Sozen or frenzy of Takuji, but worked with silent, deadly efficiency. Every strike killed an enemy – every movement took him closer to the next strike. To the denizens of the Shadowlands, he was walking death.
Hiruma Aki used the cover of the other Crab fighting on the wall to make his way to the oni who had transported the assault force. The fighting was thick near the head, where Sozen and others fought. In addition, access to the creature itself was blocked by its great mouth and rows of teeth that gnashed and snapped whenever any came too close.
Aki sheathed his sword and sprinted past the scrum. He then leapt onto the rampart a few yards from the beast and dashed a few more steps along it. He lunged off the wall, his strong legs propelling him in the direction of the thing’s back. The distance was great and Aki nearly fell into the darkness in the intervening space, only grabbing at the oni’s scales to stop from sliding off into the abyss. The remaining bakemono were surprised by this assault from nowhere, giving Aki the chance to scramble up before they could take advantage of his precarious position. He pulled his sword from its says and swung it in a wide semi-circle, slaying three of the putrid little creatures and keeping the others at bay. He then turned the sword over in his hands and forced it downwards with all his strength, sending it past the scales covering the back of the oni’s head. The sword stopped half way along its blade but Aki threw his full weight onto the hilt, and the sword slipped all the way down to the guard.
The oni shrieked with such force that all on the Wall turned to witness its death throes. Its body thrashed and the remaining goblins lost their purchase and went spinning off to the ground far below. Aki held on to the handle of his sword, his knuckles white with the strain, desperate to avoid the goblins” fate. As the oni stumbled backwards from the wall, the young Crab timed his release so that the momentum from the thrashing oni sent him careening through the air in the direction of his comrades.
As he reached for the stone edifice that defined the Crab Clan, Aki saw that he was not going to make it. The momentum sent him in the right direction, but he was going to fall just short of his mark. Aki could think of no way better to die than slaying an oni and serving his family and clan. He would be with his ancestors, his parents, very soon.
His mind was at peace as he reached the Wall, mere inches below the edge. He began to whisper a silent prayer to his ancestors as a hand came from above and grabbed his wrist in a firm grip. Aki hung from an unknown person’s grasp for only a moment, but the strength in the arm and hand of his savior was such that he lost all doubt about his ability to survive his reckless assault.
He was hoisted to the top of the Wall as if he weighed no more than a child. He was dropped to his feet on the other side of the rampart and he looked up to see that the grip belonged to none other than Hida Kuon, the Champion of the Crab.
A quick glance saw that the rest of the Crab had taken advantage of Aki slaying the oni and were just finishing the last attackers and repelling them from the top of the wall, with some force.
Aki dropped to one knee. “Lord Kuon.”
Kuon motioned to Aki. “Stand.” He then watched as the final goblin was lifted by Hida Daizu and thrown, still screaming, over the wall from whence he came. A cheer came up from the assembled defenders. Kuon waited until the cheer died and then said, “Once again, the enemies of Rokugan have made the mistake so many in the past have made before them. They believe that if they can reach beyond the Wall, that they can have the Empire we guard. The mistake they make is that they think the Wall is this,” Kuon slapped his calloused hand against the top of the rampart, “the stone built by the Kaiu and defended by the Crab. They are wrong.” He paused. “We are the Wall! The Crab are the Wall!”
The cries of “HIDA!” from the assembled Crab could be heard for miles.