This session features No Middle Ground, written by Steve Diamond. Steve decided to mix it up a bit and write one of our battle scenes from the other side’s point of view. Following that is another one of my journals going through the events of the game.
No Middle Ground
Ash and flame choked the air. To Ganjil of the Black Mountain Tribe, it tasted of victory. The foolish Dragon Clan had thought to easily break through the tribe lines, over-valuing their own worth yet again. The other Tribes led by the Oracle were slowly working their way into flanking positions.
They would grind the Dragon into dust, as they deserved.
The Fire sped through Ganjil’s veins as he watched the battle. He could hear the screams of death and victory—so similar at a distance. He ached to join in the bloodshed, but knew his place was here, between the Unicorn fortress and the Dragon army.
Chanting drew his attention back to the clearing behind him. Sorcerers from eight Tribes surrounded the vacant space of land, their words rising in volume as the summoning drew to an end. Ganjil had long since drawn his sword, and he flexed his grip on it to set the rings on the blade chiming in rhythm with the sorcerers’ spell. Always have your blade out, his father had always said. Either you will need to kill your enemy with it, or you will need to kill your friend when he betrays you.
Across the clearing he caught the eye of his younger brother, Santtul. Though his brother was younger, he was the larger of the siblings. He too had his ring sword drawn and his metal-rimmed, hide and wooden shield strapped to his arm. Ganjil nodded, and his brother nodded back. It was all they needed by way of encouragement. It was all they had ever needed.
The chanting stopped.
Sweat beaded across Ganjil’s skin as the temperature rose unnaturally quick. The Fire he was blessed with seemed to hum in response to the summoning. He closed his eyes—a foolish whim, but he couldn’t resist the allure—and drank in the feeling of it.
When he opened his eyes the creature occupied the clearing, a spawn of Furu no Oni. Its tentacles undulated in what Ganjil could only interpret as anticipation. It was an ally for now, but every Tribesman knew that this abomination could turn on them. The sorcerers stepped back behind the front line of Yobanjin warriors, heads bowed in concentration. The creature’s focus was fixed on the fortress to the immediate south where war horns were beginning to sound.
A quick glance over his shoulder showed the Dragon armies being steadily cut down. Ganjil refused to allow even the barest hint of sympathy to intrude on his heart. They had sworn to the kami. Every dark fate that fell on them was deserved. There could be no middle ground in war. There was only Yobanjin, and the enemy.
The north gate of the fortress opened, and the armies of the Great Clans spilled out like blood from a wound. Ganjil worked his shoulders loose, grateful he was unburdened by the heavy armor the samurai would be wearing. It made them slow. Their cowardice at hiding behind that armor further enraged him. The armies were coming quickly now, and he could feel the ground roiling at their approach. At their head flew the standards of Crab Clan. There was no time for subtly, and the knot of samurai aimed their spear of warriors straight for the center of the Yobanjin lines.
Straight for the Furu no Oni.
Ganjil hefted his own round shield, the metal rim sharpened to give him an extra weapon. The war chant had started.
The Furu no Oni roared, deafeningly loud. It thrashed against unseen bindings, straining in an effort to charge the oncoming armies. Ganjil grinned as his lust for battle and blood began to overtake him. The Oni would decimate the kami-worshiping dogs. The chant never slowed. Never faltered. It grew louder.
His brother would hold the left. The right was his own piece of ground never to be yielded. The Oni bellowed again as the Crab Clan—flanked by Unicorn and Lion on their right and Spider and Scorpion on their left—closed to within one hundred yards. A scream of challenge tore its way from Ganjil’s throat. He would kill them all, and even if death were to take him, he would kill even more still. The ring sword was light in his grasp. The Fire burned through him like a molten mountain river.
The lines crashed together in an impact that shook the earth.
A huge Crab warrior in full armor—his face contorted in rage and hate—rushed straight for Ganjil. The force behind his ono made the air whistle around it. But the man himself was slow. Ganjil sidestepped and drew his blade across the back of the samurai’s knee. The man feel screaming, ono dropping from his hands. The back of his neck was exposed for Ganjil to hack through, and the warriors head flew from its body. He heard the Oni bellow again, this time laced with pain. It was impossible. Nothing should be able to hurt the monstrosity.
Ganjil made his way through the press of men. Around him Tribesmen erupted into flame as they died, engulfing their slayers. He used the rings on his sword to catch the spikes on an opponent’s tetsubo, yanking it from the warrior’s grasp. A spear punched out through his enemy’s chest as another Tribesman impaled him from behind.
Over the melee he could see the head of the Oni. Men flew through the air as the creature flung them from its tentacled grasp. It shrieked in pain, and Ganjil caught a glimpse of molten liquid spurting from a severed limb.
Two samurai blocked his path. They both charged, hacking with katanas. Ganjil found he had to backpedal from them as he turned their strikes with his shield and sword. The samurai on his sword-side slipped on the ground that had been churned into a bloody mud. Ganjil’s sword took him through the throat. He yanked it free in time to catch another heavy blow from the other samurai. The force of it took him to his knees. As he fell, Ganjil brought the edge of his shield down on the samurai’s leading foot, severing the front half of it. He stabbed up through the man’s groin, then standing up stabbed him again through the chest.
His way to the Oni was clear, but he was already too late. A small group of samurai had fanned out and were alternately striking the Oni whenever it turned its attention from one to another. The skill of the group struck fear into Ganjil’s heart. Were these men blessed by their Fortunes?
A katana struck the Oni’s head from its distorted body. Molten flame exploded from it, though it managed to strike mostly Yobanjin who died screaming in pain. Across the clearing he saw his brother attempt to engage a small ono-wielding Crab female. Her first blow shattered Santtul’s sword. Her second ripped straight through his shield, severing his arm. Her last strike cleaved Sarttul from neck to groin, nearly splitting him in two. Throughout it all the Crab samurai’s face had remained impassive.
His brother’s corpse erupted into flame, consuming him. Tribesmen were fleeing the battlefield, disheartened and routed. Ganjil fell to his knees, sword and shield falling from his hands. He looked up as a shadow fell over him. A hideously disfigured warrior stood over him with a katana in hand.
The warrior swung.
From the journal of Hida Makoto, Crab Clan.
I have just returned from another battle. My armor is still warm from the heat of the Yobanjin death fires. The Crab army stationed here has regained much honor and glory on the battlefield. For the second time in my life I got to fight an oni. This time went much better than the first.
The day began normally enough. We rose early to attend the meeting of the war leaders. Ide Todo presented his testimony concerning the captured spy, the map cases, and the Daidoji dagger. Akodo Foon was furious while the Scorpion were strangely supportive of Ide Todo’s theories.
Moto Chen explained that his torturers had accidentally killed the spy by giving him poison instead of medicine. He said that the eta involved had been put to death because of their error. Lies. Do you take us for fools? Do not give me a cart full of dung and tell me it is jade. What are you hiding Moto Chen? There is more going on here than we understand, but one does not publically question the Unicorn Khan.
Iko arrived and reported that the other spy had been found on the lake, but had killed himself before he could be captured. I told her that there was no shame in that, especially if her spy was half as dedicated as the one we fought. A new coded message was found on the body and this was given to Kitsuki Tsuze to decipher.
The meeting was interrupted by war horns. A runner arrived with a message. Another army had appeared to the north of the Yobanjin horde, with banners bearing the Dragon mon. This army was not reinforcements, rather they appeared to have fled here with Yobanjin on their heels. They were trying to fight their way to Shiro Shinjo, but now they were hopelessly surrounded.
The war leaders were unanimous in their opinion that we should sally forth to rescue the Dragon. I got O-Hinku’s attention, and she suggested that the Crab would like to lead the charge. It was a good opportunity for us to regain the face we lost in yesterday’s debacle. Since there was no time to debate, her offer was accepted.
I met Kenzan on the way toward the battle. As expected, he did not appear happy to see me, but he did not try to kill me either. “I kept my promise. We found your traitor.” He had no choice but to agree. I asked if he would allow me to join him in battle.
Rather than answer directly, he gestured at the tetsubo that I carried. “Your bear the tetsubo of your grandfather. Would you be a hero like him instead of a coward like your father?” I replied that we were wasting time, there were Yobanjin dogs to kill, and that would have to do. Kenzan agreed.
We gathered our forces and charged out the main gate. The Yobanjin between us the Dragon were doomed. They had summoned a Furu no Oni spawn, a sign of desperation to willingly consort with such an evil creature. It was the most dangerous thing on the field, so my group headed straight for it.
The beast was remarkable, made of lava and tentacles. Yet, it stood no chance against the courage of my friends. It was good to fight alongside my brother and sister, but the glory for this particular battle belonged to Zukozuko. He struck the first and last blow against the oni spawn, and when he cleaved the monster’s head off, the Yobanjin horde’s spirits broke. Their army collapsed and the battle turned into a route. Zuko’s courage was witnessed by many. He may be a ronin, but I have no doubt that any of the great clans present at the battle would be glad to accept his fealty now.
We were able to reach the Dragon forces and bring them safely into Shiro Shinjo. They brought much bad news. The High House of Light, home of the Togashi Dragon monks, has been destroyed. I noticed that this news badly shook Zukozuko, though like a proper samurai he tried not let his emotions show. He has never spoken of his past, and it is not my place to ask, but I wonder if he has friends amongst the Togashi, or perhaps even had a family member join the order. If so, I am saddened by his loss. I will try to kill extra Yobanjin next time to cheer him up.
I write this while resting from the battle. The war leaders are debating our next move. Today bought Shiro Shinjo some time. I do not know where tomorrow will find us, but as the Fortunes have commanded, wherever Ide Todo goes, I will follow.
To be continued next Friday, with an Early Lunch. http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/the-burning-throne-episode-8-an-early-lunch/