The Burning Throne, Episode 33: Leaving the Empire

The quest to destroy the shame sword continues. The PCs head into Phoenix lands searching for Hiruma Tadori, who is mystically bonded to the evil sword. Zuko, who is secretly the Poison Dragon, returns from his personal journey helping resurect a mad god.

Continued from: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/the-burning-throne-episode-32-road-to-pale-oak-castle/

 

Twenty Third Entry

From the journal of Hida Makoto, Crab Clan

I write these words in a land that I never expected to tread. The border of Rokugan is just to the north. In the morning we will leave the Emerald Empire, perhaps forever. We will either destroy the Shamesword or perish trying. I do not know how many of us, if any, will live to see the glory of the Empire again.

Though exhausted and limited to the meager light of a tiny candle hidden beneath my bedroll, I am compelled to continue this scroll. If I fall in the wilds tomorrow, I can only hope that this record somehow makes its way back to my daimyo… No… I am lying to myself. I no longer record these events for my daimyo. My brother would not understand. These words are my vanity, my prideful hope that should I die, Otomo Yuni may someday learn of my love for her. We are destined to be together, but as my task seems so insurmountable I wonder if it will be in this life that we are united, or the next.

No. That is weakness talking. I must compose myself. The mountain does not bend. The men I travel with need me focused. I will not fail.

What brought us to the border of Rokugan and the Yobanjin wilds? Too much time has passed…

A few days after the fall of the sun, and its replacement with an imposter, the Paper Lanterns arrived in Phoenix lands. Our reception was icy. Our reputation here is unsavory. The Poison Dragon was once a travelling companion of the noble Ide Todo. His string of foul murders of Phoenix samurai has stirred up the rank and file. I believe that they see Ide Todo as a friend of this killer, when quite the opposite is true. I have said that I would kill the Poison Dragon. The opportunity has simply not presented itself yet.

Upon arrival at Pale Oak castle, we discovered quite the encampment. The Fourth Imperial Legion’s banner flew over the army to the west. North of us was a vast plain. To the east were rugged mountains. The castle itself is rather unimpressive, especially considering that word was the Yobanjin horde was only a few days to the north. These people need a Kaiu engineer.

We were met by the rikushogun of the Phoenix army, Shiba Majushi. His manner was cold, but polite. When we enquired about Hiruma Tadori, he directed us toward Akodo Goro, leader of the Fourth Legion. The legionnaires were glad to see the Paper Lanterns, which filled my heart with joy. Even the legendary Legion had heard tales of our accomplishments. Most of the soldiers were of the Crab and Lion, which I am certain helped.

Oh, mother. If only you could see me now. I am the acting gunso of a proud unit of roving magistrates, entrusted a mission by a celestial being and an Imperial family. I hope that my reputation has eclipsed the dishonor brought upon our family by my father.

Celebrations were short lived, as we received unfortunate news from Akodo Goro. Hiruma Tadori had gone missing behind enemy lines. His unit of scouts had been set upon by some “branded man”. We spoke to Hiruma Tama, one of the survivors. Tadori had fought bravely but had disappeared during their retreat. He had been missing for two days.

Magatsu informed us that the evil shamesword was still speaking of Tadori as if he were alive, as his soul is linked to the sword. That gave us some hope, but that also meant that we needed to cross into enemy territory to find him. It can never be easy.

We had to get the sword to Tadori. Time was of the essence. If we left it here, there was the possibility Tadori could die before returned. The Dark Oracle’s spies already knew that the sword was in the possession of the Paper Lanterns. The sword had to stay with the rescue mission. Nor could we tell the Legion what we were up to, because if word leaked to the Dark Oracle of Fire that the shamesword was present in his lands, he would bring his full wrath upon it.

We were in a quandary. Luckily Ide Todo is a man of decisive action. He left the decoy sword at Pale Oak castle under the supervision of Shinjo Braga, Otomo Hoketuhime’s Seppun guard, and a contingent provided by the Crane and the Phoenix. Some may find the use of a decoy dishonorable, but even Akodo’s Leadership said “War is deception.”

There was another surprise that night. I was roused from my slumber by a messenger saying that Fosuta Zuko had arrived at the Legion camp. I was incredulous at first, because I must admit that I had assumed that Zuko was dead. Months had passed since he had vanished while scouting the High House of Light, but I was shocked to discover that it really was him. Ide Todo was roused and he brought Zuko into his tent to discuss what had happened to him.

I greeted Zuko warmly. I told him that I had done my best to mold the Lantern bushi into a coherent force. Todo-sama was more suspicious, and after Zuko shared his story, I became concerned as well. Zuko had pursued Machio’s kidnappers until he had lost track of the eagles, but then he had been inspired to embark on a personal quest. It was related to finding an ancient site, somehow related to this business with the moon and sun. A site hidden within Phoenix lands, and when he’d been unable to do so, he’d followed us here.

I do not know what to think. Zuko admitted to abandoning his post. There is no greater disgrace to a Crab. This is the thing that my wretched father had done that had cursed my name before I was even born. Zuko was cryptic about his other quest, but was sincere in his belief that it was very important. Part of me was happy to see him and the other part felt that he should be executed for his dereliction of duty. I could only look to Ide Todo for wisdom, but Todo accepted Zuko back into the ranks, though he did leave me in command of the men. Pride may be one of the three great sins, but I must admit I feel great pride in the Lantern bushi. They are my brothers as much as any Crab I served with on the Wall. I am honored that Todo sama left me over them.

The next morning we convened a war council to make plans for our mission. We decided upon a small group of infiltrators. Too many men would be too easy to spot on the plains. We would hide in the mountains while the Yobanjin front passed by, then we would head north to the site where Hiruma Tadori had disappeared to search for clues. The Phoenix provided us with a guide who knew the lay of the land, Shiba Sougai. Ide Todo shocked me by volunteering to come along… I would lay down my life for Ide Todo in a heartbeat, but Yobanjin country is no place for a courtier. However, he’s the leader, and if he wanted to come, it was not my place to stop him. The rest of the group consisted of me, Kuni Magatsu, who carried Penance, his yojimbo Tamori Fubatsu, Todo’s yojimbo Kakita Chiyoko, Fosuta Zuko, Kitsuki Tsuze, who was by far our most perceptive tracker, and Kakita Fujo.  We left the Lanterns under the command of Akimi, folded in with the troops of the Fourth.

Shiba Sougai led us into the mountains where we were able to conceal ourselves and watch from high in the rocks as the Yobanjin horde passed below. They were a disorganized mob of fur clad barbarians, but there were thousands upon thousands of them. Never before had I seen an army so vast. They whipped and herded terrible beasts before them. At first I thought they were oni, but these were only animals, but each was as big as two or three oxen, with grey skin and gigantic horns on their long faces.

Among the army was a man, seemingly made out of flames. Even at our great distance he could be seen towering over the others. They call him the Son of Fire. Supposedly the Dark Oracle himself cannot cross into the Empire, but this creation of his certainly could. The Legion will have its hands full with an army like this. If the invaders fight as savagely as they did at Shiro Shinjo, then this will be a grave battle indeed. A Mantis army was on the way to reinforce Pale Oak castle, and I could only pray to the Fortunes that they would arrive in time.

Once the army had passed, we set out for Tadori’s last location. We were on horseback, and so far all of the Yobanjin we had seen were on foot, which gave us a mobility advantage, but outnumbered a thousand to one, we tried to remain unseen. The Yobanjin do not function like a Rokugani army. They have no supply chain. They forage and loot as they go. So at least the plains were remarkably clear.

At the site of the scout’s combat, Tsuze and Sougai found a trail of a man being dragged away to the north. It was our best bet, so we followed. If it was Tadori, he was still alive, but he was also being carried toward Yobanjin lands, and though they were on foot, they had a two day head start.

We rode as fast as we could follow the tracks. That night we spotted a campfire far to the north. The next day we found the trail went right through that camp. We were getting closer. The next night we spotted another campfire, but in the dark we couldn’t tell if the tracks led there or not.  Our quieter warriors were able to scout up relatively close to see inside. There were about a dozen Yobanjin, but they were unable to tell if they were holding Tadori or not.

We discussed what to do. I was in favor of attacking their camp during the night with the element of surprise. There was some disagreement, specifically if these were not the Yobanjin that were holding Tadori, then an attack would alert the entire army of our presence on the plains. If we took too many casualties then we would be unable to finish our mission. Despite that, I was adamant that we should attack. The decision fell to Ide Todo, who decided to be cautious and continue following the trail during the day. I had to bow my head and do as I was told.

We made our own lightless camp next to the trail, but not before Magatsu set an earth ward upon the most likely approaches. We were all very lucky that he did so, because the next morning just before dawn, some Yobanjin scouts came upon our camp.

However, these were not like any other Yobanjin we had seen before. The earth wards should have left them stunned and reeling, but these hardy foes shrugged the effects off. Their bodies were etched with a brutal map of burn scars. These brands gave them some form of dark magical power, and they were exceedingly difficult to kill. I beat one nearly to death with my tetsubo, and then flung his body as far away as possible with the killing blow. Sure enough, they explode in death like the others, only with far greater force.

Though I have walked through the ashen remains of their dojo, I have never met a Togashi monk in person. However, from my understanding of their mystic tattoos, these branded Yobanjin’s magic worked in a similar manner. Togashi can do all manner of mystical feats depending on which tattoos they wear, they can leap long distances, run like the wind, strike with flaming fists, harden their bodies like stone… Who knew what these branded Yobanjin were capable of?

Now that they knew we were here, there was no time to lose, so we saddled our horses and followed the trail.  Sure enough, it led right to the camp we’d spotted the night before. We rode as fast as we could, but there was a delaying force waiting to meet us.

We saw them at a long distance across the grass. There were eight of them, and when they saw us, they began running toward us with seemingly impossible speed. We tried to run our horses around them, but they were nearly as fast on foot as we were in the saddle.

It was then that we first saw the Branded Man. Every inch of his skin had been burned, seemingly melted away. He could burst into flame, shoot across the plains like an arrow, and reappear out of thin air. With a snap of his fingers he put up walls of fire to block our path. And worst of all, he somehow knew that Magatsu held the Shamesword.

Thus began a running battle. We would ride hard, wheel about and strike, and then continue on, trying to stay ahead of the man body of branded Yobanjin. Magatsu engaged in a magical battle, trying to keep the fires of the Branded Man off of us and our steeds as the rest of us tried to strike the Branded Man. As Magatsu’s wards struck the walls of fire, he would blast a path right through for the rest of us to follow. Zuko claimed much glory by riding directly at the Yobanjin and trying to distract them as if he was bearing the sword. However the Yobanjin did not fall for that decoy, but instead kept after Magatsu.

I rode by and struck the Branded Man four times with my tetsubo, and each strike should have been enough to cripple or kill an ordinary man. His body was pierced with multiple arrows, but they barely slowed him.

Eventually we were able to outpace the Branded Man. We rode for many hours, still following the trail, pushing our horses near to death, and only stopped once we were certain that we had put some distance between our forces. The horses were lathered with foam and exhausted, and as we crashed into our bedrolls, here on the border of the Emerald Empire, my thoughts were centered on my own failings. The others had been right. If we had attacked this creature’s camp the night before, he would’ve killed us all. My decision had been in error. The men dragging Tadori had already continued north. It would have been for nothing. My aggressive decision would have placed the entire mission in jeopardy.

I have no doubt we will meet the Branded Man again. He will die by my hand.

Exhausted, I finish this scroll. I pray the Fortunes hear my plea. Guide my hand, for tomorrow we cross into the wild.

#

To be continued next week, with one really big fight. http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/the-burning-throne-episode-34-the-all-mother/ 

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