|"The conquerors are kings; the defeated are bandits."|| It is the day of the Early Butterfly in the Month of the Butterfly in the second Year of the Magpie since the ascension of the High Warlord Ze.|
The run takes place in the Forest of Chin.
The Silken Wings Circus has just finished the performance schedule in the City of Spires, so it packs up to head through the Forest of Chin, in the direction of the Warlord's Throne. A few hours along the highway, the trailing end of the circus reports to Merit and the Ringmaster that the circus is being overtaken by a fast-moving wagon and escort riders flying Dragon Army (SouthWest command) flags.
Merit starts moving the larger circus wagons off the highway, to avoid blocking the road, and Wei Han and Cai Wen go to flag down the wagon. The captain of the riders says that they need to get through, and Wei Han identifies the large wagon as a medical wagon suitable for carrying wounded soldiers.
Are there wounded soldiers in the wagon? Can the party help? They have all sorts of healing skills! The captain is remarkably un-keen on the idea - no magical healing allowed, though First Aid would be okay. Everyone looks askance at this, but the healers pop into the wagon to take a look. There are several people with broken arms or legs, one guy who has red spots, and several people down quite a bit on hit points but no wounds, as if poisoned. Merit identifies one of them as poisoned with drift poison, so the wagon should make sure to not get into a fight.
- "Don't do anything dramatic; don't use any special herbs or magic. Just first aid." -Captain
- "Why?" -Everyone
- "We'd like to give them the best possible care." -Merit
- "If they're given the best possible care, they'll all get better and the mission will fail." -Captain
Well, this sounds particularly nefarious. Is the Dragon Army trying some sort of smallpox-to-the-Indians trick? But the healers make some first aid rolls and medicine rolls to help the patients feel more comfortable.
Wei Han talks to the soldiers providing escort, and they posture happily at each other. They're from the South Wall, where sometimes the dark chi gets out of hand, and sometimes the swamp gets out of hand. It's not like the North wall, when you can see for miles. Wei Han says the South Wall doesn't ever have snow where you can't even see your hands in front of your face, let alone the snow monsters. A good time is had by all. Between Wei Han and Cai Wen chatting up the guards, and Shuyan and Merit chatting up the healer, they eventually figure out what's going on - the soldiers are the most high-status wounded soldiers in the SouthWest Command (so, related to various nobles), and they're being taken to the Hidden City as part of a push for more support. In particular, now that they're trying to defoliate along the South Wall, the swamp is fighting back and a lot of people are coming down with various survival-related injuries.
The guy with red spots is the most worrisome - how contagious is the disease? What is the disease? Takanata gets a niggling feeling that it's something bad, not just a random pox. Merit sequesters himself in his library cart for a while, and then returns to identify the disease as Raging Mumps, which is really bad. Everyone who talked to the guy who has it (Merit, Shuyan, and Takanata, plus the Dragon Army guys) will need to build a steam tent to appease the mumps spirits.
The group argues about whether they should help escort the wagon - on the one hand, they're likely to be good protectors. But on the other hand, what if ninjas attack the party? That will bring the guy with drift poison into combat time and could be dangerous. Merit gives the doctor a vial of drift poison antidote, just in case. Takanata considers both options, and thinks that it's safer for the soldiers if the party goes with them. The circus can't keep up, though, and the captain doesn't want to slow down for the circus, so the riders agree to head out with the medical wagon and wait for the circus when they camp for the night and make a steam-cleaning tent.
After another hour of travel, the group reaches a section of Imperial Highway which is barricaded by the Dragon Army Construction Battalion, which is tearing up a portion of the road to rebuild it. A low section is being rebuilt to be higher, with some low railings. Everyone eyes it suspiciously - this could be part of the chi-changing road plot - but Takanata doesn't think that this will significantly change the chi flow.
Merit recalls the road that is being used as the detour - the circus takes it reasonably often, and it often has someone trying to shake them down.
After the group has been traveling on the detour road for a little while, some of the more perceptive party members notice that there are people camouflaged in a number of the trees flanking the road. Wei Han shouts at them that they will regret it if they start anything, and while he does not intimidate them enough to prevent an attack, he scares off their backup reinforcements.
Getting at the bandits to attack them proves a little difficult, and a number of the Dragon Army soldiers take substantial damage as the group tries to climb into trees. One fall out of a tree demonstrates that the areas under the trees are carefully arranged with sharp stones and other traps.
Cai Wen is clearly the leader of the group, as his status (with the Butterfly Talisman) is substantially higher than anyone else's, so the bandits fire arrows tipped with an anti-resolve poison at him, and call on him to surrender with ever-increasing numbers to resist. Sadly for them, Cai Wen is pretty good at dodging mooks, and manages to avoid surrendering for a turn, and then uses his "cheat in minigames" to reset their surrender number.
Merit recruits one of the bandits, who admits to being on the "salve", some sort of combat enhancer.
When the reinforcements fail to arrive, and Shen-Ji starts blowing up trees, the bandits decide to start fleeing. Most of them succeed, though Wei Han taunts the leader into staying around to be killed, and all of the bandits who went down are dead by the time that the combat is over. Searching the dead bandits finds that there is a nasty black goo smeared under their arms, which is probably the "salve". There is also a purse of li (which is given to the Dragon Army), and half of a scroll, which appears to have been intentionally torn:
Merit thinks that the first house is the House of Judicious Increase. Oh, so it's a bank transaction, not a direct bribe. The second house is possibly House Tsai, people decide.
The bandits are buried - exactly six feet down, to appease the raging mumps spirits - a little ways down the road, and the caravan continues on.
Once the group has stopped for the night, the doctors set up a steam tent for appeasing and purifying the raging mumps spirits. Master Zhou and Wei Han both spot ninjas, who disappear again, but Cai Wen manages to corner his ninja, who is promptly killed by the others. Master Zhou buries the ninja with his katana, as an honorable opponent.
Cai Wen checks the score - the score for Monkey and Magpie have not changed (-2 and -1 respectively), but the score for Butterfly has been eliminated.
As people cycle through the steam tent, soldiers begin to appear from the woods and surround the camp. Luckily, the party does not immediately fall upon them, and they prove to be soldiers from House Mong, whose lands these are. Takanata warns them away from the Raging Mumps being cleansed in the steam tent, and the soldiers warn them about the bandits. The group checks - are there rewards for killing bandits? There are, but you have to bring their heads to House Mong. Hmm. Going and digging them up doesn't seem worth the several li each the reward would be, plus that might enrage the mumps spirits again. House Mong has heard of the Black Salve, and suggests using Cure Poison before taking someone down, if the party wants to take them alive. House Mong doesn't have an antidote, but they think they might be able to come up with something if someone were to bring them some un-applied salve.
Do the soldiers know where the bandits are? Takanata has drawn some prophetic art of the maps, so everyone suspects that there is a tower involved. House Mong confirms that they have in fact holed up in a tower, on House Zhen lands, so Mong soldiers can't go after it, and House Zhen denies that there are any bandits there in the first place. On the other hand, random circus nobles just passing through might be able to go after bandits without it seeming to be an invasion from a neighbor. House Mong offers them several li per head, and a 20 li bonus if they get a sample of the salve before it turns black?
- "All vastly addictive combat drugs are black-colored, everyone knows that." -Mike
Since the road has been torn up, there has been a lot more bandit trouble. Oddly, the secret to beating the bandits, at least for House Mong, is to randomly bump into them - then they sometimes win. If they send out a hunting party, it never returns until the people involved are ransomed. Ahah, that must be because the bandits get the leader to surrender. The group wonders if the House Mong soldiers know who sent the road crew, but they think that the Dragon Army just does what it likes and cares nothing for the people they inconvenience.
The party contemplates whether going and fighting another ambush would draw enough bandits away from the tower that it's worth doing as a "divide and conquer" strategy. On the other hand, if there's more than one group of ambushers, it won't really help, and going back to a previous map to grind the battle again would be silly.
- "They'd probably drop the same half of the note, not the one we want."
Takanata peruses the maps left to go through, and shows the Mong soldiers the flowers that seem to be prevalent all over the countryside outside the tower. The soldiers say that the big pink flower hedges are poisonous, but they don't know what the smaller flowers are. Also, Takanata notes that there seem to be some interesting desks full of papers, which people should grab.
The group stops to argue about which side of the dispute they should be on. House Mong kind of beat up House Tsai and took some of their land, which is why they're in charge of the road now. Master Zhou thinks that the party should be loyal to House Tsai, which is Su-Yin's family, but Merit is having none of it - all Su-Yin ever did was defend the Butterfly King against demons, which was so long ago that it hardly counts.
One possibility would be to arrange to have Merit captured, so he can get the bandits to gloat over him and say what they're up to. And he can bring the Monkey Talisman, so he can escape again. But what if they take the Monkey Talisman away from him? That could be bad.
Trudge Trudge Trudge
Merit does do a preliminary scouting mission, disguised as a bandit, to see if he can make contact with the guy he recruited. He doesn't find the bandit in question, but the disguise seems sufficient to keep him from being challenged near the tower. So that suggests a plan: disguise everyone (except Takanata, who can join them later) as bandits except for Wei Han (who has too much armor to be plausible), and Cai Wen, as a high-status captive.
- "First thing we do is tie up everyone with a Talisman." -Cai Wen
The disguised group gets about halfway to the tower, when they bump into a bandit patrol.
- "Who'd you get?"
- "Huh, I would have thought those guys we sent after the circus would have gotten him. Did he run away?"
Merit manages a fast-talk roll sufficient to convince them, and they get sent further along towards the tower. However, as the group reaches the huge door to the tower, the bandits take a closer look at everyone.
Shen-Ji passes, but they are a little more suspicious of Master Zhou, who is a lot older than the average bandit. Merit claims that he has brought his uncle along; it's a kind of inexplicable excuse, but enough of a fast-talk roll makes it seem plausible. And, wait, who is Shuyan? There aren't any female bandits. Oh, well, Merit also brought a friend. Shuyan bats her eyes at him and unbuttons a couple of buttons of her bandit costume. Indeed? The door guard lets them in, but says Shuyan should come with him, and the rest of them can take the prisoners in.
When the group reaches the inner door, Merit tries his excuse of "I'm new, I'm part of the arrangement with House Tsai", but it doesn't seem to be flying as well, so Cai Wen tells everyone to "get 'em!". This comes as something of a shock to the bandits, especially when Shen-Ji sets the map on fire.
Downstairs, Shuyan's bandit hears a large "whoooof" from the firestorm.
- "What was that?"
- "Why would you care?" -Shuyan
He does eventually go upstairs anyway, where things have turned into a big messy fight. Shuyan pokes around in the room that Takanata indicated had interesting papers, but alas, it now has less interesting ashes.
Elsewhere, Takanata considers his Connections reading, that suggests that helping House Tsai is somewhat pro-Butterfly. Hmm.
Quite a lot of fighting later, most of the bandits on the firestormed floor have fallen, but there is a separate set of guys upstairs who are guarding the stairs. Cai Wen tries to get the bandits to surrender, but they aren't keen on being captured and questioned.
Takanata joins Shuyan in the study, and calls upon the echoes of the past. He sees a vision of the bandit leader from the first ambush, aruging with one of the soldiers upstairs.
- "You must give us more of the salve."
- "You get more when you need it."
- "Then you must give us more money! We still have not been paid!"
- "At year's end it is yours."
- "You have given us no surety of that."
- "Here, you may have half of the payment letter. Once the year is over, the other half is yours."
Master Zhou, who is still in the "loyal to Su-Yin's house" faction, dashes upstairs.
- "I am Master Zhou of the White Pagoda, former teacher of Tsai Su-Yin, and I say it is time to stop this fight!"
He burns his reputation, and gives the upstairs leader an action. The latter shuts the stairway door on the bandits, and bows to Master Zhou.
- "You must chill! You must chill! You have been thrown under the cabbage cart and you aren't getting out! You must chill!" -Cai Wen to one of the bandits left below
Merit convinces the remaining few bandits that they might as well just run away, since they're mostly dead and the upstairs seems to have turned on them.
- "I give Black One an action." -Merit
- "Um... he dies." -Mike
- "Augh!" -Merit
Upstairs, the House Tsai guys want to know what happened to Tsai Su-Yin. Master Zhou says she is on a long quest to balance the Yin and the Yang, the healing and the attack. But perhaps they can assist instead? Everyone gathers upstairs to talk.
The House Tsai guy tells a tale:
House Tsai was high in the esteem of the High Warlord, until House Mong started encroaching upon their territory. The Warlord decided to favor House Mong for some reason, and gave them time to prepare for a battle, which they won, and so they were granted land and the road. But they were too haughty in their victory, and annoyed the High Warlord, so he told them that they had a year to prove that they could hold the road and protect it. House Tsai was ordered to not directly attack House Mong during this year, as they had already lost the battle. So... House Tsai bribed the Construction Battalion to repair the Imperial highway, and these are the exiles and criminals of House Tsai, who will be disavowed if found, who have hired mercenaries to act as bandits. They know that banditry is dishonorable, but they have been prohibited from behaving more honorably and killing their enemies more directly. What else are they to do?
Takanata reads his I Ching, and notes that he is loyal and honorable, but his honor and loyalty will avail him not, until the new Warlord Tsai leads him back.
Why do they care so much about Su-Yin, anyway? Well, she's the heir, and she was much loved. Her younger brother carries the duties of the heir until she returns.
The Tsai guys ask after the monk Xiao Fa, who they heard was Su-Yin's current teacher, on the Isle of Beauty. But when they went to search for them there, they were nowhere to be found.
Cai Wen thinks that the Tsai/Mong scoreboard is Tsai 12, Mong 19. (Tsai is behind by a touchdown).
Is there anyone else nearby who might be better equipped to attack House Mong? Well, Mong is pretty new - they're just two jumped-up brothers who impressed the Warlord and declared themselves a House. They don't really have any enemies other than Tsai. Older houses might be amused to see Mong trip and fall, but they might also be amused to see Tsai smacked down, as Tsai is often ambitious.
House Teng does kind of owe the party, having been rescued from demonic imprisonment by Takanata, so maybe they could be called on to lean on Mong. Teng is old and respected, but tends to not be ambitious, so they mostly remain neutral.
But... why does the party care? Merit says that Butterfly led them here, so it's worth caring about. Master Zhou says because changing the leadership of the bigger, more ambitious houses can change the country; since the Forest of Chin is one of the more problematic countries, that's worth doing.