|"It is not the knowing that is difficult, but the doing"|| The run takes place in the Month of the Late Bear in the Twelfth Year of the Bear since the Regency Council was formed|
The run takes place at the Wall and in the North
Shen-Ji, Wei Han, Master Deng, and Cai Wen meet at the Winter Academy, having been invited to a scouting/training mission into the North. Sergeant Golden Root meets them, explaining that Headmaster Hong has asked her to accompany the group on their expedition. She believes that there are three locations which may have actionable intelligence.
She has also been told by Master Hong to stress that this is a reconnaissance mission. All three of the facilities are likely to be significantly staffed, and would take an army unit to take out. Her belief is that trying to take out any one of them with a small group (even a highly talented group such as the ones here) would likely end up with everyone dead. Except her, of course, since she is a survival specialist, and will not wait around if the party provokes a combat.
Then, there is a knock at the door. This proves to be a Dragon Army messenger, who has a priority dispatch for Golden Root. She reads it, and curses. She apologizes to the group, as they will have to reschedule. She has been reactivated and called to the local Dragon Army HQ on an urgent priority mission which she cannot get out of.
Wei Han says they'll walk with her to the Dragon Army HQ so she can brief them on the locations they need to scout. Master Deng, suspecting a plot, asks what sort of mission she's been summoned for. She says the message didn't have details, but apparently a priceless Dragon Army asset has gone missing in an area somewhat nearby their intended targets. The party asks if they can come with her. She says somewhat evasively that she's sure she wouldn't be authorized to bring civilians. Okay, understood... but can they come with her?
The group tries to think exactly what would count as a Priceless Dragon Army asset. Is this a person asset or an object asset? From the mission description, it sounds like a person asset. But this sort of mission, Golden Root thinks, is kind of extraordinary. This isn't deploying a standard rescue force - they called up the retired person who knows that area, and then told them not to talk about it.
Maybe the Obsidian Warlord secretly went down, but they can't tell anyone he's missing lest the Army's morale crash? Or maybe Fa Mulan, Deng wonders. Well, the party wouldn't mind so much if the Obsidian Warlord was missing but Mulan is worth rescuing.
Wei Han says that even without knowing who the target is, he's willing to come. Golden Root stresses that she still not authorized to bring civilians. Well, perhaps the civilians can sneak after her.
Once the group reaches the Northwest HQ, they find that the camp is doing a lot of extra paperwork checking of people who come in. Master Deng can easily get in as a retired Dragon Army trainer, but Shen-Ji and "Lord Zhu and his bodyguard" are a harder sell. Luckily, Lord Zhu is very persuasive.
The gate guards explain that the camp is in the middle of a routine security drill. Thus, there will be certain security restrictions. Unfortunately they will not be able to leave the base until the drill has ended. The guards emphasize that this is, of course, a completely standard security drill, but that's obviously not the case.
- "As they say, normal times call for normal measures." -Cai Wen
Master Deng and Golden Root go in to Commander Hsiao's tent. Deng introduces himself, and Commander Hsiao is clearly contemplating throwing him out again but decides against it.
- "Do you remember the Black Ravine?" -Commander Hsiao
- "I try to spend my time forgetting it." -Golden Root
Commander Hsiao isn't willing to give many more details - beastmastery is not what it was, and the potential to be compromised is serious. But they have lost an irreplaceable Dragon Army asset, and it needs to be recovered. The asset went in to aid a scouting mission prior to the coming invasion, and their last known location was heading towards the Black Ravine.
- "I don't know if I can go back, sir." -Golden Root
- "You must! The fate of the Empire rides on it. " -Commander Hsiao
- "Can I take Captain Deng and his men with me?"
- "Top men." -Deng
Golden Root allows that Captain Deng's companions, in their own way, are as competent as she is. Commander Hsiao agrees, though everyone must be sworn to secrecy.
Deng asks what the asset's mission was, in order to better find her. Commander Hsiao says the asset was sent in to retrieve a scouting mission, and either he didn't notice the pronoun, or was carefully not reacting to it either way. Since the Commander was going to send a strike team of five with Golden Root, Master Deng asks if they can have one extra person. So Commander Hsiao summons Corporal Li Jang from Special Operations.
The party is issued standard scouting passes, and some quasi-Northern garb. Golden Root has further advice on which of the costume pieces to wear - don't take the furry hats, those are more common in the Northeast.
So... can Golden Root tell them about the Black Ravine? She clearly doesn't want to talk about it, but says that the locals think there was once a great river of blood there - now it's a deep carved out valley that provides a security buffer between the area near the Wall and the farther reaches to the north. While you are on the top, you're a sitting duck. Climbing in is bad. Getting out is nearly impossible.
She also admits, a little ashamedly, that if she has to go into the Ravine, she might have trouble keeping it together. Corporal Li rolls his eyes at this, clearly not impressed by the dangerousness of the Black Ravine.
When the time comes to take the whole group over the Wall, Master Deng proves to be sufficiently persuasive that it isn't a problem. The group heads north, watching for any signs of missing Irreplaceable Assets. As they keep going, Golden Root begins to get somewhat nervous, and she says that just over the next ridge is the Black Ravine. She begins to brief people on the tactics of the Ravine - it's hard to get in, and even harder to get out. She ‘s about to suggest something... but then there is a clamor from the other side of the ridge, as if a chase is in progress.
People head up to the top of the ridge, and look into the Ravine. Sure enough, there is Fa Mulan, running along the ravine away from a much larger force of undead, and several Northern mages. Those who can see ghosts also note that the floor of the ravine is pretty much wall-to-wall with invisible deathy spirits.
- "Who is it?" -Corporal Li
- "Can't say. " -Cai Wen
The group begins to cautiously descend into the ravine. Shen-Ji has his floating disc, which helps a lot in getting down the cliffs. Mulan gets ahead of the undead enough that she tries to climb one of the cliffs up towards the party, but fails and falls back in. Shen-Ji puts up a wall, boxing in some of the undead, and the trailing mages. However, the necromancer among them summons a new group of undead from the ghostly presences and the bones on the ground of the Ravine - and places them beyond Shen-Ji's wall.
The battlemage demonstrates why the Black Ravine is so terrifying, as he shifts the ground and cliff out from under the party, bringing those who are on the ledges down to the level of the undead, and increasing the height of the cliffs that need to be scaled to escape.
Shen-Ji memorizes the spell the battlemage is using, but it turns out that it is not a general terrain reshaper, but is activating shticks of the Black Ravine. Cai Wen manages to get out of the new ravine, and Wei Han tosses Mulan one end of a rope, letting her get onto a ledge, but she proves unwilling to flee while other party members are still fighting zombies, so she heads over to where Deng is to protect him.
Then, Corporal Li attempts to backstab Mulan. Wei Han takes the attack, but is poisoned, and then takes Li down. Master Deng continues to chop zombies, as the necromancer deconstructs and reconstructs them to get them past Shen-Ji's wall. Shen-Ji continues to pelt the three mages with iron arrows, while the others whittle down the zombies.
Finally, two out of three mages have fallen (and the third flees), and the zombies are mostly dealt with. Wei Han looks for the poison antidote, and Cai Wen finds it in Li's belt buckle. The two fallen mages begin to sink into the ground of the Black Ravine, and Shen-Ji only manages to salvage one interesting item - an iron token with Torghut runes, labeling him a Guardian of the Black Ravine.
- "What are you doing here?" -Mulan
- "Rescuing you!"
Golden Root is pretty sure that their orders were to bring her back, but everyone else thinks they should scout out the Places Of Interest first, and Mulan also isn't going home until she can find and rescue her companions, which is why she was up here to begin with. Her party had been sent north on a scouting mission, but when they didn't return, nobody seemed to think they were high priority to rescue. So Mulan snuck across the Wall and went after them.
The group heads for the first location. It looks like a farm, but the fences are really high and the livestock appears to be giant wolves. There are also beastmasters walking around, training the wolves and casting buffing spells on them, and so on. So... was that the actionable intelligence? Cai Wen notes that the scoreboard is still zero out of three, so probably not. They'll probably have to sneak further in to find out what is up. Master Deng thinks about the hidden risks - well, wolves have scent sense modes, so stealth alone might not be sufficient. Maybe with something to mask their scent...? At Golden Root's suggestion, the group finds the results of some dire walkies, and Deng applies it to himself before sneaking in.
There's a small farmhouse that borders the fenced-in wolf area, and Deng searches it. He finds a list of chores, a kitchen, some cots, and a desk with some papers. Then he hears someone approaching from the wolf area, and flees with the most important-looking of the papers.
Mulan brings the papers from Deng to Cai Wen, who can't bear the smell. They include a schedule of supply drop offs, and they make reference to the three Beastmaster areas nearby.
- Beastmasters, Dire Wolves
- Beastmasters, Tunnelers
- Beastmasters, Men
The third entry matches the location that Mulan's friends were going to scout, so they head there next. From a distance, it looks like a Dragon Army prison camp. That is, it looks like a prison camp run by the Dragon Army. In the North. How odd. Mulan does spot Chien-Po in the camp - he's pretty obvious.
Everyone discusses potential plans. Can they forge some prisoner transfers and bring people south? Are the prison guards actually following Dragon Army rules? Or are they actually behaving like Northerners? In which case, maybe they can get some prisoners transferred for live-fire exercises with the dire wolves.
The sneakier party members sneak forward. Listening to the guards talk, it sounds like they are all beastmastered, and they're waiting for the Beastmaster of Men to return and turn the current prisoners. The group gets ready to head in and bluff a prisoner transfer - only at the last minute do they realize that they aren't all trying to run the same bluff. Some people are doing the "pretend to be Dragon Army" con and some are doing the "pretend to be Northerners" con. Happily, they figure this out before actually trying to do both of these at the same time, but then they have to decide which plan is better. Does being beastmastered mean that you think you work for the Beastmaster of Men? Or does it mean that you think that you're in the Empire and you're guarding Southern prisoners? Or something else entirely?
Cai Wen considers doing the plan where they pretend to be Dragon Army, and contemplates when it goes off the rails. Pretty soon, as it turns out. These guys don't actually think they work for the Dragon Army anymore. They think they work for a new and improved boss.
Okay, Plan B is pretending to be Northeners from the Dire Wolf camp here to requisition some bait for direwolf live-fire training. Cai Wen drops some karma into refreshing his shtick, and thinks that this will go a lot better.
- "If you get your bluff roll high enough they might not even ask for the password." -Mike
It turns out that the guards aren't actually very happy about giving over their prisoners to being dire wolf food. The beastmaster of men is supposed to be here soon, and they will be very good fighters, once they see the light. Cai Wen demands three prisoners, and then spots a Dragon Army captain, and tries to add him to the requisition. The captain doesn't want anyone take him to be dire wolf bait, and starts inciting trouble, but Cai Wen manages to get out with Mulan's three friends before there is a full scale prison break.
- "Make sure the dire wolves actually eat them. We can't have any security breaches."
Mulan's friends are grateful for the rescue, and explain how it's kind of a Ponzi scheme of soldier turning. They beastmaster some soldiers, and then those soldiers lead more soldiers on "scouting missions" into ambushes to be captured.
They know where the coming invasion is going, but not the exact date.
The third location is the Tunneler camp, which looks like a farm but without the livestock, just some stone houses, and very unstable dirt. The group waits until night, and then Shen-Ji flies in with his disc, wearing Cai Wen's spare ninja costume. He tips the Demon of Sloth out of his seven-demon box, and the demon keeps the guy in the farmhouse asleep while Shen-Ji searches.
The time frame is discovered: in two days.
Putting all of their actounable intelligence together, they determine that the overall, the plan is:
- Dire Wolves: Northern Arcade
- Beastmastered Men: around Bitterwind
- Tunnelers: Stone Drum