Boot to the Head
|"Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek instead what they sought."|| It is the Day of the Late Monkey in the Month of the Dog, in the third Year of the Fox since the Crowing of Ti Lao.|
The run takes place in the Butterfly Kingdom.
Song Min Feng, the young ward of Tokai Takanata,is taking advantage of the absence of her guardian to disguise herself and wander covertly around the Silken Wings Circus. Xiao Fa, a monk of the Selfless Path, is taking advantage of Min Feng's expedition to wander covertly after her. He also has a feeling as if someone is watching him, but he cannot put his finger on what.
Min Feng wanders into one tent, which has a pair of tall poles and tightropes strung between them. No one seems to be in evidence, but she wanders around for a few minutes imagining the acrobats. Then, from outside the tent, she hears a tremendous thud, and a shout. She runs outside, to find Akimoto the Astonishing, an acrobat and tightrope walker, lying on the ground clutching his legs. Her immediate first aid roll indicates that both of his legs are broken.
Xiao Fa hurries up to the girl and the fallen acrobat, and inquires if they require assistance. Xiao Fa can confirm that Akimoto's legs are broken, and that healing hit points with first aid will not solve his problem. Akimoto suggests that someone find "the conductor, or Merit, or the snake lady," and Min Feng runs off to do so. It turns out that nearly everyone knows approximately where Li Merit, the stage manager and general organizer for the circus, was last seen, so she can easily follow the gradient to find him in the middle of several annoying things. Akimoto's legs being broken trumps his current trouble with the ropes, so he heads back after Min Feng, directing people to find Wu Shuyan, the circus's snake charmer and healer. (Unfortunately, she is out catching mice and gophers to feed to the snakes, so is not found).
Akimoto explains, somewhat confusedly, that he was... practicing, and... he must have fallen and crawled out here. Merit sends Xiao Fa to get wood for splints, and Min Feng to find the circus strongman. Min Feng is deemed too young to be likely to have any alcohol on her, but Xiao Fa has some leaves that Akimoto can chew as a painkiller. Merit interrogates Akimoto - was he practicing without a net? He says he wouldn't have... but... he was going to set up the net, and then... he was practicing. He thinks. He seems a bit fuzzy on the whole thing. Merit splints his legs, and then the strongman carries him to his own tent to rest, while Merit starts asking questions of everyone else.
Did anyone see or hear anything?
- Min Feng heard a loud thump outside the tightrope tent.
Like someone falling down, or someone smashing knees?
Can either of them walk a tightrope?
Xiao Fa checks Akimoto's chi - it is roiling strongly in his head. This is not a natural state; it seems likely that someone has deliberately stirred it up. Whether that was to make him break his own legs, or forget what actually happened to him, is not clear. Merit recalls another incident something like this - Venerable Deng, the father of a court arms instructor, Deng Zhi-Hao, also had a mysterious fall in which both his legs were broken. It seems plausible that Deng might be able to add to the investigation, as might Yang Shen-Ji, a sorcerer of the Butterfly Court and family friend of the Dengs.
Min Feng has met Shen-Ji, and Xiao Fa knows Zhi-Hao, so the two are sent off to find them. Happily, they are together having lunch, where the message is conveyed to them that Li Merit would like to see both of them at the circus. Zhi-Hao finds "Someone broke Akimoto the Astonishing's legs" more interesting than Shen-Ji does, but Shen-Ji is willing to accompany his friend to see what the fuss is about.
Merit interrogates Akimoto, to try and find out about his enemies. He doesn't think he has any, but he's very distracted by his doom - he'll probably never work again! Thank goodness he has an extra... er, he'll probably never work again. Merit's ears perk up - is whatever this nest egg is large enough that someone else would attack him to try to get it? He admits that he doesn't have it yet, he's just been treasure hunting. He's never met anyone related to the treasure, so he doesn't see why someone would attack him. Merit tries to get him to admit to more: "It's a good thing no one has it in for you, so I can just leave you here, alone, all by yourself...", but about at that point, Zhi-Hao and Shen-Ji arrive.
The possibility of this having been a sorcerous attack of some sort is broached to Shen-Ji. However, from the description, the answer seems to be "only in the way that anything having to do with chi can be described as resembling sorcery", and the young sorcerer pontificates a bit about True Sorcery and Other Manipulations of Chi. However, it does seem likely that whoever was behind the attack was not an ordinary thug, but someone with some talent in the Tao.
Zhi-Hao confirms that this incident is very similar to the one with his father - both his legs were broken, in a similar manner. And it was never clear to Zhi-Hao what the cause was - Venerable Father said he had fallen, but was never as certain-sounding as he ought to have been. Merit wonders if Zhi-Hao's Venerable Father was also a treasure hunter? Zhi-Hao strongly asserts that he was a blacksmith.
Shen-Ji takes a look at the tightrope tent, standing on a flying metal disk which takes him up to the level of the tightropes. Min Feng points out that she was in the tent when it happened, so he didn't fall from the tightrope. And Merit checks - there's a grass stain on the back of Akimoto's trousers, but not on his knees, so while he may have fallen backwards, he didn't crawl out of the tent. Merit asks around amongst the other circus folks - did they see anyone running away from the area? A couple of people saw someone in a grey cloak going by, but they didn't pay him much mind.
Zhi-Hao wonders if grey cloaks are indicative of a particular group of criminals - is there a Grey Cloak Gang? His experience with the seedy side of the Butterfly Kingdom (what little there is of it) is that people tend to dress in bright silks and generally pretty clothes, so people in grey cloaks are somewhat on the outskirts of society and probably trying to be inconspicuous. But it's not a uniform in any sense.
Merit goes back in to interrogate the patient. Soon, he suggests, the treasure will be gone. Maybe someone attacked him so that they can go get it instead. Akimoto is chagrined. Merit suggests that if he tells Merit where to find the treasure, they can split it. Akimoto is tempted, and demands an 80/20 split. After all, he did all the initial work following people around. Merit haggles him down to 60/40, and gets directions. About four miles north of the capital are a lot of foothills and then craggy hills. That's where the treasure is. That is, that's where the people who went in without boxes came out with big boxes, which Akimoto is sure must be treasure. One of them was tall and dressed in leather, and another looked kind of like Shen-Ji, but with a beard.
Merit briefs the rest of the group, and tells them to go off and get the treasure, or the bad guys, or whatever it is in them thar hills. He's not going - he has no experience with tramping around in the mountains! Nobody else admits to having that sort of experience either - Shen-Ji isn't even willing to admit any experience with being outside of a building, and wonders if it's possible to hire a carriage to take them. There is some scoffing at this - one doesn't find bandits or treasure in a carriage! (Though, really, are not bandits supposed to be a problem for travelers in carriages?)
Merit decides it's time to hire some local help, and goes off to meet a friend of his who has some ability to follow a trail on actual dirt.
While they're waiting for Merit to return, Zhi-Hao shows Xiao Fa how to hold his weapons to make his posture more effective. Xiao Fa performs acupuncture on Akimoto to aid in his healing. He does fairly well, and while this does not heal Akimoto's legs, it does greatly help him deal with the pain.
Merit returns with Mr. Han, a seasoned tracker, but Han says that he hasn't gone into those particular foothills since Venerable Deng's legs were broken. As it turns out, the two of them did a lot of tramping about in the hills there. Off the group goes to talk to Venerable Deng! Xiao Fa and Merit are introduced; Shen-Ji he already knows, and Min Feng is hiding, and though it looks like Venerable Deng notices her, he appears polite enough to not say anything.
Everyone is very curious why he went into the hills - was he hunting treasure? No, he would go to the old mine, and commune with the spirit of the metal there. It helped focus his smithing, as it was very strong in metal chi. He gives directions to the mine to Mr. Han. Merit wants to know who owns the mine. Venerable Deng doesn't think anyone owns it - it was played out a long time ago, and never had anything all that valuable, just iron and copper. Not the riches of the ages, just good useful ore, until it ran out. Merit doesn't believe in nobody owning land, but perhaps it's the King's land, as it's quite close to the capital.
Shen-Ji declares that he's hiring a carriage to take them as far towards the hills as they can get. Zhi-Hao objects. This is supposed to be a secret mission. After some argument, the group agrees that they can take a carriage, which will drop them about a mile away, and then continue up the road, so that if any bandits are watching, they will be Fooled by this Clever Ruse. Shen-Ji suggests leaving the carriage to wait for then for their return trip, but the rest of the group is unwilling to subject the driver to being attacked by bandits. He's paid for the round trip and sent back to the city.
After much hiking (led by Han), the party climbs to an overlook above the entrance to the mine. Shen-Ji has never done this sort of strenuous walking with bonus uphill and rocks before, so he eventually resorts to flying on his metal disc, before collapsing onto the ground at the top of the overlook.
- "I'm not designed for adventuring outdoors. I'm more about adventuring inside." -- Shen-Ji
Looking down, the group can see an occasional flicker of light coming from inside, and conclude that there's a sentry on duty just inside the mouth of the mine. Merit declares that, having determined that there are unauthorized people in the mine, they should head back to town and get the King's guards. Zhi-Hao and Xiao Fa would rather not turn around without seeing who is inside the mine (and possibly beating them up), so they declare that they will be going in. Eventually, after some more surveillance.
After a while longer, the group hears some talking from farther in the cave - though all they really hear is something about moving out. The group tries to decide how to follow the bandits in a way that doesn't involve leaping directly off the overlook and splatting on the ground below, but doesn't end up with a very good plan (other than Shen-Ji, who has his flying disk). The sentry, wearing a grey cloak, pokes his head out, looks around, and then goes back into the cave. After a minute or two, the flickering flame is no longer seen. Some more minutes pass, and then some more. Eventually, it seems likely that no one is leaving the cave. Did they get spirited away? Did they cloud mens' minds and go away invisibly? (Xiao Fa checks, and doesn't think that Zhi-Hao's mind is particularly clouded).
Everyone heads down the hill to the mine entrance (except for Shen-Ji, who waits then goes down on his metal disk when the other arrive so he can make sure that no one leaves the mine during the interim). Heading into the mine, there's a wooden palisade about ten feet in, locked with a chain and padlock.
- "It's locked, let's go. We should report to the King." -- Merit
Min Feng picks the lock, and in they go (taking the lock with them, just in case). Xiao Fa finds some torches, and Zhi-Hao (with actual Outside Experience) gets them lit. Once past the palisade, the mine is as described by Venerable Deng. At the bottom of the deepest shaft is a shallow pool, with a pentagon drawn on it in yellow. That is, the pentagon appears to be drawn on the surface of the water. Shen-Ji thinks that it's a ritual construct - but being drawn on water is rather novel!
Merit, searching around, finds a small box hidden behind a flat rock that might have been used as a table. It has several metal bands around it, and appears to have illegal opium (but no hidden compartments, much to everyone's disappointment). This seems like a great deal of magical trouble to go to to smuggle in one box of opium - the box is probably more like someone's personal stash. Other than the box, the cave looks a little bit lived in - there's some detritus and scuff marks.
Shen-Ji examines the chi of the area - the heart of the mine is a perfect spot for "Earth brings forth Metal", making it an excellent receiving point for sending metal (or perhaps metal-wrapped boxes!) here. The pentagon on the water is likely to be a tacked-on ritual component to allow it to send back somewhere else. The way this sort of thing works, there is probably a good sending point somewhere else, and the pair of locations are matched - this is probably not a universal receiving portal.
Shen-Ji begins to commune with the pool, letting his chi guide him. He doesn't know the ritual that they use, but can influence its chi somehow... which leads to three guys leaping out of the pool into the mine.
The three new people appear to be a sorcerer (in robes, with a beard), a guard (in leather armor), and a guy in a grey cloak. Since Shen-Ji is obviously the one in charge, Grey Cloak kicks him in the head. Zhi-Hao attacks Grey and the mage, and manages to knock one of the mage's pouches to the ground. Grey kicks Shen-Ji some more.
Merit points a wicked-looking crossbow at the guard, remarking "I bet you're not paid enough for this, and your medical benefits aren't very good. How about you and I sit this out?" The guard allows as that might be a good idea.
Shen-Ji gets kicked in the head again by Grey, and falls down. When Grey turns his attack to Zhi-Hao, the latter demonstrates his riposte, much to Grey's dismay. Xiao Fa demonstrates his Zhi-Hao-trained attack, though he's still really not a fighter. Zhi-Hao continues to pummel both Grey and the mage, and the mage is starting to look pretty shaky. He blocks one attack with a wall of earth, but at the end of the round, he throws up his arms and a little mound of earth pushes Grey into the guard. The guard superleaps into the pool of water, followed by the mage, and Grey looks furious.
- "Should we leap into the pool?" -- Min Feng
- "No!" -- Everyone else
- "There's more of them on the other side." -- Xiao Fa
- "I could disguise myself as Grey..."
Xiao Fa gets in the last punch to take Grey down. Zhi-Hao grabs the mage's fallen pouch, and also confiscates the grey cloak, in the hopes that it's magic. Searching Grey, they discover a tattoo, which Zhi-Hao recognizes as the sign of the League of the Hidden Hand. Xiao Fa, Merit, and Min Feng all give Shen-Ji some first aid, but he's too far down to wake up.
Zhi-Hao investigates the mage's pouch, and finds a yellow wax marking stick. Sure enough, it writes on water, and Zhi-Hao draws a big X in the pentagon in the pool, to foil any future attempts to use it to travel through.
With both Shen-Ji and Grey unconscious, it will be a bit of a tough journey back towards town, but the group sets off as best it can, carrying their wounded comrade and prisoner.
- "Now I bet you wish you had left the carriage." -- Derrick
There is much discussion on the return journey as to what should be done about the prisoner - take him to the circus? To the constables? To the King, personally? Conventional wisdom on this sort of criminal is that they would rather die than confess, but Grey doesn't seem to have a poisoned tooth or anything like that.
With some first aid, Grey is awoken before they get back to town. Merit does his best to be intimidating, and Grey does agree that yes, he's an enforcer for the Hidden Hand (hard to deny that with the tattoo). He kicks people in the head who go near the cave. But he does that all on his own initiative, and doesn't have any bosses who tell him anything. Merit interrogates him about who else he has kicked in the head (Derrick waves), and tries to confuse him about the name of his group, but doesn't get much more out of him.
After some more discussion about what to do with him (Merit likes the idea of killing him, but nobody else thinks that's the best idea), he is given to the palace guard (since the mine might be on Ti Lao's land) on Zhi-Hao's authority. Since his father was involved, they agree that they'll keep him informed about what they find out. If Akimoto the Astonishing cooperates with the authorities in resolving the matter, there may also be some compensation for him. (As it turns out, initial interrogation confirms that Grey works for the League of the Hidden Hand, and he will be imprisoned for his crimes. He was breaking the legs to people who interferred with the mine, and using his skills to kick them in the head so they forgot he did it. But no more about the master plan of the Hidden Hand is discovered.)Xiao Fa brings Shen-Ji to Master Kwan, who heals him enough to wake up, and considers whether or not his memories can be healed. Shen-Ji doesn't really remember the combat at all. They went to the cave, and then... maybe he fell down? Zhi-Hao also finally shows him the wax marker, which Shen-Ji notes will write not only on water, but on the other four elements as well. No one is very impressed by being able to write on wood, but writing on fire is pretty cool. Zhi-Hao really can't think of anything useful to do with it, though, so he allows as maybe the sorcerer ought to have the sorcery marker. Shen-Ji takes everyone out to dinner in celebration of his new toy.