|"This...whatever-it-was...has now been joined by another...whatever-it-is... and they are now proceeding in company. Would you mind coming with me, Piglet, in case they turn out to be Hostile Animals?"|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Bear in the Month of the Butterfly in the First Year of the Bear since the Ascension of High Warlord Ze|
The run takes place in the Forest of Chin, and the Tanzhe Plain
Xian reminds everyone of the briefing that Takanata has given them about what may be expected, and that Melina thinks it is likely to be coming to a head soon.
Melina drops by the briefing to note that she has sent Kasumi and Wei Han ahead to location scout on the Tanzhe Plain, since Kasumi can't enter the Forest of Chin at this time.
Yanyu mentions the ritual to forge a new Peace/Tranquility/Something of the Lake that she has been discussing with Namura Hayato. Xian scoffs in disbelief that the Worst Playwright Ever can be much help. Yanyu disregards this, and explains that in order to make the ritual sufficiently cool (especially if it includes being a tag for Dragon or an Omen of Thrones for Xiao Fa), it will need epic resources, some of which will need to be garnered in runs.
A messenger and a guard show up looking for Takanata, but the closest available is Xian. The messenger says he has a sensitive political message that cannot be given to just anyone (especially if Ringmaster Zhu is not around either) - he will tell his master that Lord Takanata is not available, and that some other way must be found to resolve his difficulties. Xian tries hard to convince the messenger to tell everyone else what the plot is, and Master Deng enquires who the messenger's master is, but he is holding out, until Yanyu asks if it is Lord Teng. He blanches - he didn't say that! He should leave before he spills any more secrets. The guard face-palms, and the pair hurry off again.
The party instructs the circus to head southeast through the Forest to the Tanzhe while they head north to Teng Keep. Xian protests - last time the party ditched the circus, they ran out of headliners! She is overruled - they'll be fine, the circus is big, it's not like there are ever bandits in the Forest, and the party will probably catch back up to them soon.
The party reaches Teng Keep, and Yanyu says that they're there to meet with Lord Teng, hinting that Takanata sent them. Lord Teng is familiar with the rest of the group, and is willing to give them his understanding of the current state of the Forest. Not all of the Great Houses are happy about the surrender; the Warlord thinks that an appropriate price was paid, but not everyone's vision is as broad. Things are somewhat unstable at present. The Warlord and his court are working to restabilize the balance of power and opinion, but in Lord Teng's opinion, the present time would be inauspicious for any incidents "between, or among, or against" any of the Forest Houses. If the balance can be maintained for the next few weeks, then things should be under control again.
In any event, what he had sent his messenger to do was warn Lord Takanata and Ringmaster Zhu against giving a private performance at any of the House keeps without giving one at all of them. And it would be best to avoid any additional entanglements with any of the Great Houses for a bit.
Will giving a performance in the Tanzhe Plain be a problem? Lord Teng has heard rumors that there are bandits there, but he is sure it is nothing that the party cannot handle. People ask for more details on the bandits. Officially, of course, they are bandits. Unofficially, many of them are from minor noble houses, or younger siblings of the major houses. In keeping with the current instability, it would be good if no accidents were to happen to any such, as that would just make things worse. People nod in agreement.
Business concluded, the party heads back to the south road through the Forest towards the Tanzhe.
Tracks, Tracks, and More Tracks
Meanwhile, Kasumi and Wei Han had headed down the Jasmine River on a barge. It was a rather odd river, from Kasumi's point of view, as it had only one bank, but the trip was fairly uneventful. They pass one larger barge laden with cargo, flying a red flag with a white circle in the center. The spear-carrying guards on the barge eye them suspiciously, but neither boat causes any trouble for the other.
The river barge docks at Buzhen Port in the Tanzhe, and Kasumi and Wei Han head to the Temple of Eternal Dream, where they hear that the troubles Master Bao mentioned have been getting worse, and there has been some actual fighting, not just vandalism. For potential circus sites, there is an area at the foot of the hills, or another, more auspicious area, at the convergence of the country's chi, somewhere near the middle. They scout out the middle (not that either of them can tell exactly where the convergence is), and then head back to the border with the (possibly existent) Forest of Chin, in time to meet the circus when it reaches the plain.
Wei Han warns Melina about the bandits that are supposed to be prowling around the Tanzhe. Melina says that there are normally bandits in the Forest, so when the rest of the party left them to cross by themselves, that was a little surprise. But they must have known what they were about, because there were no bandits at all!
Wei Han grumbles about the others leaving the circus behind unprotected, so he and Kasumi escort them down the caravan path in the direction of the central auspicious area, until they spot some smoke coming from the north. They direct the circus to circle the wagons and go into Defensive Formation while they investigate the smoke - they'll be back soon.
The smoke proves to be coming from several wagons - the remains of a caravan (C1) which has been looted and set afire. The defenders seem to have fled; the attackers seem to have been a large war band, the tracks of which lead off to the northwest. Kasumi and Wei Han follow the tracks until they reach the nonexistent country of the Forest; as they consider what to do at that point, they see another warband to the north, heading into the plains.
Meanwhile, the rest of the party has finished their visit at Teng Keep and has reached the Tanzhe Plain. They head along to the southeast road, until they reach the route from the river port and encounter a caravan (C2) flying a red flag with a white circle - several wagons piled high with crates of armor and arms. The merchants promptly throw down their flag and surrender. The party is baffled - why are they surrendering? The merchants are sure that the party members are bandits, and don't want to be killed. This seems very suspicious, and the group starts pressing them for details about this unwarranted surrendering. They claim to be from a small trade house in Jabon, which for insurance reasons, has instructed them to not engage with Dangerous Bandits. The loot looks pretty nice - the party briefly contemplates admitting to being bandits after all, but surrendering is clearly some sort of nefarious plot, which is more important than loot.
The caravan insists that they're fine and they can be left to finish travelling to the Arcade, where they're heading. Those with Sense Motive are pretty sure that the caravan does, in fact, want to be left alone to travel, and Shuyan thinks they're professional soldiers acting their hearts out, about as convincingly as Shen-Ji pretending to be a rich merchant. Yanyu volunteers the party's services to escort them to the border, lest any bandits happen to them. They protest that they're fine and don't need an escort, but Yanyu is not taking no for an answer.
Deng, Shuyan, and Shen-Ji head off to the southeast to check on the circus, and find it in emergency defenses mode. They tell the group that Kasumi and Wei Han told them to circle the wagons and watch out for enemies, before heading to investigate the smoke, from which they never returned.
As the rest of the caravan group heads northeast from the crossroads, people discuss what the heck is going on. Yanyu's guess is that the plan is to surrender to the bandits in order to furnish them with better equipment, and hanging around with them will thwart that. Xian considers another possibility, that it's a Q-wagon from the Plains of Honor to ambush the bandits once they actually show up. Yanyu and Xian and the others question them further about what they're really doing, and they trot out a story about taking a shipment of arms and armor to the House of Gainful Protection in the Arcade - possibly to the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival, or else the Port of Auspicious Voyage.
- "What a good cover! They have memorized two cities in the Arcade!" -Xian
Due to an unfortunately poor (but unspecified) negotiation, they have somewhat extraordinary insurance clauses in their contract. Hence, they are to offer no resistance, and surrender the loot rather than be killed. However, if they make it to the Harbor, they will be decently rich. Yanyu does discover that they are all single with no dependents and no interesting family. She gives them her matchmaker card and tells them to look her up at the House of Exuberant Interference.
Deng, Shuyan, and Shen-Ji tell the circus to be extra careful - they're going to go and investigate the smoke and see what happened to Kasumi and Wei Han, but they'll be back soon.
Xian, Yanyu, and Caravan C2 stick to the road, but to the north they see the remains of a caravan (C1) which has been looted and set afire. The merchants are somewhat puzzled that after having been promised an escort through bandit-infested territory, all the fighters have wandered off again leaving them with two pleasant but not very dangerous-looking women.
Meanwhile, Kasumi and Wei Han have headed north along the border and are following the warband. Kasumi sneaks forward to listen to their discussion - one of the bandits is referred to as Lady Xing (though she keeps telling people to not use names). The warband's scouts have determined that their rendezvous has the danger symbol out, so they won't be heading that way after all. They decide to head back to the Forest.
Back at the circus, Deng, Shuyan, and Shen-Ji have headed for the smoke. They reach the remains of a caravan (C1) which has been looted and set afire. They find the tracks of two people who reached the burned caravan afterwards, the tracks of the large mob which headed off to the northwest, and the tracks of various fleeing people. The trio follows the tracks of the mob, as that seems to be the most interesting.
Kasumi reports back to Wei Han about what she overheard, and the fact that the warband is coming their way. They decide that engaging it at this point is not advised, so they duck southwards to avoid it as it heads back to the Forest. Kasumi and Wei Han then head in the direction that the warband came from, looking for whoever has the danger symbol out that is presumably in cahoots with the bandits.
Deng, Shen-Ji, and Shuyan follow the tracks of the mob from the burned caravan to the border with the Forest; at that point, there are two people's tracks heading along the border. They follow those tracks to the northeast.
Kasumi and Wei Han sneak up on the caravan, and note that one, it's full of arms and armor, and two, Yanyu and Xian are sitting on it chatting with the merchants. They approach more visibly. Riders ho! Yanyu and Xian wave.
Shuyan, Shen-Ji, and Deng notice that there seems to be a large heavily armed warband riding straight at them. Shen-Ji thinks there's a mage among them, as well. They decide that engaging it at this point is not advised, so they also duck southwards to avoid it as it enters the Forest. Then, they finish following the rest of the tracks to join everyone else at Caravan 2.
- "How is it that nobody is guarding the circus?" -Wei Han
The party swaps stories, out of earshot of the caravan guards. In particular, it's important that nobody kill the lordlings masquerading as bandits, according to Lord Teng. Wei Han grumbles - bandits don't deserve to escape.
Wei Han recognizes one of the caravan guys from the barge on the river. Clearly they seemed competent and non-surrendery when they were on the river - he thinks that perhaps it's time to start intimidating and interrogating a bit harder to figure out what's going on. Others are less sure that they will confess their nefarious plots, and Yanyu thinks the most important thing is to get the arms and armor out of the picture so they can't be used by bandits. Also, not starting a war is probably best.
- "The important thing is that we get this caravan attacked by bandits now. Then we can see what happens." -Xian
- "Do you dislike them, Yanyu? I can just take care of them now." -Zhi-Hao
- "No! I don't dislike them! I just don't want their stuff looted." -Yanyu
Wei Han is also concerned about having left the circus alone for so long, but Yanyu promised that they would escort the caravan to the Arcade. So Yanyu and Deng stay with the caravan, sharing out duplicating paper, while everyone else heads back to where the circus was last. Which... is not where it is any longer. There are no wagon tracks or elephant tracks, just a lot of horse tracks running off in all directions. Huh.
- "Can you make elephants vanish, or just appear to vanish?" -Kasumi
- "How is appearing to vanish not vanishing?" -Xian
Bitter recriminations are swapped via the duplicating paper.
Kasumi examines the tracks carefully, and thinks some of the horse tracks are suspiciously deep. As... if they were carrying elephants. The deepest tracks went southeast, towards the Temple. The group heads that way, and does in fact catch up to the circus at the foot of the Temple hills.
Apparently, after three separate parties headed to investigate the smoke and never returned, they decided to punt to somewhere safer, with a bit of assistance from Horse.
- "Where are Yanyu and Deng?" -Melina
- "We left them with our only clue about what's going on, with instructions to make sure that it leaves the country." -Xian
Xian figures out how to find the Mystical Center of the Plain, and herds the circus there. Deng and Yanyu finish escorting the caravan to the border; the merchants thank them for their assistance and head towards the Harbor. Deng follows them stealthily for another half an hour, to see if they turn back, but they don't. They finally return to the central spot, very late, and everyone heads to bed, tired and not necessarily very enlightened about what is going on.
Bandits and Caravan, Redux
The circus outriders are dispatched to invite people from the Tanzhe and also from the Forest to the circus performances in three days' time. Xian instructs them to show no favoritism and only spread word generally - don't issue any specific invitations at keeps. Wei Han instructs them to stay together in groups, and then he and Kasumi head with the outriders going towards the Forest. But since Kasumi can't go into the Forest, once the outriders have vanished into the mysterious non-country, Kasumi and Wei Han prowl around looking for warbands.
Sure enough, a warband eventually rides out of the Forest, and heads to intercept a caravan coming from the Arcade.
Kasumi and Wei Han speed ahead to the caravan, and tell the caravan that they'll defend them from the bandits, and that they should stand fast and not flee. Unfortunately, the rest of the party is back at the circus and hours away (though they get a duplicating paper note, so they start heading north), so Kasumi and Wei Han and the caravan guards are badly outclassed by the warband of twenty, which seems to have a lot of competent fighters.
Battle is engaged!
Wei Han grabs one of the bandits, who appears to be a monk.
- "He says 'You face a brother of the <muffle>-ending Path. Release me!'" -Mike
- "What? Offending Path? Is that a thing?" -Everyone
- "Ascending Path, I said!" -Mike
- "Oh, like Master Zhou! I throw him at that other guy." -Wei Han
The archer shoots Wei Han, but does not drop him. One of her comrades mocks her.
- "He still stands! You're losing your touch, Xing!"
- "No names!"
The mage casts "Spear of Shen-Ji" (also known as Iron Arrow) at Kasumi, leading to some grousing. Wei Han, having been cautioned about not killing nobles, sticks to using Soft Touch to drop his foes without killing them, and Kasumi does a lot of grabbing noses and dodging.
Wei Han spends five karma to have the party arrive in the nick of time rather than too late (the end of the round) and Deng has his own ways of arriving dramatically at a combat, so he gets there in phase seven. Since his non-lethal combat options are less efficient, he starts running people through.
One of the bandits (Tank) is nearly as defensive as Wei Han, and the bandits also have a healer, and a Deng-like bladesman. Once Wei Han has grabbed the tank, though, the bandit has a hard time doing much. The archer demonstrates that she has an arrow to fit any circumstances, and fires slippery oil into the grab reducing it substantially.
Xian, still trying to figure out how it all fits together, tries to sense the deepest connection between the caravan leader and the bandit leader. It seems to be that They Fight. That seems... more straightforward than she was expecting. She realizes with a start that the reason this combat is confusing is that this caravan is real.
In the second turn, the tide of battle turns; Deng has killed most of the non-named bandits, and two of the named bandits (Monk and Mage) are down. Wei Han tells them to surrender, but being hung as bandits doesn't have much of an upside.
Kasumi, worried about the 'don't let any nobles die' warnings, gives Monk a healing potion. He stands and bows to her, naming her an honorable enemy, and attacks everyone else on the map (with his one hit point). Deng does another sixty points of damage to him, and he falls again, harder.
Deng offers to let those who are still alive leave. The bladesmaster takes the deal, but only if they can take their wounded comrades.
- "Duh." -Kasumi
The bandit healer keeps the monk and the mage from dying, and they flee, leaving nineteen dead bandits and six unconscious. Five of the unconscious bandits are hired thugs - the bladesman missed that one of the lordlings was only unconscious, not dead.
The caravan guards, astounded at not being dead or without their cargo, hug Wei Han enthusiastically and promise to help him overthrow the Empire any time he calls on them. They "discover" that one of the cases of wine was damaged in the battle, and so can no longer be sold, so they pass out bottles for everyone.
The one non-thug prisoner, Hoong Tsuyu, is questioned. He's kind of hysterical, and didn't know a lot about the plan, but he can identify the dead blue mooks. Three of them, in addition to him, were from minor Forest Houses (Yap, Ning, and Mar), and three of them weren't even minor nobles. They were some sort of advisor to Lady Xing, but he doesn't know about what. The black mooks were all hired thugs, paid in booty and equipment.
Shen-Ji wants to know how high up in House Tsui the authorization came from, but Hoong denies any official authorization from anyone. They are simply True Patriots of the Forest, following Lady Xing, the truest of patriots. So... would Lady Xing pay to ransom him back? He's not allowed to say her name, but... maybe.
Shen-Ji takes charge of Hoong, in order to redeem him for valuable cash prizes, and the other prisoners are turned over to the local authorities, where they will likely be hung as bandits.==Puttering==