Dire Beasts And Where To Find Them
|"While keeping a tiger from the front door, the wolf comes in at the back."|| The run begins in the late Month of the Dog in the Tenth Year of the Dog since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place in the southern Arcade
Reporting to the Commander
Xiao Fa spends some time contemplating the various eccentricities and oddities of the other party members. In particular, Yanyu - like Shuyan's snakes - thinks that Shuyan should go back to Daizhou, and this is somewhat concerning. He thinks a while about that with chi mastery and True Chi Mastery, and starts constructing metaphors about the difference between making a magical effect, and making a hill with magic. Further, he notices that Xian is also weird, in completely different ways.
Cai Wen warns everyone to watch what the smaller Arcade houses are up to - the House of Judicious Increase may have gotten some of them on board. HJI may also be grumpy at Xiao Fa in particular for thwarting them, so watch out for a way to placate them.
Then, it is off to the Prince! Cai Wen rolls three dice and chooses two, and ends up with an 8. The Prince's eyes turn blue-and-blue, he holds up his arms, and intones "Report to the commander for duty!"
- "That really takes it out of you. Do you want a drink?"
The group retires to the map room to consider who "the commander" is. Commander Yao? That guy in command of the medical tent? Commander Yao seems the most likely, so the group heads towards the Dragon Army command center outside the Port of Propitious Voyage.
Xian ends up arriving in the military stables, where the cavalry horses brief the new girl. They're being given extra feed and checked over, so there's likely to be riding around and fighting, which they don't really care for - except for the super-enthusiastic horse who got too close to a Beastmaster and is rooting for the other team now. Xian warns them that she's going to turn into a person, and then does so. They're still surprised.
- "I told you I was going to look like a person." -Xian
- "You have a condition, dear"
As others pass through the port, they see some posters up with sketches of Ho, offering a reward for the return of the vice-mayor's dog. Once the group meets back together at Dragon Army Headquarters, Yanyu's status is sufficient to get the group in to meet with the XO, who says that Commander Yao is in an emergency status meeting right now, but she can arrange a meeting in the evening. People insist on seeing him immediately - they have urgent orders from the highest levels of the House of Benevolent Oversight and cannot wait.
Commander Yao is summoned out of his meeting - he's walking with a cane now - and he asks what they need. Yanyu says the question is, what does he need them to do? He's a little taken aback at having been summoned due to urgent orders that don't seem to be actual orders, but the party's assistance has been pretty useful in the past, so he says if they're offering miracles, he can come up with some for them to do.
While most of the last turn went well, the Battle of Xiolan Field was a disaster in all ways. In particular, there was a courier relaying the latest codes when the battle happened, and is believed to be among the dead. Only about a third of the Imperial forces involved survived, and contact has not been re-established, but the courier was not believed to be among them. If the party could either retrieve, or confirm the destruction of, the code book, then the next turn will not need to be spent defensively.
The courier, named Sergeant Xin Shi, was supposed to be meeting Captain Bei Chumai, who was in charge of the forces at the Battle of Xiolan Field. They might have been meeting near his tent, but Commander Yao can't say for sure. Cai Wen checks if Chiyo was part of the forces in the battle - yes, she was. She also has not been heard from since.
Xiao Fa gives Commander Yao a once-over with his healing senses. He seems to be doing well, and the cane he is using is a seriously powerful magic item. Maybe not a blue artifact magic item, but it's a strong yellow.
So... how would the courier be identified? Is he wearing an obvious Secret Courier uniform? (No). Or does he have an easily identifiable birthmark? (No). Or a tattoo? (No). On the other hand, searching all the bodies for a birthmark might not be any faster than searching them for a codebook. But no, secret couriers are not normally easily identifiable from a distance - he would have been dressed as an army sergeant.
But he did have a girlfriend - Jin Nu, at the House of Violet Scent, was close to him.
Xian rats out the beastmastered horse, and then Cai Wen visits the House of Violet Scent. Jin Nu isn't one of the young women he is initially introduced to, but when he asks for her by name, she will join him for a meal. She doesn't seem to have been at the flower house for long, and she also really isn't very good at it - she's unfocused, almost sullen. She is clearly somewhat distraught and trying to not show it, but also, she just isn't very good at the required charisma skills. She tries to not talk about herself, but she's not a match for Cai Wen's charisma skills. Before the war, her family ran a little spice shop, and her extended family was in Daizhou providing assistance. Her father went into the army when the North invaded, and none of her relatives in Daizhou had been heard from, so she's trying to support her little brother and her mother, but without the rest of the family (and the spice trade has also been disrupted) she's working here instead, since the House of Violet Scent has hired a lot of new people. They've been training her, and she guesses it's okay.
So... how about her boyfriend? She really knows she's not supposed to talk about him, but Cai Wen presses. He's wonderful. She's not really sure what he does in the army, but he brings her tokens when he travels. She hasn't given him an obvious scarf or trinket to wear, though - she'll have to do that when he gets back. How might Cai Wen recognize him if he were at the front? Oh, she thinks he can just ask after Xin Shi - he's very well respected, people would know him. Hmm. He tries to get a better description "to identify him from a distance", but most of her description is how he smells (the scent of rosemary late in the day in summer). Cai Wen gives up, but at least Dreamy and Squeaky, his ferrets, have heard the description of how Xin Shi smells.
Cai Wen also sends a message to Tahiti to have Lin Fortune and the Danger Squad come along - they take point in sneaking up through enemy lines.
There is a light patrol, and then a heavier patrol that must be passed by, but they are successfully evaded, and then the group reaches the edge of Xiulon Field. There are are a lot of bodies on the battlefield, and high above, carrion birds circle.
Most of the dead bodies have been stripped, and four squads of Northerners move among the bodies on the other side of the field.
Shuyan sends out the snake of secrets to see what it can find out, and then she and Deng start sneaking onto the field towards the Northerners to see what they are doing. There are unfortunately no easily identifiable sergeant's insignia on any of the bodies nearby, because they have already been stripped - in fact, that's what the Northerners are doing, and they're close to done. They're loading gear and uniforms into a cart - clearly more than one cartload has already left, and the last is nearly full.
At four squads of eight, Deng doesn't think he can kill them all at once. Xian disguises herself as a northern horse, and infiltrates the horses, but she can't figure out how to hook herself to the cart, and she also can't persuade the horses to defy their bosses and start stealing the cart. She also hasn't really told anyone else of her plan, so there is not much coordination at this point. Deng thinks that the greatest tactical risk he's underestimating is that of the circling birds overhead, at least one is watching. The greatest source of danger nearby is the thirty-two northerners.
The Snake of Secrets comes back, reporting that there is a full Northern encampment of soldiers to the northwest, with big piles of uniforms that they are doing something with.
Squeaky runs into the center of the field, and stands on a body. Deng sneaks that way, and finds several Senatali characters carved into the ground: "In the hat". There is no hat, though, as the body has been stripped. Dreamy gets sent to the cart to sniff for hats worn by the same smelling guy, and reports back that the guy's clothes are in the cart, but is too small to bring anything back. Cai Wen spends a karma to refresh Dreamy, and Shuyan sneaks to the cart with her, and returns with the hat.
The hat is magical - there is a secret compartment in it. When Cai Wen puts it on, he manages to determine that it's a secure holdout hat, but he can guess the passsword: Jin Nu. Now, they have the codebook.
Xian continues to try to incite rebellion in the northern horses, but they really don't want to get beaten for trying to sneak off with the cart (and three horses with a cart don't sneak all that well). Shuyan sneaks over to the horses, to let Xian know what's up.
- "I don't mean to disturb you, but one of those is right next to you." -Northern horse
- "We're going to go over to the east to follow the tracks of the people who left the battlefield." -Shuyan
- "Don't look at it! I think it's trying to talk to you." -Northern horse
- "Bye!" -Shuyan
Xian still doesn't know what has happened to the codebook, but trying to steal the cart doesn't seem to be succeeding, so she sidles away (though un-infiltrating the horses is a bit harder than joining them in the first place).
The survivors from the battlefield seem to have fled to the east, and split up. But both Deng and Cai Wen think that while they would split up to evade pursuit, they would have arranged to meet up, and left a message for stragglers. Such as on that boulder right there. Puzzlingly, though the boulder is the obvious place for Chiyo to leave a message (and Cai Wen is sure it is right), there doesn't seem to be one.
However, when Xiao Fa looks at the chi of the boulder, he sees that there is a spiritual message carved into the chi of the boulder, only visible to others in the unit: meet us at <x>. The end, with the location, is obscured - the message is not for them. Yet.
Cai Wen sadly realizes that it's a different mission, and they shouldn't try to mess with it. Time to go back and think about what to do about the Northerners stealing Dragon Army uniforms. It would be nice to just set the whole army on fire...
- "I admit, before the universe and the log, that I wish Shen Ji were here." -Cai Wen
Can they blow up the entire Northern encampment? Blow up the uniforms? Mildly singe the uniforms? Shuyan notes that returning with information that the uniforms are being used, is also useful, even if they don't destroy them.
After much discussion, a plan is enacted:
Shuyan sneaks to an overlook near the Northerner encampment, and Xian rides to her, with the hoop that includes "telescope" among its magical attributes. They see people sorting uniforms, and others washing them, and another set of people gathering all the non-clothes. The unsorted pile is still the largest, but there are eight small distinct piles of clothes. Shuyan sneaks back to the cart with all of Cai Wen's fireworks and plants them in the bottom of the pile, while Xian fetches Yanyu to the overlook.
When the Northerners finish looting the battlefield and take the cart to the encampment, and drop the cart full of clothes in the unsorted pile, Yanyu puts the blessing of the Phoenix on the combat. This alerts all of the enemy battle mages that a combat has started, so the camp starts reacting, but between the hoop-telescope and Yanyu's flamestrike, the pile of clothes is set aflame and the party flees, before anyone can reach them.
The group returns to the Port, and returns the codebook to Commander Yao, as well as a briefing about the clothes. Commander Yao clearly doesn't understand why they fussed about with the clothes rather than following the survivors or worrying about all of the bodies left to necromancers, but he also doesn't understand the whole mission mechanic.
- "We could blitz another mission, but we'd have to be super wolfy."
- "Don't talk as much." -Xian
Surprisingly, the group decides to blitz another mission!
The Beastmaster's Report
The Prince's second prophecy is "RECEIVE THE BEASTMASTER'S REPORT". Huh. The party hides in the map room and tries to decide what it means, with some intelligence analysis and interpret omens.
Do they need to sneak into the Northern encampment and steal a report written by one of the beastmasters for the Great Khan? No, that would be more like "intercept" the report. Is it a report for a beastmaster? No, it's from a beastmaster. From the beastmaster, in fact. The "the" in the wording is particularly puzzling - it's like The Bureaucrat or The Alchemist, like a Beastmaster who works for the Empire, who has been writing a report. Is it Broken Sword or Yue-Mei? No, they're both battlemasters, not beastmasters. Is it a double agent, a northern beastmaster who is a spy? No, it's probably an actual Imperial Beastmaster. Is it Snow Wolf? No, it isn't. Finally, Xian wonders - wasn't there some menagerie guy? Who was he? After much racking of memories, the name Beastmaster Ze is recalled. Huh. He actually has the word "beastmaster" in his title. In fact, he’s been named that this whole time... Maybe it's him. Whatever happened to that guy?
Intelligence Analysis in the Prince's records turns up a note from earlier in the month:
That lends credence to the idea that Beastmaster Ze is the beastmaster in question, but he hasn't been seen for years, since back in Monkey Hunt. He and his Mystic Menagerie were a rival of Ringmaster Te's.
Rather than set off searching for the Menagerie, the group summons Melina to ask for hints about where the Menagerie is. Shuyan (who thought he was dreamy, at the time) is speculated to have the strongest connection to Beastmaster Ze, so Melina reads her palm. Melina is puzzled - it seems that someone is blocking some of her abilities, but she believes that while what the party is looking for is in the northern Precincts, they should go to just to the east of the Tanzhe Plain, between Xiaolu and the Eternal Dream. She is not sure what the cause of the interference is - it's not that the future is clouded, but something has happened.
Melina also thinks that the phrasing of the directive is odd - why would they be sent to receive a report if there is not actually a problem in receiving it? There may be more to the mission than meets the eye.
The group sets out to the area on the map that Melina has directed them to, and finds a small town named Shouwang. After sufficient persuasion, they are able to learn of a super-secret research center to the west, and the villagers beg the party to be discreet about it, as the center is likely to save everyone.
- "Utmost discretion is one of the hallmarks of the House of Exuberant Interference." -Cai Wen
As they head west towards the research compound, there are some alarming howls heard from nearby, as if there is a dire wolf stalking them, but no wolf can be seen. Eventually, they reach a large fenced compound.
Shouting at the gate results in a young girl poking her head over the wall above the gate. Xiao Fa shouts that he is the Governor of the Tanzhe Plain, and wants to come in. The girl (who says her name is Jin Fa) wonders if the horse (Xian) has been brought for more experiments, and also wonders if they have brought the King. The King is supposed to be here.
No, the horse isn't for experiments, and no, the King isn't here, but will she please let them in anyway? Eventually, she opens the outer gate, which leads to a fenced area with another gate - basically an animal-proof airlock. Further inside, there are animals roaming everywhere, including several tigers. A small bird flies over, and roars at them.
- "Has he turned himself into a beast? Is he played by Marlon Brando?" -Xian
Jin Fa says that Lord Ze will be in a better mood after lunch, so would they like to come in for lunch? She is not as enthusiastic about bringing the horse in to lunch as they are, but the party assures her that the horse has very good manners.
- "Well, yes, she certainly will." -Jin Fa
The group is shown into a large house in the center of the compound. A monkey takes their hats and puts them on a hat rack (Xiao Fa and Cai Wen both tip him a zhu). They tell Jin Fa that they don't want lunch yet, and look for Beastmaster Ze. They find him in a room that looks like a combination of a library and a magical ritual room - there's a ritual circle, a desk, a pile of green feathers.... and Beastmaster Ze. Both Shuyan and Yanyu think he's dreamy - this is a change from Lijuan's wedding, when married women were less enthralled. But since Yanyu is a werewolf now, she apparently has a bit more beast nature than most married women.
Ze starts by shouting at Jin Fa that he wasn't to be interrrupted - but then he spots Cai Wen.
- "Ringmaster Zhu! Have you come to learn the art at last?" -Beastmaster Ze
- "I have come at the behest of the king, to receive your report." -Cai Wen
- "Is he here? Can I give him the report?"
- "I am here in his name to receive the report."
- "When will he be here?"
- "I. Have been sent. Here. To receive. The report."
Somewhat impervious to conversation, Ze sends Jin Fa off to have lunch prepared - a feast for his good friend the Ringmaster! Then, Ze notices Xian. Is the horse here for the experiments? No, it is not. Well, the horse doesn't need to be in his office, then - Ze waggles his fingers at Xian. Xian has a hat of immunity to beastmastery, though, and declines to go outside. Ze wiggles his fingers again, and is intrigued when Xian stays put. He heads out of the room, and returns with a headdress and a large staff, and starts trying to lead Xian into the lab.
Xiao Fa hurriedly leaps in to explain that Xian is actually a horse spirit so that's why his beastmastery isn't working. Cai Wen frowns - Ze didn't used to be like this. He used to be charismatic and suave, and now he's - well, he's kind of mad scientist-y.
Lunch is brought in, carried by six or seven little girls. Everyone eyes them dubiously - having a madman surrounded by little girls is deeply disturbing. But they don't seem as mesmerized by Ze's dreaminess as Yanyu and Shuyan are, and he doesn't seem to be treating them any more inappropriately than being kind of shouty, so maybe it's okay.
The True Power
Cai Wen tries to make small talk about Ze's project, but he evades - lunch first! Shuyan and Yanyu duel in charisma to see who is more charming. Yanyu proves more charming, but Shuyan resists being jealous. Yanyu does succeed in getting him to talk about his work, and he proclaims that he has become in power what he was before only in name - but then he realizes that Yanyu has gotten him monologuing. Lunch first!
A few more tidbits are dropped during lunch - the most remarkable is that Ze claims the war will be over soon, once he unleashes his "true power" against the North. He also mentions his invisible dire wolf. But he can present all of the options to the King - when will the King arrive to hear his presentation?
Cai Wen shakes his head - before bringing the King all the way out here, Cai Wen will need proof that there is something real to be shown. Ze probably doesn't have anything real, so it's not worth His Majesty's while. Ze protests - only royalty will be able to understand! Oh, in that case - here is Lo Xiao Fa, rightful heir of the Dragon Emperors.
Well, that changes things. With an Emperor visiting, the king is no longer of interest. He will show Xiao Fa, instead. As Xiao Fa knows, since Ze's youthful days he has been blessed with the power of Animal Magnetism. But now, through the study and examination of the foul imaginings of the Northerners, he has managed to become the first true Imperial Beastmaster. But! That is only the smallest part of what he has discovered.
He summons in a bird, and a tiger - the former roars, and the latter cheeps. He can take aspects of the different animals, and move them around. He demonstrates a cat which can fly by flapping its paws (this is rather unsettling).
But his last, most secret demonstration, that is for the Emperor's eyes only. Though, he may bring Shuyan. Xiao Fa assumes he is being permitted to bring a guard, and Xian (the horse) also follows.
Beastmaster Ze explains to Xiao Fa that this power may only be shown to royalty, and it is very important that it not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Then, he summons up his power, and funnels it - at Shuyan. Xiao Fa, who was preparing to put up a Wall of Fate to defend himself, was not expecting that. Once hit by Ze's whammy, Shuyan is completely obedient to Xiao Fa's commands.
Xiao Fa looks carefully at Shuyan - Beastmaster Ze doesn't quite have the ability to make permanent changes that the Northern beastmasters seem to, but he's close. And his chi is completely roiling with self-corruption. Ze tells Xiao Fa that all shall bow down to his glory, and Xian fixes Xiao Fa with a disapproving horsey glare. Xiao Fa toys with the idea of having Ze control everyone into making him Emperor, but decides instead to diminish and go into the West and remain Xiao Fa. Or something.
Meanwhile, Cai Wen has been prowling around Ze's office/lab, and found his lab notebook with his research notes. The initial notes are fairly dry and coherent, talking about his beastmastery experiments. Then, some Northern artifacts are brought, but he still needs a direwolf to examine. Maybe he should make his own? That would be funny. But no, he hires a mercenary to capture one. He'll make the mercenary famous! Each entry after the first few gets a little odder, until he reaches the end, and Ze is ranting about how when the King arrives, he will show him how to take command of his country the way he should.
- "The true power is within me. I am become the Beastmaster of Women."
Outside, Beastmaster Ze is giving Xiao Fa a tour - he nearly understands everything, but he needs a few more test subjects. And, if Xiao Fa can provide anyone with skill enhancement shticks? After showing Xiao Fa around the compound, they head back into the lab and rejoin the others.
- "I'm afraid this may hurt. Deng, restrain him." -Xiao Fa
Shuyan flings herself at Ze to grab him, while Deng chops away magical effects on him and Xiao Fa hits him with chi purification. Ze calls out to his animals to protect him, and there is a lot of animal noise from outside. Yanyu, also, feels compelled to protect Ze, and persuades Deng to stop hurting him.
- "The lesson from this is, we should never let recurring NPCs live." -Xian
The door explodes inwards after being head-butted by a small bird, and a poodle leaps into the room and roars deafeningly. Shuyan passes her grab off to a snake, and then has a paralyzing snake bite Ze - luckily, the snakes are still being obedient to Shuyan. Xian intimidates the bird from charging again, and Cai Wen persuades Deng to stop listening to Yanyu.
Deng cuts away some more magic, and then the last of Ze's corruption explodes, leaving him unconscious. A panda leaps through the window and claws Cai Wen, who realizes that without Ze to control the animals, they're still wreaking havoc. He grabs Ze's staff, and channels "go away" through it - all the animals, including the panda and his own ferrets, flee.
That is sufficient to end the combat. Cai Wen realizes that he could also figure out how to do the Beastmaster Ze "beastmastery of women" trick pretty easily, since while he doesn’t have Animal Magnetism shticks, he is rolling in moll-type shticks, but he puts the staff back on the rack.
- "Oooh! Do you turn around and diminish and go into the west and remain Cai Wen too?" -Xiao Fa
Jin Fa pokes her head in - most of the animals have left. Is that okay? Hmm. Probably not, but there is not much to be done about it now. Would Jin Fa and the other little girls like to go home? Where do they live, anyway? They're from Shouwang, and Ze has been paying them each two zhu a day to help him out. (He used to have older servants, but he switched to the little girls because they could pay attention better, Jin Fa says proudly.) Cai Wen gives them 28 zhu and tells them they don't have to come back unless, hmm, unless they get sent for again.
Cai Wen's ferrets and Xiao Fa's dragon come back, but the other animals do not. The ferrets are sulking because Cai Wen was mean to them, and the dragon also stays away from Cai Wen.
From what Cai Wen has been able to determine from Ze's notes, his experiments started being successful about the same time as he started getting less coherent, once he had the Northern staff and headdress to use. It would probably be a bad idea to pass around a set of notes that explain how to go mad and mind control people - and people also think that the notebook sounds a lot like the notes of Mu the Mad. Hmm.
So, what should they do about the Northern items?
- "Shen-Ji will figure them out." -Mike
- "Volcano. Now." -Cai Wen
Master Deng cuts away the magical effects on Shuyan, and she comes to her senses again, and Xiao Fa dispels the "protect Beastmaster Ze" effect on Yanyu. But she still thinks Shuyan should go to Daizhou, and both she and Shuyan still think Ze is dreamy. Xiao Fa, cranky, turns Ze over on his face, and Yanyu and Shuyan make sad comments about how now his poor face is all squished.
The group splits up:
- Xiao Fa takes Beastmaster Ze to the Temple of the Eternal Dream. He warns them that Ze has damaged his mind and his chi, and he should be looked after and not left to just wander the dreamworld. The monks are not clear that they are the ideal people to hold a dangerous madman prisoner, but they will see what they can figure out, and Xiao Fa promises to owe them one.
- Shuyan takes the two Northern items to the Mountain of Fire on the Shrouded Isle, and throws them in.
- Cai Wen summarizes Beastmaster Ze's research notes to a KS: Beastmastery report to give to the Prince.