Driven to Distraction
|"The nine most terrifying words in the Xiang language are 'I'm from the circus, and I'm here to help.'"|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Bear in the Month of the Dog in the eleventh Year of the Bear since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place first on the Shrouded Isle, and then on the North Wall.
Prior to the run, Takanata has buried all the Alchemist-marked items in party loot near Tahiti. Others bury some of their items there as well, and Merit sends the Shadow Quills to Q division to investigate.
The butler enters - a Dragon Army courier has arrived with a message from the Obsidian Warlord for Lord Takanata. Since Takanata isn't around, Merit opens the message.
There is apparently a serious Northern incursion in Section 19, at the border between the Roof of the World and the Steppes. Takanata should bring his crew, especially the mages, and deal with it. As it turns out, though, there aren't really any mages in the run. Ahah! People decide they should probably go to the Shrouded Isle to borrow their mages, and then the run will let the Shrouded Isle thwart the North. Which Takanata has emphasised several times to everyone in the run, is something that needs to be done, though he doesn't seem to have told anyone what the actual plan is. The group heads through Kuan-Xi's water gate to the Suzuki estate, following the Official Secure Gate Protocol.
The Suzuki majordomo is sorry to report that neither of the ladies of the house are in residence right now, but if they are here to visit Mystic Mondo, he is still sleeping comfortably. Asking about the Firelord, the majordomo replies that he is probably at the Shrouded Citadel, though the majordomo isn't really briefed on the day to day doings of the Firelord.
Lijuan takes a moment to draw some particularly entertaining prophetic art.
The group heads to the Shrouded Citadel, and Merit lets the appointment secretary know that he is there to see the Firelord on urgent business from Lord Takanata. The secretary is most apologetic, but the Firelord is not available. Given his current schedule, the secretary could set up an appointment in two days, on the Day of the Crane. Merit says that would be too late - Lord Tokai and the Firelord have arranged to have a force of mages assist in moving the Shrouded Isle on the Day of the Dog, and they really need to talk to someone about that ASAP. The secretary heads off to see if he can find out anything about that plot.
After half an hour, he returns.
- "It is our understanding that Lord Takanata was going to provide urgently needed assistance with an incursion in the northwest, as part of this undertaking."
- "Yes, we have a letter about that." -Merit
- "Oh, good. Then it seems clear where you must go."
Merit suspects that he is more worried that he is trying to appear, and throws in some Active Listener.
- "Could we be of any more assistance?" -Merit
- "Oh, spirits forfend, no, that is, sorry, I was thinking of something else. I have been authorized to provide you with immediate transportation to your destination."
- "This sounds to me like 'we have to get these Exuberant Interference people off the island before they interfere everyone to death.'" -Xian
There's a sudden crash of thunder and rain outside, and a short while later, Okura Yosai enters.
- "Greetings. I have been instructed to provide transportation for you to the western Steppes." -Yosai
- "Have you been briefed beyond that?" -Merit
- "Ah, no, I am just providing transportation."
Merit finds this implausible, and Xian is pretty sure that he is lying, both about not having been briefed and the extent of what he is actually doing.
- "Since our last interaction, have you acquired means of descending?" -Yosai
Well, that could be a problem. Yosai's transportation involves falling out of the clouds like rain, and last time there were people who were better able to deal with that. Could the party get to the Steppes in time by going back to Tahiti and taking fast horses? It would be tight, since they've killed most of the morning on the Shrouded Isle by this point. If they rode through the night without sleeping, probably, but that could be tough on the lesser-health people.
Lijuan sneaks off to gather information from the servants - the kitchen seems pretty calm, as everyone important is away. The stables are similar, though the horses are all there except for the Firelord's horse that can run on water.
Xian leans on Yosai. Surely the plan was arranged in more detail than this? Yosai backpedals - he wasn't in charge of the arrangements. But what else is Yosai supposed to be doing? Just providing transportation. Between Xian's dice and all the active listening going on, Yosai keeps leaking hints about the plan, though he clearly doesn't want to. He's supposed to deal with transportation for both the Firelord and the Obsidian Warlord, but - but the party will be off dealing with saving the world in the west by that point!
- "I must say, I'm hurt. I came here to help you, but you're not telling us everything. I have to say, my current inclination is just to walk away from the whole thing." -Xian
- "I'm sorry if we insulted you, but I do understand if you feel that you can't stay here any longer. While we would certainly appreciate your help in the western campaign, if you don't feel that you can assist with that any longer, I'm sorry." -Yosai, a little relieved
- "Of course, if I don't go help in the western campaign, I am going to STAY RIGHT HERE AND INTERROGATE EVERYONE I CAN FIND." -Xian
- "Ah, um. In that case... um, let me just go and see if I can find some more information for you. If you could wait right here." -Yosai
- "We don't have time to keep waiting!" -Merit
Yosai leaks that he was on the Firelord's flagship, and then, in a panic, physically flees from the party before he leaks anything else.
The party contemplates what they've figured out. If he's going to be involved in transporting the Obsidian Warlord, then there must be some sort of feint or distraction involved where he is now. So maybe the party needs to help with the distraction. But why won't anyone tell them that?
Merit puts together a set of facts:
- A letter from the Obsidian Warlord sends us towards the Northwest
- The Firelord's doobies are trying to send us away to the Northwest
- The Firelord's water mage is transporting the Obsidian Warlord too
- The Firelord is currently on his flagship
- The Firelord knows it's a good day to fight the North
They're clearly all related, and he decides that the best place to investigate further would be to speak to the one person who might know about the plot but doesn't leave the Shrouded Isle - the Songstress. They go to see her, and try to explain their distress, briefing her on the day so far.
- "Our worry is that this is a Spidery fight against the North instead of a Dragony fight."
- "If it were a Spidery fight, what would you do about it?" -Songstress
- "I would be inclined to attempt to make revisions on the fly to a plan that I don't fully understand." -Xian
- "Well, I think you have answered your question of why it is being kept from you."
- "Is there anything you can tell us?" -Xian
- "Sigh. This is why I warn people against paying too much attention to prophecy."
- "Warn us again!"
- "I find it... interesting... that, if this is as you claim, Butterfly and Phoenix are trying to distract you. I would also say: what would you do if you were in charge of the plan, and you received your own prophecy indicating that these helpful people are the ones most likely to derail your plan?"
- "You understand, the Firelord would not embark on such a campaign without looking in the Smoked Glass, and that guides him in his decisions."
- "Well, if it were me, and I thought that the people in question were the sort to be able to detect that they were being given the runaround, then I would brief them completely." -Xian
Everyone looks at Xian dubiously. Xian and "brief them completely" do not seem as related to everyone else as she seems to think.
(As a side note, people understand that unless there are particular characters required for a plot, the NPCs are not generally able to foresee who will be in the run.)
- "I did warn the Firelord that such insight was a possibility. But - if Butterfly has given you a sign warning you away, and Phoenix has given you a sign warning you away, I do not have much that I can add beyond that. I can tell you that there were some indications that a portion of the plan resulted in you and yours being present when the Obsidian Warlord had to present you with his back." -Songstress
- "But the Warlord asked us to send mages, and all we have is fighters and spies!"
- "Then perhaps Butterfly thinks you need fighters and spies, even if the Obsidian Warlord thinks you need mages."
The party continues to make puppy dog eyes at her hoping for more details, and she relents a bit - if it is the mystery itself that is bothering them, then she is willing to fill them in some more if she has their assurance of non-interference. They conference, with some digressions.
- "Could we just take a nap instead of go to the Northwest, then?" -Kasumi
- "I don't believe that the Obsidian Warlord would have sent you to do something that was not of use in the war - you are too useful."
- "I have been losing faith in the Great Spirits over the years." -Xian
- "I would advise you: do not put your faith in the great spirits and then be disappointed that they do not think like you do. Put your faith in the great spirits, to hope to think like them."
Xian and Merit (as the two with the strongest opinions) decide to take the deal of more information for non-interference.
- "Two points. First, on the more mundane side. The Firelord asked me to contact some of your friends, to find a Northern spy in the Empire. The Firelord did, eventually, find a spy, and is making use of him - the spy does plan to betray the Empire to the North. Second: the Smoked Glass is smoky, and can be unclear in the details. The plan works better if you are not near, in part because it is Spider-y, and in part because of the conflict between you and the Obsidian Warlord. I suspect that the specifics of the plan make him very vulnerable at some point, and it was a hazard to wave that vulnerability in front of you, or in front of him." -Songstress
The party protests - they have differences in policy with the Obsidian Warlord, but they wouldn't try and take him out in a way that was obviously committing treason and was in front of a bunch of important people watching and while it might hurt the war against the North or the moving of the islands. The Songstress acknowledges the party's restraint, while noting that possibly not all of the caveats would have been in play the whole time.
So - if the note had come from the Firelord instead of the Obsidian Warlord, they would probably have just gone and done the mission. Why didn't he send the note instead? The Songress thinks that he probably did not realize that - she was given to understand that they had already been doing missions at the behest of the Obsidian Warlord in the past. Well, yes, they have, but they are more grudging about it.
Anyhow, on behalf of the Firelord, she wishes them well, and hopes that this will not prove a setback to their relationship. As far as helping them get to the Northwest in time, her methods of transportation are nearly as hazardous as Yosai's, but she does have a suggestion for something that might both mitigate the damage and build trust: if they loan her the Great Talisman of the Butterfly, she will loan them the Great Talisman of the Phoenix, for the duration of their respective plans (let us say, by the end of the Day of the Dog.)
Why does she want the Butterfly Talisman? She says that she is worried that the plans in motion are... overly complex.
The Songstress draws the symbol of the Talisman of the Phoenix on six pieces of paper (the person wearing the actual Talisman will not need it), and on the reverse, draws a map of the location in the northwest. So... is that cartogramancy? She says it is not, though her voice is less definitive than the words. She tells them to make sure that the paper burns, when they jump into the volcano.
- "And, while this is an excellent trust-building exercise, I do want it back." -Songstress
- "Yes, same for ours."
On the way to the volcano, Merit checks with the Orb of True Seeing to make sure that the papers are enchanted.
- "That would be a really embarrassing way to die - the Songstress convinced us all to jump into the volcano."
The enchantment has a lot of water and fire and wood - it's light on metal - and is definitely Phoenix straight-up sorcery, not a ritual. Possibly she's doing something to borrow a shtick from Phoenix, or maybe minion-transport-through-fire is one of the things she does normally.
And then, it is into the volcano! The heat of the lava is like a too-hot bath on a cold day, painful but not unpleasant. Except for Xian, who is still on fire when they leap out of the bonfire on the other side, and has to be put out.
The group is shown to Commander Hsiao, who is in conference with the Obsidian Warlord. The most interesting thing in the area (other than the various Northern forces camped to the north) is a huge pair of earthen ramps - a unit wide - that bridges the Wall. The Obsidian Warlord says that he has called one of the army's earth mages in to deal with it, but the mage has so far failed. The party will presumably be able to figure something out.
- "Do you require anything else?" -Obsidian Warlord
- "No, I don't think so, you can get back to the other thing." -Merit
- "..." -Obsidian Warlord
Everyone gives Merit a bit of a side-eye for being so casually dismissive to the Warlord. Merit notes that he was actually only trying to rub the Warlord's nose in the fact that Merit knows about the secret plan.
The group heads off to talk to Tsu Fa, the Earthmover. He reports that the ramps seem to him to have been raised by Earth Magic, but he is unable to lower them with his own Earth Magic. It is as if there is an earth mage who opposes him, but one so powerful that he simply requires the earth to be as it is, and Tsu Fa can't alter it.
Merit explains to him that it is probably not earth magic at all, but Northern battle magic, which can change the shape of the battlefield.
- "It is generally the earth mage’s prerogative to wield a pen on the battlemap." -Tsu Fa
- "But the battlemage can alter the map itself. " -Merit
Merit notes that Tsu Fa is wearing a conscript Army uniform, not that of an officer's. Was he brought in for the duration of the Northern invasion? No, the mage says crossly, he was brought in for the duration of the Southern invasion, and then shipped north.
Looking out from the Wall with the Orb of True Seeing, Merit notes a large battle magic field over the whole area, not just the ramp. It's affecting movement in a general way, and covering a lot of individual effects. The ramp is Empire earth sorcery, though. Hmm. Well, maybe the Northerners have killed an earth sorcerer and are using their ghost?
Kasumi sneaks down the ramp to look around, and manages to overshoot into one of the Northern camps. Apparently the movement effect is pretty strong. When she sneaks into the far central camp, the Northern soldiers begin to notice that there is someone disloyal around, though they don't immediately find her.
Master Zhou summons Yue-Mei, as a battlemage who might be able to explain things. However, while she agrees that there's a lot of battle magic going on out there, she notes that Broken Sword is the battlefield expert, while she tends to deal with personal buffs and balances. She speculates that a battle mage could use a "no backs" shtick (for example, a disarm with "no backs" will prevent someone from using a shtick to recover their sword) to cause putting up the ramp to be proof against lowering it again. But it would require using the "no backs" on behalf of someone else, which would be rarer. And there could be corruption involved one way or the other.
Kasumi sends a message back, which summarizes to:
- Weird stuff
- Coming back
People assume that the non-summary version is more dire, and prep for an invasion. As it turns out, it's just Kasumi being chased by some soldiers, but their movement takes them really quickly off of the battlefield, while Kasumi runs all the way across the ramp in an action.
The most important point that Kasumi has is that the attack will happen at dawn, in a few hours, and that the Great Khan's son is somewhere nearby. Xian wants to know which son, but Kasumi doesn’t know. Xian fills everyone in on Hana's briefing: the Great Khan has two sons. The first son is the "Beastmaster of Men." They both want to be Great Khan in the future. Son One wants to attack now (and win), while Son Two thinks that this whole attacking every year thing is wasteful - he wants to build up strength and attack in twenty years (and win). The second son has cut a deal with Wolf to somewhat sabotage this year's campaign, which is why the attacks are happening on the Cycle Spirit days. The interesting thing is, nobody talks to the Great Khan except his sons, but both of them do seem to behave as if he's still alive, despite a lot of mystery.
The party decides to do some more investigating - maybe they can find the rogue earth mage - before the battle. But bringing the Talismans would be annoying. Yue-Mei is convinced to hold the Phoenix talisman, which makes neither her nor Phoenix happy.
Xian heads to the far center camp to blend in, and Kasumi goes back to scouting, while Merit reports to the commander that the attack is at dawn. Min Su and Merit's strike team get summoned to hold the Monkey Talisman and the other talismans, respectively, freeing Yue-Mei up to come to the fight.
When Xian reaches the back camp, they again start rushing about looking for a traitor. Xian joins the search party, and tries to convince them to go after a different nearby tribe. She manages to convince one of the searchers to search outside the camp, and then points to him as a traitor, leading to something of a skirmish. The central camp appears to have three trios of Northern mages (a trio includes a necromancer, a battle mage, and a beastmaster); the back corner camps have two trios, and fewer tents, while the front camps have one trio each. Kasumi also heads to the rearmost camp after Xian leaves and sets off the traitor detector a third time, before she and Xian return home to report again.
A plan is set, and people prepare to head to the rearmost camp (it seems most important having the best security) and see if they can’t deal with the mages causing the battle effects at the wall. Kasumi gets sent off for one final round of scouting, but this time she meets the Beastmaster of Men, and does not return. Time to charge! Lijuan tells Kawaii to come and rescue her if she isn't back by dawn, but to stay on the Wall until then.
The Beastmaster of Men gets Kasumi's briefing on the party, and asks if she can take Deng. She thinks she can, so he tells her to deal with Deng, and they will deal with the others.
The party, disguised as Northerners, take advantage of the movement effect to get to the back center camp quickly. Master Zhou manages to spot Kasumi, and nerve strikes her, though one of the Northern battle mages clears that away. The soldiers have a secret code between them, which is clearly designed to find hidden Empire people, though decloaking by stabbing the enemy is also a good way to tell. Kasumi tries to stab Deng, but his stabby riposte-parry is a little much for her.
The beastmasters take advantage of Shuyan's snakes, Xian tries to plant thoughts about traitors in the Northern soldiers' thoughts, and there is a lot of general chopping. The night creeps closer to dawn.
Merit heads into the central tent, and spots a sand table, and a trio of mages linking to various things: a cabinet of broken staves and wands, and a pair of voodoo dolls that look like Tsu Fa.
Having cleaned up most of the combatants, Master Zhou orders everyone except Kasumi to get an extra action to head into the tent to kill the last of the mages, just as Merit is realizing that they have been prepping for final thwackback. They all go down, hard, inflicting a lot of move damage, corruption, and mind control on Deng to chop a teammate as hard as he can. Kasumi leaps in, still after Deng, but he takes her down (and she doesn't count as a teammate for these purposes).
Xian locks eyes with Deng, holding him in a staring contest, as Merit borrows his x8 damage shtick, and then Master Zhou gets in the way, triggering his attack, which he withstands.
However, that was a lot of shticks used while under a lot of corruption, so various people's shticks turn
Broken Northern - mostly Merit and Deng. Master Zhou banishes Shuyan's corruption, and she sneaks out of the tent to report that the army is charging, but people are no longer going extra extra fast.
Lijuan's Panda Companion shtick goes off, and turns Beastmastery - it's "aggressive panda" now rather than "passive panda". She considers fleeing to go fishing in the Forest of Chin, but everyone else convinces her that she can't leave Kawaii just rampaging around.
The battle is raging by this point - the ramp is gone and the Dragon Army seems to have earth walls on their side, but the western flank has a beastmaster holding the whole flank mostly by himself while riding a battle panda.
- "Well, we broke it, we bought it - we need to fix this." -Merit
It has gotten late, so the cleanup plan gets fast-tracked. Deng stays back at the Northern camp, armed with Fasureiya. Everyone else (carrying the unconscious Kasumi, and still disguised as Northerners) makes their way to the western flank, to get as close to the beastmaster as possible. They signal Deng, who throws Fasureiya, and the group leaps on it and Kawaii as the beastmaster falls. It is a close thing, but they are sufficiently lucky that they pull it off.
Reports come in from the east: the Shrouded Isle allied with the Northerners, and arranged for ships of Northern soldiers to head down under shroud of fog, so as to land and attack the Dragon Army from the rear (since everyone knows the Shrouded Isle really hates the Dragon Army). But then the ocean froze and trapped their boats, and the Firelord (on his horse) rode out to fight the trapped Northerners and their Battle Lord, but the Obsidian Warlord leapt down upon the frozen ocean (which might have cracked just a little), and they slew the leader of the Northern forces, and the other soldiers.
So... definitely a Shrouded Isle win over the North. But it's pretty Spidery. The epic battle with the Obsidian Warlord might count as Dragony, if Dragon were willing to claim the Obsidian Warlord as his, but nobody is excited about that prospect.