Enemies of My Enemies
|"He who flatters me is my enemy, who blames me is my teacher."|| The run begins on the Day of the Serpent in the Month of the Serpent in the second Year of the Spider since the ascension of the High Warlord Ze.|
The run takes place mostly at the Warlord's Throne, capital of the Forest of Chin
Ringmaster Te calls Merit in - they need to decide whether or not the circus is going to the Hidden City on this circuit. Merit immediately defers to Takanata, who notes that Ringmaster Te in particular (because some of the Marked are trying to kill him), and the party also in particular, should not go.
- "The word Takanata used is 'inauspicious', but he makes it sound like a really bad idea." -Merit to Ringmaster Te
If the circus won't be going to the Hidden City, then the next stop is the Warlord's Throne, capital of the Forest of Chin. It is best to make one's first performance in the Forest of Chin for the High Warlord's court, rather than another house, lest the circus find itself taking sides in some of the eternal feuds between houses. Merit takes a quick stock of the local rumors about the Hidden City - there are supposed to be a lot of troops doing something near the center of the country.
Cai Wen briefs people on a particular plot he knows about at the Warlord's Throne: Lucky Chang has a bet with the High Warlord that he can win a wrestling bout, and if he wins, he can sit on the throne for an hour. He's talked to Crazy Feng about it, and it probably won't be in public in the full court, so it may take some work to be party to it to thwart it. Takanata notes that he has mentioned this to Lord Yu, who said he would be sending a message to the High Warlord warning him, and that the High Warlord might consider just killing Lucky Chang.
Takanata writes a poem:
Takanata's best guess is that the wolf is North and the shadow is South, so there may be two threats upcoming. Not to be outdone, Grasshopper draws some prophetic art, of a guy chopping a monster into two monsters.
As the circus proceeds up the local road towards the Imperial Highway, Master Zhou notices a couple of lookouts stationed high up in trees, who appear to be signalling others. Merit calls an alert, and the caravan proceeds more cautiously, with Wei Han trying to herd everyone into a defensible formation. Farther ahead, there are several riders in the road, blocking the way.
Merit, Wei Han, and Zhi-Hao head forward, and chat with the riders. (Grasshopper, staying behind, doesn't think that the rider's colors match either House Zhen or House Ze).
- "What is your business in our woods?"
- "We're travelling to the Warlord's Throne to give a performance."
- "Has he summoned you?"
- "It's on the schedule, he should be expecting us."
- "Why are you coming from the Teng lands?"
- "They happened to be along the way."
Because Merit has been so helpful, the riders say that they'll only collect a partial tax, one for every fifth traveller, so a total of forty li. They are tax collectors for the Lord of Mong Keep, which Zhi-Hao finds somewhat implausible. Merit notes that if the collectors can show their documentation, they can sort it all out and they'll be on their way. The lead rider shows them a scroll - in order to maintain the roads, promote safety, etc etc, all travellers will pay a li a head. Merit's best guess is that it is... well, legitimate may be a strong word, but it's not completely bogus.
- "Should he succeed in gathering taxes, that will go a long way to proving he is the warlord of Mong Keep." -Mike
- "The new warlord of Mong Keep, I see." -Merit
Merit tries to haggle him down to twenty li, and offers to tighten up the language for him. Zhi-Hao fidgets in a way that suggests he'd be happy to kill them both if Merit just says the word.
- "If you want to fight, start the fight. I have money, this is no big deal." -Merit
The rider accepts the haggle, and offers strongly to send a rider to escort them to the Warlord's Throne, just to make sure they don't run into any more trouble. Merit's best guess is that this will give Lord Mong even more cred, and he'd really prefer to avoid taking sides that strongly, so he ups his offer to twenty-five li in exchange for not having to bring the guy. After a failed counter-offer that they could skip the taxes entirely in exchange for the escort, Merit pays the twenty-five li from party loot.
Wei Han notes that there were at least fifteen archers and a dozen mounted soldiers. He's sure the party could have taken them, though there would have been some damage.
PalanquinThe rest of the trip is comparatively uneventful, until the road meets up with the Imperial Highway. As the circus approaches, a small squad of Dragon Army soldiers jog up to block the ramp up to the highway.
Merit offers to put on a show for the great personage. One of the soldiers says that he'll ask "his Excellency's... assistant". The soldier goes forward to the palanquin group, and a rider, a woman on a horse dressed in black and red, peels off and rides to the on-ramp. Merit explains they are the Silken Wings circus - they would be happy to oblige by putting on a small performance for the illustrious gentleman.
- "I'm sure you would. But His Excellency the Imperial Alchemist has been summoned on an urgent matter to the Warlord's Throne."
- "Get 'em!" -Shen-Ji
- "I saunter forward, as if to say … hel-lo!" -Cai Wen
- "What is it with you?" -Merit
She says that perhaps there will be another opportunity in their future, and takes particular note of Cai Wen. With that, the Alchemist's travelling party continues along the highway, and, after a pause, so does the circus.
When the circus arrives, the way has been prepared by Yoshi and the other advance men, so there is a good spot to set up and the locals appear enthusiastic. Ringmaster Te says he's going to go and invite the High Warlord to the circus - he may not accept for the first night, but he usually does eventually. So everyone should be polished, and practice hard. Cai Wen notes that the Alchemist has some sort of widget that interferes with luck, so Ringmaster Te should be careful.
Merit checks around to see who is in town related to the wolf-and-lantern plots. He gets an answer that people in town include the Alchemist, his assistant Meng I and other members of his entourage, several demons, the High Warlord, his wives, several assassins (though that's nothing unusual), several House representatives (not House Teng or House Mong), the captain of the guard Xin Chongde, Tactics and Weapons Master Shen-Shin Gao, Master Yang, and Lord Tokai Takanata.
Master Deng goes to the court, to invite Masters Chongde and Gao (who he has been shmoozing with recently) to a circus performance. He can't get into the court ("everyone and their brother is trying to get in") but manages to meet with Master Chongde. He tries to find out what all the excitement is about, but is unfortunately completely unable to gather any information. As he's leaving, Ringmaster Te meets up with him, somewhat disgruntled at not having gotten very far into the Throne. Normally, his shticks are sufficient to get him in even though his natural status isn't amazing, but not this time. The two of them head to the tea tent, where Ringmaster Te grovels a bit for Takanata to try to get him far enough into the court to issue his invitation.
That leads to Takanata, Ringmaster Te, and everyone else in the party heading to court. The first room is easy enough to get into; inside is a press of people with status below 5, looking longingly at the doors. Those with reputation shticks also note that they aren't working; Master Zhou of Iron Mountain appears to have fallen on particularly hard times.
Takanata, however, has no trouble sweeping up the gradient to the final chamber (the party average stays just high enough to not cause him trouble), where he introduces himself. The guards want to know if he wants an audience, or just wants to be in the high court. He says that he would like an audience. The guards say that his entire entourage will not be permitted to approach the throne, and also, someone has to pledge surety for the two particularly low-status people (Grasshopper and Wei Han). Takanata puts Zhi-Hao in charge of that ("He's in charge of the combatants").
On the grand throne is the High Warlord, armored and with a large axe propped negligently against the arm of the throne. Standing beside and a little behind the throne is the Imperial Alchemist (wearing a deep hooded formal robe), and Ming I is a bit in front of the Alchemist. Those with High Society in the party (and in the rest of the room) are sure that the crowd is waiting for something to happen. Wei Han looks around for people likely to cause trouble, and spots that each faction or family also seem to have someone looking around.
- "When you told me one of these guys was trying to kill me, is he one of them?" -Ringmaster Te
- "Yes." -Takanata
- "Oh... I would be honored to have him at the circus..."
The more perceptive of the party note that the Alchemist wears a large amulet, and several dangling arm bangles, under his robes. Waves of power roll off of him, and Ka-Pow (Shen-Ji's phoenix) really doesn't like it.
One of the guards is pulling supplicants from the crowd to approach the throne; the one directly before Takanta is from House Tsai.
- "As we have said in the past, Mong Keep is a ruined fortress on our ancestral lands - it should not be permitted to participate in this pretense. We seek the Warlord's permission to cleanse the land of this foolishness."
- "You've said that already." -Warlord Ze
- "Recently, we've heard that they are bungling things on the roads. Travel has become unsafe. They are doing us all a great dis-service, and we should be allowed to end this once and for all."
The Alchemist whispers something in the Warlord's ear, and he chuckles.
- "We will consider this and give you a ruling in a month."
- "In a month! My lord! They will have... "
The Warlord silences the outburst with a motion, and the representative bows and backs away. Takanata is invited to his audience next; he introduces the Silken Wings circus, from the Isle of Beauty, and delivers the formal invitation to the High Warlord, and the Alchemist as well. He notes that he's not able to add his Yang to the roll.
The Warlord begins to say that he has important matters of state to attend to, but would be pleased to... when the Alchemist waves his hand and Ming I interjects "Nonsense! We would be honored to attend this very evening!" The Warlord looks at Ming I, outraged, but the Alchemist looks at the Warlord, conveying something unseen in his expression, and the Warlord agrees.
Ringmaster Te, Merit, and Grasshopper flee - Ringmaster Te takes the opportunity to confront the two of them once the group is out of the palace. He's very upset - Grasshopper is obviously Lijuan in disguise, and clearly someone has been trying to pull a fast one on him and the circus. He's really not pleased at having been lied to, though Merit does his best to placate him with explanations of people trying to kill Lijuan. Ringmaster Te does note that there were a lot of people staring at Grasshopper in court - though maybe it was just because he was so low status.
The rest of the group remain for the rest of the audiences. There is an audience about taxes, and another about reparations from the south (by which they mean the Savanna), and several about the Situation in the center of the Forest.
Takanata begins to worry why there is no representative from House Teng, and asks around. He doesn't find an immediate answer, but does learn that most of the gossip in the high court is regarding the Situation, where a number of towns in the center of the country were destroyed. Takanata is happy enough to explain that that was the Southerners (not the Savanna, the ones normally south of the Wall) doing a ritual. The Savanna still seems to come in for some of the blame, though, as they were clearly remiss in allowing Southerners to troop all the way into the Forest.
This draws the attention of the Alchemist, and Ming I arrives to speak to him.
- "It is my master's understanding that you have information regarding what actually occurred in the center?" -Ming I
- "That seems likely." -Takanata
- "Then he would like to invite you and a couple of your servants to attend him."
- "I am pleased to be of service. When?"
- "Immediately would be preferred."
Zhi-Hao and Master Zhou are left behind, and Takanata, Wei Han, Shen-Ji, and Cai Wen go to the interview with the Alchemist. The Alchemist says in a surprisingly quiet and gentle voice that he understands that the group knows what happened in the center of the Forest. Takanata explains that it was a ritual done by a Southron mage (Shen-Ji clarifies that Mola Ram is probably technically a priest, in Southern terms), and that it is part of an affair that Takanata has been making reports to Commander Sun about. The Alchemist notes that some have doubted the full veracity of those reports, but he is pleased to have more data.
At this point, the Alchemist spends a few moments regarding each of the four in turn. He thinks that Wei Han is intriguing, and wonders aloud what Shen-Ji has done to himself.
- "Experimental side effects. You know how those go." -Shen-Ji
- "Indeed. You will find, as you progress, that if you can arrange for the side effects to befall others, you will make much more progress." -the Alchemist
Cai Wen he dismisses in a glance, but Takanata comes in for more scrutiny.
- "Ming I, would you be kind enough to take Lord Tokai's friends outside and keep them entertained? We have things to discuss."
Ming I is not pleased to be banished from the conversation either, but escorts Wei Han and Cai Wen out, back into the court.
- "Why'd you have to bring Wei Han?" -Cai Wen, now not quite alone with a moll
The Alchemist notes that he has become familiar with their reputations - Shen-Ji shows much promise - but he did not realize that Takanata was so skilled in the realms Above and Below. Takanata notes that it was a gift from his youth. As he asks more questions about the ritual and what happened, Shen-Ji checks out the Alcemist’s magic items. There are several nodes of power - the Alchemist himself, his amulet (very powerful), something invisible over his head, something invisible over his shoulder, and lots of trinkets mostly hidden by his cloak. Also, Takanata notes that his manner is such as to give the impression of immense age and dignity, but his voice seems younger when he is speaking above a whisper.
Takanata's briefing covers most of the details, including everything in the briefing to Commander Sun, but elides over the fact that Hana and Hiro were north of the wall to be out of range. Shen-Ji predicts that the next ritual will likely be Fire, continuing around in the cycle. The Alchemist is sure he can take care of whatever paltry thing is currently going on with the current spirits and demons here in the forest - though that's actually been resolved by the party. Now, even if solving the immediate problems will not discomfit Mola Ram greatly, he suspects that Takanata's particular skills would be differently useful than his, in anticipating the enemy. Is Mola Ram likely still within the Empire? Probably not, Takanata thinks, though he has agents here.
If he's not here, it will be more difficult, the Alchemist thinks, but he has left his mark here. If they can capture one of the spirits he operated upon, then he will devise a ritual to see if Master Yang and Mistress Ming I can let Takanata read Mola Ram's I Ching via this mark. Takanata presumably doesn't deal with capturing spirits, but the Alchemist will have something his servants by this evening.
- "We will see how you perform here, but when you have finished with Fire, and have mastered one beyond that, come and see me." -the Alchemist to Shen-Ji
Shen-Ji asks - if he does end up visiting the Hidden City, can he visit the Imperial Mint? Everyone else boggles a bit at his impertinence, but the Alchemist seems amused. He says that he is sure that something can be arranged - they will see how things go on the morrow, and if well, will provide Shen-Ji with an appropriate chit.
- "I am in your debt." -Shen-Ji
- "Indeed" -the Alchemist
- "It'll take forever, but from his point of view, if I can't figure out how to live long enough to master three elements, I'm not worth it." -Shen-Ji
With that, the meeting is done; the Alchemist can't really dismiss Takanata, but he doesn't have any further questions. The group heads back into the high court, which is a bit more relaxed now that the Audiences are finished. Takanata talks arts with the various courtiers.
Ming I flirts with Cai Wen, asking him exactly what he does with the circus, while Wei Han edges away a bit and glares at anyone who approaches, to keep the pair undisturbed. He claims to be the Assistant Fireworks Master, which she finds a little odd - he's clearly as important as the Ringmaster.
- "It's so unfair. There's usually one woman per run, and he scoops her up." -Merit
Takanata does try to figure out why the Alchemist is here right now - the court is pretty sure that it's because the High Warlord summoned him because of all the "demons running amok" in the central Forest. Takanata suspects there's more to it than that, though.
Cai Wen asks around - has Lucky Chang been around here recently? The nobles scoff at the idea. He's not going to show up here any time soon, because if he does, the High Warlord is going to thump him good. Amusing stories are told of a very drunk, scrawny little guy, who challenged the Warlord to a wrestling match at their next meeting. Cai Wen is a little surprised - does that sort of thing happen a lot? Well, sort of. If you want the throne, you can challenge the High Warlord to single combat. Of course, if you won, then someone else would probably challenge you immediately thereafter, and so on, until it all settles out. Cai Wen tries to get the guy to tell him the exact words of the bet, but it doesn't sound like this guy was actually there. In any case, this was more like a jest. A wresling match to get the throne for an hour, instead of the usual death duels.
Zhi-Hao talks to Shen-Shin Gao about his various plans - Shen-Shin is certainly thinking about a strike to take the last corner of the Tanzhe, but the hills are slow going.
Then, the group heads back to the circus for the evening's performance, now a Command Performance for the Warlord and the Alchemist. Merit hires a group of thugs to provide additional protection, and warns Iron-Shirt Jojo to be ready for trouble.
Another Ripping Finale
The Royal Box contains the High Warlord and two of his wives; the Alchemist and Ming I, the latter sitting between Cai Wen and Merit; Takanata; and Shen-Ji.
Unfortunately for the command performance, the Silken Wings Circus is not having a very good night. Most of the PCs don't have acts, and everyone is a little off their game, due to some shticks not working. Min Su even loses control of her monkeys, something that never happens.
As the circus acts go not very well, Takanata happily chats with the Alchemist. Has the latter seen any signs of northern incursion? He says that there are some people looking into Northern issues - including some apparent confusion between undead and bandits - but nobody has explicitly consulted him. Takanata notes that his own divinations for the near future included plots for both the Southern and Northern barbarians, so he is expecting a Northern plot. The Alchemist asks if Takanata can share his divination, but Takanata waffles about how the I Ching is cryptic, not wanting to show of the poem that refers quite so blatantly to enemies. The Alchemist is actually somewhat interested in the crypticness of the I Ching, and it turns out that he has nearly as much KS: I Ching as Takanata does I Ching Mastery. He also gives Shen-Ji a spirit bottle (size medium), which he clarifies will only capture spirits, not demons.
Ming I happily chats with Cai Wen and Merit; she seems to be entertaining herself by playing them against each other. Merit does his best to play hard to get by being distracted by the circus - which is actually pretty distracting, given the number of acts going wrong. Ming I reassures Merit to not worry about being off his game - everyone is off their game when he's around. But she has a lot more game where that came from. She also tries to chat up Merit about where the circus has been recently, but he does his best to dodge, and finally, he escapes by having to go and deal with the circus performances going awry.
- "I'll be back..." -Merit
- "Darn right you'll be back!" -Ming I, starting to pull out some sort of mirror...
Cai Wen distracts Ming I before she does whatever she was going to do with the mirror, and Merit pulls in Yoshi's "19 successes of Danger Chef in a run he's not in" for the grand finale of chopping, flinging, and mid-air pickling, so the circus is not a complete disaster.
- "Well, he's quite good." -the Alchemist
As a post-finale finale, several of the Warlord's guards shout in pain as things burst out of the air, clawing them - apparently there are ripper demons being summoned! Zhi-Hao shows off his new shtick allowing him to put on his armor in the surprise round, and many of the fighters jump to readiness.
Takanata and the Alchemist, however, sit back to observe the combat, much like Statler and Waldorf.
- "Ah, I bet this is the Notherners." -Takanata
Takanata turns on Eyes of the I Ching, which lets him spot the ties between the demons and an otherwise anonymous-looking guy sitting in the stands. He also spots two invisible demons accompanying the Alchemist, and several others, possibly spirits instead, near Ming I.
Grasshopper's also has a new pet creature that seems to be something more like a spirit than an animal, though it's taken a lot of soul damage. And Iron Shirt Jojo is practically glowing with chi, having prepared for combat as well.
- "Hmm, no, they're Imperial." -Takanata, disappointed
Grasshopper spots a ninja decloaking, and shoots her. Several shticks (like double dice) don't work, but others (easier difficulty) do - later it will also become clear that items which add plusses are not blocked in the way that shticks are - and the ninja dodges a lot of the damage. Zhi-Hao notes that there seems to be a section of the audience full of hidden weapons (Ming I and Li Merit), and starts chopping demons.
- "When summoning ripper demons, it's best to not just sit there and watch. Now who knows what's going to happen to that poor fool? But really, ripper demons? How gauche." -the Alchemist to Shen-Ji
- "Don't worry, boys, you'll be fine." -Ming I to Cai Wen and Merit
The ninja trapezes over to the VIP box, to promptly be attacked by Zhi-Hao. There is some curiosity about whether the ninja is An Ming, but that's hardly something one can ask. Shen-Ji puts up a wall of iron.
- "Good solid control of metal - let's see what you can do with fire." -the Alchemist
- "Don't show him what you can do with fire!" -Takanata
Shen-Shin Gao leaps out of his seat, and starts heading for a cluster of demons - his two sons leap after him.
- "Protect the Warlord!" -the ninja
- "The Warlord protects himself!" -Warlord Ze, chopping a ripper
Master Zhou notes that the High Warlord's aspect is Tiger, his level is 6 or more, and his training is much more "forged in the heat of battle" than formal training.
The first of the rippers falls, but is replaced by another similar demon, and a smaller one. Takanata notes that the new larger one is still tied to the summoner in the audience, but the smaller one is not. Master Zhou takes down the summoner, but the demons still seem to be around, and generating new demons when the old one falls.
- "The feral one - is that normal, when one of these demons goes down?" -Takanata
- "I don't think that's normal, no." -Ming I
- "Yes, that's not normal. It's a subtle working; I don't think he has control over the smaller one." -the Alchemist
The Alchemist pulls out an ornate dagger, and notes to Shen-Ji "If you kill the gentleman with this, you'll probably be able to control his demons." Shen-Ji takes the dagger and heads that way.
- "You were fairly adamant earlier - what does he do with fire?" -the Alchemist
- "Attacks everyone on the battlemap." -Takanata
Master Zhou ties a cloth of yellow silk over his eyes, to look for enemies. He thinks the smaller demons are more specifically his Enemies; the larger ones are just enemies. Both Ming I and the Alchemist are also enemies. In addition to the incarnated demons, he can see the not-yet-appeared demons, waiting in the wings for when the first set fall.
- "Those are very similar demons to the ones that attacked His Majesty - it would be good to be able to question him." -Takanata to Shen-Ji
- "There are about six more large demons and ten more small demons around somewhere." -Master Zhou
- "That could be a pain. Good thing it's not my problem." -Takanata
- "Enumerating them before they arrive is fairly impressive. I see why you keep him around." -the Alchemist, nodding approvingly.
Wei Han demonstrates his new version of his Protect shtick, in which he vanishes in a puff of snow before appearing elsewhere.
- "The others I get - but you're really going to have to explain that one to me." -the Alchemist to Takanata
- "I don't really understand him myself - he has some memory damage, but he's useful against the northern stuff." -Takanata
Merit heads over to offer to heal the Warlord, but he is only scratched; the Warlord tells him to "go help the woman", indicating the ninja (who is most damaged from being stabbed by Zhi-Hao). Shen-Ji loots the summoner, and finds an enchanted gem - a black opal of increased skill for demon summoning. Then he kills him with the dagger. The Alchemist shouts (he's not pleased about this; he prefers to talk quietly) that he can now draw blood from himself with the dagger, and then tell the demons what to do.
The smaller demons, who have been flocking apparently randomly, seem to have flocked into surrounding Ringmaster Te, attacking the weapon-master's sons along the way. Ho takes down one of the demons attacking the Ringmaster, while Zhi-Hao leaps to protect the fallen kids. Shen-Ji pricks his finger with the dagger, and shouts at the larger demons to attack the smaller demons.
Cai Wen heads for the fallen kids - Ming I hands him a rod, and tells him to hit one of the demons with it first, and then hit the kids. When he does so, it appears to transfer some of the demon's hit points to the kids, and they wake up.
Shen-Ji hits one clump of demons with a limited firestorm and incinerates them.
- "Shen Ji blows three karma to impress one of the Marked. Sigh." -Takanata
Shen-Ji tells the remaining demons to stand still; they are quickly chopped to bits at that point. The smaller demons don't obey him, but the fighter density is sufficient to keep them from being too much of a problem. Grasshopper heals Ho and the bunny-critter; Merit first aids the wounded kids.
Takanata takes his leave - he notes that he will speak with Ming I tomorrow about the mission with the spirits. The Alchemist tells him to tell Master Yang to enjoy the dagger, but to return it to Ming I tomorrow, and, similarly, Ming I gets her hit-point-transfer rod back from Cai Wen. Shen-Ji takes a few minutes to examine the dagger, and thinks that it explicitly steals demonic control via soul-eating.
Wei Han asks for a moment of the High Warlord's time, before he and his wives leave - might he have a private meeting later? High Warlord Ze (noticing Wei Han’s low status) frowns - what is this about? He says he has some mission assigned to him by Master Zhou. The Warlord supposes that could be possible - Wei Han should have Lord Tokai make an appointment, or speak to the Captain of the Guard. He and his two wives leave. Ming I says she'll see the group tomorrow for spirit hunting, and also leaves.
The party wonders about the extra demons that weren't under the summoner's control. How could something like that happen? Did he bargain badly? Get help from someone else? Shen-Ji thinks that it would be hard to miss that sort of codicil in a bargain, and "comes with extra uncontrolled demons" is hardly something that would happen accidentally, or randomly.
Merit is pretty sure that Grasshopper's bunny-hedgehog thing is healed up to its very small maximum number of hit points, but it is not a well creature. Shen-Ji thinks the Alchemist's suppression effect was probably an artifact - otherwise it would have to be a bunch of different shticks.
Cai Wen goes through the summoner's pockets. He doesn't have much on him, but it looks like he is probably from House Tsui, though not a high-ranking member of the family. He probably wasn't a Vast and Powerful sorceror - he probably had to use the skill adder. The smaller demons were more like the ripper demons that the party first encountered, and the larger ones were larger - sort of like "ripper plus" demons. Ringmaster Te is kind of unhappy to have had another assassination attempt happen at the circus - it would help if someone else could be explicitly blamed for it. Such as, for example, House Tsui.
The party briefly contemplates Forest of Chin politics. House Tsui is a very old house in the western middle of the country. They're old and proud, but not very large. They certainly couldn't expect to take over if High Warlord Ze died. Who would take over? Who benefits if he dies? There are probably two or three contenders, including House Zhen. Of course, if the High Warlord has a particular grudge against House Tsui, almost anyone might be better. Tsui might have an arrangement with someone else, but that would be dangerous - it's treason until it succeeds.
However, the Forest culture is such that if the High Warlord's decree of "don't bother me again about this for a month" was a serious enough insult, then an assassination attempt might have been required. There is a lot of that - it wouldn't have been expected to succeed, but an attempt had to be made, for honor? So maybe the smaller demons were just a random add-on by the Alchemist in order to gain information about the party, or kill Ringmaster Te, or something?
Cai Wen thinks he can sell House Tsui to the High Warlord's people, though they might not be quite so good detectives as to be able to figure it out themselves. There is some discussion about whether it's a good idea to jump into politics and point fingers at houses, but it's a more coherent persuasion roll to say "Lo, it was not the circus because it was these other guys"
Takanata also assigns Cai Wen to try and find out why House Teng isn't in town. The word is that Lady Teng is travelling, and with Lord Teng's health issues, they called their representative home to be another trusted man at the estate. (Takanata asks the twins if they know what health issues these are, but they don't.) Grasshopper asks around, a few social strata down, and hears that there are refugees coming in from the midlands, where the villages fell.
Merit briefs everyone about the spirits from Up for Grabs. The wood spirits are the most mad, about people having trapped wood spirits - the ones that are the maddest are the two with no power, though. Takanata doesn't like leaving the angry spirits, though Merit is pretty sure that they can't leave the immediate area. The group tries to question the bunny-hedgehog-spirit thing, on the theory that... well, it's a spirit. When they ask if it will answer questions, it snuffles and nods. Grasshopper gives it a carrot, and it opens an amazingly large and toothy mouth and eats it.
- "That's not a bunny, sir." -Wei Han
Taking a closer look, it looks more like a hedgehog with claws, and bunny ears. Not that that is any more explanatory, as far as anyone can tell. Merit thinks it's the sort of thing that lives somewhere that people don't go, but normally it can shapeshift to look cute. Takanata says he'll try to speak to it in the Dream tonight.
Then, Takanata tries to prune down his poem to take out all the incriminating bits about enemies, in case the Alchemist asks about it again. He manages to make a shorter version without totally destroying the artistic merit.
Wei Han goes out drinking with some of the Dragon Army soldiers who escorted the Alchemist's palanquin. They say they came straight from the Hidden City, and that there's some sort of trouble going on. There were lots of searches, but if they know what was being searched for, they aren't telling Wei Han. (The party suspects Li Kao has been rescued/kidnapped/stolen by the Crew, who were hired to do so several runs ago).
That night, Takanata dreamwalks towards Grasshopper's tent. Inside, Grasshopper is sleeping, and next to him is a cute little bunny. His ears keep popping up, and he puts his paws over them to fold them down. Takanata asks if there's anything they can do to help it, and it bounces up and down, and hops towards Merit's tent, where it looks adoringly up at a Glowing Golden Chalice. Takanata says that's unlikely, and asks if it can show him its home. It hops around some and gets lost, which, Takanata thinks, means it's not really dreamwalking itself - the creature's home doesn't have a strong presence in the Dream. The bunny folds his ears down some more; that must mean something, but Takanata isn't sure what.
- "The only thing left to do is put him into the Cycle." -Shen-Ji
The next morning, Ming I shows up, wanting to know how her guys are. They admit that they're a little worried about the angry spirits being angry, so Ming I says she'll try to sweet talk them. Hmm. Would it be possible to do the ritual there, instead of coming all the way back here? Well, maybe, but then His Excellency would have to come along, and nobody wants that.
Merit wants to know more about the knack of sweet-talking spirits, but she says that it's shticks and tutelage at the feet of the Master. She's assigned to make all the initial contacts with spirits, and then the Master moves in and seals the deal. As the group heads down to the spirit area, Ming I passes out five elemental "rocks" - she says in an emergency, wave the rocks around and the spirits will have to stay away.
Once they arrive in the area, Ming I is easily able to head to where the largest of the three wood spirits is, and has a half-audible conversation. She notes to the party that they've done a good job with bribing him.
- "I'm sure they're very annoying, we could take one of them off your hands."
- "Oh, I couldn't afford to pay that."
- "No, no, we're good."
- "No, okay, you asked three times."
Then, she tells the party "we're good, as long as we take them away."
The group heads to the next spirit, and is assaulted by a wind carrying sharp hot sticks. Ming I mocks it.
- "Oh, stop that. Oh, please, you couldn't even kill him."
She points at Shen-Ji, who has the spirit bottle, and a swirling maelstrom of sticks comes for him, to be caught in the bottle. She notes that since the spirit is so weak, they could fit two, if the group wants a spare, so they pick up the second weakened spirit the same way. She does remember to ask for the dagger back, much to Shen-Ji's disappointment.
Then, the group returns to the Warlord's Throne, where the Alchemist has set up a ritual chamber. He chews out Ming I for bringing back two spirits instead of one, as instructed, but decides he can work with it - one for the future and one for the past. He rewrites the ritual somewhat - he seems to have some shticks in that. Master Zhou and Merit pay close attention to the whole thing.
He directs Ming I and Shen-Ji through their portions of the ritual, and has some harsh words for Ming I when she has trouble with her part of the metal. Shen-Ji shows off with his own ritual rolls.
- "He's like a sorcerous Master Zhou." -Merit
The ritual ends up pulling a description of the ritual out of the spirits (Mola Ram's group summoned the Forest demon first, but found that it was a demon, not a wood spirit; they freed it in exchange for its providing help grabbing the three wood spirits; after that summoning, he stripped their power and tried to use it in his larger ritual, but that failed due to his Yin and Yang foci being out of range), and using that to target the I Ching on Mola Ram.
Takanata uses the opportunity to memorize Mola Ram's pattern, losing his memorization of Kibo.
- "Most impressive. You are more skilled than I anticipated. No need to wait. Finish fire and come talk to me." -the Alchemist to Shen-Ji
Meng I glares daggers at Shen-Ji.
Takanata gives his interpretation of his I Ching reading to the Alchemist, basically truthfully except that he delicately skirts around exactly how Hana and Hiro were not in range. The Alchemist notes that mistaking the Forest demon for a wood spirit is a common mistake.
As for the future, the Alchemist suggests that each do their part. Takanata can ensure that the young master and mistress are not anywhere near, and he can ensure that their parents are well protected, so Mola Ram will be unable to lure them back. If they know the time and location, perhaps they can end this threat permanently.
Takanata demurs - there is some indication in divinations that to defeat the threat permanently, Mola Ram must be defeated at the end, not partway through. The Alchemist notes that there are always ways to get around that sort of thing, but Takanata says he's not sure that would work as well for Southerners. Anyhow, the Alchemist will consult some of his other sources on the matter, though he notes that unlike the I Ching, they are not always able to generate the correct questions to ask, so if Takanata has any suggestions there, that may help. Takanata does note that there is some likelihood that a village that went missing in the Strand was tied to something from the South, and gives the Alchemist directions.
It seems like things are winding down - Grasshopper is sad, as there appears to have been no barring the door against wolves. Takanata concedes that there doesn't seem to have been a Northern plot, and shows the Alchemist his edited poem. The Alchemist believes that Takanata's interpretation is correct - wolf and shadow are north and south - but, without wishing to stretch the metaphor too far, one would not expect to see any wolves while locking the door. Takanata does warn the Alchemist that the Northerners will be coming in strength in the upcoming winter, and Merit reiterates the issue with the bandit/undead confusion. The Alchemist agrees that that problem is being investigated, and notes that he would love to hear why the army has gotten that far out of control, given the Obsidian Warlord's bragging about his control of the army. The party insists that it's Lo Ping behind it.
- "Given your competence and rising eminence, I'm sure I will have opportunity to talk to you once again. And Master Shen-Ji has demonstrated a spirit I can admire."
He takes his leave, but says he'll leave Ming I with the circus for the upcoming puttering, in case they have any further matters that need attending to.
- Hana asks around the Warlord's Throne to find out what's up with her parents.
- Wei Han arranges for an interview with an imperial tax collector.
- Wei Han talks to the High Warlord about Forest/Empire relations.