Ting Ting's Gambit
|"He that teaches himself has a fool for his master."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Serpent in the Month of the Monkey in the first Year of the Spider since the White Pagoda was abandoned.|
The run takes place in around Iron Mountain and the Iron Fortress.
To the Mountains
Cai Wen chats with Min Feng about the visit he took to the monastery where her mother is staying - he was finally able to talk to her, and she was persuaded to let Min Feng visit.
Ringmaster Te comes around, and announces the good news - the terrible menacing bandits are only on the top of Iron Mountain, preventing people from approaching the three pagodas - so they can get to the capital (the Iron Fortress) and perform there on schedule. Merit reminds everyone that it is very very important to call it Iron Mountain and not Bear Mountain. Master Zhou glowers - he mostly tries to avoid calling it anything at all now. The Ringmaster warns everyone to finish any last business in the Reflected City. Xiao Fa gazes on the lake one last time, meditating on Great Works, and he thinks that the Great Work currently in progress must continue with a journey to Iron Mountain.
Merit arranges for a riverboat convoy to take the circus downriver; the plan is to disembark from the river close to the border with the Taiga, out of bandit country, and then head west along the Imperial Highway. Once the Highway ends, they will take the Low Path to Iron Fortress - Master Zhou says that's safer than the High Path, though sometimes plagued by rockslides. Merit lays in some block and tackle in case of rockslides.
As the river journey commences, the captain points out to Min Feng (currently wearing the Butterfly Talisman and the most important-looking of the party) that she can see rams fighting in the mountains above the river. The rams are very dramatic, running at each other and butting heads, and Boots eyes them in fascination. Cai Wen's best guess is that he's hoping for a tip. Lijuan asks the captain if he ever sees pandas, but he says not. Cai Wen also notes that as Min Feng is paying attention to the rams, the monastery of the Order of Uplifted Tranquility is passing by on the other side of the boat. Moments later, Cai Wen finds himself in the water, butted in by a ram who seems to have appeared on the boat. Master Zhou leaps in after him, and the two are pulled back on board in a few moments. There is briefly some consternation - has the monkey swapped a ram for an elephant? But no, Boots is the "disguise monkey" and is causing trouble just on his own.
- "Always be prepared for the unexpected." -Master Zhou
- "I submit to your wisdom." -Cai Wen
After a day's journey on the river, the river boats dock and unload - there is briefly an extra elephant seen, and while the mountains to the north are impressive, the newer mountains which loom to the west are even taller and craggier.
- "Very craggy and inhospitable." -Mike
- "Kind of like Master Zhou, you mean." -Merit
The circus gets on the Imperial Highway, and Min Feng does a quick circuit of the river port to listen for gossip. The Low Path is said to be bandit country, but the Imperial Highway itself is safe. There is a little bit of bandit activity that harasses trade caravans, but most of the trouble is in the higher mountains. Merit hides the largest of his coins in his secret pocket, just in case.
As the circus heads from the Roof of the World into the Iron Mountains, there are some soldiers at the border, waving for them to come off the highway. As the soldiers are not in the uniform of the Dragon Army, and the party is deeply suspicious of what might be bandits dressed up as soldiers, Merit insists on seeing their papers of authority before the circus leaves the highway. The soldiers show him a scroll, signed with the chop of Lord Yu, indicating that all caravans are to be searched for contraband and suspicious goods. It appears to mostly be concerned with supplying weapons to the bandits, though. Merit doesn't think anything the party has should count as contraband, except maybe for Xiao Fa, who had some trouble with the soldiers in the Reflected City. Kasumi heads out to scout the flanks for bandits, and does spot a watcher behind a rock, some distance away.
- "All Tai Lung can do is kill you. Inspector Fu can probably screw up your paperwork in the afterlife." -Cai Wen
As the soldiers ask for people's names, Xiao Fa is introduced as a mime- "the new Silent Han Bob". He demonstrates his (considerable!) skill at being trapped in an invisible box, and the soldiers don't give him any trouble. When Master Zhou gives his name, the soldiers are dubious - yeah, right, sure, it's another Master Zhou coming through. They say it would be a lot easier if he would give his real name; he insists that it is. One of the higher ranking soldiers suddenly tosses his quill at Master Zhou who casually parries it out of the air. This convinces them - two soldiers leap back on their horses and ride for the Iron Fortress, and the others offer to escort the group to the Iron Fortress. Word start travelling up and down the road, Master Zhou has returned!
As the soldiers ride for the Iron Fortress, Kasumi's hidden guy also starts to leave, in a similar hurry - Kasumi gives chase.
- "You're not supposed to run off without telling Wei Han!" -Heidi, protesting
- "Apparently the rules are different for ninjas and archers."
As she's wearing the Magpie Talisman, she's catching up to him as he gets to his horse, but once he's riding, he starts pulling away again. As they head into the mountains, there are more switchbacks, and after one of them, the guy stops to see if he's lost Kasumi - he's surprised to see that he hasn't, and keeps going. Kasumi decides that means she isn't going to catch him, and turns back.
After a little while longer, the circus turns off the Imperial Highway to take the Low Road to Iron Fortress. Min Feng chats up the two soldiers to find out what the local political situation is. Apparently, Lord Yu has lost respect with many of the other lords, and some of the farther-away lords are considering taking some sort of action, but nothing has happened yet. Things will be more interesting now that Master Zhou has returned, though. Anyway, Lord Yu is no doubt doing the best he can, but no one can hold up perfectly under these pressures, like the Mountain being held by the enemy, so that no one can consult with the pagodas. Not to mention, the White Pagoda being empty and the Red Pagoda being... not really empty, but also not much of an advisor. Normally, the wisdom behind the throne comes from the Three Pagodas.
Lijuan watches for any signs of panda spoor - she does see a dead goat underneath a tree. She and Kasumi investigate it - it does seem to have been killed by a large predator which didn't subsequently eat all of it. She thinks whatever the predator was, it went up the mountain afterwards.
- "Let's review what we know about pandas. They're horrible vicious killers, and they only eat bamboo." -Kasumi
Master Zhou wonders whether there is a good way to sneak up to the top of Iron Mountain that isn't the main path - he can think of a couple of ways to go, but they would require a lot of stealth and kung fu, and not all the party has that.
Cai Wen chats with the soldiers about the Red Pagoda in particular. Apparently, Master Chang's kung fu is so fierce that he can wander up and down the pass, and even... the unnamed enemy... won't attack him. As Cai Wen might have heard, he doubled the strength of Kar Fai's mark on the ironwood tree! Since taking possession of the pagoda, he's sent a crew of construction equipment up, but it isn't clear what they were doing. Most of the other Iron Mountain lords think giving him a pagoda was a mistake, but since Kar Fai is dead, what can you do? You can't just leave the pagodas empty forever.
Lijuan declares that she's going to go follow the panda tracks up the mountain; Kasumi and Anto volunteer to come with her. Some Emergency Magic Items are given to the panda hunters - Lijuan gets the horn of summoning help, Anto takes the Hunter's Map to find Cai Wen later, and Kasumi takes one of Min Feng's scrolls of communication.
Lijuan follows the tracks, watching for panda; Anto watches for trouble, but not very well, and Kasumi watches Lijuan. Consequently, all three are somewhat surprised to, after a while, find themselves surrounded by bandits, led by a giant fierce-looking man wearing a simple white gi with a single belt.
- "He could not even bring his message himself?" -Tai Lung
- "He's coming. We're looking for pandas." -Kasumi
- "I don't tell him what to do, it's the other way around." -Lijuan
- "Interesting. You are his servant?" -Tai Lung
Anto recognizes the belt he is wearing as signifying a perfect master - that's not a rank that mortals generally attain, and it's definitely poor form to wear one if you're not entitled to it.
- "You two: go forth and tell him that he will only see his servant again if he comes to get her himself." -Tai Lung to Kasumi and Anto
- "Maybe you should blow the horn now, Lijuan." -Kasumi
- "Do you think? I don’t know if the horn will help." -Lijuan
- "Horn?" -Tai Lung
Tai Lung yoinks the horn from Lijuan, and examines it. It notifies a favorably-inclined force that can defeat the enemy, of the trouble. He notes that he can't blow it, because Master Zhou is hardly favorably inclined towards him, and they can't blow it, because Master Zhou cannot defeat him, so the horn is of no use. Lijuan insists that he give it back, then, and warns him that he will be sorry if the panda shows up to get him. Tai Lung is not impressed, though after Lijuan repeats her plea another dozen times, he does agree that if Master Zhou does show up, she can have the horn back.
Anto attempts to persuade Tai Lung that Master Zhou's honor will certainly compel him to come without holding a poor innocent girl hostage. However, Anto is not very persuasive, and Tai Lung is quite convinced that this is not true.
- "Master Zhou's honor is not to be relied upon in this matter. If he were willing to come, he would have come a year ago." -Tai Lung
- "If any of us were his students, we would really object to this insult." -Anto
- "If any of you were his students, you would be dead now." -Tai Lung
Tai Lung asks if Anto and Kasumi will deliver his message, or if they need further persuasion?
- "Let her go, and you can keep me in her place!" -Anto
- "Hmm, does he value you more highly?" -Tai Lung
- "My panda is going to rescue me!" -Lijuan
- "Well, you might be less annoying..." -Tai Lung
Anto officially surrenders, and Kasumi and Lijuan are permitted to leave to convey the message to Master Zhou. As they head down the trail, Tai Lung hits Anto with a quivering palm, which he does not quite manage to dodge, and Tai Lung calls after the girls that Master Zhou has until noon tomorrow.
- "You realize you're the grownup now, right?" -Lijuan
Rather than head back to pass the message along (and possibly get in trouble), Kasumi and Lijuan use Min Feng's paper to send a message back:
- "I think this is Kasumi's handwriting."
- "Lijuan must have been dictating."
The Panda Hunters continue to brief the rest of the group throughout the course of the day, arguing over whether or not it's more important that they come back or find rescue pandas.
Back at Iron Fortress, the circus is arriving. They are greeted with deep bows and much celebration and respect - Ringmaster Te tells Merit that he did a very good job with the arrangements. The guards ask if Master Zhou and his entourage are prepared to meet with Lord Yu - do they need anything at all first? They can't think of anything, so they are shown into the Iron Fortress - a gate between two mountain-shaped rocks of granite, into a courtyard with an ironwood tree, where Lord Yu awaits them.
Lord Yu bows, and says that he had feared for Master Zhou, due to his long time in absence, and he is pleased and grateful for his return. After the initial greeting, servants appear in great quantities, offering food and drink, and escorting everyone into a more comfortable room, with round benches with cushions.
Master Zhou instructs Lord Yu to tell him of Tai Lung. Lord Yu allows as how Tai Lung has been most troublesome. While they have raised several forces to retake the pass, they have so far all failed. His spies indicate that another force from the Roof of the World was being raised to combat Tai Lung, but that it has failed to materialize. Now that Master Zhou is back, however, he is sure that this can all be dealt with quickly, and they can once more carry the flag of the Iron Fortress up the mountain. Master Zhou, noting all the servants, requests a more private conversation, so Lord Yu chases the servants away, including a mysterious grey-cloaked figure who seems to have entered when no one was looking. The figure in grey cackles laughter, and mocks the idea that Master Zhou will be able to save Lord Yu, and then dashes from the room.
- "Was that Ting Ting?" -Master Zhou
- "The madwoman, yes." -Lord Yu
- "Has there been any word from Quan Lo?" -Master Zhou
- "We eagerly await such word, but our messengers do not return, and if he has sent any messengers, they have not arrived." -Lord Yu
Master Zhou notes that to retake the pass is a worthy goal, but it is not the business he is here for today: he must speak to Quan Lo, if such can be arranged. Lord Yu looks crushed, and also somewhat at a loss for how to arrange such a thing. When other members of his entourage start casting him Significant Glances, Master Zhou also notes that one of his companions has been captured. Ahah, Lord Yu notes - he seeks justice, then? Hopefully that can be arranged. He can arrange for a group to assault the rear path up the the mountain, and let it be known that Master Zhou is among those, which he thinks should be helpful. Then Master Zhou can charge up the main path and rescue his friend, defeating the fiend.
Meanwhile, Lijuan and Kasumi plot about what to do next.
- "Our first goal is to not get ourselves captured." -Kasumi
- "And pandas!" -Lijuan
- "That's not the first goal!" -Kasumi
Lijuan continues to look for panda tracks, while Kasumi keeps a more careful eye out for bandits and other trouble. This time, they manage to avoid Tai Lung's guys, and Lijuan finds a panda cave, though there are no pandas currently in residence.
Tai Lung is busily setting up his grand ambush for Master Zhou, using Anto as a sounding board.
- "Let me see, where should we have the ambush for your master? Should we use rock slides? Or arrows? Oh, let's do both." -Tai Lung
He's actually quite polite to Anto, though his guys make sure Anto is always right around to be talked to, once he seems willing to offer advice on what might be most dramatic. They agree that Tai Lung standing on a particular rock silhouettes him well against Bear Mountain. And then, he can leap down, defeat Master Zhou, and wrest his prize from him. Anto is curious - what prize does he seek? Tai Lung says he wants to learn the final secrets of the most powerful strike, and also collect some trinket the Zhou is supposed to have.
Back at the Iron Fortress, Master Zhou decides that the next step is to find and interrogate Ting Ting. She asks, mockingly, why a great master would seek someone so useless as herself. Cai Wen watches with interest as this strange frail old-sounding woman in a grey hooded robe is setting off his babe senses. He’s pretty sure she’s not his moll though. Possibly she’s someone else’s moll.
- "Cai Wen is wondering where his moll his, because she hasn't been delivered on a silver platter, and I'm thinking 'Hah!' " -Merit
- "Are you really one of Kar Fai's students?" -Master Zhou
- "I have studied the way of the Sharpened Scale." -Ting Ting
- "I also heard that you were dead."
- "Then you speak to a ghost. You will not defeat Tai Lung this day."
- "Indeed. What do you know of him?"
- "He holds the pass, and he waits for you. He wishes to defeat you or Quan Lo, but he cannot defeat Quan Lo from the pass. If you know you will not defeat him, why have you come?"
- "I must speak to Quan Lo."
- "For what purpose?"
- "To save all."
- "And you think Quan Lo has this power?"
- "....I think he is on my path to that end."
- "You have come seeking advice?"
- "... I come to speak with Quan Lo." -Master Zhou, now through gritted teeth now
- "Do you know of a way up the pass that will not be detected?" -Master Zhou
- "No. But if your reason is sufficient, I know of a way up the pass."
- "I would ensure that my companion is rescued."
- "Would you trade your life for his?"
- "That would not be preferable."
- [she waits, silent]
- "You are not as you are described. When you are ready, gather your forces and I will provide what assistance I can."
Merit says he has a potion of invisibility/silence, that can be refilled under a (giant) fireworks display; perhaps that will let one person sneak up to the Green Pagoda, or to Anto. Maybe he will be able to find a hidden cache with enough fireworks for a giant fireworks display, so that it can be made to work twice?
Cai Wen asks around the Iron Fortress about "Master Chang". When did he last come through? The most recent time was something like a month ago, when he left the mountain. His construction team wasn't local; they were brought in just to refit the Red Pagoda somehow.
- "Our plan, should I laughingly call it that, is to go with Ting Ting up the mountain, and then get sufficient wisdom from Quan Lo (and the Bear Talisman, Zhou points out), to go down the mountain and free Anto." -Merit
Back at the ambush, Anto contemplates his bounds. In addition to being vaguely constrained to stay where he is, he notes that he will die at noon if he doesn't see Tai Lung and Master Zhou face each other. Interesting. That doesn't seem to be something he can unbind from himself.
Back at the panda cave, there is still no panda, though Lijuan thinks it will probably return for the night, if not before. They sneak around a bit more and find the ambush - but have no good way of describing where it is via their note.
- "Two schoolgirls and a panda! How could that go wrong?" -Lijuan
Finally, as night falls a panda arrives and sits on Lijuan. The two girls try to persuade the panda that it should come to the circus with them, but it has none of that. Finally, Lijuan manages to escape from the panda's cuddly embrace, and they flee down the mountain in sadness at not having actually recruited their rescue panda.
Cai Wen naps until midnight, and then looks around again for Ting Ting - this is the time when she's said to be particularly pesky, railing against Lord Yu, and screeching in the night, but there is no sign of her.
Also during the night, Anto stays awake looking for a chance to escape. He eventually gets out of his bonds, and as the dawn approaches, he stealthily makes his way out of Tai Lung’s camp and starts heading down the pass.
In the morning, Merit buys some brightly colored kites, to fly to communicate to faraway soldiers as needed.
Ting Ting reappears, and everyone demands to know what the plan is. She says that they shall challenge Tai Lung with honor and grace, and thus they shall not be defeated. No one is sure that this is a sufficient guarantee of safety to want to do it, though there does seem to be the problem of Anto being a prisoner.
- "None of us will be defeated? Does dying count?"
- "For the record, I hate this plan." -Merit
Ting Ting asks what Master Zhou's objectives are. He says to talk to Quan Lo, to not die, and to rescue Anto.
- "I can't fight with honor!" -Merit
- "I will have to fight with honor enough for both of us. " -Master Zhou
As the group heads up the mountain, they meet Anto coming down.
- "You see what happens if you progress boldly, with honor? The first of our objectives is already achieved! Now, to Tai Lung!" -Ting Ting
Xiao Fa examines Anto's chi, frowning, and spends some time tweaking it. Master Zhou hits Anto with a strike that seems to counter the effect, as well, and Anto thinks he's unbound now. Merit recalls something about the Quivering Palm only being able to be used on defeated foes, not in combat.
Well, can everyone go back down again? No, the "talk to Quan Lo" part hasn't happened. Ting Ting reassures Master Zhou again that he will not be defeated, though everyone else continues to be very unsure that that word means what she thinks it means.
- "This is all going to go horribly horribly wrong." -Merit
- "Are her motives pure?" -Master Zhou
- "How should I know? " -Cai Wen
- "You're the detective! Go and detect!" -Zhou
- "This is the best worst plan ever." -Kasumi
Kasumi tries to tell Li Merit that she'll pay for the missing horn, but one, she can't afford it, and two, he's sure that it's Lijuan's fault, who can afford it even less.
Kasumi and Lijuan can point out where the ambush is, a little ways below it. (Merit drops a coin in the bushes, ready to make it sound like an angry mob.) Ting Ting still thinks the plan is to stride dramatically forward, though there is an initial instinct among everyone else to not run into the ambush. Tai Lung stands on his dramatic rock, poised to attack, and Master Zhou stage-claps, mocking him for his dramatic pose, though Master Zhou's charisma is insufficient to bear the weight of his sarcasm.
Merit complains about the traps in the ambush - is that honorable? Ting Ting assures him that if he strides boldly forward, he will not be defeated. Grumbling loudly, everyone strides, well, forward, at least, and Tai Lung leaps down into the ravine to face Master Zhou. (Anto notes that he would have been unbound now if he weren't before).
The Dramatic Soliloquies Phase begins:
- "Ah, you need so many to protect you?" -Tai Lung
- "Give us the horn!" -Lijuan
- "You needed the help of the Spider to learn those things you could not comprehend! You were not worthy!" -Master Zhou
- "Now, I am worthy." -Tai Lung
- "Yet you still call me master!" -Master Zhou
- "Surrender to me the treasures I seek and I will allow your companions to live." -Tai Lung
- "You will have nothing but your own bitterness." -Master Zhou
- "Tell me the secret!" -Tai Lung
- "Give us the horn!" -Lijuan
- "Then you will comply with my demands?" -Tai Lung
- "No!" -Master Zhou
Ting Ting cackles gleefully and throws off her robe. Underneath, she is dressed in red with a golden sash, with a very long braid and a very large sword. Tai Lung looks mildly appalled, though not scared.
Tai Lung strikes first, splitting his dice against Master Zhou and Ting Ting, testing, but both block. Now that he's seen Ting Ting fight, Master Zhou uses Combat Analysis on Ting Ting, and is baffled. She knows Sharpened Scale kung fu; her aspect is weird but is “currently” Tiger. She is the only person he's ever seen who has shticks of level 3/4/5 while being second level - he's not even sure what that means.
Kasumi chops some of the bandits up above in the ambush, and Min Feng studies Tai Lung.
Then, Tai Lung purrs "Why don't we keep this just between ourselves?" and invokes the Not for Amateurs master ability, so that just the martial artists can fight (that includes Tai Lung, Master Zhou, Ting Ting, Xiao Fa, and Anto) and tells his bandits to attack.
The bandits start by blocking the pass with rockslides, and then roll rocks down on people, as well as launching a hail of arrows. Everyone in the pass who is not in the "not for amateurs" fight takes damage. People attempt to climb out of the ravine by any way they can manage, except for Cai Wen, who takes cover in a crack of the ravine. When Kasumi takes down one of the bandits sub-leaders, a bunch of the lower bandits decide to "come back later after Tai Lung has won", decreasing the general peril a little. However, once most of the people are at the top of the hill, the archers switch their targets to rain arrows there rather than down below.
In the martial arts battle, Xiao Fa strikes at Tai Lung's tao, but he dodges it. Anto grabs him with grasping vines but he breaks out and chops Ting Ting. A second tao-based strike against Tai Lung barely gets through, dropping his Tao by a point, but this unleashes Tai Lung's Vengeance of the Tiger against Xiao Fa, and he nearly falls in a blow. Master Zhou points at Xiao Fa and tells him to do it again, giving him an action - this time, Tai Lung doesn't have any dodge dice left, and loses five Tao. He is not at all pleased by this, as many of his abilities cost tao stats. Anto picks up Xiao Fa and leaping-flames them away to the top of the pass.
Master Zhou, fearing for how the fight is going, strikes at Tai Lung, spending seven karma. Tai Lung blocks most of it, but is knocked backwards; the horn is knocked free and it flies off, hitting Lijuan in the head. Enraged, Tail Lung bellows at Master Zhou that he will destroy him, but there is an answering roar from the hillside, as four Imperial Panda emerge from the mountainside. Tai Lung, frustrated, strikes Ting Ting, and takes her down - she gives a great roar herself as she falls (no, it is not a panda roar. Nor is it a tiger roar). Cai Wen attempts to drag the fallen Ting Ting away from the battle, but takes a bunch of damage from the archers in the process.
Tai Lung strikes next at Master Zhou - Cai Wen cancels his fortune, and falls to another hail of arrows. However, when Tai Lung hits Master Zhou, who falls with mortal wounds, Zhou hits him back with his own Vengeance of the Tiger, doing the first significant damage to him of the fight. Tai Lung starts to gloat:
- "At least you went down before... wait... why are you not defeated?"
Then, the pandas attack, chasing Tai Lung away into the hills. Tai Lung's bandits also flee, since they certainly cannot be braver than their master.
A heroic first aid effort by Merit keeps Master Zhou from dying; Ting Ting is unconscious but not dying. One cache of healing potions later, both are awake again, and Ting Ting (in a much younger and saner voice) points out that because they fought with grace and honor, they were not defeated. Master Zhou tells Ting Ting that she fought bravely. Merit continues to grumble.
But now, with Tai Lung out of the way, the path to the summit is clear. Ting Ting bows and says that she may not approach the Red Pagoda, so she puts her cloak back on, cackles madly, and heads back down to the Iron Fortress. Before she leaves though, Cai Wen asks her of the Red Pagoda. She ponders a moment and then says, “Do not be deceived by Chang's false senshi chamber.”
That all over, Min Feng wonders where Tai Lung has gone - he is at the circus now!
- "Gasp!" -Most everyone
- "Right, because we hear that Ringmaster Te is the ultimate foe of the Marked"
- "Oh, crap"
However, Tai Lung appears able to move much faster than the party - by the time they get back down the mountain, anything that was going to happen will have already happened. So they may as well take this rare chance to go up the mountain to see Quan Lo, which was the last goal.
The Green Pagoda
When the group reaches the summit of the mountain, they see a small community of buildings - principally three great pagodas, but a number of smaller out-buildings. Several gray-robed monks are getting water from a well, and are astounded to see visitors. They rush over, excited that visitors have made it up the pass.
- "Most honored visitors, may we know how you have come up?"
- "With great difficulty."
Master Zhou tells the monks he is Master Zhou, and he seeks Quan Lo. The monks' eyes widen, and they run for the Green Pagoda. The group heads into the central plaza, and in addition to monks in grey, other robed figures are seen. Several are in red robes, several in green robes, and one in white robes. The white-robed monk shouts "Brother!" and runs for Xiao Fa. Cai Wen recognizes her as a monk in training that he met many years back, whose name he never learned, much to his chagrin.
- "Is there any visible construction in progress?" -Jerry
- "No." -Mike
- "Are there any mass graves?" -Heidi
- "What?? No!" -Mike
Master Zhou instructs the white-robed monk to tell him what has transpired recently. She explains that "the one called Chang" came and seized the Red Pagoda by the leave of Lord Yu- there was some fighting by the servants of the old Master, but they fell before him, and he moved into the pagoda for some time, about two months. During that time no one else could leave the mountain, due to Tai Lung holding the passes, except for Chang's people, who came in and out with wood and tools and such, working inside the Red Pagoda. Despite a lot of construction noise, the exterior did not change. About a month ago, Chang departed, but his servants still hold the Red Pagoda in his name. The White Pagoda has been tended by those few who remain, and the Green Pagoda is as ever.
Master Zhou tells her that he would speak with Quan Lo, but after that, he hopes to return to the White Pagoda. She gives Xiao Fa a significant look and runs for the White Pagoda to make sure everything is in order.
The party heads to the Green Pagoda; there are lots of green-robed monks in evidence, and above the door is written "Pagoda of the Guiding Hand". Everyone is shown into a waiting area, where the monks ask if there are any needs that can be fulfilled before they see the Master. Between hot towels and acupuncture healing, it is an hour or so before everyone is ready. Then, everyone but Master Zhou is giving a green visitor's sash (Merit takes a careful look at his in case it ever becomes necessary to fake one).
The monks let the party know that the Master awaits in his senshi chamber; the door is just beyond. Each person goes through the door one at a time (Master Zhou goes first), but as soon as they have gone through, the door closes and then opens again, showing the empty chamber. There is a brief moment of consternation, but then everyone follows.
After passing through the door, each person finds themselves alone in a short corridor lined with rice paper. Everyone starts out by walking to the door at the end of the corridor, tearing the paper underfoot before passing through the door. On the other side is just another corridor, similarly lined with rice paper. Hmm.
Those with enough kung fu skill can generally walk on the rice paper without tearing it. Stealth also proves useful. Merit recalls that rice paper is stiffer when written upon, and writes the story of rescuing the Butterfly Monarch from the World of Dreams (after failing to remember the end of the poem of Takanata's he was trying for first). Cai Wen discovers that he is light enough on his feet while dancing to not tear the paper. Master Zhou decides to not walk across the paper, and simply sits and waits, meditating. After he has waited for a timeless time, the door opens for him and he goes in. Once to the other side, everyone enters the senshi chamber together.
The room is large, and seems to be made all of green jade. In the center is a raised platform, and sitting on the platform is Quan Lo, dressed also all in green. He nods to them.
- "You have changed, brother. Perhaps there is hope." -Quan Lo
He gestures to the eight slightly lower platforms arranged before him as well, for them to be seated.
- "So, the time has come; you have brought them." -Quan Lo
- "I have brought them. What do you know of what we are doing?" -Master Zhou
- "I know the time has come for you to cross through the gate. Are you prepared?"
This last has been directed to Anto, who thinks for a moment and replies "No." Quan Lo smiles.
- "Excellent. Your students have wisdom." -Quan Lo
- "Some, some." -Master Zhou
- "I am working on that." -Anto
- "... The last time I went through the gate, it did not go well." -Master Zhou
There is a silence then, which Min Feng is sure is the silence of someone not saying "I told you so."
- "You must use the gate and the key, and fill the empty cup. You have trained?" -Quan Lo
- "Some. I am no longer a spiritwalker; that was taken from me." -Master Zhou
- "But you bring the Wu Xing with you. Or perhaps he brings you with him." -Quan Lo
Quan Lo says he will instruct those who are swayed by his words to assist and prepare them, but only those who follow the path may walk through the gate. However, so that they will not be wholly unprepared, and as they have proven themselves worthy, he will for each person answer a question.
- What's going on?
- You are caught in the midst of a great battle between what was and what could be. You have chosen a side? (She nods.) Then, may you do well.
- "I knew that!" -Lijuan
- Xiao Fa
- What, in your opinion, is best for this one to know?
- You have made a life for yourself as what you are. A better life than what you were. But should you cling to it too tightly, you will never know the life that you will be.
- Can you tell me what I need to do to be prepared?
- Preparation for you is a matter of birth and destiny rather than skill and preparedness, but after the first time you pass through the gate, your eyes that are closed will be opened and you can freely choose which directions and paths to develop.
- Would it be good for Iron Mountain if we somehow got Lijuan back in the line of Bear Emperors?
- What line she bears is part of who she is; but if you truly seek what is best for the mountain, you must ask not who she, is but what will she do.
- "Well, that answers it for most of us." - Merit
- We will need the Bear Talisman to complete our work.
- When you are ready for it, it will be here.
- I have apparently a bit of a hole in my past, that my associates have been hiding presumably for my own good. Is it relevant to the big war?
- It is relevant to the war only inasmuch as it is relevant to your strength; you will need strength to fight in the war. But both you with all the strength you could have with the hole and without it, could fight and win.
The party is rather divided between those who think that Quan Lo is being cryptic and unhelpful, like all Old Masters, and those who have met him before, who are impressed at how straightforward he's being.
- Cai Wen
- Should I attempt to free the Red Pagoda from my enemy, or wait for Kar Fai to return?
- Should you do it yourself, you can more easily use it as part of your plan to restore what was lost about the mountain. But you do not yet have such a plan. Kar Fai, should you not have done it by then, will deal with it when he returns. This will not be soon.
- Min Feng
- Why does my mother refuse to see her father?
- Your mother's mother was not a very good human, and thus, left the impression because of rules which bind her, as opposed to true intent or understanding, that she was abandoned.
This answer seems to puzzle Quan Lo; he looks at Min Feng more closely, and then appears to come to an understanding.
- "You have saved yourself for last. I am impressed." -Quan Lo to Master Zhou
- "I surprise you?" -Master Zhou
- "When last you left this place, you were a Tiger. You return as a Tortoise. It seems even the mountain can be bent. "
- "Much of what I was, was cast off. Very well. The past is the past... [through gritted teeth] and so I will ask you of the future."
- Master Zhou
- I am not who I was. I did not listen to your advice. But I am not who I was, so what must I know now?
- You must know three things. First, the path you now walk, that those of your students would have called your homework, is the path that leads to the fall of Tai Lung. Second, the Marked are strong when they act in concert as a group of eight. They are weakest when they fight among themselves. Just as the Spider and the Butterfly are balanced, so it is with you. Third, you will not (glance at Anto) be able to free the Dragon at this pass through the gate. Should you try, you will fail. You will only need to gain from him the knowledge you will need to try again.
Master Zhou bows, and says that the Work will continue. Quan Lo raises an eyebrow, and looks at Xiao Fa. Then, he says that he will instruct those who are swayed by his words to provide those supplies which are needed. He will also offer once last piece of insight: "You should see to your fallen friend, but he is already recovering, so you need not flee in all haste."
Quan Lo bows, and the light in the chamber grows brighter for a few moments; when it dims, he is no longer there. Merit heads to the door first, and finds that it leads directly to the waiting area.
Merit catches the attention of one of the green-robed monks, and tells him that if there is some bit of wisdom that the Perfect Master needs, Merit can try to find it out for him. The monk nods gratitude, but says that all the knowledge he needs comes to him eventually - perhaps Merit will be the way that it comes, but it is not their way to prompt the Hand of Fate. Merit is pretty sure that this is the Green Pagoda Party Line, and points out that he might have knowledge but not know that it's what is needed. The monk says that he will deliver the message to the Master.
The next step, then, will be to head to Five Elements Pass, to go through into the World Above. They will probably need to seek out the citadel of the Spider, which would be where the Dragon is likely to be imprisoned. The "empty cup" is surely Xiao Fa. However, this will be a quest for a later date. For the moment, since Tai Lung is still not back, the group heads back down the mountain to the Iron Fortress.
Ringmaster Te is in the care of Lord Yu, after having been badly beaten by Tai Lung. He tells the tale - Tai Lung came down the mountain and caused a great deal of havoc breaking things up in the circus. Then, when Ringmaster Te tried to stop him (probably a mistake), Tai Lung beat him and demanded to know where "they" were. Ringmaster Te did eventually tell Tai Lung that "they" had gone up the pass to fight the bad guys, but that was apparently not the right answer - Tai Lung demanded to know not where the pathetic fools were, but where the beads were. That was even more confusing, but Ringmaster Te was forced to tell where the party kept their loot, so Tai Lung broke open their strong boxes and took the meditation beads of Li Kao, and the three forged Great Treasures. (He will no doubt be sorry to discover that they are forgeries).
Min Feng wonders where Tai Lung is now, and thinks he is heading down the Imperial Highway into the Taiga. He really does move very fast.
Lijuan attempts to prevail upon the injured Ringmaster Te to let her get a panda for the circus. He's willing to consider the idea, but not with the extra conditions that Lijuan starts adding, those being that she gets to sleep in its cage all the time.
At the moment, Tai Lung is not guarding the pass to the pagodas, so people can putter at the pagodas, and anywhere within puttering range of Iron Mountain.
- Master Zhou visits the temple of the Ways of Three Worlds, and the dojo of the Voiceless Dragon in the Roof of the World.
- Wei Han, Takanata, and Shen-Ji wander around the northern Roof of the World, looking for the village where Wei Han was born.
- Wei Han visits the Green Pagoda. So does Yanyu.
- Hana, Takanata, and Cai Wen visit a Temple of Continuing Remembrance.
- Takanata visits the temple of the Ways of Three Worlds.
- Cai Wen looks for the monk in white to help with her chores.
- Cai Wen and Merit wander around the Iron Fortress investigating the local politics.
- Kasumi goes to sneak after ninja in the City of Spires.
- More shopping happens.
- Takanata visits the Three Pagodas.
- Takanata calls upon Kosaka Yuuka, an I Ching master resident in the Reflected City.
- Lijuan and Kasumi look for pandas again. Then Lijuan accidentally tries to lure some pandas into the city.
- Wei Han goes to report to Chang Hu.
- Takanata and Yoshi talk to Ting Ting.