A Second Rescue
|"When looking at any significant work of art, remember that a more significant one probably has had to be sacrificed."|| The run takes place late in the Month of the Dog in the Tenth Year of the Dog since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place in a number of places, but mostly near the North Wall.
Our heroes (Mulan and her friends) are relaxing in Stone Drum, when Mulan receives a message. It is a summons, signed with the traditional dramatic black squiggle, indicating that Shen Dai Han has something of note to impart. The man is annoying, but also especially well-informed, so Mulan heads to the meeting.
Shen Dai Han tells her that he has learned that the Beastmaster of Men's prime Death Lord is soon to bind a particularly powerful Empire ghost, and that this binding will be... very inconvenient... for the war effort. He is unable to send the Invisible Web so far into enemy territory, so he is entrusting this mission “against the North” to Mulan and her squad. She is welcome to recruit a larger strike force, as needed. He gives Mulan a glance of deep and dark significance, which she blithely disregards, and also gives her directions to the last known location of the Empire ghost, which she takes, and heads to brief her friends.
Since most of the time that Mulan and her cohort end up in a big kerfuffle against the North, Butterfly's party is involved, she decides perhaps she'll skip the step where she gets in over her head first, and the group heads to Tahiti to see if anyone is free.
Alas, most of the group is not around Tahiti, having headed out on a mission for the Magpie Prince, but the butler tells them that Lord Takanata is in his studio, so they go to ask if he would be willing to help. Takanata has just finished carving a pair of game pieces - a black general, and a bone tile carved into a skull. He hasn't been able to identify the game they belong to, and mutters something about needing to ask Cai Wen.
Mulan asks if the poet-warrior would be up for an adventure to prevent this Imperial Ghost from being bound, and Takanata recognizes that this is likely to be Hana, who he has also been thinking about rescuing. Marvelous! It is a team-up! Takanata also has another few suggestions of people to recruit, so after a few jumps through Tahiti's water gates and a circus summons, a full adventuring mob is put together:
- Fa Mulan and her cohort
- Murase Minako and her horses (she gets Takanata to teach one of her horses Auspicious Arrival, and then tweak a second copy into Auspicious Departure)
- Broken Sword
- Renata the Thief
Ando does not join the group crossing the Wall, but will provide advice once a scene via communicating paper; this will let him leverage his headquarters to information-bash. For the first installment, he notes that the pieces look to be from a houqi set - an obscure variant of shogi, played in the Forest of Chin. Starting with the normal rules of shogi, the players can add rules and abilities usable by particular pieces. A high-end set, as these pieces would be from, will swap out pieces as they power up, and the black warlord has been empowered with a number of powerups. The white tile is essentially a debuff - the skull carving in particular is not one he is familiar with. Yoshi's Interpret Omens confirms the hypothesis that whatever the binding is that is planned for Hana will seriously thwart the Obsidian Warlord's power.
Tempting as it might be to thwart the Warlord, no one is willing to sacrifice Hana to do so.
- "I mean, I'd be willing, if you told me that was the job. But since you gave me two tael to rescue the lady, it's your call." -Renata
Takanata and Mulan are both familiar with the stealth through enemy territory mechanic, and suggest that Renata takes point. He is both perceptive and stealthy, and with Yoshi's abilities to cloak the rest of the group in shadows, they reach the Wall without incident. The horses (with +1 Murase Minoru) join them on the other side of the Wall, and the group continues north. One Northern patrol is evaded, and when a second catches sight of the group, Broken Sword and Murase Minoru are able to let the horses outdistance the pursuers.
Takanata recalls that people will need to be in disguise, and Ando can provide some long-distance suggestions on exactly how to position the false moustaches. Then, they start to creep amongst and into the tents of the Beastmaster of Men's camp. The patrols seem to be more prevalent than the time the Butterfly party was here, so Broken Sword spends all his effort on subtly adjusting the distances to help stay out of the way.
A number of tents are encountered only long enough to progress forward, but some prove fruitful in getting clues:
Renata overhears that the plan is to build what is essentially a skeletal hydra, combining various undead powers into a creature that can be enhanced by both necromancy and beastmastery. The necromancer is a bit cross at what she sees as dilution of the purity of the Art.
Ling chats them up, and learns that the amount of spy information being gathered from the South has decreased recently; the women are concerned that they will be punished.
This tent only has one exit back to the camp, and one exit *down*. This is briefly intriguing and Mulan's group thinks about climbing down, but infiltrating the North's World Below is deemed to be excessive mission creep. Yoshi and Takanata both meditate, and learn that the North's World Below or whatever that is, is very excited to get to Chapter End before a 4 is rolled - this intelligence is more significant to Takanata than to Yoshi.
Yoshi and Mulan whisper to the old woman, and coax out of her that the entity here has been bound into a Many-Bone Staff, to give to the First Deathlord. With this staff, he will be able to wrest control of the Imperial Dead away from the southern Warlord who controls them now.
Well, this particular mission seems to be doomed to have the Princess in Another Castle, but they don't think they will have time for a second NPC run. The group creeps from tent to tent as quickly as possible, until they have enough mechanic-clues to locate where they need to go, and Takanata gets a vision of the Many Bone Staff binding, in order to recognize it, and then vanish back into the night.
The group proceeds cautiously northwards, taking full advantage of their Northerner disguises. The Deathlord is currently in his mountain stronghold; the surrounding towns are half necropolis, and even Broken Sword gets the creeps traveling through them.
Some intelligence-gathering and surveillance indicates that the Necrolord spends the nights walking through his local boneyards, soaking up... ambiance? Necromantic power? Without Shen-Ji along, the doings of necromancers are a little obscure. However, the Necrolord does plant the Many-Bone Staff in each necropolis for about an hour, during which time it grows ever so slightly more eerie-looking.
The group makes a quick plan - Renata is pretty sure that infiltrating the Necrolord's stronghold is foolhardy, and Broken Sword thinks that a frontal attack is even worse. But perhaps they can steal the staff, while it is in one of the boneyards. With the Necrolord there, the only way to get something of a head start against pursuit will be to switch it with a lookalike, somehow.
The group checks in with Ando, who notes that they can leverage a fairly standard MacGuffin Creation mechanic - start with an item, and then pile various benefits in to make it "better" - more convincing as a replica, or to make the switch more invisible. Everyone, including Ando, brainstorms the possibilities:
- Rare / Expensive Materials
- Artistic Creation
- Death Magic
- Unusual Perceptions (Scent)
- Careful Positioning
- Distraction of the Deathlord
- Bad Weather
- Excessive Trickiness
Renata fetches a selection of bones from the nearby boneyards, to start with, but the question of where to get expensive bones is a difficult one. Yoshi pauses for a moment, and then wonders whether the bones of someone related to Hana would count as rare. Not that Hana's actual bones are in the staff, but...
Takanata considers the question and is beginning to converge on the uncomfortable "yes," when Broken Sword chimes in.
- "I don't know about the mechanic but it's the sort of thing that fits their symbolism perfectly." -Broken Sword
Since Murase Minako and her auspiciously transportive horses can move everyone around quickly, Takanata suggests that the group make use of Tahiti's magical nature and party loot, and they head there for the staff construction.
Takanata butterflies around among the loot, and finds himself wandering by the Alarming Potions several times. He picks up those, as well as some other items:
- Copper Bar
- Level V Soul Seal
- A small vial of yellow liquid. (Label: wealth doubler, up to a few tael)
- A small vial of red liquid (Label: Spiritually Contagious Food Coloring)
- A small vial of blue liquid (Label: Equine Vampirism)
- A small vial of green liquid (Label: Reconfigurable Essence Poison)
- Ring of Monkey
The bindings on the staff are leather and copper, so the copper bar can be reshaped there. Ando is intrigued to learn that the party has so many soul seals, and also knows how to use them - he says that he can take care of the eerie scent with the soul seal and some quick errands and a bit of paperwork. Additionally, if both Yoshi and Takanata are donating bones, he can... well, it's complicated, but think of it as making sure that neither of them is legally or mystically connected the bones afterwards, so there's no danger of the necromancer using them against them.
Murase Minako discusses things with her horses, and decides that can probably cover the death magic, using the potion of equine vampirism. Takanata suggests using twenty tael from party loot to cover "expensive", but Broken Sword is pretty clear that the finger bone of the Bearer of Auguries (as well as another relative) can be pivoted into Omens even more than Rare Ingredients.
In the end, the staff is made from a number of anonymous leg bones, Yoshi's fingerbone (soul-severed from Yoshi), Takanata's fingerbone (soul-severed from Takanata), the left fang of an equine vampire, leather from a dire crocodile (expensive), copper bindings, nine skulls of various small creatures, carefully polished and with small gems inset in their sockets (expensive), spiritually contagious food coloring, and certificates of scent from a graveyard, an asylum, a battlefield, a ruined tower, and a haunted river.
Takanata, with distaste, makes an Artistic roll to put it all together (spending a karma to break the stat cap, and discovering that he doesn't have a virtual karma for an NPC run), and with 28 successes, the staff is truly a work of terrifying art.
Then, it's back to the North to do the swap.
Mulan and her two companions are masters of distraction, especially if cross-dressed, so they volunteer to handle distracting the deathlord. They discover that they have to cross-dress as skeletons of the opposite sex, which proves a little more complicated, and Chien-Po just isn't skinny enough to pass as a skeleton, no matter how many creepy flowing robes he adds, they aren't quite at their best. They rehearse a skeleton-dance for extra confusion, and Ling thinks of ways to get the other skeletons to join in.
Renata will handle the actual swap, and the careful positioning.
Broken Sword can change the weather to be dark and stormy, but only across the battlemap of the boneyard where the swap is taking place, so it isn't quite ideal.
Takanata tweaks Yoshi's Shadow shtick to make it a Luck-based shtick instead, and then Yoshi tweaks a number of people's shticks to make them based on luck instead of something else.
Murase Minako can use the Ring of Monkey to turn a lot of horse into a lot of monkey, which is either excessive or tricky but not quite excessively tricky (but nearly).
That covers all the bases, though not as thoroughly as the construction of the staff did.
The swap goes off without any noticeable hitch, but once both Broken Sword and Renata are off of the boneyard battlemap, the bad weather begins to clear.
Mulan, Yao, and Ling extricate themselves from the extremely distracting Skeleton Dance Party, though a few of the skeletons follow along to what they seem to assume is the after-party and have to be dispatched.
That brings the "not quite" counter up to five, and the Dread Lord's preliminary defenses activate, with a haunt of ghosts dispatched to see what is going on.
Yoshi gets everyone cloaked in shadows again, and the group rides south without being spotted by the ghosts, but Takanata realizes that trying to bring a vastly powerful necromantic staff and a very powerful ghost across the Wall is likely to be trouble. So, unfortunately, they have to stop and break the staff.
Hana whirls out of the shards of bone, looking furious and... rather more powerful than before. Apparently there was quite a lot of Death power in the staff, which is now in Hana, and she - well, she doesn't look like an abomination, per se, but
Old Hana : vengeful ghost :: New Hana : abomination
Hmm. That could be very good or very bad. Hana turns her eyes of flame-in-darkness to her rescuers and smiles (friendly but terrifying).
- "I can defeat the Dread Lord's second wave, which will be here in a moment. But that will trigger the third wave, which you should not be here for. Go. And... thank you." -Hana
They go. An unearthly howling starts at their backs, and Murase Minako tells the horses to get a move on. They approach the Wall, and the horses... jump.
Over the Walls
The horses seem to have more of a boost in their leap than anyone expects, even Murase Minako. Possibly someone Else has had a hand in the horse-powering here? Takanata turns on Eyes of the I Ching before the horses land (it seems to be quite a long jump) - yup, Horse himself seems to be part of the troop of horses, at least for the moment.
Finally, the horses land from their leap, in a clearing in the jungle, which Takanata recognizes as just outside of Gateway to Riches.
As folks approach the town, a colorfully dressed priest rushes up. “The Great Lord is expecting you! You must join Him for his evening repast!” Yoshi frowns, but Renata is happy for a good meal. As the group walks towards the great temple, Takanata quickly briefs people. Do not under any circumstances discuss money or wealth. Takanata points out that the clothes of the priest indicate he represents the God of the Empire. As long as they don’t mention any money, they can likely avoid a very expensive meeting with the God of Wealth. Mulan protests that God of the Empire either doesn’t make sense or is a really bad idea… Takanata shushes her and says to just be respectful. The others in her band bristle a little at seeing Mulan get shushed, but they stomp along towards the temple.
When they arrive, they are escorted into the temple grounds past all of the elephant headed statues…
- "They’re like big hairless Mammoths?" -Broken Sword
- "No, this is where circus elephants come from." -Yoshi
- "Shush." -Takanata
- "See! He’s shushing everyone!" -Yao
- "Shush!" -Chien-Po
They are led into a lavish banquet hall where Kubera, dressed in fine silks, sits at the center of the grand dining area. All are escorted to seats on cushions around the U-shaped hall and food is brought out.
Kubera greets his guests, and hopes that they don’t mind that he began without them. After all, he was expecting them to arrive earlier. Renata starts to protest that they shouldn’t have been expected at all, but Takanata shushes him and thanks Kubera for His hospitality.
Various delicious courses are brought out and our heroes dig in. After a few rounds of food, Kubera says, “To business” and complains that the Empire has been particularly difficult to visit for some time now, but he has reached an agreement which will make it easier for He and his emissaries to inspect His domain. Unfortunately, he is meeting some resistance from Lord Mahatsamatman, He would like you to talk to Him about it, as the good lord is currently inaccessible to Him.
Takanata inquires after the agreement reached and with whom it…
- "Is it with the Northerners?" -Yao
- "Shush." -Takanata
- "Enough shushing!" -Yao
- "He gets really irritable when he’s down a finger." -Yoshi
Takanata apologizes for the interruption, but apparently in the meantime another course has arrived, so conversation stalls again before he can get back to the point. Once the new stew is consumed, Kubera asks if they have considered taking His petition to the Lord of Light.
Renata asks what’s in it for them, and gets a glare from Takanata. But he has carefully not mentioned money, so nothing bad seems to happen. Kubera asks if there is anything they might wish to know from his vast experience.
Takanata asks if their host has any information on Ifrit, or their weaknesses. Kubera gets a sour look and shakes his head. “Ifrit are forces of chaos from the deep deserts. I am a paragon of Civilization and have no interest in such things.” He would rather talk about the current dances in the City of Spires.
Unfortunately, our heroes don’t find that sort of information a worthy payment for delivering His message, but before anyone can say so, Murase Minako gets a distracted look on her face, and almost spills her soup while listening to something no one else can hear. Then she blinks and says, “If we clear up your...er… immigration issues, might you attend the Great Horse Race in the Plains of Honor this spring?” Kubera beams, and thinks that sounds like a most interesting and civilized arrangement. He accepts.
Mulan’s gang glare at Murase as that doesn’t seem like a good deal to them, but their appeals to Takanata fall on deaf ears, as he just sits there looking thoughtful.
With the business cleared up, Kubera signals for the dessert course. While a fabulous cake is being carried out by four servants, a bell is heard to ring in the background.
- "Oh dear, it seems your time is up. You’ve got to get back over the wall before the window closes. Hurry on, hurry!" -Kubera
People start quickly standing and heading for the door when Chien-Po asks if they might at least get some cake to go.
- "Shush!" -All