|"Be happy while you're living,
For you're a long time dead."
| The run begins on the Day of the Late Butterfly in the Month of the Tortoise in the eighth Year of the Spider since the thirty-fourth Great Northern Invasion.|
The run takes place on the way to and in the town of Basewatch Hill in the Qin Chao Steppes.
Leaving the Drum
People wrap up any unfinished business they have in Stone Drum, in preparation for the circus heading out to the next stop.
Li Merit looks for a large store that sells rat poison, and lurks around pretending to work there in the hopes that someone will try to buy rat poison from him, but no one does. The elephant handlers try to recruit volunteers to help winch the elephants back down, but Merit manages to flatter them into deciding they don't need any help.
Merit also shows the others a dragon statuette he has acquired, as well as a couple of tael. Everyone boggles - he just randomly acquired several tael? What? Where? Shen-Ji notes that the tael are clearly counterfeit, as they aren't magic, so they're highly illegal. Or perhaps they're older than the currency verification scheme, which is only a bit over a century or so old. Takanata thinks the dragon statuette is much older than that, and Shen-Ji thinks that it was used long ago in a really big magical ritual, though it is not itself a magic item.
- "I give Tofu a zhu. Because if it doesn't have a tael it's not a monkey, and he's the swapping monkey..." -Lijuan
- "I hide my two tael in my secret pocket." -Merit
The group ponders Machan Li's horse, which is still in the royal stables, and Merit wants for somewhat unclear reasons. Lijuan thinks it's probably the best horse in the stable, and some suggest that maybe Takanata could just go and ask for it as a High Status Noble. Takanata thinks that might be somewhat awkward, especially without some reason beyond "I covet this horse." Well, maybe they can buy it. The group asks Zhenzhen, and she says that the plan is that Inspector Fu's party was going to leave with it in the morning, as they are the ones who arrived with it. Wei Han says that a good cavalry horse would run about 30 li, so it's conceivable that the party could buy it.
Takanata and Wei Han and Merit go to talk to Fu's assistant Meizhen, and Merit explains that Lord Takanata has taken an interest in one of the horses. Being no fool, she quickly guesses which horse they are interested in, and thinks that if he made a reasonable offer, Inspector Fu would be willing to part with it. She would have to talk to the grooms to find out what a reasonable offer would be - the grooms advise about 30 li, she suggests 35 li, and Merit manages to talk her down to 29 li.
Takanata checks for the strongest connection between Merit and the horse. Technically, this is only for people, but the horse is good enough that it just barely works. The biggest connection is that the horse was bred for someone with Merit's character class (it's a "spy horse"), but Machan Li doesn't seem to be directly involved in the connection. This reassures people who were worrying that Merit was somehow going to be obliged to carry on Machan Li's business.
Horse in tow and everything else dealt with, (Merit sends the Icon of Aquatic Motion, also known as the outboard motor, into the shop), the circus heads off towards Basewatch Hill, a town at the base of the mountains stretching into the Roof of the World.
On the Road
Merit remembers to brief everyone in the circus to call the Butterfly Kingdom the Isle of Beauty instead - like Iron Mountain. They aren't sure what to call the King, but, luckily, it doesn't come up in conversation very often.
Takanata writes a poem:
Merit's interpretation is that the first line (with the capital letters) is one plot, and the two lower case lines are another plot. The second line is oddly shadowed, as if it has been written twice.
As the circus moves along, Wei Han spots a single wolf off in the distance, shadowing the circus from a distance. It doesn't seem to be doing anything other than watching, though.
That night, Kasumi stays up all night (energized by wearing the Magpie Talisman); everyone else has a dream with a horse in it. Different people dream of different horses, doing different things, mostly based on their own natures (and how much they like horses).
Wei Han wakes in the middle of the night, cursing - a necromancer has crossed the Wall. He tries to get the party to turn north to deal with it, but this runs into trouble.
- "Do we know where they crossed the Wall?" -Shen-Ji
- "...somewhere north of here..." -Wei Han
- "All of the Wall is north of here."
Without more of a destination in mind, they do not head north at this time. However, out of general suspicion, Lijuan, Shuyan, Merit and Wei Han head out to look for the wolf. Lijuan tracks it, and whistles for it. It does not come to her whistle, and its tracks indicate that it's wandered around quite a lot during the night. It does not come to Shuyan or Merit's whistle either.
The next day, no wolf is seen, though there is a creepy (according to Wei Han) bird that circles overhead a few times.
Merit has recently hired some better guards, as his trading company has begun to transport rather pricey things, and they have warned about local bandits. He asks them if the bandits in this particular area have a known method. The guards note that there are two sets of bandits - there are some who avoid heavily fortified caravans, and usually rob small groups or single travelers, and tend to avoid killing. The other kind of bandits attack anyone indiscriminately, and sometimes forget to loot - so, probably those are the occasional zombies down from the north. As far as the guards know, none of the bandits around here use hawks for scouting.
That night, Merit has a second dream about his horse, continuing from his first dream. He and the horse (which, it being a dream, can fly) are soaring around the landscape when they come to a lovely valley below. In the valley, twelve animals are dancing in a circle, and occasionally one animal will dance into the circle and another dance out. The horse looks up at Merit with hopeful eyes, edging towards the circle. Since it's a dream, Merit happily gallops the horse towards the circle, bumping one of the other animals out. As he's waking, though, he starts to realize that the question being asked is more serious, and has to change his answer to "probably not", much to his horse's disappointment.
In the morning, Merit describes his dream - it seems clear that the Horse Spirit is interested in becoming a Great Cycle Spirit, and wants assistance. Hiro thinks that swapping spirits around willy-nilly is a bad idea, and Takanata declares that the Official Party Line for anyone talking to spirits is "our plan is to free Dragon, and anyone who helps with that, we'll put in a good word with Dragon for them, but we're not putting anyone else in."
During the third day of travel, the group decides to send out scouts. Well, not really scouts, more like close outriders, as nobody wants to get out of sight of anyone else, just in case something happens. Wei Han identifies one pass as being a good place for an ambush, if you were a bandit, and shouts at anyone who might be nearby to come out. Nobody volunteers to come out, though Hiro hears some noises farther away. Kasumi sneaks off after one of the supposed bandits to their camp, and the other scouts decide to head off in that direction as well, such that once the circus reaches the ambush zone, the scouts are all missing. This seems somewhat ominous, though nobody attacks.
Kasumi returns, with a report - the bandits took off because they were the kind that don't attack heavily armed large caravans, but they are running out of money, so they might be driven to attack harder targets in the future. Their camp is a portable one, so they might not be there later. The group wonders - are these the enemies that might be an opportunity if an offer is made to them? Normally, they don't go make offers to bandits, but if the I Ching is hinting that it's a good idea, maybe they should? On the other hand, they don't really know what the offer would be for, having not yet really encountered a problem that hired bandits are the right tools to solve. On the other hand, they know where the bandits are now - it might be harder to find them later. After much waffling, the party decides to go and investigate, while the circus will continue on and make camp.
Merit introduces himself, and says that he would be interesting in hiring people for scout work. What kind of scouting? Merit explains that he has heard that there are bandits in the area ("Oh, my!"). He is interested in knowing the location of the bloodthirsty ones, as opposed to the polite ones. (He belatedly realizes that maybe that wasn't the way he should have phrased it, but does a good job grovelling to make up for it). The people-who-might-be-hired allow as they try to keep their area clear of the bloodthirsty kind of bandit, and Merit continues that he thinks there are things out there that are a lot more damaging than a little theft, and that murder is bad for everyone. They agree on that front. Merit notes that he particularly doesn't like Northern-influenced murder, and they agree that they are not fond of it either. Anyway, he is interested in learning more about the other kind of bandit, and notes that he would be interested in hiring them to find some of the more Northern bandits, track where they were going, and tell him.
- "We can do that. How much are you offering?" -Bandit chief
- "What are your rates?" -Merit
- "Hmm. You give us a tael, and we'll give everyone in your party a reinforcement shtick until the end of the run, plus a scouting report or two."
That sounds a little steep, so Merit haggles for a while. In the end, the deal is that he'll pay them an initial retainer of 30 li for the scouting reports, and will pay 5 li more for every reinforcements shtick that gets called in. Plus, he'll find them some non-descript livery to wear to not look like bandits, so in case they're in the same combat with the Dragon Army, they won't get arrested.
Then, the party heads back to the circus, and catches up just at dinner time. That night, Lijuan has a dream about horses wanting to get into circle dances, but she says that Takanata says they want to fix things but don't want to make any promises about how to fix it, and she's not authorized to say yes.
In the morning, the circus arrives at Base Watch Hill, a small walled town (most cities and towns in the Qin Chao Steppes are walled), shadowed by the great mountains off to the west.
The circus is running a bit behind (camping last night was not part of the travel plan), so Ringmaster Te is in a frenzy getting things set up and people ready for the night's performance. Lijuan asks if she should be preparing the comedy routine without Xian, and the Ringmaster sadly explains that due to being behind, there won't be time for it.
During the morning's practice, Wei Han is practicing flinging Kasumi up to the tightrope, when he gets a creepy unnerved feeling, and ends up flinging her somewhat randomly at a tent pole. Luckily, she's acrobatic enough to land well. Wei Han shouts for Hiro, who shows up and switches to Hana, looking around for ghosts. Yes, in fact, there's a ghost - it looks like an old man, wearing rags, with two heavy chains shackled to his arms, looking around and poking his head into wagons.
- "Hello, sir?" -Hana
- "I no speak barbarian" -the ghost
- "You seem to speak it very well."
- "No good."
The ghost keeps prowling around looking in wagons, while Shuyan runs off to fetch Takanata from the tea tent, while Hana tries to have a conversation.
- "Would you like tea?"
- "I have ropes."
- "How did you get the ropes?"
- "You give."
- "What, me?"
- "Rope give guy"
He doesn't seem to speak Xiang well enough to make sense, and Hana doesn't speak Torghut, so the conversation is fairly frustrating all round.
Lijuan arrives with the elemental marker, and draws a box on the ground, with some thought that it might be part of a ghost trap. The ghost avoids her and the box, and continues to search.
- "Someone trapped you?"
- "Why are you here?"
- "Rope want find son son"
As Hana explains what the ghost is saying, Wei Han starts speaking in Torghut - the ghost seems to understand that perfectly well, but when he switches to answering in Torghut, Hana can't understand him and Wei Han can't hear him, so it gets even more confusing. Hana tries to repeat what he said, but she doesn't always remember it right. However, after some fits and starts, it seems that a necromancer has compelled him to look for his grandson, for a blood sacrifice for the doom of all people. No, Hana got some of the words backwards - a blood sacrifice for the good of the tribe.
Wei Han asks how to free him, and he holds up his hands, which are missing two fingers. Shen-Ji confirms - it seems likely that the necromancer has bound him with his finger bones, and getting them away will free him. Other questions about freeing him, however, run up against some limitations:
- "Where is the necromancer?"
- "Not say. Rope."
- "Can you say where the necromancer's clothes are?"
- "No. Rope."
- "Can you say where your fingers are?"
- "No. Rope."
Maybe they can follow the chains back? Can Takanata see a connection? Well, Takanata can't see him at all, and Eyes of the I Ching won't help, because he's dead. Shuyan experimentally puts on her serpent ring of death, but all she can see is the chains wrapped around his wrists, not any connection to somewhere else that Hana hadn't seen.
The ghost doesn't really want to find his grandson, but since he's compelled to do so, he can't just throw over his mission. Wei Han asks for information about the grandson so they can look, but the ghost demands that if he finds out, he tell the ghost. After some dithering, Wei Han agrees that if the ghost tells him about his grandson, he'll tell him what he finds out, but secretly decides to not go look himself, and not find anything out.
The ghost says that his grandson is a "lumberman" named Shohag, age eighteen, but he doesn't actually know what he looks like. Takanata wants to know why his grandson is in the Empire.
- "There's a lot of smuggling. It's not as hard as you like to think." -Merit
He says that he ran off for "sentimental" (a very bad translation) reasons. Merit thinks that he means that the grandson ran away to avoid the blood sacrifice. Others, hoping for romance, ask if he ran off for a girl, but the ghost objects - his grandson doesn't want any barbarian hussy! "Lumberman" is clarified to be something more like "carpenter" - he carves wood and bone.
Shen-Ji shows him the necromancer's spear - he carves things like that? The ghost panics and babbles something that is only imperfectly translated as "Yes, son son slay that me here chains find that not son son spear trap me gone" and then flees.
Takanata heads off into town to gather information about any new woodcarvers in town. Wei Han details Hana (dressed as Hiro) and Lijuan to go with him for protection. However, Lijuan peels off pretty quickly to gather information on her own, asking after "the new dreamy kid in town" and hoping to be introduced. She gets introduced to a young man calling himself "Lord Hawk" - he's popular with the urchins, because he spreads food and other useful supplies around to them, and then goes back to his Mysterious Doings elsewhere.
Takanata quickly learns that Teng's apprentice Shohag is pretty new. The local gossip is that people think he might be on the run from the law elsewhere. He and Hana head to Teng's carving house, and Takanata says that he has news for his apprentice. Shohag is off gathering wood north of the town, but should be back before nightfall. Takanata chats with Teng for a while about woodworking - Teng is good, but all his work is fairly utilitarian - he's a very good craftsman, but not really an artist. There are several more artistic pieces around the room, which Teng says were made by Shohag - artistically, they're very gritty and suggest the horror of life.
At the urchin hangout, Lord Hawk chats with Lijuan. He advises that she work on her swordwork - bows are a good weapon and he respects the masters of them, but sometimes someone will get in close against you, and then you need to be able to use a blade. They spar for a bit, and Lijuan tries to find out if Lord Hawk is a master, complaining about Master Zhou's terrible mean homework and hitting with sticks. Lord Hawk is actually very impressed by the mention of Master Zhou, and thinks that Lijuan is indeed honored to be trained by such a person. He demonstrates disarming Lijuan of her bow, but she notes that she can just make another one out of sticks. That impresses him. She continues to try to figure out if he's a Master, but he admits that he has no students, so he probably does not qualify.
Back at the circus, there's a dinner break before the performance. Wei Han skips dinner to go look for the local Dragon Army garrison, and introduces himself. He says that on the way down here, he encountered "unexpected tracks" crossing the road, and asks about bandits. The soldiers say there are in fact bandits in the area, and also a small rise in undead attacks.
- "Oh, good." -Wei Han
- "What?" -Soldiers
- "No, just good that you called them undead."
Wei Han digresses into complaining about Lo Ping's orders, but the soldiers here are under the Western command and don't take orders from Lo Ping. The local bandits (the Gran Chao) are also known as "bluecloaks". (So Merit's disguises will probably come in quite handy). The soldiers report that there were a handful of zombies encountered, about a day north two days ago. Wei Han declares authoritatively that that would put the necromancer right around Basewatch Hill now. The soldiers note that it might not be a necromancer, and explain about sweet-thorn. He asks about their patrols, and notes on the map where the thin spots might be.
Shohag returns to the Teng shop - Takanata notes that he's a bit battered, and his nose is broken, so he doesn't speak very clearly (which disguises his accent). Woodcarver Teng leaves them alone to speak, and Takanata tells Shohag that a necromancer has sent the ghost of his grandfather to look for him. Shohag protests - he doesn't know what Takanata is talking about and there must be some mistake, but Takanata ignores the protests, and insists that the necromancer is chasing Shohag to sacrifice him "for the honor of the tribe." Shohag tries to flee, but Takanata manages to persuade him to sit down for a moment, claiming that they want to help, really. Takanata reads his I Ching:
Takanata thinks he has a Tao of 5 or 6, but not really - that likely means he has life/death/blood stats of 5 or 6. On the way back to the circus, Hana takes over the interrogation. He says he's a carver of wood and bone, but he won't violate their weird prejudices, so he just carves wood here. He was chosen to power the "grand plan" but he'd really rather not. He doesn't know the details of the grand plan - so they can't get the information and use him for a sacrifice themselves! - but the general gist is "the destruction of you guys." He's not actually very enthusiastic about destroying the Empire, for all that they're strange and barbarian. Hana wonders how many parts the grand plan has, but they don't tell people like him that sort of thing. Anyway, he thinks that if they can keep him safe, that will definitely protect the Empire from being destroyed. Definitely. Though not keeping him safe as a prisoner - that probably wouldn't be nearly as protective.
Takanata and Hana and Shohag head back to the circus - Wei Han wants to know what happened to Lijuan, and is rather cross to hear that she wandered off to talk to urchins. Merit loans Shohag the Cane of Free Action.
- "Very boring. Thank you." -Shohag
Back in urchin-land, Lord Hawk has to head back into the mountains for some important business. He tells Lijuan that he may see her in town, but if she wishes, she can look for him in the west, three days hence, at dawn. He leaps (dreamily) onto his horse; the horse rears, and he rides off. Lijuan heads back to the circus, only to get chewed out by Wei Han for not protecting Takanata. Lijuan tries to fast talk her way out of it, but ends up seguing into "don't hit me!"
Takanata asks Shohag about his carving - he says his specialty is carving items that can be enchanted necromantically, though that's not what he does here. Shen-Ji shows him his collection - he actually made one of them! The two of them chat happily about necromancy - they both have a lot of KS: Necromancy with no actual Necromancy skill. Takanata, watching him carefully, thinks that he has "Imperial corruption points", whatever that means.
Merit suggests the "worst possible plan" of telling the ghost where Shohag is, so that when the necromancers come, they Get Em. Takanata agrees that that's a terrible plan, but also doesn't have a better one yet.
Wei Han asks around for where the nearest graveyard is, and learns that it's outside the walls, so instead he goes back to the army garrison and asks what kind of undead they fought. They think they were five-die zombies.
The planners think that finding the necromancer and taking him out quickly would be good, but there's no clear way to find him. Could they track the hawk and the wolf? Were the hawk and the wolf part of the necromancer team, or were they part of some strange doomed love plot involving Lord Hawk? No one is sure.
Takanata asks Shohag about controlling animals - is that life magic? Shohag thinks not - more likely blood. Life magic practicioners tend to stay to themselves in their sanctuaries, and not travel with others. Controlling animals is probably blood. Takanata asks if that means there's likely to be a death master and a blood master? Shohag thinks a master an an apprentice is more likely, or just one guy who is a master of both. Masters do not like to work together - they take each other's power.
Merit wanders around town trying to figure out who in Shohag's plot is in town. The ghost isn't in town any longer, and the necromancer isn't in town. The bandit scouts are in town, though, and Merit goes to find them. They've been wounded, and say that there are a bunch of undead north of the town. Several dozen undead, and a dozen horsemen. Two of them have sticks and feathers, and they're coming through the section of the map that Wei Han thought the patrols would miss.
Takanata ponders a crossroads of whether to bring Hana or Hiro. It's somewhat complicated. If the encounter is "here", then it's about combat, which Hiro might be better at. But if they cross the Wall, then it's about mojo - Hana has a lot, but Hiro is immune. Takanata boggles - if they chase them for three days and cross the Wall? Really? Well, in either event, Hiro is probably the one to bring.
Wei Han goes back to the army, to tell them he's had a report of zombies and get them on call to come help with the fight. Then, everyone heads off to a good spot to stage a fight along the necromancers path. Shen-Ji wants a chance to use his firestorm-the-map spell, so everyone else agrees to stay away until he's had a chance to do that; Kasumi adds a sneak attack to the plan, and says she'll leap into the air before the firestorm.
The ambush is set, and when the Northern force reaches the appropriate clearing, battle is joined!
Kasumi decloaks, stabs one of the necromancers, and leaps into the air. Shen-Ji (protected by a wall of iron) invokes his firestorm. The stabbed-and-fireballed necromancer goes down, and the other one throws his staff as far as he can, where it sticks into the ground, but since everyone is either off the map or behind a wall, nobody can really see what happened. Everyone else charges into the clearing as of the next drift.
The triangle formed by the non-fallen necromancer, his staff, and the staff and body of the other necromancer, seems to be Not In The Empire, to Takanata's Eyes of the I Ching, and he suspects that it protects against Empire-based magics (like any further firestorms). Wei Han feels this as a terrible gaping hole, and takes damage.
Kasumi lands back in the middle of the enemies, which puts her in an ideal situation to be chopped and zombie-bitten. She grabs the planted staff, which does her enough additional damage that she falls.
Merit asks his horse if it can spook the other horses; it looks at him and he gets the vague sense that there's an offer on the table still, but there won't be any major Horse Interventions unless the offer is accepted. Ho blocks some zombies from charging Lijuan, but gets bitten and falls as well. (Takanata realizes that while Ho is down and bleeding, he has no corruption points. The Dog Spirit does not tolerate corruption in dogs, especially here.) Shuyan grabs one of the spears, and Wei Han gets another; Wei Han breaks his without taking damage. Wei Han also summons reinforcements from the Dragon Army, who start engaging various zombies.
Lijuan gets good at kiting zombies, which seem to chase whoever is closest. Takanata gets mobbed, and summons bandit reinforcements. The fighters manage to work their way towards the center, and Shuyan follows to try to heal the fallen.
- "Wait, the dog is being rescued before I am?" -Kasumi
- "The dog is closer!"
Hiro also falls to zombie bites (he's not immune to those apparently), but then the various reinforcements are sufficient to mop up the last of the bad guys.
The bodies are searched - both necromancers are carrying finger bones wrapped in small chains. Shen-Ji thinks that if the chains are unwrapped, the ghost will be freed, though at that point he'll have to deal with the bureaucracy of the World After, since he won't really be able to cross the Wall on his own. (Maybe if they threw the bones over the Wall...). He's probably not on anyone's list in the bureaucracy, though, so it could be tough. (Hana could force him through the gate to the World After, but that won't help with the bureaucracy - it'll just keep him from hanging around here as a ghost.) Maybe if they burn a bunch of ghost money for him, he'll be able to offer the appropriate bribes and get through.
Anyway, the immediate threat is dealt with, so the party regroups to find Shohag, and they tell him that the necromancers have been dealt with. His grandfather's ghost also appears again - he has succeeded in finding Shohag, as instructed, but he no longer has anyone to report to. Yay!
After some translation games, the ghost clarifies that he is free now, and is glad that Shohag has escaped. He supposes that it is time for him to wander off to the Desert of the Dead to wail now. The group points out that that might be a little difficult, actually. Maybe he could be Shohag's ancestor spirit? He isn't enthused about the idea of powering a ritual for Shohag, but it is explained that being an ancestor spirit isn't the same thing. He'd have a shrine, he'd be revered... He thinks that's very odd, but does sound better than wailing. They explain about the Bureaucracy of the Afterlife, and that there will be lots of forms. He thinks that is also very odd - when you die, you wail in the desert until someone finds you useful, and then they use you to power things, and then you're done.
The group also explains to Shohag about ancestor shrines. He thinks he could make one, carved from wood and incorporating the finger bones. They tell him to make a portable shrine - he should come with them as they travel, so they can
pick his brain protect him, just in case.
- Lijuan heads off to meet Lord Hawk at Dawn, followed sneakily by Kasumi. Hilarity ensues when Lord Hawk spots a ninja sneaking up on him...
- Shen-Ji, Shuyan, Yanyu, Xiao Fa, Yoshi, Anto, Cai Wen, and Takanata examine Shohag with a fine-tooth comb.
- Anto and Merit visit the House of the Long Arm, a dojo in Stone Drum. So does Master Zhou.