|"For the enlightened soul, an hour may be a year, a single day's work an achievement for eternity."|| The run begins on the Day of the Bear in the Month of the Bear in in the eighth Year of the Magpie since the thirty-fourth Great Northern Invasion.|
The run takes place in Daizhou in the northern Honeth Arcade, and on the way to Cederhaven, in the Qin Chao Steppes.
(in which many people not in the run deliver briefings)
The run begins in Daizhou, near the command center for the Northeast Wall. Cai Wen and Li Merit have received an ominous message from Takanata, and they confer:
Cai Wen is suspicious of the phrasing - make sure to arrange to not present clues to the Regent? Does that mean Takanata really wants him to present clues, but expects the letter to be read and wants plausible deniability? Are there hidden omens in the letter? Merit thinks there are no omens, it's not a prophetic message, it's just an oddly worded one, and votes on the side of not dashing to the regent to present clues. Everyone else is even more puzzled - what sort of clues about the Regent's past? Doesn't the Regent know what is in his past? What is in his past? However, if the plan is to not run to the docks and talk to the Regent (who is even now setting off for the Isle of Beauty), then perhaps the issue need not be dwelled upon.
Shen Wei Han drops by, to let people know what's going on on the northern front. He looks a bit haggard, too tired to be grumpy, as if he's been pulling several all-nighters in a row. He says there have been a lot of northerners who have gotten over the wall, in a lot of different places. In the west, they're mostly being held to land close to the Wall - not the right side, but it could be worse. In the east, things aren't nearly as good, and there are some basic strategic problems that will need to be overcome.
- "So, we should overcome them." -Wei Han
- "And those problems are?" -Kasumi
- "I don't know."
Wei Han thinks there is definitely more than one issue - maybe four or five, no, definitely five issues. They'll need to be fixed by Crane, or it'll be too late. Xian asks - if Wei Han doesn't know what the problems are, who does? Wei Han doesn't know that either.
- "I can't believe I'm saying this, but, Grasshopper, do you have any art for us?" -Merit
Xian wants to poke at the whole question of how Wei Han knows things that he doesn't know, and convinces Cai Wen to ask how he knows that there are five problems.
- "Ah, are there five? Good work." -Wei Han
Merit tries to jog his memory with detective-ish questioning, and decides that Wei Han is basically "remembering" real time tactical data when he thinks about a question. But while the tactical data probably hints at the strategic issues, it doesn't spell them out clearly, so the answer is not to figure out the right question to ask Wei Han.
Wei Han wanders off to patrol again, and the group turns to gathering information. Merit notes that relevant people in town include Wei Han, Commander Yao (the new Northeast Commander), the Obsidian Warlord, Lieutenant Chiyo, Master Lin (the abbot of the Steadfast Heart monastery), and Merit himself. That last is unusual - not that he's in town (which he usually is, wherever he is), but that he appears on the list.
Grasshopper checks in with the local urchins, and finds that some of the urchins have taken “jobs” caring for the horses of all of the many people in town. Just making sure they are clean, and dry, etc. One of her more enterprising urchins is stealing apples and feeding them to Merit’s horse.
Cai Wen goes off to find Lt. Chiyo to congratulate her on her promotion from sergeant, while Merit leads everyone else off to the Temple of the Steadfast Heart. Merit mocks Cai Wen about getting good information from Chiyo, leading Cai Wen to protest that it's a congratulations, not an interrogation.
- "Well, if it's just a social call, surely you have better things to do! There's an invasion!" -Merit
At the temple, the doors are closed and there are sounds from inside indicating either strenuous training or battle. It doesn't look like the doors have been forced, though, so it's probably training. While many temples have their doors open, some, in particular those of the Ascending Path, have them shut so that only the "worthy" are admitted. Grasshopper knocks, several times (and Kasumi waves at a monk in an upper window), and eventually the door opens. A monk asks "Who comes before the gates of the Steadfast Heart?" and Grasshopper informs him that his masters want to speak to the Abbot.
- "Your masters cannot speak for themselves?"
- "They said I could knock."
- "You have knocked. Your charge is fulfilled."
Xiao Fa introduces himself, and asks to speak to Master Lin.
- "On what mission?"
- "On the matter of ongoing conflict with the Northerners." -Xiao Fa
- "By what right?"
- "The Northern Wall asked us to look into it." -Merit
- "Under whose protection?"
- "I'll protect them!" -Grasshopper
- "Entrance is freely offered, for those who seek shelter. Entrance is granted, for a respite in the battle. Entrance is permitted, but it is not conceded."
Does that mean they have to fight their way in? No, just Grasshopper has to, as he has said everyone else is under his protection. Grasshopper peppers the monk with questions about what to do - he's never done this before, and wants to see that he gets it right. The monk bows, and tells him to see to his defenses, and then attacks. Grasshopper interprets "see to his defenses" as go on all-out attack, and both parties land a resounding blow on the other. The monk bows again, and the doors open.
In the inner courtyard, a number of monks are in formation, fighting with each other. Those with a lot of skill in kung fu identify the man in the corner of the courtyard watching as the master - the group is practicing to learn the Glorious When Outnumbered shtick. Grasshopper, Xiao Fa, and Shuyan take places in the courtyard and practice as well, and get temporary shticks for the duration of the run. Everyone else waits politely until the training is done, and the remaining monks that need to talk to Master Lin have done so. Then, Merit introduces himself and says that they are looking into the trouble with the northern defenses. Master Lin says with some asperity that such troubles are not here. Merit clarifies - he knows that Anto learned Nose for Trouble from here and he was hoping that Master Lin would have the expertise to figure out where trouble was on a larger scale. Master Lin eyes Merit, and asks him - if he does this, will they solve the trouble? Merit says they'll do it themselves, or find someone else to. Master Lin frowns - but Merit will see that it is done? Merit agrees that he'll do due diligence to see that it's done. Master Lin nods, and tells the group to follow him. He finds a novice named Jushu, and tells them "Follow this one, and he will lead you to the trouble you seek." The novice is very excited - this will be his first real mission!
Nose for Trouble
Jushu sets out, with everyone following. They head northwards, towards the Wall, and reach a Dragon Army checkpoint. Jushu tells Merit to say that he's on a beer run - that should work. Merit says he's from the Merit Trading Company, and is on a beer run. The army lets them by. Being "on a beer run" works for the second checkpoint, but then there's a third one. Jushu isn't sure what to do about that one - it wasn't there yesterday. Merit says that they're on a scouting mission on behalf of Shen Wei Han.
- "Who's that?"
- "He's one of the defenders of the North Wall."
- "Okay... what unit is he in?"
- "He's... a sort of liaison."
The soldiers try to warn Merit off - this area isn't safe for civilians. There are serious bandit problems in the area, and they don't want to get robbed. Merit protests - they're supposed to scout this area in particular! What's going on here? The soldiers tell Merit that there are incursions, but they're being dealt with, and he can put that in his report. Merit tries to ask for more details of the bandit incursions, but they don't seem forthcoming, when Shen-Ji steps forward and declares himself as the Great and Powerful Sorcerer Yang Shen-Ji, who he is sure they have heard of. And, since he has a reputation, they have. Shen-Ji says that they are here to see about the bandits, and the soldiers think that seems reasonable, and decide they can pass. Merit, puzzled, tries to figure out what the soldiers are thinking, and decides that the soldier started out as suspicious, but once Shen-Ji identified himself, it made perfect sense that he was here. Merit isn't sure whether that makes any sense, himself. It's not like the Dragon Army knew Shen-Ji was going to come here.
Merit asks for the unofficial briefing, and confirms that "bandits" is actually "zombies". He's confused by that - are they still not allowed to say zombies? The soldier says there were orders, but they're not falling for that; there have been contradictory orders in the past and that just gets them in trouble. Anyway, there were a dozen or so zombies in the town square of the little village, and they had to retreat when there were only five soldiers left.
The group sneaks forward, and sees the village. There seem to be some prisoners being held and shaken by zombies, and there's a small hut with cries and whimpering coming from it. Grasshopper and Kasumi, as the sneakiest, sneak towards the hut - there's a necromancer (identifiable by his skull-staff) exhorting the prisoners inside to (unintelligible Torghut) not sad, victory! (Unintelligible Torghut) conversion! The zombies outside start moving in unison, and Grasshopper shoots the necromancer, followed momentarily by Kasumi chopping him.
The sudden demise of the necromancer causes the zombies to start milling around more aimlessly (though still dangerously); some of the townsfolk can flee, and the party swoops in to rescue the smaller children. Success! Talking to the villagers, it sounds like a lot of the zombies were in fact soldiers who came in in twos and threes to investigate bandits, but got zombie-mobbed, killed, and raised as zombies.
The group troops back to the Temple of the Steadfast Heart, where they report in to Master Lin. Have they dealt with one of the problems now? No, Master Lin says, but he thinks they have seen one of the problems. The group heads back to Daizhou to look for Wei Han.
Meanwhile, having never left Daizhou, Cai Wen has breakfast with Chiyo. She agrees that there are some problems with the local defense, but Cai Wen says that Wei Han has his friends looking into it. Chiyo mentions that that's all well and good, but rumor has it that Wei Han is kind of starting to annoy Commander Yao.
Everyone meets up again, and finds Wei Han (who is coincidentally around when they look for him), and asks if this is one of the problems. In fact, it is problem #4:
- Soldiers still have the habit of calling the undead bandits even though the order is rescinded; this doesn't help either their credibility or their tactics, and it strains their relations with Commander Yao, who is starting to think they're all idiots.
Ooh, so Wei Han can confirm a strategic problem if the group figures it out - or guesses it. Perhaps they can guess the others! Is the fact that Commander Yao isn't dealing well with the soldiers on the list? Not explicitly. Is "Wei Han is driving Commander Yao nuts" on the list? Wei Han frowns and says that he doesn't think the Commander should be 'driven nuts' by being given informative reports in a timely fashion.
Does Wei Han know why they were waiting for Shen-Ji? Or what was up with them deciding he was the person they were waiting for? He says no, but he can look into it. He can check in the command tent to see who was supposed to be sent there. Merit notes that maybe popping into the command tent all the time is part of the problem, or at least part of the annoyance. Wei Han concedes that the annoyance might be part of a symptom of a problem. Is Wei Han not being in the army one of the problems? No, it is not.
Merit tags after Wei Han the next time he goes into Commander Yao's tent. There are several elite soldiers outside, and some staff officers who come up and confer with the soldiers and sometimes get allowed in. When Wei Han shows up, the soldiers bump him to the front of the queue and he goes right in. There's a flicker of exasperation on Commander Yao's face when Wei Han comes in; Wei Han reports about the zombies that the party deal with, and Commander Yao updates his big map. Wei Han asks what anti-undead forces were sent to deal with them, and Commander Yao snaps that he sent a squad to deal with bandits because his scouts reported bandits. He mutters something under his breath about not knowing quite why Wei Han keeps getting put on his schedule, and Wei Han nods and turns to go.
- "Thank you, good job, uh... citizen." -Commander Yao
Xian floats the theory that the world shifted so that, retroactively, the soldiers were always expecting Shen-Ji. Merit doesn't think that was the case, but concedes that it's hard to really prove that sort of thing after the fact.
Shen-Ji says he has a pretty good relationship with Yuan Howin, the Minister of Levies in the Qin Chao steppes, so perhaps they can go and talk to her about the problems with the northern defenses. The group figures they can be there and back by teatime, when Cai Wen is supposed to meet Chiyo again. Xian, spending a Yin, is sure that there's something dreadfully wrong with that idea, but nevertheless it seems to be true, so he doesn't make a fuss and break it.
The group heads to the Steppes, and the cavalry training grounds outside Stone Drum (as Merit crosses the border, he notes that he had a mysterious +2 to his status, that drops when he goes into the Steppes). Shen-Ji can make some time to meet with the Minister of Levies, who he has already been consulting with about the cavalry. Shen-Ji introduces his friends, and says that they're trying to troubleshoot Dragon Army issues on the eastern side of the Wall. She notes that it certainly could use it. But if they can manage to get her a briefing from the Northeast Dragon Army HQ, that would be great. She says they'd be happy to coordinate, but the army won't tell her anything. Her husband has gone off to try to act as a liaison, but he hasn't returned yet.
The party looks around for Wei Han, and gets him to give her a briefing on who is doing what where. She's a little surprised by some of the placements, and the group starts interrogating Wei Han about how clever all of the placements and maneuvers are. On thinking about it, he thinks about a third of them are pretty much ideally clever, but the other two thirds aren't quite right, like the textbook response for the slightly wrong situation. Apparently the Obsidian Warlord has been countermanding orders here and there, and the good orders are the ones that he issued.
The group brainstorms with Wei Han a bit more - have all the promotion ceremonies and regulations been done? He thinks so. Can he check in with the Minister of Levies to report to her routinely? Well, probably not as constantly as she would like someone to be doing - he does have other duties. Is communication one of the problems? Yes, problem #2 is:
- Both the locals and the army have an entrenched habit of not coordinating with each other.
Xian wonders - if all the big strategic problems were solved, then what would the most important problem to deal with be? Wei Han allows as he hasn't really had time to think about that, nor does he seem to magically remember the answer to hypotheticals. Merit tries to get Wei Han to pin down which subcommanders were involved in issuing which orders, but it becomes clear that he's pretty good at knowing the state of what's going on in the Northern Defense at any given moment, but he's not tracking the paperwork, and he's also not saving the entire state of the war at each moment to be recalled later for comparison. Xian asks - quickly, so Wei Han won't have time to think about it - if one of them stuck around with the Minister of Levies, if that would let Wei Han drop by to brief her more often. He initially answers yes, but then notes that that doesn't actually make sense, so he probably not.
- "Minister, there is some prophetic art, involving your first battle being an ambush." -Merit
- "Oh, good."
Unfortunately, he can't provide any more details. She asks if the information comes from Lord Takanata; Merit says it comes from... his most accomplished student.
That seems to be all they can find out in the Steppes at the moment, so the group returns to Daizhou in time for tea. Xian tries to not think about it.
The Rest of the Troubles
Cai Wen meets Chiyo for tea - she says she doesn't have a lot of time, as she is a little worried that there might be a surprise inspection later. Cai Wen asks if there have been a lot of those - she hasn't heard of any, but they do seem quite likely.
- "Of course." -Xian
- "Not of course!" -Merit
- "No, please, keep investigating this." -Xian, rolling his eyes
Cai Wen wonders whether anyone seems to be bending Commander Yao's orders to change them a bit here or there - she doesn't think anyone other than the Obsidian Warlord is changing his orders. And his hovering around here second-guessing people is freaking everyone out!
Meanwhile Grasshopper heads back to the urchins to see what they are up to. they’re still taking care of horses for copper coins, and stealing apples to give to Merit’s horse. No one told them to do this. It just seemed like the right idea at the time. It really is a pretty horse, after all. Sure that this is all important, Grasshopper brings it to the party’s attention.
- ""And I'm in town, so your crazy horse apples theory that I don't understand, maybe makes sense. I am involved in this plot in ways that I don't know about." " -Merit
Merit looks for an old buddy in the military, and asks about a particular recent military decision, hoping to figure out if it's a particular subcommanders sabotaging the orders. Well, one of the decisions that got countermanded by the Obsidian Warlord came directly from Yao. Another decision that didn't get countermanded didn't work out. It wasn't a bad decision, just Commander Yao didn't count on having such poor visibility due to a sudden snowstorm, so his guys weren't close enough. But it's not the sort of thing you'd necessarily think of unless you'd been in the north for a while. Merit presses - is he not familiar with the way things are done in the North, or is he getting bad information? His buddy thinks mostly the former.
- "You didn't hear this from me, but there's this thing about bandits and undead... But anyway, he's got this amazing staff officer constantly popping in with new information."
Sure enough, Wei Han can confirm that this is problem number 1.
- Commander Yao could use a radiation accident to adjust his Personal Mastery Style, which is "Defender of the South". He's rolling for 9s on too many things.
Not to mention, that may be why Wei Han annoys him. Further guessing also confirms problem number 3:
- The Obsidian Warlord has his own forces in the area, and has overruled Commander Yao on a couple of issues (though they seem to have been good calls). Having the Warlord looking on critically after Lo Ping's execution is kind of freaking everyone out.
Ahah - so that's also why Chiyo keeps expecting a surprise inspection.
Other guesses which Wei Han does not think are large strategic problems are the corrupted ancestor spirits (those are a tactical problem, not a strategic one), or supply lines, or sabotage and treachery. As people continue to guess, having heard no clues to the mysterious fifth issue yet, Wei Han has a slightly different tone when he mentions shipments of weapons, that people jump on and fling questions about. Eventually, they pin down that while the Dragon Army is in decent supply and has sufficient men, the Arcade forces are in somewhat short supply.
Merit figures that the entire Arcade army has been hired by the Gate of Shen, which is why it's relevant that he's in town; the party starts heading that way, when a rider coming from the west intercepts them.
The rider is Yuan Shao, the Minister of Levies' husband - he says that Minister Yuan needs Shen-Ji and "his special briefing guy" quickly. They regroup with the Minister, and Wei Han notes where the Dragon Army units currently are nearby. It's a disaster! The Northerners moved a unit during the Empire's turn, after everyone had deployed - it just leaped over the Wall - and they're all just out of position to get to where the fast-moving unit is going: Cederhaven, where many of the high Steppes army officials have moved their families away from the Wall. None of the various infantry units can get there in time. The cavalry could, in theory, get there in time, but she doesn't know if they're ready - they haven't been in a real battle yet.
Shen-Ji declares that the cavalry can do it, and the party can help! Xian tries to convince Merit that Merit can get the monks from the Steadfast Heart there in time, but Merit doesn't see why, and refuses to accept Xian's arbitrary assertions. Xian subsides, disappointed that the world isn't being mysteriously fast-moving again.
The cavalry starts moving, screened by the party, on a constantly rolling map. As they gallop, some outliers from the enemy unit attack - several wargs, some archers, a group of ghouls that spooks the horses. Xiao Fa demonstrates his ability to turn a ghoul to dust. Stopping to fight for long keeps the map from rolling forward, and the ride earns a lateness point - the lesson seems to be Never Stop Moving, and both fight and heal while constantly moving forward.
- "I had a cover as a combat veterinarian once." -Merit
- "It must have been a really specialized mission." -Xian
Warg riders prove the most formidable of foes, though Shuyan's particularly scary snake is even scarier, and scatters several of them. The gallop encounters a wide stream that has to be leaped, and also proves to have enemies hiding in it.
Shen-Ji demonstrates his particular riding fu by riding two horses at the same time, though it's painfully hard, and he resorts to having Ka-Pow drive the other horse forward. Grasshopper is targetted by four enemies, and falls - Xiao Fa gets him to cover. A cavalry rider goes down, and Cai Wen gets off his horse to cross the river. Then Merit has a particularly bad riding roll trying to cross, and starts to drift downstream. Keeping going forward seems doomed.
Merit wonders if the situation is dire enough that they should call on Horse, but everyone else assures him that it's probably still okay. Then the river, which has been rolling really well, washes him ten hexes downstream, about to be sent off the map, just as the last of the cavalry crosses. Merit throws up his hands and calls Horse with a list of things that he wants - rescue him from the river, rescue Xian from the river, move two dozen people a bunch of hexes forward, generally save the day. Horse notes that doing a bunch of different things will be costly. Merit protests - everyone is on a horse, so it should be cheap, plus Horse wants the cavalry to get there, so he shouldn't charge much at all. Horse says that doing things by giving shticks to horses is pretty cheap - giving Merit's horse swimming, or leaping for Xian's horse, for example. Horse offers swimming to Merit's horse, leaping for Xian's horse, and fast movement for the cavalry horses, for four horse points. Merit declares that to be unfairly expensive, and grumbles that Horse is trying to take advantage. Then Horse notes that Xian's horse doesn't have a name, so it should actually cost one more point to give it a shtick.
- "I went across the river on a horse with no name..." -Xian
Merit suggests giving all the horses Auspicious Arrival, to just get them to Cedarhaven. Well, that's simpler, but it's a more expensive shtick. Four points for all of the cavalry horses. Merit points out he's dressed in a cavalry uniform - Horse says he'll include him, but only while he's with the cavalry, and to make it plasuible he has to fighta warg in the end battle. Merit friendly amends that to be he'll try as hard as he can to take out a warg, but if it kills him instead, that counts for effort.
Horse says for one more point, he'll even clear the point of lateness. Merit asks how many people that will save, but the question dooms him, because even the fairly small answer "probably just the sentries on the wall will fall in the first turn" seems too high to let get killed, so Merit agrees to pay the five points (including one from Xiao Fa).
Off the cavalry (and Merit) charge, as Merit realizes a little too late that his negotiation ended up not including Xian. However, the rest of the party can get Xian out of the river once there is no longer a race.
The cavalry (and Merit) arrive gloriously, and in the nick of time, just as the wargs are about to leap the Cederhaven walls "onto babies and things." Merit charges a warg with his sword drawn, and then hits it with his sharpened hat. After a few rounds, he and the warg mutual.
The party investigates the underwater enemies - are their bows impressive underwater-archery magic items? Shen-Ji notes that they're enspelled, not enchanted, so they'll probably expire at the next sunrise. Eventually, they do reach Cederhaven, to find it strewn about with the corpses of (larger) wargs, and, happily, without Merit lying dead among them. Stories are already being told of the Glorious Ride of the First Cavalry, and about a third of the soldiers are in the healing house. That's where the group finds Merit, surrounded by grateful (and pretty) young women. Merit's +2 status shtick seems to have expanded to include the Steppes, much to his consternation.
- Xiao Fa goes to visit Li Kao. So do Takanata and Kasumi. (They ask him to research some greensheets for "flip the Roof of the World" and "free Shanxi from the Shadow"). Then so do Cai Wen and Anto and Shen-Ji.
- Master Deng visits Captain Fa Zhou.
- Takanata has a picnic by the Jasmine River.
- Xiao Fa sends a Report to the Meihua Sannong temple about defense and healing against the undead.
- Anto, Kuan-Xi, and Xiao Fa go patrolling with a Steadfast Heart monastery in the Steppes. Wei Han drops by to provide a briefing.
- Grasshopper goes to hunt quail with a golden-fletched arrow to try to summon Ming Lieren.
- Master Zhou visits the Clear Melting sect and the Steadfast Heart sect in Daizhou.