|"Flowers leave some of their fragrance in the hand that bestows them."|| The run begins on the day of the Early Spider in the month of Spider Rising in the first Year of the Spider since the Butterfly King was Poisoned.|
The run takes place near the town of Bitterwind, in the Qin Chao Steppes near the Wall.
The last thing anyone remembers is dawn on the Day of the Spider, and being "scattered through the world" by Aku, the Great Spirit of the Spider. As everyone tumbles through the void, Master Zhou hears a voice, and a terrible darkness begins closing in on him.
- "Ah... now that your friends are scattered, you can suffer my personal ministrations."
Also tumbling through the void, Takanata bumps into Wei Han, who grabs him. They can sort of see Master Zhou, farther away and tumbling faster, but Wei Han reaches forth and manages to barely grab him too. Aku's dark voice says "Wait, what?"
Takanata and Zhou wake up next to a high, cold, stone wall. Since it is shortly after dawn, they can quickly determine that they're on the south side, much to their relief. Master Zhou applies some first aid to Takanata, who is looking around, sure Wei Han was just here.
Wei Han is eventually located, standing guard on top of the wall, and just beginning to remember that there were some people here before. There doesn't seem to be anyone in sight, either to the north or on the wall; there will probably be guard posts in either direction. Wei Han vaguely remembers that there is a town a bit to the south, as well.
There is some argument as to which direction to walk, and whether it's better to be on top of the wall or down below. Takanata certainly prefers not being up at the top where the barbarians might be, and begins to idly fold an origami flower. Once he's done, he realizes that it's prophetic art, and shows it to Wei Han - does he recognize it? Wei Han thinks it's a paper flower, maybe similar to something he's seen before in the north. Takanata also notes that he seems to have drawn dancing skeletons on the inside of the folded paper. That's no good.
Takanata loans his sword to Wei Han, whose sword was destroyed by demons back in the Garden of Harmonious Contemplation, when there are the sounds of combat off in the distance. Everyone heads that way - there's a fight on the road that parallels the Wall, with people fighting near a wagon. (No, it isn't filled entirely with cabbages.)
Master Zhou tactically analyzes the situation - there's four people on the wagon's team, and seven attackers. The wagon guards have swords; the attackers look more like unarmed peasants. However, Wei Han's creepy-sense is going off, and he thinks the "peasants" are undead. As the party joins the fight, some of the peasant "bandits" attack the guards, and one does a corruption point to Takanata before Wei Han takes him down. One of the guards leaps in front of Takanata to fend off some of the other bandits. Wei Han thinks this is usurping his guarding station, and manages to push in as well.
Eventually, the bandits are all dispatched. The lead guard frowns at Wei Han, who is still a mess from the combat with the demons and she hasn't recognized his uniform yet.
- "I had everything under control!"
- "Yes, sir." -Wei Han
- "Oh, er, sorry, Sergeant."
Takanata thinks that the guards are all a little bit corrupted (they all took damage), as is he. Master Zhou dodged all the "bandit" attacks, and Wei Han didn't take any damage. Master Zhou patches up the guards as best he can, but he can't help with the corruption.
The lead guard introduces herself as Corporal Fa Mulan. They were escorting the supply wagon from Bitterwind when they were set upon by these "bandits". Wei Han says that he doesn't think they are ordinary bandits, and asks Takanata to examine their bodies. Mulan says there has been a bandit uprising in the area recently.
Takanata notes that the wounds on the bandits haven't bled much, and they are very dirty and unhealthy looking, plus they had sounded pretty incoherent when they were attacking. His KS: Undead suggests that yes, they were undead, and he points out these signs to Wei Han. Mulan looks increasingly more uncomfortable.
- "Is there a problem, corporal?" -Wei Han
- "My orders are to suppress the bandit problem, and reassure the population that the bandits are being taken care of. Sir." -Mulan
Master Zhou has no patience for this labeling of zombies as "bandits".
- "We are not "the population". These are undead." -Master Zhou
- "You will note that I have not stated what they are." -Wei Han
- "Yes, Sergeant."
Mulan notes that the "bandits" have been becoming more bold in recent months, and that many of the North Wall garrisons, the local ones included, are operating at reduced strength, because forces have been sent east.
Can anyone track the "bandits" back to their lair? Corporal Mulan has some skill in that area, and agrees that "find the bandit camp to eliminate them" is a worthwhile goal. She sends two men to the east garrison post to get another horse for the cart, and leaves one with the wagon, ordering him to not get killed.
Takanata checks the cart driver, who was killed by the "bandits", wondering whether he's going to rise as a zombie. He doesn't think the body is on any sort of a timer to stand back up - there's no movement or anything like that - but he probably did take a lot of corruption as he was killed, so it's likely that someone/something could turn him into a zombie. The horse, too.
Mulan starts following the trail of the "bandits", accompanied by the three party members - the tracks go a fair ways back towards Bitterwind before she loses them. The group heads into town, looking around for flowers that resemble Takanata's origami. There are some scraggly vines with flowers starting to wilt and brown in the autumn chill, but they're definitely the same kind. Wei Han picks a flower, and pricks his finger on a thorn. He finds the flowers somewhat creepy. Master Zhou asks Mulan about the flowers - she thinks they're native to this area, and hasn't seen them much further afield along the Wall. He suggests that the "bandits" are connected to the flowers, but she finds this a little implausible.
Wei Han dismisses Corporal Mulan, and says the group will meet her later at the garrison. Then, people set about Shopping - for rooms, warmer clothes, and horses. Takanata arranges for a couple of rooms at the local tavern, and asks if there is an herbalist in town. There is - "Old Lady Shi".
Wei Han and Master Zhou argue about whether or not talking about zombies counts as spreading rumors.
Takanata sketches the zombie that attacked him - the clothing looks like local garb, not the Northern furry vest and leather trousers that the barbarians wear, and shows the picture to the tavern keeper. He says that looks kind of like one of the late Shen brothers. They both died of illness a few months ago. Everyone is immediately suspicious - what sort of illness? Aches, pains - the description sounds like the flu. Is this sort of thing common? Well, yes, it's not so unusual. The sicknesses are worst in the summer and winter. Anyway, the Shen brothers are survived by their father - he works on a farm outside of town.
Where can they buy heavier clothes? The tavern keeper says there is a general goods store, but he would be happy to loan Takanata something if he has to go out in the wind. The general store guy (Heng Bai) says that he's expecting a delivery of furs tomorrow, and he can arrange to have the town's seamstress put together a fur cloak for Takanata, but all he has right now are heavy working clothes. Master Zhou buys some. He also agrees to make inquiries about horses that can be purchased.
Next, they head to Old Lady Shi. She is impressed to see such fancy folk here, needing her teas and potions, and puts some more water on. She says that she can provide some help for Wei Han's injuries, and sells him a bag of four khav roots (+15 temporary hit points until unconsciousness or sleep). They also show her Takanata's origami flower - she recognizes it as sweet-thorn, for the thorn under each leaf. Is it good for anything? She says that it is terrible in tea. She's experimented with it a bit and thinks it might make a useful potion for young girls, but it doesn't seem to be good for much else. She'll keep experimenting.
Master Zhou asks her about the sickness. She says that it's seasonal - maybe this past summer was a little worse than most. The year of the Spider a cycle ago was a particularly bad year for the sickness. When asked where the people are buried around here, she points out the graveyard just northeast of town - some have shrines, but most are just stones.
The group heads immediately to investigate the graveyard. This is where the "bandit" tracks probably originated, and, sure enough, there is some recently disturbed earth. There are sweet-thorn flowers here as well - more vines, fewer bushes. There is some recently disturbed earth on a few graves - the ground is rough enough that the signs probably wouldn't last for long, but it hasn't rained since.
Wei Han wonders whether it would be possible for "bandits" to rise without more interference by someone.
- "When did you first start noticing 'bandits', sergeant?" -Takanata
- "Bah! I have had enough of this! Speak to us of the undead, do not mend your speech as if we are too fragile to understand." -Master Zhou
Anyway, Wei Han only started particularly noticing undead relatively recently. But Northern activity seems to go in cycles, and was previously fairly low. Hmm. Takanata wonders when Wei Han was first tied to the Wall. Maybe on the day he was attacked and his patrol was killed? Maybe it was the cabbage salesman, who he met on Midwinter!
The Eastern Fort
Continuing their investigation, the trio heads out to the eastern Army mini-fortress at the Wall. There is a single private guarding the gate - it looks like the place could house a hundred soldiers, but is currently inhabited by only a dozen or so. Wei Han tells the private that he needs to requisition a replacement weapon, and they are escorted inside. Corporal Mulan and Captain Zhen meet them - Captain Zhen understands that their group was quite helpful in dealing with the local bandits, and he offers his thanks. He also asks for a brief incident report, which Wei Han provides.
Takanata fills out forms, to try to bureaucratically get the sword for Wei Han. It turns out Takanata is quite a bureaucrat, so the garrison will have no problem giving Wei Han a new permanent weapon. Captain Zhen also agrees to deploy his medical corpsman to the town, so that Wei Han and the others will count as under a doctor's care for the night.
Master Zhou pokes at the "bandit" orders a bit more, and learns from Corporal Mulan that the general standing orders in the northern garrison from Commander Lo Ping are to make it clear that there's a bandit problem which will be dealt with. Wei Han notes that it is not his place to dispute the wisdom of the orders which are imparted to him. Mulan dryly notes that he is wise. To more questioning by Master Zhou, she clarifies that she was never ordered not to tell people that she was ordered to tell people about bandits. Since they're talking candidly, Mulan asks Wei Han where he's stationed, and how he arranged to get transferred out of "this Northern hell?" He says he annoyed Lo Ping. She's astonished - all he did was transfer Wei Han? He retells the story of getting "won" by Cai Wen in a poker game.
- "Army of One!" -Tom
She commiserates with him about being assigned to the Butterfly Kingdom, because that's not very useful at all, but she does appreciate that he has a more generous commander. She thinks that Captain Zhen pissed off Lo Ping, and that's why she was assigned here. Personally, she'd prefer the south - she hears the Southern wall is warm.
- "Blastingly hot." -Wei Han
- "Mmm. Hot." -Mulan
Wei Han waxes rhapsodic about saparilla trees and the other unpleasantnesses of the Southern wall, but she doesn't seem totally deterred.
Eventually, Wei Han gets his replacement sword, and asks after the possibility of getting some horses requisitioned, and some heavier armor than what he has. They don't have any spare heavy armor, and the horses they have are being used, so that doesn't seem likely. Takanata asks Mulan where she's from - the Taiga, the north Pearl River area. Master Zhou takes an interest - has she travelled on the Path of Green Light? She says she hasn't, but her father spent much time on the Green Path in his youth. Master Zhou asks her if it is her father who is the master swordsman that she has studied under. She is impressed that Master Zhou has heard of him, but is a bit embarrassed.
- "In my family, one doesn't train daughters to the sword."
- "It is sad to see that his skill in sword is not matched in wisdom."
She is torn - clearly, Master Zhou is correct, but she also doesn't want to stand by and see her father insulted. She frowns at him in consternation. Master Zhou offers to train her, if she can spare the time. She would be honored, though she is busy dealing with the aftermath of the bandit attack on the cart today.
- "Grrr. I'll have to change my introduction. 'I am Master Zhou of the White Pagoda.'"
On the way back to Bitterwind, Takanata asks the corpsman about "bandits". He says that there are often bandits in the Steppes, but there have been more recently and in this area. They retire to the tavern, and ask about nearby temples - there is no monastery or temple particularly nearby, but there is a monk of the Wandering Path who travels through every so often.
- "I think we should wait in the graveyard tonight to see if something happens." -Wei Han
- "I think we should sleep." -Takanata
However, having requisitioned the corpsman to let Wei Han recover overnight, he really ought to sleep rather than pull an all-nighter in the graveyard.
The Next Morning
In the morning, Takanata insists on Warm Clothes before Graveyard. They head to the general store, and there is a woman putting the finishing touches on a fur-lined cloak. Takanata pays for it, and thinks he's being massively undercharged, which is odd - normally you overcharge high-status people because they can afford it. Everyone immediately assumes the cloak is a trap of some sort. Takanata thinks the shoulder is a little itchy - and there seems to be a burr in the fur there. This is deemed Proof that the store owner and seamstress are bad guys - they're probably trying to infect Takanata with the evil plants! Takanata wraps the burr in a piece of paper and keeps it in his sleeve, and then puts the cloak back on.
No luck finding horses yet - the store owner will spend today trying to find some.
The graveyard seems undisturbed since the previous day.
Takanata asks the innkeeper for some local background. The seamstress (Sin Li) has lived here all her life, and her family has lived here for generations. She's in partnership with Heng Bei, who is similarly a long-term local. They get furs from a trader to the south, apparently. As Takanata speculates to the others about what exactly is going on with the flowers and the furriers, he realizes that Heng Bei and Sin Li probably aren't making particular use of the flowers after all. So - the burr is just coincidence? Where does that leave the plot?
Looking at the furs more, Wei Han and Takanata are not so sure that these are southern furs - they're very thick and dense, which suggests north, possibly even further north than here. They ask the innkeeper about the fur trader, but he doesn't know anything about a fur trader. Nobody stayed at the inn last night, though - they're the only strangers in town. Hmm. So the furs probably aren't coming from a trader - maybe there's a stash in the store basement?
Takanata does a Connections reading to try to figure things out.
- Northern Furs are being brought
- The furs
sometimescome with seeds for Sweet-thorn attached.
- Sweet-thorn makes the dead
more likely towalk.
- Someone is trying to spread the Sweet-thorn flowers.
- The furs are provided to the seamstress + the manager of the General Store
by one or more Dragon Army soldiers
Thosesoldiers are stationed in the next garrison to the west from here.
Hmm. Well, okay, it's not the as-yet-not-encountered western garrison. Wei Han writes a report on what the group has learned (including the I Ching reading), to give to the innkeeper to pass along to the eastern fort later, in case they don't return from further investigations.
Takanata heads in to talk to the store manager, chatting with him about his various travels, and mentions having passed through Bear Mountain a while back. The shopkeeper doesn't seem to think that's an odd thing to say.
- "He just failed the smuggler test."
Takanata asks some more about his fur source - he says some plausible things, and he's pretty smooth, but Takanata suspects it's made up. Wei Han decides to step in, growling "When did you cross the wall?" but the guy isn't sufficiently intimidated to confess to a capital crime in front of the soldier, and denies everything. He protests that he gets the furs from his trader friend, but Master Zhou points out that the trader didn't stay in the inn last night and thus must not exist. The merchant offers them another fur cloak for cheaper, in the hopes of making the problem go away, but no one seems interested in taking the bribe. He shows them his box of furs, and everyone points at the Nefarious Seeds which are in among them. He doesn't seem to understand why the seeds are evidence of anything in particular, let alone why they're bad, and is somewhat derailed by this line of questioning.
Since intimidation isn't working, Takanata unleashes the full force of his charisma.
- "Sergeant, he's a smuggler, he's not the one we care about."
The merchant allows as maybe if there was some sort of agreement that he isn't going to be hanged, he might remember more, and Takanata allows as that arrangement is acceptable. With guarantees of no trouble, he'd be willing to show them where he gets the furs, which is in fact, technically, on the other side of the Wall.
He's had this arrangement in place for several years - a merchant calling himself Chun Lee came through a while back, and made the deal with him. He picks up the goods (the furs) and sells them for a nice profit, at a good price, since he's getting them for free. Master Zhou gets a description of Chun Lee, but it's been several years, and the guy didn't have any highly distinguishing scars or a horse with a white fetlock, so it's not clear that that lead will pan out any further.
He makes a pickup every few days during the summer, but it's coming to the end of the season. There will probably be one last delivery. He agrees to show them the tunnel, again with promises of No Hanging, and leads them to an area where there's a section of ground attached to a set of boards, which he pulls away to reveal the tunnel. It goes down through the earth to the stone of the Wall, where there's a hole chipped in it, and another tunnel to the other side.
- "It's just harmless trade."
- "It's not harmless." -Takanata
The group takes a minute to explain why it's not harmless, and that the Sweet-thorn is causing the "bandit" problem. He finds this a little astonishing, but definitely doesn't want to be involved with that sort of thing.
- "If you do not wish to be hung, I suggest that you forget the name Bear Mountain."
Even more than the Nefarious Seeds, this confuses him. The group lets him go at this point, and contemplates what to do next.
A Northern Operation
In particular, Takanata does not want to attract the attention of the Hidden City as crossing the Wall again, causing them to summon everyone again for an accident.
Should they involve Corporal Mulan? Takanata thinks no, not unless she's already crossed the wall - it's not in her interest to cross the wall, and it's not in their interest to get her entangled. Master Zhou disagrees - the purpose of the wall has been corrupted, and she needs to see clearly. Wei Han takes issue with the idea of the wall being corrupted. Takanata thinks that leaving her alone with this knowledge will just paint a big target on her.
Master Zhou trains Fa Mulan, as this will give him a better sense for what she's like. She's quite skilled with her sword and has clearly learned by observing a master, but is not formally "trained" by his lights. Mulan thinks it's quite novel to study under someone who actually is trying to make her learn, instead of watching secretly, but is one of those "why would I attack with my fist when I can use a sword" types. He thinks she has the potential to become a Master herself, though it will be the kind of master that uses a x3 weapon. She's both loyal and adventurous - she could become a good leader, but she is unlikely to be promoted as a leader of Wall soldiers. He begins to understand why assigning her here is a punishment for her boss. She's all the makings of a good-hearted troublemaker.
Takanata concedes to Wei Han and Master Zhou's desire to recruit her to the plot. Wei Han thinks the best way to arrange it is to "borrow" her from Captain Zhen for a few days, to get her out of his hair. Takanata does the requisite bureaucratic maneuvers to get her, and then Master Zhou briefs her on the lesser and greater details:
- "We have discovered a tunnel under the wall. We expect a smuggler there to be trafficking goods under the wall in the next day or two. If you cross the wall, it could be of grave danger to you. Crossing the Wall will in some way disconnect you from the chi of the Empire - this could make you a target in the future. There are those in the Empire who do not wish those who have been over the wall to remain."
She thinks that "disconnected from the chi of the Empire" doesn't sound good at all. Takanata agrees, but also says that there are dangers which the Empire faces, that some few need to be able to see more clearly. She's down with the idea of the few being sacrificed for the greater good.
- "It is important that those few are loyal, and Master Zhou has determined that you are one such."
Won over completely now, Mulan says she is honored to be granted their trust, and promises that she will not let them down. The group proceeds to the tunnel, and Wei Han leads everyone through. Those who have crossed before have no particular reaction, but Mulan is stunned by the vision of the Empire receding from her.
Once to the Northern side, there are several tracks visible, leading off to the northwest. People follow the tracks, and after a while, there start to be the sound of people talking. No one speaks much Torghut, so it's hard to tell what they're talking about - Wei Han recognizes the word for "sunset" but not much else.
At this point, the plan leaps straight to "Get 'em!" - there are two guys wearing furs, and three guys carrying boxes, who drop the boxes to draw swords. Both Takanata and Mulan take another point of corruption before the foes are vanquished, but the victory is otherwise swift.
In the boxes are the expected furs, with scattered sweet-thorn seeds. Looting the bodies doesn't turn up much - several knives, two swords, and six strips of silver with Torghut markings on them - three each on each of the two leaders.
Takanata explains to Mulan that the "bandit" problem is being made worse by the sweet-thorn flowers, and that the seeds are sweet-thorn seeds. She is baffled.
- "The flowers cause the bandits." -Wei Han
- "They cause the dead to walk." -Master Zhou
Invocations of Destiny
The group carries the dead bodies and the boxes to the other side of the tunnel, so they can say that there was a fight after finding the tunnel, and imply that it took place on this side of the wall. Takanata mentions something about a northern operation that he was already investigating, leading Mulan to more confusion about who the party is.
- "Wait... who is that you are again?" -Mulan
- "I am Tokai Takanata."
- "The renowned poet!" -Master Zhou
- "That makes everything... so much clearer." -Mulan
She's quite taken by the idea of a Warrior Poet stalking through the Empire protecting the people secretly at night and warming their hearts with his words during the day...
Master Zhou checks to see if crossing the wall has changed Mulan's understanding of the country names:
- "The name of the country to the far west..."
- "You mean Iron Mountain?"
Master Zhou explains that if she hears it referred to as Bear Mountain, that's probably because the person doing so has been across the Wall. Wei Han clarifies - there is a Renaming Conspiracy. Oh, a renaming conspiracy! She totally gets why a Warrior Poet is what you need!
Takanata reads her I Ching: she is likely to become a warrior poet herself, but probably only about as much as Takanata is one himself (he's not such a great warrior; she likely won't be such a great poet). And, they have set her on a path that will lead her to the Hidden City. If she gets there before they do, she will die. If she gets there after they do, she will leave in triumph.
Takanata tells her to delay showing up in the Hidden City as long as she can. She finds that intriguing, but agrees.
- "I'm going to go report to my commander now." -Mulan
- "I am your commander right now." -Wei Han
- "You guys are wily. I get how this works!"
Master Zhou assigns her homework: To be a great swordsmaster is not enough; one must also have companions who are true of heart. She must spend time with those in the garrison here, and nearby, and find which soldiers are loyal to the ideals of the Empire: protection for all, banding together to defeat threatening evil. She must determine which are true, and which are here simply to follow orders; who are true of heart and who are not. When she has done this, he will try to find her again, or she may send word to him and tell him what she has learned.
Wei Han reports in to Captain Zhen, giving the gist of the barbarians, furs, tunnel, and so on, and glossing over the exact location of the fight. The troops will guard the tunnel mouth and fill it with rubble while they arrange to have the construction regiment show up to make proper repairs. Captain Zhen says he'll arrange to burn the flowers - bandits or no bandits, there's probably a case to be made that they're poisonous, or opium flowers, or something.
Things roughly set in order, the group starts off on their long walk back south, since Heng Bai failed to find them horses before going into hiding...