|"Sit atop the mountain and watch the tigers fight."|| The run begins in late Crane|
The run takes place (mostly) north of the Wall
Shen-Ji gathers some companions together - Merit, Wei Han, and Master Deng - and suggests that they travel into the North to find the Circle of Blood and vanquish them again, to learn Blood Magic!
Finding them may be tough, as the last time they were encountered, it ended up with them leaving the front, but perhaps there are ways that they can be located. Hana might know, or wolves might know. Wei Han suggests asking at the Life Pagoda, with appropriate gifts.
The butlers pack for Merit and his friends sufficient for a many-day journey; the packs should have many of the things that they might need in travelling through the North without the ability to stop for food, but they shouldn't look until something is needed.
What about gifts? They toy with the idea of bringing the Alchemist-marked stuff, but that would require not talking about anything interesting while carrying it around, which sounds like too much trouble. The Tahiti cook is directed to prepare an interesting assortment of food, and comes up with a table-sized bento box with all sorts of tasty tidbits.
The group takes their horses (and a wagon, for the gift box) to the Wall, where Wei Han checks in on the state of the war - both the Northern forces and the Dragon Army are recovering and licking their wounds. Merit checks with some smugglers he knows (while there is army-supervised trade from the top of the wall to the bottom, it's annoying and restrictive, so smuggling still happens). They've been trading "worked metals" (a euphemism that includes weapons) to the North for furs. The smugglers haven't heard of the Circle of Blood, but have an interesting perspective on Northern culture.
- "In the north, the traders are more the ones who couldn't make a deal in the honor game. It's not that they're not maniacal killers - it's that they aren't as good at it."
The smugglers are familiar with the Life Pagoda - some of their northern counterparts trade them healing potions. Empire healing potions can fix damage, but Life Pagoda potions can also fix things like broken arms. Wei Han mutters darkly about corruption damage.
Wei Han convinces the army to use their horse-crane to send their horses over the Wall, though the crane sergeant warns him that they will not be able to evacuate back quickly if anything goes wrong.
The group heads north, but Merit is not very stealthy when riding, so they are quickly spotted by a scout. Unusually, they decide to talk instead of killing him.
- "Strong warrior! We honor and salute our foe during this break in fighting!" -Merit
- "If you honor us, why do you invade the lands of my clan?"
- "We are journeying to the Life Pagoda."
- "The peace of the Life Pagoda does not apply until you reach its boundaries! Why should I not kill you all?"
- "We would not dream of passing through your lands without a token of our esteem. Do you like silver?"
- "The Stormshock Clan has more than enough silver, for we take what we need!"
(Merit's sense motive suggests that the clansman is getting very confused by this conversation, as Merit is not playing his side of things as expected).
- "We are confident in our ability to protect ourselves. We offer a gift out of respect, not fear." -Merit
- "I see no gift!"
They throw a string of li to him, and it is apparently sufficient to satisfy his honor.
- "The Stormshock clan will let you pass, but we may not be so forgiving next time!"
- "Not knowing the proper amount to insult him back, I bow and will ask for etiquette lessons at the Life Pagoda." -Drew
Once the group reaches the border of the Life Pagoda lands, they are met by the familiar honor guard of clansmen. They leave their weapons, and horses, with the guards, and are eventually shown before the Masters of Life with their bento box offering. The gift is well-received, and Merit and his companions are permitted to speak to the Life Masters.
- "We seek knowledge, for the ways of our lands and yours are very different. If we understood more of how your people speak to each other, we would be better equipped to speak without giving insult. We wish instruction on how to communicate with the tribes, and how to communicate with the lesser masters such as the Circle of Blood." -Merit
The point about the "lesser masters" is well-received, and Merit thinks his flattery has hit approximately the right tone. The Masters of Life say that they cannot and will not help with any dealings with the Death Lords, but wonder why Merit would wish to speak to the circle of those who pervert life? They are not the Great Khan, and they are not of the clans.
Merit says that he is a seeker of knowledge in most of its forms. He cannot wield magic, but understanding it is useful in many ways. Knowing how to combat such perversions as they speak of, would be useful to him.
They say that might be able to share their ways; what does Merit offer in exchange? Will he share knowledge of the Empire's magic, that they might understand how to combat those who pervert the Empire's ways of magic? After some thought about what this might mean, Merit agrees to teach them KS: Chi Mastery (they have no interest in using actual Imperial Chi Mastery and taking Empire corruption points). From their questions as he explains, Merit suspects that they have noticed that chi masters can undo things like battle magic curses; perhaps they will be able to figure out how to unravel sorcery with their Life Mastery. Merit also notes that they have their own biases that they seem unable to see past - while it is clear to him that life plus death sort of equals blood (the way yin plus yang kind of equals chi), the Life Masters do not believe that to be the case.
The Life Masters explain that there are two challenges that must be dealt with to treat with the Circle of Blood.
- "Unlike us, they do not have the... patience... to deal with outsiders, so before you go to them, you should know what you want. The first challenge is finding them. The second challenge is approaching them. There are two ways to approach - you may defeat them in battle, or use an animal as your intermediary. Either way will result in a great challenge. If you use an animal, it may return to try to kill you, or something else, for it is different each time. If you battle them, it is the same each time, but each time you battle them, it will be harder than the time before."
Finding them is usually hard. They gather irregularly, but they are awaiting the judgement of the Great Khan, so they are north of his camp now. The Life Masters clearly find it distasteful that the Great Khan presume to judge them, though the Circle were fools to have let themselves into a situation where the Great Khan does judge them.
Merit wonders if the Circle has anything to do with the Beastmaster of Men. The Life Masters admit that they do not know; some speculate that the Beastmaster of Men gained his power from them after defeating them, but they think that seems too great a power for a simple boon. But if anyone could do such a thing, it would be they.
Merit also offers to teach them Imperial etiquette in exchange for learning Northern etiquette and culture lore. The Life Masters are somewhat puzzled by this - why would he want to act as a clansman? Merit says he would like to avoid bloodshed if he can. They do not think this is feasible.
- "If we sent warriors of the clans to visit the mountain of the sleeping winterbeast, would knowing the customs of your people help them pass among you without incident? Or would they be killed if they were seen?"
Merit and the others suggest that it would depend who they were seen by.
The Life Masters think that the bargain Merit offers is a fair one, but they are not sure it is worth their time to learn Imperial etiquette and culture. However, if he wishes to make a bargain to learn their ways, then they think it is worth doing well. All of the lore of the Northern Clans cannot be learned in a brief conversation, but they will spend the time to teach him their culture if Merit and the others will provide an escort for two of the Life Pagoda apprentices to go before their Masters of Chi. They will contact Merit soon, when the time for this is right. Merit says he would be honored, and that they can contact him by sending a message through the traders at the Wall. Or, they could send an animal, via a beastmaster who owes them a debt.
Merit bows to them, and they ask about that.
- "When you bow in the Empire way, you offer your throat in submission?"
- "This bow acknowledges that you have a superior station, but speaks to respect rather than submission. But also, your station is higher than mine, and I am in your home..." -Merit
Rather than discuss all of etiquette, the group takes their leave, and then retrieves their weapons and horses to head northwards past the Great Khan's camp. This will be one zone farther north than anyone has gone before, which could be trouble.
To the Circle of Blood
Merit gives apples to the horse to help (??)
Another scout is spotted, but talking has become passé, so the three combatants charge at him and Deng chops his head off. Wei Han spots a necromantic pulse as the scout dies.
They ride as fast as possible for the next zone, before trying to sneak again. Shen-Ji picks a thistle, drawing blood, and after some investigation, Merit identifies it as bloodbane. Shen-Ji isn't damaged by a point, he just has one less hit point than he used to. Well, that is no good. Between Shen-Ji's dispel magic and Pao's magical tweaking abilities, they dispel the bloodbane effect in his blood, but he has two fewer hit points than he used to.
As they keep traveling through the area, another plant (which kind of resembles a bloodbane, except it's mobile) chases Shen-Ji around, and there's a constant low-level wailing which is getting on Deng's nerves and making him tired. Shen-Ji dispels some sort of necromantic leech effect on him, costing Deng a chi (as if he had spent one, not as if he never had one). A bloodbane thorn sticks in Merit's armor, but doesn't get through to his blood. Looking through the Orb, Merit thinks there is just a ton of random Northern magic spread thickly on everything, but he isn't sure why.
Eventually, they are met by a man in dark red leathers, who demands to know who approaches the Circle of Blood. They challenge him, and battle ensues.
It is a tough fight, and both Shen-Ji and Deng are taken (temporarily) down before it finishes. Only a large number of healing potions (thoughtfully packed by the butlers) and Merit's impressive first aid abilities keep them going. Shen-Ji summons some ripper demons, which does not work quite as expected - they aren't the standard rippers, but are some sort of strange horrific vampermonsters.
The party finally prevails, and the Bloodmaster sits down in defeat. What boon do they wish?
However, the vampermonster demons are still a problem, and the group is busy dealing with them, so the Bloodmaster heads back to the rest of the circle to let them finish. (The battle does seem to have been harder this time - the Circle of Blood started with a x12 multiplier).
Once the demons are dealt with, the group heads to the Circle.
- "We salute your prowess, but it is not superior to ours on this day." -Shen-Ji
- "Yes, on this day. What boon do you wish?"
- "We seek to learn the secrets of blood magic." -Shen-Ji
- "Gasp! You would apprentice yourself to the Circle?"
- "Well... we seek to learn about the secrets of blood magic."
They do not teach blood magic to a non-apprentice, but they will teach KS: Blood Magic. They offer a cup of blood with this knowledge, to anyone who wishes to learn it. Wei Han will have none of this northern corruption, and Merit protests - not drinking blood, nope nope nope. Fine, fine, they'll teach him the long way. Deng and Shen Ji drink the blood and then everyone spends the night around their fire, while they lecture Merit on blood magic.
In the morning, a messenger from the camp to the south starts riding up, and the group heads out in another direction before he arrives.
- "For the record, the Great Khan oversteps." -Merit
The Circle of Blood allows as how Merit has learned his lessons well, and is not entirely a fool.
On the way back towards the Wall, Merit is the only one to step in any peril, and gets some corruption (so everyone but Wei Han has a bit). When they reach the sector where the scout was killed, there is a clan army there, so they have to spend a tael's worth of emergency bribes.They cross the last zone in a sprint, burning out everyone's horse except Merit's, but then they are back across the Wall and home.