|"Virtuous for ten years is still not enough; evil for one day is too much already."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Bear in the Month of the Tortoise in the first Year of the Magpie since the White Pagoda was abandoned.|
The run takes place on the way to and at Iron Mountain.
Attempted Murder Most Foul
The circus has finished its performances in Nine Terraces, and is heading towards Iron Fortress for a command performance with Lord Yu. On the first night on the road, there is the traditional meeting for circus staff to go over what to remember when leaving the Strand, but Merit gets a note from Ringmaster Zhu - "Very busy, bandits in the area desire my presence, please run the meeting." Happily, Merit knows the standard circus procedure for different countries, so he gets ready to brief everyone, when there is a scream from the tea tent.
Everyone runs to the tea tent (except Kasumi, who heads for the elephants, on her general assumption that anyone everyone can notice is a distraction).
There's a young woman with messy hair lying on the ground bleeding, and Siew Zhuai crouching over her, holding a knife.
- "It's not what it looks like." -Zhuai
- "Hand me that knife and don't say any more words." -Merit
Shen-Ji invites Zhuai to walk alone in the woods with him and be murdered, but he declines the invitation.
Xiao Fa and Shuyan leap to the woman's side, but she is dying fast. Xiao Fa manages to hold down a cure poison, while Shuyan heals her, but she is down a lot of hit points. Lijuan goes out to look for tracks, and finds a lot of tracks caused by everyone rushing to the tea tent, but also several other trails going to and from the woods. She heads south, following one trail, which appears to be a set of human footprints that ends at some broken bushes; the bushes may have been broken by something that wasn't human, but she can't tell what it was beyond that. She returns and grabs Kasumi for her next tracking attempt - another set of human tracks, which are joined at intervals by the tracks of a wolf, a horse, and some sort of horrific creature. Those tracks continue on northwest for some time, so Lijuan and Kasumi return back to the circus again.
Merit checks over the knife - the most recent hand print is on top of some blood, so Zhuai could have taken it after she was stabbed, or he could have adjusted his grip. Merit also finds a note in one of her pockets:
Xian tells Zhuai that he can talk to her, and wants to know what happened.
- "It isn't what it looks like! I thought it was Lijuan! No, not like that - I just panicked." -Zhuai
- "Why did you expect it to be Lijuan?" -Xian
- "Just between you and me, she's a little... danger prone." -Zhuai
Zhuai says he saw someone who seemed to be larger than a normal human, standing over the girl and then passing through the back wall of the tent.
Xiao Fa and Shuyan manage to bring the woman around, and she begins to scream again. She doesn't seem to see them - she's seeing something else, and it terrifies her. (Xian doesn't think there's anything invisible around, so it's probably hallucinations rather than some sort of actual unseen enemies.) Xiao Fa thinks that there are two poisons - one doing damage (which he finally finishes neutralizing) and one causing this other effect. Merit identifies the second poison as the Oil of Torment Perfected - a magical poison said to be used for punishment, as it causes torments both awake and while sleeping, and even (so it is said) after death. The cure is a drop of blood from the one who administered it.
Xian does her best to adjust Lin's emotions from fear to "outraged victimhood", and manages to find out a few scattered comments. "They"'re after her, and no one leaves. She shouldn't have left, but she knew she had to to save her brother. Xian also thinks Lin was only able to leave because she has a relatively high resolve, up against a very strong belief that she shouldn't leave. Xian also notes that she's surprisingly resistant to the Voice, due to repeated exposure. Xiao Fa sedates her, though it does seem that she's still being tormented in her dreams.
Lijuan and Kasumi (and Kawaii) return to the tea tent, so Zhuai makes himself scarce, as Kawaii continues to dislike him. Lijuan explains about the tracks she found, though between Lijuan's narration and the oddness of the tracks, it really isn't clear what they indicate. But it does seem that there's a trail that the party could follow back to the culprits.
- "I'm going to stay with her. If they stab me, it won't affect me." -Shuyan
- "What, really? You're immune to stabbing?" -Everyone, including the GMs
- "No, just to poison..." -Shuyan
Xiao Fa examines Lin's chi - it's not the chi of a healthy person, obviously. And it does appear that she has some ability to increase her resistance to the things which abuse her, so if he and Shuyan can keep her alive for long enough, she can probably start to resist the tormenting poison.
Looking at all the tracks, it appears that she came in the front of the tea tent, and the grey figure Zhuai saw passing through the tent coincides with where one set of tracks left, ducking under the canvas. Shen-Ji looks at the magical residue in the area, and thinks it's more like chi masters than sorcery. Merit wraps up the knife and gives it to Shuyan, instructing her to throw it at the bad guys later - there may be enough poison remaining to have an effect.
Lijuan draws some art:
It looks like one of the figures on the altar is Shuyan, assuming that the thing in her hand is a snake rather than a bow. So Shuyan is promptly given all the good defensive loot, like the Monkey Talisman. Lijuan regards her picture unhappily - it's clearly wrong, and the figure should be more shadowy, like a ninja.
- "Let me know if you want to borrow a snake." -Shuyan to Kasumi
In the morning, the circus starts moving again. When they reach the place on the road where the trail branches off from the road, the circus keeps going to Iron Fortress and the party heads along the trail. Zhuai wants to come along, but Lijuan tells him not to - if they don't return in a day, then he will need to rescue them all. He goes off to start putting a rescue mission together just in case.
Lin is put in the library cart to carry her along, and Merit takes the opportunity to research the Oil of Torment Perfected. It is apparently one of the early poisons that the Ancient made to make his name, but he doesn't like this one so much any more. Apparently, now his clients are a little more discerning and dislike mystic links between them and the people they kill, so he probably hasn't made any in some years now. But twenty or thirty years ago, it was his discovery (or possibly rediscovery).
The party heads along the trail, and eventually comes to a small walled village, nestled between two tall hills, with three small pagodas in the center.
Lin is left in the library cart, locked in with Kawaii. Lijuan gives Kawaii instructions to not break the cart, and not kill the lady, though Lijuan is more concerned with Merit's displeasure about property damage and tells Kawaii that not breaking the cart is more important, if it comes to a choice between priorities.
The village gates identify the village as a monastery of the Ascending Path, and indicate that merchants are welcome on the Day of the Magpie (several days ago). Merit spots a dog sitting on the wall, watching people.
- "Time for some stealthy recon, which may get closer to half of the party being captured and put on altars!"
Lijuan, Kasumi, and Shuyan sneak down to the wall, bringing Merit's pewter brush and the conch of warning. Kasumi and Shuyan can get up the wall fairly easily, and lower a rope for Lijuan. Ho, marooned at the bottom of the wall, makes puppy dog eyes, but they leave him behind.
Listening around town, the infiltrators hear a number of rather innocuous-sounding conversations:
- a couple of kids talking excitedly about a martial arts demonstration scheduled for tomorrow
- discussion that Mistress Yang has been arguing that they need to reinforce some of the walls, and complaining about general infrastructure problems
- wondering where Lin is - maybe they should check her house
They follow the people looking for Lin - the concerned villagers knock on the front door of a small peasant shack, and when they don't find her there, head to the monastery to let someone know. Kasumi and Shuyan hide outside the monastery, but the less stealthy Lijuan goes inside and shuts the door after herself. Um... that wasn't the plan.
Kasumi and Shuyan sneak up and peek in the door, but Lijuan seems to be gone already. Shuyan writes a note with the pewter brush, which summarizes for the people on the outside:
- Monastery got Lijuan.
Shen-Ji suggests that he just set the entire place on fire, to simplify things. He's not sure why they're here anyway. Nobody ever wants to do his plots that involve looting things - why do they have fuss with some random monastery that all it does is try to kill people who aren't him?
Shuyan and Kasumi sneak into the monastery after Lijuan - they see various people doing various sweeping and mopping things, but there's no sign of Lijuan. They start to cautiously search.
Meanwhile, Lijuan is having tea with a monk in brown robes, who is curious why she has broken into his monastery. Lijuan gives him a garbled story about looking for the bad guys who stab and poison people, though the monk seems to think that "my fiance who nobody trusts who was standing over the body with a knife in his hand" might possibly be the source of her stabbing troubles. Lijuan wants to know if he is running a martial arts competition (no, that is Mistress Yang's foolishness) and which building has the bad guys in it (he doesn't think there is a building full of bad guys that he can recommend to her). However, he is very gentle and persuasive and gets her to tell him the whole story, though it continues to be rather confusing.
In any event, he thinks it is highly inappropriate for a young girl to have snuck into his monastery, and asks after her parents or guardians. She says that's Tokai Takanata (who he has heard of) but since Lord Tokai is too important to bother, Li Merit will do. The monk asks her more details about Li Merit and her other friends, which is what Kasumi and Shuyan hear as they sneak up outside the study.
- "Should we just stay here and listen?" -Shuyan
- "There's a flaw in that plan, but I'm not sure what it is." -Kasumi
The monk invites Lijuan (who always looks hungry) to have some lunch, while he arranges to fetch Merit or Takanata, and the two leave the study. Shuyan and Kasumi sneak in, and find some financial papers and what seems to be a large hairball in the corner.
Merit researches the monastery in his library cart, and discovers that before it was a monastery, there used to be a meeting hall for diplomatic delegations from the three countries it borders (the Strand, the Taiga, and Iron Mountain). However, it fell into disuse as wars between the three countries became less common, and more commonly stamped out by the Dragon Army. After the diplomatic halls were abandoned, the place was taken over by Ascended Path monks, as a fine place to leave the world for a while, and they named it Journey's End. Because the location is so finely balanced between Serpent, Fox, and Bear, they found it a good place for their order. (No one seems to have written anything about evil mind control, or the obvious precursors thereof - so it is either a well kept secret, or something recent, or not actually in the village.)
Back and Forth
A monk in brown robes walks up the path to the library cart and its entourage; he says he is looking for Master Li Merit or Lord Tokai Takanata. Xiao Fa introduces himself, and the monk introduces himself as Brother Cho, of the Ascended Path at Journey's End.
- "Master Li is invited to discuss the behavior of Lord Takanata's ward with Master Yin, as this one believes Lord Takanata is not to be disturbed lightly." -Brother Cho
Xiao Fa lets Merit know what's going on, and passes him the Butterfly Talisman, and then Merit and Xian head back to the monastery with Brother Cho. Xiao Fa and Shen-Ji think that if they don't come back, then it may be time to have Shen-Ji set everything on fire, as well as throw the panda over the wall for bonus carnage.
On the way in through the gates, Brother Cho is intercepted by a tall woman, clearly quite cross with what he is doing, who demands to know the meaning of this! Brother Cho is deeply apologetic - Master Yin wished to converse with these two, and it was his great oversight that he did not speak to Mistress Yang about it, as the gates are clearly her responsibility. Mistress Yang gives a very Master-Zhou-like snort, and says that she will be bringing this up with Father Chi.
Back in the monastery, Master Yin tells Lijuan that her friends are approaching, and suggests that they return to his study - back towards Shuyan and Kasumi, who are hiding in the hallway. They try their best to hide while making climbing rolls up on the ceiling, but as Master Yin walks beneath them, he notes "You two might as well join us as well."
Everyone except Shen-Ji and Xiao Fa meet in the study. Master Yin is surprised that Brother Xiao Fa did not come in.
- "I worry about his comfort, sitting out there watching a monastery from outside. Though he presumably has the great sorcerer Yang with him." -Master Yin
- "He's a bit yangy for your monastery."
Master Yin allows as there are many ways to perfection, and all types can find their home here. However, as to the current plot - Lijuan has explained to him that they are hot on the trail of a murderer who is probably not her fiance, which has led to a road and thence to the Monastery of Journey's End. However, from dusk until dawn, the gates of the monastery are locked, and none can leave or return. So it would not have been possible for the killer to leave the monastery, murder someone, and return, all last night.
- "But at night when the full moon is out they turn into wolves and things?" -Lijuan
- "...No." -Master Yin
Lijuan thinks that possibly the murderer turned into a dragon to get back into the monastery. Master Yin admits that dragons are admittedly beyond his personal competence, but finds this possibility unlikely.
Merit gives Master Yin a slightly less confused briefing about Lin, from her discovery by Siew Zhuai to the poisons and the mystical connection between the victim and the assassin. Which, according to Xiao Fa, points into the monastery. Master Yin takes this tale a bit more seriously, and thinks that perhaps Xiao Fa should come inside to track down the mystical connection. Master Yin offers to put Merit and his companions in the merchant house, though it would normally be closed right now. If Brother Xiao Fa wants to come in to conduct his investigations, Master Yin can offer a tour of the village and monasteries.
Perhaps Brother Cho could go back out to offer Xiao Fa this tour? Lijuan and Shuyan join Brother Cho and head back outside again, on the theory that if people keep going in and not coming back out, Xiao Fa may find it ominous.
However, Xiao Fa still remembers the "Monastery got Lijuan" note, and investigates her chi. It shows signs of mental influence in the past, though none right now. Shen-Ji declares that it's time to set fire to the town, and Xiao Fa frowns at Brother Cho - he is most concerned by the mental influences that have been exercised on Lijuan. Brother Cho looks shocked, and doesn't understand what sort of mental influences Xiao Fa is talking about. Xiao Fa directs Brother Cho to go back in and tell his master that Xiao Fa wants to discuss mind control before anyone else goes inside, and Brother Cho leaves again. Shuyan explains about Lijuan going in and briefing Master Yin - that was probably the result of the mental influence. But how did it happen?
Those still in Journey's End get invited to dinner at the monastery - more stew, which seems to be the local cuisine. As Merit eats, Xian asks Master Yin if the food is poisoned. Master Yin is briefly taken aback, but then thinks that this is a strange sort of humor on Xian's part. He says it is not (and Xian thinks he's not lying), but a random novice seems to be very startled that Xian noticed. Xian points out the novice to Merit, who spits out his mouthful of food, noting that yes, it's not poisoned, but it is drugged. He tries to glare at the novice, but with the mess he's made, Merit is not a very impressive glarer. Nevertheless, the novice cracks instantly, and sprints for the door.
Master Yin leaps backwards through the air, and lands in front of the door, blocking the novice's path, where he demands that the novice will... and then Master Yin freezes for a moment, and the novice dashes past him. Master Yin wakes up again, and is baffled that the novice is gone. Merit and others explain that he froze for a moment, and Master Yin continues to be baffled. He must go and discuss this with Father Chi, he says, but before he goes, Merit briefs him on the footprints and the illusion of the tall grey figure and so on, on the theory that he should know about all the weirdness before he discusses it with Father Chi.
Brother Cho shows Merit, Xian, and Kasumi to the merchant house, and Merit recruits him as a spy. There seems to be a commotion going on - everyone is returning to their homes until Things Are Gotten To The Bottom Of.
Outside the village, Xiao Fa, Shen-Ji, Lijuan, and Shuyan contemplate whether it is time to set everything on fire.
- "I would rather my friends not be burned to death." -Shuyan
- "Don't worry, it would probably be smoke inhalation. How do you feel about raising them as zombies?" -Shen-Ji
- "No, not that either." -Shuyan
Also, Lijuan and Shuyan are the ones carrying the magic items that let them communicate with Xiao Fa. Hmm. Shuyan agrees to sneak back in, with the pewter brush and the conch horn, but Xiao Fa puts his foot down. If he doesn't hear news he likes within the hour, then he is letting Shen-Ji off the leash and things will start burning. Shuyan is still not happy with this - even if Shen-Ji's fire shtick doesn't set the party on fire, she doesn't want the rest of the village to burn to death.
- "Call me a tender-hearted fool..." -Shuyan
- "You tender-hearted fool!" -Shen-Ji
Shuyan sneaks back into the village as the sun sets, and there is a great howl, as if some sort of wolf-monster has finally been released. Outside, Kawaii bursts out of the library cart, breaking the door, and roars at the surrounding woods. A bunch of silently approaching wolves decide that this is not their plot, and skulk away.
As Shuyan sneaks towards the merchant house, she sees one of the brown-robed monks putting on a grey robe and getting out some knives. Shuyan sprints faster for the merchant house.
- "Wait. How did it end up that we are all in here?" -Merit
So... is it the whole village about to attack them? Should they leave? Sound the conch horn? Something else? Maybe they should wait a little longer to see what happens? Merit notes with dismay that the merchant house seems to have been built to be extra-indefensible. Not normally a problem for an inn, but a bit more ominous in this case. The group decides to wait to see if more clues appear while the bad guys go for them, since they have enough ninja smoke to escape, and Shuyan writes a message back to Xiao Fa to that effect. It is summarized as
- Staying for a little more trap
Xiao Fa decides that enough is enough, and the last three (Shen-Ji, Lijuan, Xiao Fa) head for the village, accompanied by Kawaii, leaving the unconscious Lin in the broken library cart.
The group in the merchant house splits into two parts - Merit and Shuyan disguise themselves as grey-robed monks (Merit more successfully than Shuyan), and Kasumi and Xian hide. Three grey-robed monks burst in, and tell Merit to not be fooled - Shuyan is clearly one of them. Merit makes a half-hearted attempt to stab her, mostly getting in the way of the others. Shuyan flees for the village gate, pursued by the grey-robes and others, and the gates pop open for her (because Monkey Talisman). The grey-robes chasing her run through and are shot by Shen-Ji, who is surprised by how easily they die, but the gates slam shut on Kasumi before she can leave. Xian looks around the merchant house - everyone else is gone. Hmm. She heads after them.
An extra-tall woman in giant grey robes, with her long black hair swirling around her, strides down into the main plaza. The grey-robes grovel and tell her that "she escaped through the gates!" The woman swats the offending grey-robe, and orders the others to find them and destroy them! Xian, catching up, spends a Yin to see that the woman is in fact Mistress Yang, trapped inside the chi shell of this larger horrible form, and struggling against it.
Shen-Ji blows up one of the big doors in the wall; Lijuan, Shuyan, Xiao Fa, and Shen-Ji (plus Kawaii and Ho) all charge in. In the confusion, everyone regroups back at the merchant house, where, thanks to the previously noted shticks in completely indefensible, they are promptly surrounded by grey-robed monks, a bunch of horrible monsters, the tall woman, and an older monk also in grey. Xian notes that one of the horrible-monster shapes has Master Yin trapped inside, similar to Mistress Yang's form. The older monk, Father Chi, moves a hand and Merit's disguise falls away, and he tells his "children" to destroy them.
Lijuan starts by shooting Father Chi. He looks reproachfully at her, and tells her her quarrel is not with him. Lijuan is quickly persuaded to not attack Father Chi, but is not quite convinced to attack her friends. Xiao Fa examines Mistress Yang's chi - her imbalance has allowed the dark chi to subvert her through her less-defended Yin.
Much fighting ensues, and those targetted by the grey monks are quickly stabbed and poisoned. Shuyan, finding herself surrounded by too many monks, is put on the defensive, and is unable to do much other than try to survive. Merit holds up a piece of chalk, claiming it to be half of a deadly poison, while the other half is already in the room. All the mooks, and some of the party, believe him. Some of the grey-robes grapple with Merit, holding his hand clenched tight, and drag him over to Father Chi. Merit uses his Gloat shtick to get Father Chi to pontificate.
- "People speak of the dark chi of the south. Those fools know nothing of dark chi!" -Father Chi
He uses his chi to master the minds of others; once the whole monastery is truly under his control, then he will lead them to Iron Mountain and it will be his. As Merit is a good listener, Father Chi goes into a bit more detail - about one tenth of the village are his servants directly, and the two other masters have been subverted. His dark chi controls them at night, and during the day it clouds their minds.
Mistress Yang fights like a spinning martial artist of doom; Master Yin fights like a beast, and several of the other beasts are his illusionary duplicates, making taking him down difficult.
The grey-robes take down Lijuan, and Shuyan. Xiao Fa chi-blocks Father Chi, lowering his tao, and Kasumi stabs him and manages to resist his "no hitting me again" effect with a particularly lucky coin flip, before stabbing him again and killing him. Master Yin and Mistress Yang regain control of their own souls - Mistress Yang goes over and kicks Father Chi's body a few times.
Xiao Fa brings Shuyan around, who heals herself and Lijuan. Now that the other two masters are free of the dark chi effects, they can explain a bit more. Father Chi "let" Lin escape, but poisoned her first and then sent Yin and Yang after her to finish the job. So he is the one whose blood will cure her.
- "That was really extra-evil." -Xian
- "When you use chi to twist the hearts of others, your own heart becomes the most twisted." -Master Yin
The monks are all exceedingly grateful to Merit (who is given credit for being the leader, as he has the highest status) and the others for saving them. Brother Xiao Fa would be welcome to stay, as the order will be needing a chi master in the future, but he declines the invitation, after lecturing them a bit to balance their chi more. However, the order does owe the party a favor (in addition to being generally grateful), if that is ever something they need.
Xiao Fa and Xian contemplate a ceremony to cleanse Father Chi's dark chi from the area, but with the killing blow delivered by a ninja, he is not sticking around as a malign ghost or the like. The villagers and monks, who have been eating resolve-draining stew for ages, may take some time to return to normal, but their chi should heal.
Mistress Yang and Master Yin don't know whether Father Chi had minions elsewhere, or where he learned his dark chi abilities. But he was the one that kept Journey's End so isolated and insular, so he probably didn't have a lot of minions elsewhere. Also, the reason Lin fled to begin with was that her brother was to be sacrificed to give his chi to Master Chi. Ew. But her brother, less strong-willed, wasn't able to flee himself, only give her a chance to free them both.
Exhausted, the party spends the night in the merchant house.
However, the next morning, Siew Zhuai has brought a small army to the rescue, as Lijuan has not in fact returned (and the library cart, outside the village, appears to have been attacked). Merit is impressed with his army-raising until he admits that he had to borrow the forces from Lord Yu, and had to mention their names in order to persuade him. So since he did have to bring the soldiers, the party owes Lord Yu a favor. Merit complains bitterly about not spending any party resources or committing the party to anything, but Zhuai protests this as unfair - they didn't come back, and Lijuan told him to arrange for a full rescue if they didn't!
- Takanata, Cai Wen, Min Feng, and Anto go back to visit the Tengs.