Life in the North
|"Smoke in your own country is purer than fire in a foreign land."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Tortoise in the Month of the Phoenix in the third Year of the Spider since the burning of the Black Spire.|
The run takes place mostly in the lands north of the Wall.
Preparation for the Journey
Takanata reminds the group that Midsummer is approaching, and his best plan for how to thwart the Southern ritual is to take Hiro and Hana over the Northern Wall to be out of the Empire entirely for Midsummer. The party fusses over how to get to the north (it's so far!), and Ringmaster Te objects to borrowing the circus horses and taking them to the Barbarian North, so Takanata arranges passage on a boat up the Pearl River for much of the journey; after the river turns towards the Hidden City, the party travels by foot. No provisions (or ladders) are mentioned, but the Great Talismans are given much attention. Takanata recalls that outside the Empire, Talismans are considered a "burden" (according to the Silver Dragons) and decrease rather than increase the relevant stat. So Kasumi wears the Butterfly Talisman (as status is her least important stat so she can presumably survive the lack of it), and similarly Takanata wears the Magpie amulet.
Takanata writes a poem:
He interprets this as "Butterfly doesn't work north of the Wall" and puts it aside. Shen-Ji asks Shohag about the locations of life shamans, and gets a couple of plausible places. Master Zhou wonders about Northern aspects, and insists that Shohag train with him. He isn't much of a fighter, and Master Zhou notes that instead of an aspect, he seems to have a clan that he used to be from, which doesn't serve the same purpose at all but is at least interesting information. Xian reports in on the homework Master Zhou assigned him early in their travels, and is also given some interesting information.
As the group heads north, there seem to be more small groups of army troops going back and forth along the east-west Imperial Highway, and Master Zhou notes that he'd like to find Mulan. Takanata insists that there is to be no aimless wandering up and down the highway hoping to bump into her, but Master Zhou is willing to spend the karma to get lucky, and her troop proves to be one of the groups passing by, and they hail her. She's happy to run into them again, and when the troop camps for the night, the party takes her aside to ask for advice (not wanting to discuss crossing the Wall in front of all of the soldiers). She advises crossing at night - there are fewer attacks at night, for one, plus the whole "harder to see" thing. And they'll likely want to take cover somewhere that they can't be seen by Northerners or the army, during the day. She also remarks that there have been a lot more Northern incursions than in a usual summer, though they haven't been particularly bad incursions. Anyway, she recommends a place to cross that has some hills to hide in, and is near one of the life masters that Shen-Ji heard about; if they cross at night, she'll make sure that her troop is paying particularly strong attention to the south.
Master Zhou asks her how she has done making allies - she indicates her three companions as her most trusted friends, but says she has built alliances with some of the other captains along the Wall. She is particularly proud of having arranged for some joint exercises between the East and West commands. Master Zhou warns Mulan that the Northerners have been coordinating to cause trouble for the Empire, and hints that he could use help guarding the White Pagoda. Mulan is initially confused - are there Western invaders also? Or does he mean fighting Tai Lung? Eventually it is clarified that he is thinking of something more like a security guard (as Mulan sees it) so that the White Pagoda doesn't remain empty if Yanzi leaves. She suggests the Steadfast Heart temple as a possibility to talk to. Master Zhou notes that he was hoping to ask Mulan and her team to go, but she thinks that's a little weird - they're Dragon Army, and they don't know how to do any of those flying leaping kick things anyway. Master Zhou takes that as an excuse to train, so there is a Dramatic Training Montage for the NPCs on top of the North Wall. That conveniently leaves Master Zhou on top of the Wall when the time comes to cross - everyone else has to figure it out for themselves.
Night in the North
Since no one brought a ladder, things are done the hard way. Kasumi climbs up and ties a rope. Takanata and Min Feng successfully climb up (Takanata not particularly quietly), and Shen-Ji floats up on his disk. Hana can't make it on her own, so Kasumi climbs down, ties Hana on, climbs up, and pulls Hana up. At that point, bored with the climbing up and down, Kasumi ‘Yoinks’ Xian up the wall. Takanata continues to be non-stealthy, so after a little while of this, some of the soldiers think they see something - as they head in that direction, all but Kasumi descend rapidly to the foot of the Wall to lose themselves in the shadows (Kasumi again lowering people on her rope). By the time the soldiers arrive, Kasumi is nowhere to be found, and they can't see anyone on the bottom, so they cut the rope but sound no alarm.
The Talismans reduce Kasumi to half status and Takanata to half energy, and the three monkeys that the party has brought are really not pleased to be here - they cling tightly to Min Feng and Kasumi and refuse to either be helpful or let go. Hana also experiences some changes - she finds that she has Life/Death/Blood instead of the normal Tao stats (and her Death is substantial).
- "Are you different? More powerful? Does your rage make you more powerful?" -Shen-Ji
Additionally, while she can normally talk to ghosts, she thinks she can control them here. This leads to some theological discussions - Takanata holds forth on how the Worlds Above / Below After are divided by the Walls just like the North and South.
Meanwhile, Min Feng and Kasumi sneak around the hills to find out where the bandits are hiding (because presumably there are bandits somewhere) so the group can hide somewhere else. They see a group of four people with nets and spears, and both sides slowly sneak up on each other until combat is inevitable. Min Feng opens fire and the Northerners are taken aback.
- "That's not a wolf, that's bandits!" -Spear carrier
Several of them spear Min Feng and then the leader nets her. Kasumi leaps in with her katana at the leader's neck and asks, in broken Torghut "Why you hunt us?" After determining the "bandits" are two Southern girls, confusion wins the day.
- "It's an invasion, but they just send two girls?"
Kasumi tries to explain "picnic" in Torghut, but has no luck convincing them (either because it's hard to translate or implausible to believe). Min Feng suggests going with the pretext of "running from an arranged marriage" so Kasumi translates that. The hunters spend some time considering marriage to Min Feng, until they decide a Southern wife would be a pain. Kasumi asks what they're actually doing - apparently hunting for dire wolves for the fur trade. Kasumi admits they netted Min Feng fair and square, so offers them a pouch of shiny crystals she picked up at a shop in exchange for Min Feng back. Kasumi asks what there is of interest nearby, and is pointed to the compound of a Lord of Life, and a ruined fortress that has a Beast Master in it. Then, the two groups go their separate ways, and Min Feng and Kasumi return to the rest of the party.
- "Rosebud, except I make myself look a lot better, and Ming Feng hits me on the head a lot." - Kasumi upon returning to the rest of the group.
The rest of the night passes uneventfully.
Midsummer Eve at the Life Temple
A large caravan passes in front of the group, with bow-wielding outriders on shaggy ponies watching for trouble. Most of the party manage to hide, but Takanata does not succeed. Three outriders peel off to come closer, yelling questions at him in Torghut - what clan is he with? What is he doing here? After a few rounds of more confusion Hana pops up from hiding and explains in her broken Torghut "We go, visit life temple!" This actually makes some sense to the guards - how else would southerners visit a life shaman? They are too sad to have their own temples, so they have to come here! - so they watch carefully, but leave the party alone as they pass. One of the outriders is dispatched to send word ahead to the Lord of Life that there are southerners who have come to visit.
Life Temple Arrival
When the party arrives at the life temple, they are met by a number of soldiers. They are in groups of five, each wearing different clan colors, and it looks like they're in their dress uniforms, such as they are. The building appears more of a palace, or a temple as imagined by a rich and ostentatious merchant house, not the more austere temples of the Empire. Apparently there is an official truce around the domain of the Lord of Life, which extends even to southerners. Also, normally gifts are given to those who wish a boon of the Lord of Life. The party searches its collective pockets, and Takanata starts to paint a watercolor of the temple, in classic Empire style.
One of the guards steps forward and instructs the group, especially Hana: "No weapons, no undead". Everyone agrees to leave their weapons. The guard continues to eye Hana in some confusion.
- "Whose undead are you?" -Guard
- "Not undead." -Hana
- "You kind of are..." -the peanut gallery
- "No, that's a technical term" -Hana
Hana stops arguing about whether or not she's undead, but is still interested in going in. The guard seems distracted for a bit (like someone is talking to him that no one can see) and then issues different instructions: she can go in by herself, first. She negotiates up to one person, and Master Zhou accompanies her.
Qutugh, the Lord of Life, is dressed in golden-yellow robes and furs - perhaps a monk as imagined by a rich and ostentatious merchant house. He walks around Hana a few times, eying her carefully, and asks her a number of questions.
- "Are you what Southern undead look like?"
- "Not all."
- "Are you avoiding the realm of death because you don't want to go?"
- "They let you wander around, in the south?"
- "No one own me."
- "That's clear."
He wants to try something else, to "taste her life". Hana is rather uneasy about that, though Qutugh claims it's just a sense mode. Hana says, well, okay, if Shen-Ji is allowed to come watch. This pushes Qutugh into stubbornness - he is the Lord of Life, this is his domain, and people do not come and haggle with him. They come and ask boons, which he may choose to grant, and they bring him gifts, which he accepts. Hana protests that she hasn't asked for a boon, he told her to come in and be examined, but it's clear that Shen-Ji and the others do totally want the boon of information from him, so Hana gives in.
- "It's on you to make sure they don't send her across to fuel some horrible ritual." -the peanut gallery
- "It's okay, I can take him." -Master Zhou, ever confident
Hana gets the sense of a repelling magnet approaching her and then touching, as the Lord of Life "tastes her life". He is even more confused afterwards, though.
- "You have a live person inside you? You are possessing ghost?"
Apparently this has reassured him sufficiently that Hana is not a secret weapon of the necromancers in the party, so everyone else is permitted to enter as well, bearing their gifts (but not their weapons).
Shen-Ji presents Qutugh with a leather pouch of ritual powders, and Kasumi gives him her very very fine spool of thread (her "elven string"). Takanata presents his watercolor, though Qutugh does not seem to appreciate High Imperial Style. Kasumi later notes the servants making disapproving noises about the somewhat lame gifts (perhaps southerners are poor, but the party had a lot of magic weapons, so no, they were just cheap, as far as the servants were concerned), and asks what would be more appropriate. The answer is "fur, horses, gold and silver, less unstylish art, that sort of thing" so Kasumi gives the servants twenty li for their master, and Min Feng adds an additional fifteen (first two li, then thirteen more for being healed). The servants immediately increase their politeness level to the pair, especially Kasumi.
Shen-Ji asks the Lord of Life for help in understanding Life Magics. As this discussion may require more than the four levels of Torghut that Kasumi and Hana have, Min Feng draws upon Yanyu's knowledge of Torghut to translate more fluently. Qutugh's first reaction is dismissive: "You cannot achieve final understanding when you always have a master above you." And, speaking of masters, he suddenly notices and is appalled by the monkeys.
- "What are those?" -Qutugh
- "Those are pets, animal companions." -Shen-ji, assuming he had never seen monkeys before
- "Those are NOT pets."
- "No, they're not." -Kasumi
- "Crazy southerners, wear their masters on their shoulders..."
He approves more of Shen-Ji's pet phoenix, which does relegate Shen-Ji's master to the status of his pet.
Anyhow, Shen-Ji gets ten successes of questioning, and adds some clues on Life Magic to his previous clues on Necromancy. The Lord of Life says that life is about connections between living things, and helping the body heal itself (it is very good at curing cancer, or hit point damage; not so good at curing broken bones). They have no equivalent to sorcery, which uses all three Tao stats - there are masters and lords of Life, Blood, and Death, and also of all the pairwise combinations:
- Necromancy is Life + Death
- Beast Mastery is Life + Blood
- Battle is Death + Blood
He also talks some about the different cosmology. In the south (that is, the Empire), spirits are locked away above and below. This keeps them out of day to day life, but allows them to get more powerful. In the North, the small spirits get knocked off by the bigger ones, so there are fewer, and fewer big ones to avoid. Similarly, the World After is more mixed in with this world, less of an isolated place. He doesn't know what Takanata is talking about when the latter mentions the World of Dreams, and thinks that's probably something Takanata imagines. Dreams are very convincing, after all, but they're just dreams.
People also ask him political questions, and he mentions the name of the clan (Borjigin) which has the khan trying to become Great Khan by uniting the clans. People ask why they attack the Empire, and he shrugs and says that by fighting, you become stronger. So they fight each other, and they fight the south.
With Qutugh's permission, Takanata uses Eyes of the I Ching - Qutugh, intrigued, tries to look through his eyes while he does so. Takanata can see the connections between the Talismans and the Empire, and a different connection between Min Feng and the Empire (which Qutugh thinks is more of a "life" connection than the others). Qutugh himself is somewhat Yang-ish, but his Yang has too much Yin in it, which Takanata doesn't like. As both Takanata and Qutugh take (opposite) corruption points from crossing the streams with each other, Takanata notes that that bit of Qutugh's Yang sorted itself out better to become more properly Yang-ish.
Takanata also offers to read Qutugh's I Ching, which he finds intriguing. However, as he starts, Shen-Ji realizes that he is repeating throwing the reeds multiple times, and Shen-Ji interrupts him before he can finish the third time ("I've seen him do two times before, but never three"). From Takanata's point of view, he has only done one reading, and gotten two different answers (and taken two points of corruption damage).
- After a long life, the shaman will die and be buried, and decay, by the lake.
- After a long life, the shaman will have a short time of howling, before he is pulled into a greater work, at which point he ceases being himself.
This seems likely (especially to Qutugh) to be Blood and Death, and that Takanata was interrupted before he could finish Life. Unfortunate, as Life was likely the most interesting. Qutugh is also disconcerted that his death is so short, as if someone had plans for him before he died - but he is happy to know that his life will be long before that point. He decides he'll have to look into who might have plans for him post-death.
Hana offers to let the priest "taste" Hiro's life, and he does so. Hiro's stats aren't Northern the way Hana's are, and Qutugh finds him differently interesting - Hiro's life doesn't go into his death, the way it does for most people - it just goes into Hana.
Takanata, still wondering about the World of Dreams in the northlands, and wondering whether the North Wall prevents him from reaching the World of Dreams in the Empire, says he wants to try dreamwalking, and offers to let Qutugh see through his eyes again. Qutugh, still somewhat intrigued by the crazy southern magic, agrees to let the party spend the night.
However, when Takanata attempts to dreamwalk, he finds himself in a small space, just a bit larger than the reach of his arms, with a wall. He tries to climb the wall, but it continues up. He can push the wall, but it closes behind him and never grows much larger. He does his best to steer towards other people's dreams, but never finds a place where the resistance in pushing the wall is stronger, and never reaches anyone else. He does note that he probably still has a connection to Magpie, though, and manages to dream of Magpie, who tells him "It's your burden to bear, and if you lay it down, I'm holding you responsible."
(On the next night, Xian continues the testing, and attempts to send a dream of talking purple ferns to Takanata. However, they are unable to leave his own dream to find Takanata, and are rather snarky to Xian instead.)
In the morning, the party reclaims their weapons, and heads out for more adventures.
As they head through the hillocky ground, Hiro steps on a hillock that proves not to be a hillock - as it unfolds and stands up to its full fifteen feet height, it becomes clear that it is something more like a yeti. The yeti grabs Hiro, but the party is full of action-stealers (Kasumi grabs its nose, Takanata trips it, and Master Zhou nerve-strikes it), so it only gets one more action, in which it swings Hiro like a club into Kasumi, Xian, and Master Zhou, before it falls over full of holes. The party is unfortunately not much for healers, so Hiro switches to Hana, who has more spare hit points at this point.
Someone thinks to check the Hunter's Map, out of curiosity - it doesn't have the north itself on it, but has a blank space above the Wall. Below the Wall is the Empire, properly filled in, with an X for Cai Wen.
As the group is recuperating and trying to decide if they want to visit the Beast Master (Shen-Ji does, but nobody else is quite so enthusiastic), various people spot a group of clansmen south of them, heading towards the wall. They seem likely to be a raiding party, so the party runs after them, hoping to have Shen-Ji firestorm them just as they hit the Wall, so Mulan's soldiers will notice. As the raiding party approaches the wall, it vanishes, except to Xian, who can see them after spending a Yin, and Hana, who can see about twenty ghosts. Master Zhou covers his eyes with yellow silk and "sees" the whole set, both invisible people and ghosts. The party hurries after them faster, until two of the raiders turn back and warn them off: this is a mission under the direction of the Great Khan. Interfere, and they will earn the enmity of all the clans. The party quickly kills them both, and the rest of the raiding party turns back to engage. Takanata, not liking the look of the fight, blows the Guardian Horn. There aren't really any sympathetic forces who are permitted to invade the North to aid him, so he spends a karma and summons a group which is perhaps just more antagonistic towards the raiders. The party just has to survive one turn of combat and then reinforcements will arrive.
Ten ghosts and ten swordsmen remain to fight the party; one raider (and many of the ghosts) has headed off away from both the Wall and the fight. Kasumi skewers a swordsman and Hana turns one ghost to follow her commands, and it attacks a soldier. Ghosts attack party members, chilling the area around them, but they can dodge somewhat with Yin, and Master Zhou can parry the magical attack. One of the ghosts drains some of Min Feng's stats, which alarms everyone. The soldiers do damage over time in addition to regular damage (each hit does five points of damage at drift, and then one hit’s worth goes away). Shen-Yi makes a wall of earth to keep the soldiers away from most of the party.
Kasumi overhears: "At least the necromancer got away with the statue; that thing took a lot of ghosts and jade to make."
The fighters manage to skewer the soldiers before the reinforcements arrive. Which is good, because the dead soldiers are starting to turn into ghosts. When the reinforcements arrive, the necromancer among them tells the new ghosts to stop fighting and go lay down at the wall, and the party escapes in the confusion.
Min Feng uses Yanyu's Torghut again and overhears "If the Great Khan wanted to send us to go get killed fighting to put ghosts at the wall, he should have given better instructions about who not to fight." Apparently there is still some bad blood between the Khan and some of the clans.
Since there are ghosts being laid at the foot of the Wall, some of the sneakier party members (including Hana) head that way, so Hana can talk to them. They seem to be slowly melting into the ground in that area, but Hana controls one of them, and demands to know what their plan was. The ghost says that they were going to cross the wall and bury a jade statue as far south as they could get. The ghosts they had were to make them invisible. She picks one of the other original ghosts, and learns that it was commanded to go into the ground, and be ready for later. Hana tells her two ghosts to wander away; she tells one to avoid necromancers and the other to fight necromancers, which will probably be fairly quick for it.
The group doesn't have a good way to get back over the wall yet, so they make camp for the night some distance away, out of easy visual and arrow range.
- "You're the master of illusions, Xian. Can you make us look like geckos, or invisible, or something?"
As they think about how to manage, they see a group of four guys sneaking towards the wall, carrying a box. Ahah, smugglers! Perhaps they have a tunnel! Min Feng disguises Xian as one of them, and he joins them using his ability to blend in. The smugglers walk up and down the Wall until they see a mark on the side, and then call up quietly in badly accented Xiang "come now". A rope drops, with a bag of coins. Each smuggler (including Xian) gets his share, then they tie their crate to the rope and tug the rope. The crate is pulled up and the smugglers go their own ways. Alas, there seems to be no tunnel, but Xian is pleased to have made a profit from the trip.
Over the wall
Hana changes back into Hiro to avoid setting off any mystical warnings for undead crossing the wall, and then everyone sneaks up towards the Wall again, roughly to where the mark was. They are not sneaky enough, apparently, as the Imperial smuggling soldier drops a rope again. Kasumi ties it around Xian securely and tugs on it just like the smugglers did, while Master Zhou, Hiro, Min Feng, and Kasumi start climbing up the wall. It turns out Xian is heavier than whatever the soldier was expecting to be on the end, so the soldier tosses a torch down to see what is going on (Min Feng dodges it as it falls past her). Takanata explains that they are spies who need to let back over the wall. The soldier seems to find Takanata somewhat convincing as an Imperial, but still isn't sure he should let them cross.
- "We don't have spy missions."
- "No, you're the army. You don't run spy missions." -Takanata
The soldier is pretty sure he's not supposed to let people cross, even if they claim to be spies, but by this time, Kasumi and Master Zhou have reached the top of the wall, and sneak up behind him. Between nerve striking and nose getting, they take all the actions he's likely to have for a while, and pull up Xian and help up the rest of the party. Much to their disappointment, the crate of smuggled goods is not still hanging around at the top of the wall to loot.
- "Convince him that smuggling is also a capital crime, and nobody ever needs to know about this." -Takanata
- "Sadly, that was all I could think of too, though it is unfortunately straightforward." -Xian
- "No one ever needs to know that the elite Imperial spy team missed their drop site and had to climb back over the wall, and similarly, no one needs to know that you're a smuggler." -Xian
- "... Okay" -soldier
And then, it is time to head back to the circus, which has been performing in the City of Spires for the past few days.
- Takanata visits the temple of Mystic Tikon.
- Xian, Takanata, Shen-Ji, Yanyu, Xiao Fa, Grasshopper, Wei Han, Hana, and Cai Wen go to visit an empty village in the southern Strand that Cai Wen has heard of.
- Merit reads Hatsumi's Essays. This is a very popular book.
- Anto visits the Temple of Continuing Remembrance in Stone Drum.
- Hiro, Takanata, Cai Wen, and Anto head to the Forest of Chin to ask about missing wood spirits.