|"Every man goes down to his death bearing in his hands only that which he has given away."|| The run begins just before the Day of the Early Tiger in the month of the Tiger in the first Year of the Spider since the Butterfly King was Poisoned.|
The run takes place in the Butterfly Kingdom.
The party takes ship from the City of Light to the Harbor of Shining Reflections in the Butterfly Kingdom. As their ship arrives, the more observant note that the port seems particularly busy, and the (not very large) Butterfly Navy seems to be out and about on patrol. However, sightseeing at the boats soon gives way to a reunion with Ringmaster Te, who is most pleased to see his wayward performers, and even more pleased that Li Merit is back to solve all of the problems plaguing the Circus.
Ringmaster Te gives a brief speech - this is the last chance to put all the acts in order before the procession and final dress rehearsal and then their trip through the northern kingdoms. For those who are still having trouble with their acts - this is the time to get them resolved.
Some of the more pressing issues include:
- Monkey Training: while Animal Handling works moderately well with monkeys, Min-Su has been working on training them to respond to gestures. She has much of it worked out, but wants to integrate the newly returned Monkeys of the Apocalypse into her gesture training. (Charades mechanic)
- Akimoto's Balances: Akimoto's acrobatic props have gotten damp and warped over the winter, without the prop master to look after them properly. He's in a panic to finish rebalancing them. Please help! (Balancing rocks mechanic)
- Danger Chef: Ringmaster Te is considering making Danger Cheffery an official act. However, since Yoshi's been away, he isn't sure yet that it's dramatic enough, so he needs to be convinced. (Fruit Ninja mechanic)
- Crystal Ball Tuning: Enlightened Melina has been having a lot of trouble recently getting her visions to become clear. She thinks her crystal ball may have been cracked during the winter, and would like help in some final retuning. (Tracing paper mechanic)
- Snake Dancing: Ringmaster Te has been considering making The Sinuous Shuyan a headliner in the upcoming tour. However, he's a bit cross that she missed all winter's practicing, so he'll need to be persuaded - and not by the party, because he knows where their loyalties lie! (NPC deck mechanic)
Takanata writes a prophetic poem, though he doesn't understand what it means:
Cai Wen, Wei Han, and Anto recognize the language as Torghut - Cai Wen has the best sense of what it says: the first line means something like "A face that has not known joy can only grimace, not smile". The second line means "Even if the wasp is your enemy, do not strike the nest." The third line isn't really a complete sentence, something like "the split 'lifedeath' (whatever that is) united."
Wandering Plot Threads
As people begin to chat with the circus-watchers and find out what favors they want in order to put in a good word for Shuyan, they find one gentleman who is looking for names of fortune-tellers. He is given, among many other names, that of Takanata, who then offers to read his I Ching for him. While he is interested in knowing about his future with his kind-of girlfriend, what Takanata sees is that he will die by his grandmother's hand before the day is out. Well, that's no good. Takanata asks after his grandmother - he says both of them are dead. This is... somewhat concerning.
Meanwhile, Master Zhou talks to Long Yue-Mei about her homework - pursuing stillness in various places. She notes that she does not enjoy stillness, but she can do it - so perhaps the lesson is that she can do things she does not enjoy. Master Zhou thinks that the things she needs to know are: one, the storm is coming, so she can be a Tiger soon, and two, if she finds her father, only tragedy will follow. That somewhat startles Master Zhou, as he had not realized that she was looking for her father. Yue Mei does not explain, but clearly finds the advice frustrating.
Then Master Zhou talks to Master Koji about Anto and other things, and hears that there is a "Northern ambassador" who has been meeting with the King.
Zhi-Hao and Hana, concerned over the possibility of undead rising, go to the graveyard. Hana looks for ghosts, and finds an indistinct ghost trundling around the graves, patting them. She tries to talk to him, and the ghost attempts to get her to "lie down and go back to sleep". She declares that she doesn't need to do that, which bothers him, but he seems pretty vague and confused.
Li Merit receives a message from the palace asking him to check on security. He's briefed on the fact that an ambassador appears to have arrived from beyond the northern wall, and is attempting to negotiate some kind of alliance with the king. Meanwhile, Wei Han is noticing that things are particularly creepy around here... a feeling he doesn't often get far from the northern wall. Their investigations combine, and Li Merit leads a small group to the secret cove, where the northern ambassador's boat is hidden. Wei Han declares that there are definitely undead aboard and warns the guards to guard the ship closely. Takanata, worried about his prophecy, advises not attacking the vessel, thinking it might be the wasp's nest.
Hiro and Xiao Fa come across Kuan-Xi's little carriage, without Kuan-Xi in it, and find this... somewhat worrisome. They bring others into the investigation, and much Detecting is done. Cai Wen searches the carriage, and finds some signs of struggle, while Li Merit asks around to find out where it arrived. No one can find any signs of an amnesiac Kuan-Xi, and she's pretty identifiable. Min Feng also determines that she's not on the island. (Ezokin, on the other hand, is still in the Hon'eth Arcade). Shen-Ji analyzes the carriage, determines that it is pretty tired, and that it came from the Port of Auspicious Voyage - and that people left the carriage in transit. He speculates that people who left the carriage will be somewhere which is the average of the Hon'eth Arcade and the Butterfly Kingdom (possibly a geographic average, but it also might be a metaphorical one) - Lijuan figures that's probably the Shrouded Isle, by virtue of the Cycle spirits involved.
Master Zhou tries to interrogate Xiao Fa about his homework, but Xiao Fa is distracted by Kuan-Xi being mysteriously missing, and evades for the moment.
Elsewhere, people are still investigating the doomed lovers. The so-called girlfriend has spent the day mooning over Cai-wen as one of his moll-wannabes, while the kid with the prophecy of death has been trying to convince her that it's time for them to "get serious." Several party members wander into this situation, shake their heads, and wander out again.
During this, Cai Wen is getting a briefing at the palace about the negotiations. Apparently, the northern ambassador has been proposing a bunch of completely unacceptable things. "Alliance against the Qin Chao steppes; trade agreement involving the bodies of our ancestors, etc." The negotiations have closed for the day, and the ambassador has retired to the guest palace to resume in the morning. The court advisers ask Cai Wen for some advice on getting a better negotiating position at the next session. He says he'll get back to them, and goes off to consult with his friends.
Anto, hoping to find Kuan-Xi, heads for someone who needs help - that brings him back to the graveyard, where the ghost of the caretaker is more visible and less confused, as well as concerned about the dead not rising. He's not really sure what to make of non-dead people, and thinks dead people should go back to sleep. Also, he keeps saying that he's dug a grave for Hiro, though on further questioning, it's unclear whether he thinks Hiro is due to die soon, or just eventually. He does seem to think that there will be a lot of death tonight, though, which is neither reassuring nor (at this point) particularly surprising. Hiro summons Hana, who has a long chat with the caretaker-ghost about the history of the graveyard and other things, consents to sit in a grave to make him feel better about her being up and about, and meditates. Shen Wei Han vastly disapproves of Hana meditating in haunted graveyards while the dead are on the rise, but nothing bad seems to happen just yet.
Master Zhou chats with Master Long about undead, and about Yue Mei - Master Long is concerned about what Yue Mei has been asking Master Zhou, but cannot discuss the matter.
Ti Jun summons Wei Han, regarding the letter of armor upgrade that Wei Han has asked him for. The Prince says that if Wei Han is to be an official Dragon army soldier of the Butterfly Kingdom, he shouldn't be wearing junky armor, and the Prince will see that it's taken care of.
The Queen summons Hana and Hiro for a private meeting in the Court of Distinction. She is somewhat more awkward than when they have encountered her before; the issue appears to be that the twins' lady mother has come by the Butterfly Court to speak about the courtship between Hana and Ti Jun (which Hiro put in her head the last time they were home). While she has nothing against the House of Teng, and is most grateful to Hana and Hiro for all their assistance so far, she does have... dynastic concerns. There is much circumlocution around the issue, but in essence, the Queen thinks that Hana being dead is likely to cause problems as far as future heirs goes. Hana understands her concerns, but does make it clear that her mother was making the suggestion in good faith, as Lady Teng is less aware of these issues.
Meanwhile, Takanata, Li Merit, Yoshi and others are trying to gain access to the northern ambassador to ask him some questions. Sadly, his servants indicate that he is indisposed at the moment. Takanata asks the servant about him and the servant protests ignorance. He is not a "great lord of death and life" like his master. He does let slip though, that his master is not currently in the guest palace, he's elsewhere. A small amount more conversation reveals that while not a lord of death and life, the servant does make a study of Imperial Chi, to the extent possible. He indicates that the "lifedeath" word in Takanata's poem is something like the Northern word for Chi, except that the concept is quite different.
Intrigued, Takanata offers to read the servant's I Ching (for a karma, as he's already read one). It forks sharply mere minutes in the future. If his master successfully kills the Queen, the servant will go on to a long and prosperous life. If his master fails, the servant will be swiftly executed. If his master dies, the servant will be one of many in the nearby area to die as well. The group rushes toward the Court of Distinction to see to the queen's safety. Anto brings the northern servant along just in case.
Merit starts shouting to various guards that there's a "Code Red Marmoset" (threat to the royal family) as they run towards the Court of Distinction and various guards start rushing around.
Back in the conversation with the Queen, her guard suddenly stiffens and gets a vacant expression, and begins to shamble forward. At the same time, the "northern ambassador" bursts into the room, and directs the newly created zombie to kill the Queen. Hana leaps forward and grabs the zombie-guard with her painful-ghost-touch - it affects him but he does not fall. This causes some sort of thwackback effect, but Hana is immune to it. Next, Hiro chops the ambassador, doing him some damage through toughness and causing a big penalty to Hiro's next death check. The Queen, meanwhile, seems to be exerting her concentration to try to not become undead the same way the zombie guard just did. Hiro grabs the Queen and tries to drag her to safety, as other ex-guard zombies converge on the small group.
The rest of the group reaches the gardens outside the Court of Distinction, and starts running towards the trouble. Master Deng, with the Magpie Talisman, is particularly fast, and Anto still has the Northern servant.
- "Strike me down, and I shall become even more powerful than you can ever imagine." -Ambassador to Hana
- "If you strike me again, you may save your queen, but you will suffer for eternity." -to Hiro
- "Sorry, I stopped listening after the part about saving the queen." -Hiro, striking
Hiro strikes the ambassador down, and there is a burst of darkness from his body - Hiro leaps in front of the Queen taking her damage as well as his own, and then falls, dead.
Around the court gardens, horrible abominations of death, plus skeletons and zombie type undead, start rising from the ground.
- "Who built the palace on ancient burial grounds?" -Merit
Anto's prisoner also turns into a horrific abomination, much to his chagrin.
- "I want to shout out the codes for 'Holy shit, we're losing, don't come here.'" -Merit
- "...oh, and, evacuate the King."
Hiro's spirit sees a kind of white light for him to go into, except that there's a horrible thing with claws and flame in the way. As far as everyone else is concerned, there is a painfully increasing Field of Death around the abomination, causing increased amounts of damage - Zhi-Hao, now nearly to the Queen, has to pull up short lest he run out of hit points.
Using Hiro's action, Hana grabs Hiro's soul; from her point of view, Hiro vanishes. From Hiro's point of view, Hana vanishes. From everyone else's point of view, someone who looks like, alternately, Hiro and then Hana, is doing things. Takanata's Eyes of the I Ching goes off, and he sees the Yin and Yang merging together into the Tao, and also a sere dead tree, merging with growing roots to form a double-sided silhouette of a tree with branches extending up and down. And, the chi of everywhere he can see is different...
- "There used to be dead things and live things - now there are just Things." -Mike
- "That's no good." -Takanata
- "You're just coming to that conclusion?" -Merit
The huge Field of Death is replaced by a huge Field of Tao. This has several effects:
- People in a proper pair can add their Tao to all their stats
- People not in a proper pair are limited to their Tao in all stats
- Each action, if any tao substats are higher than your overall Tao, take the difference in damage
- People in proper pairs can pool/share hit points
- A proper pair is one male and one female, no farther away from each other than the sum of their Taos in hexes
- "Do they have to be conscious?"
- "Do they have to be human? Do they have to be mine?" -Andrea, quoting Little Shop of Horrors
The party is seriously male-heavy, so pairing is a little tricky. Cai Wen summons a moll; Zhi-Hao is still rescuing the Queen, so he recruits her. Master Zhou uses his Yellow Silk Student shtick to summon Long Yue Mei to help, and Merit throws some karma into a buddy of his (the court flower arranger) being nearby, though this leads to more people teasing him about scrounging up women.
- "Pair with me and my sword and my body will defend you." -Zhi-Hao to Ti Wren
- "Long Yue Mei - the storm begins, stand with me." -Master Zhou
- "You know, Li Merit is really funny when he's angry. We should poke him more." -Kasumi
In addition to the skeletons and the zombies outside, creatures of bright light and life start to appear inside the court building - they are promptly named "un-undead", as that seems about right.
Wei Han calls for backup, and some vacationing Dragon Army soldiers show up. Merit notes to himself that there really do seem to be a lot of Dragon Army soldiers who vacation here, for a place that doesn't have any soldiers stationed.
After various people have pulled in NPC women to pair with, only Takanata, Xiao Fa, and Xian are left. Takanata is also suffering in particular from his unbalanced chi - Xiao Fa resists the temptation to expound on balance some more.
- "Pilgrim Xiao Fa, we pair." -Xian
- "How does that work?" -Min Feng
- "That's confounding." -Wei Han
- "He can confound the very chi itself!" -Lijuan
- "That [the confounding of chi] is not what I would have expected to be going on." -Hana
As it turns out, Xian and Xiao Fa are able to form a proper pair - confounding or no. Takanata keeps looking at what is going on with the chi, and decides that all the undead are the failure mode of the plan which was going to make the Butterfly Kingdom count as "north of the Wall". That isn't happening anymore, so this is just destructive thwackback. The zombies do damage, and thwackback which causes people to be at minuses at their next death check; the "life un-undead" add to the next death check, and the eldritch horrors force death checks.
- "What the hell are all those purple things?"
- "Those are girls."
Combat continues, but it's not going so well. Takanata drops his packet of honeyvine seeds in the fountain in the garden, and notes "You are my only pair, love." The water of the fountain splashes out, causing the seeds to grow and butterflies to fly in - and then the butterflies attack some of the zombies, much to everyone's delight and surprise. It also becomes clear to Takanata at this point that there are just enough "small" undead to sustain only four eldritch horrors. Takanata also counts as paired now, too.
Given Takanata's warning, people start concentrating on the small undead in hopes of defeating the large abominations that way. With some concerted zombie-killing, the last of the non-zombies pop, and the combat is finally over. Zhi-Hao puts down the Queen.
- "It was an honor, your majesty." -Master Deng
However, the weird Tao effect still continues, and may even be spreading beyond the local area. A butterfly lands on Hana's head, and tells her she must be very careful invoking this ultimate power of the Tao, as it takes a power far greater than her to separate the Yin and the Yang once joined. By the Rule of the Threes, the Great Spirits of the Cycle will only be able to intervene in this way twice more. After that, the Tao effect fades, and Hiro disappears to everyone else's sight.
People begin to heal the wounded, and a running messenger reports that the Northern Ambassador's boat has burned, all the way to the waterline. Other messengers report that the King and the Prince encountered some skeletons, but no abominations, so they were more easily dealt with. As things seem to be mostly calm, the focus changes to Hana and Hiro, or possibly the Confounding Xian.
- "Where is your brother, Hana?" -?
- "He's right here." -Hana
- "That's both of them. At least they're not the same person the way they were before." -Takanata
There doesn't seem to be too much more to say there, though the people with better ways of determining things start thinking about how to figure more out. On the other hand, the question of Xian is also interesting.
- "Yeah, okay, I owe you an explanation. I'm a girl." -Xian
- "Why are you dressed like a boy?" -Lijuan
- "Sometimes girls do that." -Hana
- "Yeah, sometimes girls do that." -Min Feng
Xian explains: her home is currently encased in ice, with her sisters trapped in it; those who made it out, in order to protect themselves, went into disguise and scattered. She doesn't actually know much more than the party does about what happened; some sort of emergency started happening, some of her sisters hurried her out, and then there was ice. Indications are that this is related to Meng Ao's secret from the Whispered Ball that the Son of the Moon has been courting the Daughter of the Sun but to no avail. On the other hand, Xian isn't sure who the daughter of the Sun is - it might be her boss, but she never called herself that. Xian's order is called the Gentle Admonishers of Disquiet.
As an example, Chochiro was disquiet, and one of Xian's elder sisters gave her a task to help her grow. Xian apologizes for the ongoing deception. Should they keep thinking of her as male, Merit wonders? Well, Xian concedes that they can think of her however, but keeping the disguise would be good, so referring to her as male would be good. Back to the male pronoun for Xian in the logs!
Dangling Plot Threads
Before the great pile of undead, wasn't there something about Kuan-Xi being missing? There don't seem to be any active leads.
- "Maybe she has a diary in her carriage?" -Anto
- "GASP!" -Xiao Fa
There is, in fact, a diary, which is promptly given to Min Feng, on the theory that Anto reading it might be more embarrassing. The final entries are about being in the Port of Propitious Voyage, waiting for her little carriage to rest before she takes it to the Butterfly Kingdom. Hmm.
Merit thinks that it would be useful to try to retrace the carriage's steps, as it were, and throw someone out in the middle to see where they go. Everyone else thinks that this could be a really bad idea, not to mention, maybe the path is dependent on the particular driver.
- "If she's in the physical center, she's in the water, and there's no point looking. So she's in the metaphorical center." -Merit
Maybe there are sorcerous rituals to find people from locks of their hair, the way there are to find knives that attacked people?
- "Do you have a lock of her hair?" -Min Feng
- "...no." -Anto
- "What kind of a love plot is that?" -Min Feng
Though, probably what they want is a fortune teller, not a sorcerer. People aren't elements, so locating them is harder sorcerously, without a Grand Ritual.
Merit notes that technically the two countries have no border. So, if it's a geopolitical average, that's the ocean. Does Sister Helena have any suggestions? She doesn't have Kuan-Xi studied herself, but she might be able to do so on the Shrouded Isle, at the Song of the Phoenix. She sets off to do so. Also, maybe Qin Yanyu could do some sort of connections reading, but she's not around during the run.
Takanata looks into what happened to Little Shen, the young man whose I Ching he read. He was, as expected, killed by skeletons during the undead uprising. Sniff.
People ask what the Butterfly said to Hana and she reports.
- "It said we should take care in invoking the ultimate power of the Tao, because it can't be easily unsplit, but it can do it twice more by the rule of threes." -Hana
- "Bah." -Li Merit on the Rule of Threes
The both of them are in Hiro's body now; Hana isn't quite sure what that will mean.
Master Zhou declares that they will train, and drags Hana off to do so. Once they start sparring, that triggers a change to Hiro, but Hiro finds Master Zhou's brusqueness annoying, and stomps off, despite Master Zhou insisting that he remain and train because that's what Hana wanted.
- "It's Master Zhou. I go into the light!" -Laura
- "I feel like that a lot." -Lijuan
Ringmaster Te herds the circus into order to start the final procession around the island, and the final state of the mechanics is tallied, such that many favors are owed.
- Min-Su will provide 14 successes of Monkeys of Confusion.
- Shuyan is a headliner for the circus this time around, and will provide 14 successes of sinuous snake dancing during a run she's not in.
- Yoshi 's Danger Chef act is official, and he will provide 19 successes of Danger Cheffery during a run he's not in.
- Akimoto, whose mechanic proved to be a little too hard, will provide 2 successes of Acrobatics
- Enlightened Melina will provide 13 successes of seeing through the veils of the future.
Merit asks around, to see if his contacts can find out why so much of the Dragon Army seems to be vacationing here. Wei Han asks around after the army people who died, so he can write about how they fought valiantly defending the Queen.
Xian, having recently learned to read the I Ching from Takanata, reads the I Ching for the paired Hana/Hiro: "Death, with a core of life, with a core of death, with a core of life..." that goes on infinitely long, as the Tao turns. They still have the same paths as before, but they can no longer walk them separately. Oh, and also, it's much easier for them to destroy the world now.
Wei Han trains with Master Zhou, who notes that Prince Ti Jun is working on getting him permanently stationed to the Butterfly Kingdom, but Wei Han's own shticks seem to be opposing that for the moment.
A long day done, everyone finally retires to prepare for the circus' great northern tour.
- Cai Wen sends Broken Sword to break into Lucky Chang's house in the Arcade.