Not on Schedule
|"Win without boasting. Lose without excuse."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Serpent in the Month of the Dog in the eleventh Year of the Bear since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place mostly north of the Wall
Howl of the Wolf
The group is gathered in Tahiti, enjoying a few days of downtime before the end of the month, when they expect a pair of back-to-back attacks from the North. Lijuan draws some art, which kind of looks like "everyone attacks Wei Han", when they start to notice a disturbing howling sound.
- "Wolves or tortured souls?" -Shen-Ji
- "Both, maybe. But singular." -Mike
So... the howl of the a single tortured wolf soul, yet all around them. Merit doesn't see anything, using the Orb of Light, but Xiao Fa starts to follow the chi downstream. He finds a branching point, between the glorious chi of Tahiti and the tortured soul, and follows the chi of the latter, to the outer perimeter, where there is a small crack in the wall, from which the howling sounds. Merit summons a butler to inquire why there is a crack in the wall, and Wei Han climbs over it, to see a wolf on the other side. The rest of the group heads for the other side of the wall one way or another, and then begins to follow the wolf, except for Merit, who decides to go back and get the party's horses.
After some travel, the wolf they are following switches off with a second wolf, which they follow northwest to the triple border between the Arcade, the Dragon's Throne, and the Forest, where there is a pack of wolves, surrounding the seated figure of Ni Cheng, meditating. She is deep in concentration, and Xiao Fa notes that she is trading chi with the wolves, and spitting the wolf-chi into the sky - probably what is producing the howling. Lijuan thinks that the witch has not moved for several days, and Merit is concerned that she is dehydrated.
Xiao Fa sits down in front of the white-haired witch, meditating. He goes deep enough that he can kind of reach her, though most of her attention is still elsewhere.
- "You are here. Unexpected, but not surprising." -Ni Cheng
She tells him that there is a wolf, twenty miles to the northwest... of the Pagoda of the Life Master... who must be saved. (The first pause makes the task sound quite a bit easier, until she continues.)
- "What is his danger?" -Xiao Fa
- "He must be saved." -Ni Cheng
Xiao Fa feels the chi of her meditation reaching out to enmesh him, and tries to gently pull back.
Meanwhile, Master Zhou is beginning to think that Xiao Fa has been meditating for too long. It is a whole five minutes and nothing has happened! Lijuan, also impatient, leaves to go fishing. Some of the others think that giving Xiao Fa an hour would not be unreasonable, but Master Zhou thinks that Xiao Fa has done the thing where he follows the chi and falls down a well and has to be rescued, and reaches out to shake him. Xiao Fa manages to return to his body enough to put up a hand, forestalling any more interference by Master Zhou, until he can carefully disentangle himself from Ni Cheng's chi and wake up without any psych lims regarding wolves.
Xiao Fa briefs the group on the task to be done, though he does not have any further details on what sort of danger the wolf is in. They head back to Tahiti, where the servants are instructed to bring Ni Cheng food and water and herbal tisanes, and do what they can for her, but to not challenge the wolves.
Wei Han unburies some of his Alchemist-marked items, on the theory that it might be harder for the Alchemist to spy north of the Wall.
Crossing the Wall
The group rides north from Tahiti, to reach the North Wall as quickly as possible and then Wall-travel to the center area. The troops aren't on high alert, since battle isn't expected for another four days. Wei Han looks for Scout Sergeant Chen, and asks if he knows anything about twenty miles northwest of the Life Pagoda. Scouts who go that far don't come back, so no, not really, other than "don't go there." Wei Han asks him to escort them there, and he somewhat unhappily agrees. (There is a grid of clan territories, in which the round territory of the Life Master sits, as if it was there before the grid was and doesn't care if it doesn't quite fit.)
Kasumi reminds everyone to bring a gift for the life master - she has visited him a lot so she's something of an expert at this point. Master Zhou, ever the gentleman, says that they can just bring cash. Kasumi thinks that gifts will be more thoughtful than cash, so Merit looks for a supply cache that has interesting items from the Strand and such - little jars of herbal salve. Perhaps the life master can tell them more about what is to the northwest of his pagoda, although Kasumi notes that he is not keen to be used as an information source about the clans - he considers himself neutral, and especially does not like being asked to take the side of the Empire against the North.
Merit does his best to put everyone in disguise, though Wei Han is difficult to disguise properly, given his Imperial Great Armor. Merit bulks him up with furs, so at least from a distance, he'll be less obviously identifiable. The local scouts can describe the clan markings of two of the clans in the area - Blue Stone clan and Red Sand clan - so the group disguises themselves with Blue Stone Clan markings.
The group is able to sneak through the zone closest to the Wall, though with difficulty, and heads towards the Life Pagoda. They stop sneaking at this point and are quickly met by an honor guard of different clansmen who ride out from the Life Pagoda. The honor guard is not pleased to see the group dressed as Northerners.
- "Are you spies? Why are you dressed as clansmen?"
- "To get here safely."
- "The Great Master said that southerners would come - he did not say they would be dressed like spies."
They seem to be angling for an extra bribe. As far as Merit and Shen-Ji can remember, the patrol shouldn't be asking for gifts separately, but then, the party shouldn't be dressed like spies, so it probably evens out. Merit thinks that sixty li would be appropriate, so he offers them thirty. The guard captain takes it, frowning. As the group heads towards the Life Pagoda, it becomes clear that one of the clansmen is particularly angry at them - the one also wearing the colors of the Blue Stone clan. (Each of the guards is wearing the colors of a different Northern clan). The group starts disrobing as they ride, until they are no longer in disguise.
The group reaches the Life Pagoda, and Kawaii, Ho, and the horses are taken and put in a pen containing other various animals. Kawaii is surprisingly accepting of this and the animals seem to be on their best behavior. The patrol captain, his second, and the Blue Stone clansman all escort the party before the Life Master. The patrol leader bows and tells the Life Master that he brings these spies for judgement. Apparently, this is the result of not having been offered a large enough bribe.
- "Why do you come here?"
- "First, we bring gifts for you!" -Shen-Ji
Shen-Ji conjures up a small replica of the Life Pagoda, carved in ivory. Merit gives the Life Master the southern salves, and Master Zhou gives him a couple of sheets of duplicating paper. Merit thinks they have probably given him enough to make up for whatever the faux pas was that they made - the Life Master doesn't seem to know what it was, but appears to accept the patrol leader's indication that some error was in fact made. However, anyone who didn't offer a gift should probably not try to join the conversation. Xiao Fa adds some magical robes to the pile of gifts, bringing the net total more positive.
- "These trespassers have dishonored my clan!" -Blue Stone guy
- "Really?" -Life Master
- "When they arrived, they were wearing the totems of the Blue Stone clan."
- "We thought to reach your lands without bloodshed, and the Blue Stone clan seemed the most fearsome to emulate." -Merit
- " He speaks well and quickly." -Life Master
It looks like the Life Master is willing to accept the explanation - possibly not as the truth, but as having been well-spoken enough to counter an etiquette mistake - so the Blue Stone clansman does not push further.
Merit says that they seek passage, and the Life Master replies that passage is free and guaranteed to those who uphold the peace.
- "We seek to rescue an injured wolf."
- "You have come all this way for a wolf?"
- "A friend of ours values it."
- "But this friend did not come themselves?"
- "They were not able to."
- "Were you paid for this?"
- "Not yet."
- "The ways of the Southerners are indeed without order. Do you know what you will be paid?"
- "A favor."
- "A favor is often the coin used by those who have none."
In any event, if all they seek is passage, that is free and guaranteed to those who uphold the peace. Well... they may want to come back through, as well. The Life Master wants to know if they will be pursued on the way back. They're not sure. The Life Master frowns and says that the Life Palace is not to be used as a refuge against the clans in rightful hunt - however, if they are not pursued, they may pass through, without visiting the Life Palace again.
Master Zhou asks - if they are pursued, can they stay behind and use their safe passage to send the wolf through on its own? The Life Master is dubious. The truce does not apply to beasts. However, if the wolf passes through on its own, neither will that break the truce.
The party is dismissed, and is sent to the northwest with the honor guard. When the boundaries of the Life Master's territory are reached, the Blue Stone clansman (with much grovelling) persuades the patrol leader to let him go, and heads off at top speed towards his clan territory.
The party heads towards the northwest, and is quickly met by another group of Northerners, which they swiftly dispatch.
The voice of the Life Master rings out above them.
- "I warned you not to ambush those leaving our lands."
- "Wait, no you didn't!" -Merit
- "I don't think he's talking to you."
Wei Han burns some karma to make his "nose for trouble" shtick usable to find wolves in trouble, and leads the way across the corner of the grid to the far side. There, the group finds:
- A wolf the size of a horse, surrounded by dead barbarians.
- A dead beastmaster
- A dead necromancer
- A scout on a nearby hillside, who runs, pursued by Kasumi.
Those who can see ghosts also see the ghost of the necromancer, using necromantic mojo on the ghost of the beastmaster, using beast-mojo on the wolf. Shen-Ji starts to go through the pockets of the dead necromancer, triggering the combat.
Xiao Fa notes that the beastmaster is trying to finish off the wolf, though it is slow going. However, once the party proves able to attack ghosts, both the beastmaster and the necromancer have more important things to do than deal with the wolf. The beastmaster tries to control Kawaii, though she does not immediately start eating people, and Lijuan tells her to run away. The necromancer starts raising the dead bodies, which gives the people who can't hit ghosts something to do.
Shen-Ji finds a phylactery on the dead necromancer, and taking it off of his body sets the ghost to dissipating. After that, the beastmaster ghost can also be dealt with, without too much more trouble.
(Meanwhile, Kasumi has caught up to the scout and he will not be reporting in to the nearby camp.)
Lijuan notes that the wolf is injured, but that is not the worst of its problems. Xiao Fa thinks that the thing that the wolf needs is to go back to the Empire.
Shen-Ji and Merit look over the phylactery - it is a necromantic magic item. If you bind your soul to it, then when you die, your soul sticks around to keep doing things. Shen-Ji thinks it worth taking, much to Wei Han's displeasure. The beastmaster's body has a wolf's foot amulet, which is also taken.
So... what about Lijuan's art? Could it have been that everyone was attacking an invisible thing near Wei Han? Lijuan doesn't think that was it, though.
All of the dead bodies have the clan markings of the Purple Hill clan, except that one appears to be a guy from the Empire (by his features) wearing Purple Hill clan markings. He has an extra red line on his forehead that the others don't, in addition to a warrior mark, so he has fought at least one victory for the North (or is wearing a marking claiming so). After people discuss him for a little while, Scout Sergeant Chen recognizes him as Scout Private Fu, who went missing some time ago.
The group heads back along Wei Han's clever diagonal path, but as they start approaching the territory of the Life Master, the wolf growls as if it does not wish to go that way.
- "What is it saying?"
- "It's a wolf."
- "Could you ask Ho?"
- "Ho, which way should we go?"
Ho seems to think that the group should veer away from the Life Master's territory too, so since both the dog and the wolf seem to have a path in mind, the group goes that way.
Circle of Blood
As everyone heads through the new area, they see off in the distance a group of eleven Northerners in a circle, doing some kind of magic ritual. Shen-Ji recognizes it as powerful blood magic. At this point, the question becomes, should the group stop to fight them. Master Zhou thinks that it is important to disrupt whatever they are doing, because otherwise the army will have to fight it later. This is a good point, but it is not clear if the group can take out eleven powerful blood mages. Merit thinks that if they can take them they should. Kasumi thinks that group probably can't take them, but still ought to try.
- "They don't have swords, how bad could it be?" -Wei Han
- "Oh, so they're eleven mages. We're all going to die."
- "That's what I said!" -Kasumi
People peer at the ritual, trying to figure out what they are doing, and how long it will take. However, nobody is trained in blood magic, so it is kind of difficult to tell, and Shen-Ji notes that most Northern mages are trained in the pairwise disciplines of Beast Mastery, Necromancy, or Battle - blood magic alone is pretty rare. However, one thing does become clear - the circle has switched from doing a long-term ritual to doing a fast battle prep.
Well, that does mean it's time for "Get 'Em".
Sergeant Chen and Xiao Fa's two followers are sent back, out of the battlemap, to guard the wolf, on the theory that then Shen-Ji can set the map on fire with impunity. However, only one of the blood mages appears to be coming forward to meet them - the rest are remaining behind, so setting the map on fire will only hit the one guy.
Xiao Fa thinks that the mage has thirty-one separate effects on him - probably three each from the other mages, and one of his own.
Lijuan tells him to surrender, and then shoots him. A lot of further chopping ensues - it appears that he is using the attacks of the entire circle, as well as their dodges and hit points. Even so, he can't get through the defenses of the fighters - he can damage Xiao Fa, and Xiao Fa can strip away his blood magic, as can Shen-Ji. Master Zhou punches him away from Xiao Fa, over to Lijuan, so he burns the rest of his actions to attack her a large number of times, but as she has over a hundred hit points, he can't take her out, so he nods and surrenders.
- "You have defeated the Circle of Blood. What do you wish?"
- "Um... we'll have to confer about that."
He sits down, but after they discuss their preferences for a while and come to no immediate conclusion, he stands up again to go back to the circle. He tells them that they have until sunset to decide. Obviously it is against the rules to attack someone who has surrendered, so no one is quite willing to challenge his returning to his comrades. The circle sits down to wait, and Kasumi sneaks down to keep an eye on them - they seem to be healing back up, but are not talking a lot. Lijuan heads off to rendezvous with Scout Sergeant Chen and the others, and discovers that they have had a battle with a landshark in the meantime, and are injured but not dead.
The group discusses what to ask for. How about "Teach us KS:Blood Magic?" How about "Don't attack the Empire during this war?" How about "Don't attack the Empire for the rest of your lives?" How about "Teach us Blood Magic and also don't attack the Empire for the rest of your lives"? That might be a little excessive, so they decide to ask for "stay out of the war, plus let us come and talk about learning blood magic later."
- "You have decided what you would wish?"
- "We wish for you to withdraw from the war, and for you to make it possible for us to parlay with you peacefully in the future."
- "Either of those seems a reasonable wish. You may treat with the Circle of Blood without the usual challenge, or you may keep the Circle of Blood away from your war. A wish can be large, but not many things."
So... how would they go about finding the Circle later?
- "You may find us and deal with us. We are not easily found, nor easily defeated. We are not like the masters of life to advertise our presence - we are the masters of Blood, and blood must be spilled."
Well, okay. Then the party wishes that they withdraw from the war.
- "The son of the Khan will not be happy, but you have earned this with your blood."
- "My blood!" -Lijuan
- "So it shall be."
Merit gives them a full Empire-style bow, and then the party heads off south again.
The group is sneaky enough, even with a giant wolf, to reach the Wall without drawing any further attention, and at that point, they can get the aid of the soldiers to bring everyone back across. (Everyone knows wolves are allowed to cross).
When the wolf reaches the other side, there is a sudden blinding burst of chi, and then instead of a giant wolf, there is a pack of wolves, that start to run south. The party follows - about halfway to where they left Ni Cheng, they run into her and her pack of wolves, coming towards them.
- "You have done well." -Ni Cheng
- "...What have we done?"
- "You have saved the Empire."
Tempting as it is to leave it at that, Ni Cheng explains further.
- "As you know, the Great Lord had made contacts and influenced events so the attacks would fall on our days of power. But it was too blatant - he is, perhaps, not strong in subtlety. The Beastmaster of Men realized that the intelligence leaks were coming from wolves, and had the beastmasters lay traps. The next battle will occur unscheduled, tomorrow - well before the Empire is ready. But I am told to say unto you that if you go to this battle, you will lose. The battle will not be a victory for the Empire. Too much is arrayed against it. Given the other thing you have done today, you would not die were you to go to the battle, but you will lose. The Beastmaster of Men is using much of his strength on this battle now, since it is perhaps the only true surprise he will get. Once that strength is expended, we will be able to take back what is lost, and move forward to defeat him. This is what my Lord says will happen." -Ni Cheng
- "With no doubt?" -Merit
- "The future is not so easy to circumscribe with no doubt. It is unfortunate that we will not be able to control the war as we have, but the allies the Lord has made remain. You can use them to your advantage once this push has passed."
The push is expected to take place near the border of the Steppes and the Roof of the World.
Merit asks - will the wolves be okay? That is, they brought an injured wolf back, and then it became many wolves. Will those wolves be okay? Ni Cheng says that all wolves carry his spirit, and does not seem to understand what is concerning Merit.
- "But will they be okay?" -Merit
- "Yes. " -Ni Cheng
The group angsts about whether or not they should go to the battle. Wei Han says he has to go. Nobody else likes the idea of skipping the battle, but Lijuan's art suggests that everyone else might well get mind controlled by the Beastmaster of Men, and they can do a lot of damage. Or - while getting the commander to fight a controlled retreat might cause the least bloodshed, if someone who knows the overall plan gets taken by the Beastmaster, they might tell him the plan, and that would be bad too. Possibly being near the battle so that Xiao Fa and Merit can help with healing would be better.
Wei Han wall-travels, bringing Xiao Fa with him, to as close to Commander Hsiao's command as he can get, and heads to the command. (Meanwhile, everyone else heads there the long way, intending to arrive tomorrow). Wei Han and Xiao Fa brief the commander and his XO of the impending attack, and the danger of people switching sides. Xiao Fa tries to impress upon both of them that they have mystical foreknowledge, that trying too hard to hold the territory will just cause more losses that will result in being unable to retake it, so the point will be to fall back convincingly.
From whence comes this mystical foreknowledge? Xiao Fa says it is the Great Spirit of the Wolf, er, well, the large spirit of the Wolf. The same source that convinced the Northerns to attack on the Empire's days of power in the first place. Commander Hsiao goes to a locked box and looks through a sheet, which Xiao Fa speculates might be "sources of information not to be believed". The Wolf Spirit is apparently not on the list, and both Xiao Fa and Wei Han are pretty convincing when it comes to the Dragon Army, so the news is believed. The pair do their best to convey their tactical advice, as well as Merit's tactical template for controlled failure, and Commander Hsiao is no slouch at tactics either.
The tactical question of whether the party should show up for the battle is raised again - Commander Hsiao thinks that those who are well known to the Northerners are likely to draw fire - if Lijuan and Master Zhou get flipped by the Beastmaster of Men, that would be kind of painful for everyone else. Wei Han can't bear not to go (and should be immune to being flipped), but everyone else will stay back.
The last remaining question is whether the Obsidian Warlord needs to be immediately summoned. The XO is confident that the answer is yes, but Xiao Fa confers briefly with Dragon, and thinks that the answer isn't so obvious. The Obsidian Warlord might be immune to the Beastmaster of Men, but he also really hates losing, and is likely to be suspicious of a last-minute party plan to let the North invade. So he may mess up the careful fallback plan. On the other hand, if the Northern Barbarians successfully take some territory at the direct advice of the party, there will be a lot of second-guessing, especially on the part of the Obsidian Warlord and other people who think that the Wall could have held. So there may be some muttering for a while.
The XO seems very keen to notify the Obsidian Warlord, but Commander Hsiao sends off a normal-speed courier and drags the XO to a strategy session that he can't escape.
Wei Han goes to the Wall as it falls to the Northern invasion and the Dragon Army turns on him, but he is only wounded, and with the loss of the Circle of Blood, wounds taken in the battle can be healed, so the casualties are not excessive.
- Xiao Fa, Lijuan, and Kasumi visit Takanata.
- Lijuan and Kasumi continue on to visit the Jasmine River and run various errands.
- Cai Wen visits Zhao Feiyan.
- Min Feng and Xiao Fa go to the Golden Spire, and also set up a party appointment with Li Kao.