|"When the sculptor is dead his statues ask him for a soul."|| It is the day of the Early Phoenix in the Month of the Butterfly in the second Year of the Magpie since the ascension of the High Warlord Ze.|
The run takes place in and around the Warlord's Throne in the Forest of Chin.
Lijuan tells her bodyguard from House Sung to go home. He's reluctant to do so, having been assigned to look after her by the head of House Sung in hiding, but Lijuan is really concerned that he'll get killed trying to protect her, and has sufficient fast talk to convince him to go back and "report in" at least.
The circus is heading north, towards the Warlord's Throne. Ringmaster Zhu and a number of others have headed off with the Dragon Army medical carriage, and have instructed the circus to keep going and they'll meet up later. As the circus heads along the non-Imperial highway, the party notices that all the horses have started to walk in a perfect single-file line and in perfectly synchronized step. Hmm. Xiao Fa examines their chi, and it seems to be very horse-y. (He also notes that the Imperial highway has a chi flow along it, but that's not very unusual.)
Xian suggests that Lijuan go and talk to Merit's horse, to find out what's going on. She is surrounded by the traditional sphere of darkness, as the Very Large Horse Spirit manifests.
- "Hey! You got my message!" -Horse
- "What were you trying to say?" -Lijuan
- "'Come talk to me'."
- "I did that!"
- "Exactly! So, I was wondering if you all might be willing to do me a little favor."
- "Oh, that's why I don't want to talk to you."
Anyway, Horse would like Lijuan to write something on a statue - he has a nicer elemental crayon that writes on elements and people that he can offer her. Lijuan, however, doesn't want to do any favors for Horse, though the crayon is kind of tempting.
Xiao Fa decides that Lijuan talking to Horse is not necessarily the best plan, and joins her with his "+1 Chi Master" shtick. Horse explains to Xiao Fa that he just wants a particular symbol written in a particular place (and no writing "Down with Horse" everywhere else) - Xiao Fa thinks that the symbol is a word in spirit language. Horse says that the symbol itself won't do anything - anything that happens after that is up to Monkey. (Oh, Monkey! That makes the whole deal more attractive to Lijuan). Xiao Fa notes that the elemental marker isn't much of an offer, and asks for a full briefing on everything that's going on as additional payment. Horse agrees, though Xiao Fa says he should probably check with everyone else first.
- "The sticking point is going to be, are we going to discover that doing this thing for you is actually helping one of our rivals?" -Xiao Fa
- "That depends on the answer to the question - am I one of your rivals?" -Horse
- "Then, no. At least, it shouldn't help any of your rivals as long as you don't screw it up."
- "How can we make sure we don't screw up in a way that helps our rivals?"
- "Um... don't tell them about the plan?"
Xiao Fa presents Horse's proposal to the rest of the group. (Xian notes that the symbol is probably a shortening of Horse's spirit name, like "Zealy"). Zhi-Hao objects that a crayon and a briefing isn't very much of a payment. Horse is clearly trying to cheat them, and he wants a better offer. Xiao Fa shrugs - he asked for everything he wanted, but Zhi-Hao thinks they should ask for two horse points for each person who will be helping. Lijuan pays the karma for everyone to talk to Horse again, and Kasumi spends the two Horse points for the briefing.
Horse explains that the Night of Gates will be coming soon, and good times are expected all round. Monkey has promised that for this coming Night of Gates, he'll bring the lost terra cotta army of the Bear Emperors out to play, and spirits and demons are welcome to join in. So, Horse was thinking, that's all well and good, but wouldn't it be extra good if the terra cotta army was cavalry? So, some time before the Night of Gates, someone just needs to slip in and draw that symbol on the commander. The terra cotta army is to the northwest of the Warlord's Throne - it's in a secret cave complex, near the border with the Hidden City. Monkey built it, so the rooms aren't always in the same place.
Xian checks with the rest of the group - have they heard of the "lost terra cotta army of the Bear Emperor"? Lijuan thinks all the cool "lost" stuff tends to be in the Forest of Chin. Xiao Fa notes that the Bear Emperors were kind of keen on big armies and holding the line, though terra cotta wasn't specifically mentioned. Xiao Fa also notes that Dragon has a mild distaste for any plans involving Monkey, but doesn't have any objections other than that. Xian wants to know if there will be opposition lurking in the caves ready to fight anyone who comes in? Not as far as Horse knows. So... what about that good authority that says the party will already be there? Who is that? Horse says that he can in theory reveal his secret sources, but there's a price for that. Nobody seems interested in paying for that. Xian wonders what Bear is going to think of the whole plan. Well, Horse really can't speak with absolute confidence about Bear, but he thinks that if Bear didn't want Monkey to mess with the army, he shouldn't have left it in the Forest of Chin. And while he thinks that it's very unlikely that Bear will object to the party's involvement, he thinks that the best way to make sure Bear is okay with it is to have Lijuan draw the symbol.
Zhi-Hao thinks that if Horse was willing to offer Xiao Fa two horse points to draw the mark, he should be willing to offer two horse points each, on the theory that everyone will be going to do it. Horse counters with one horse point each, but in exchange for that, they will have to guarantee that it will get done. Xian counter-offers: two horse points each, they guarantee it, and they promise that they won't take Wolf's offer. Horse wants to know what Wolf's offer is, but Xian isn't saying. Horse is a little unconvinced that Wolf has a competing plan for the terra cotta warriors, suspects that Xian can't guarantee that the party won't help Wolf, and thinks Xian may be generally bluffing, and declines. The party agrees to the one point each bargain, which leaves Kasumi down a horse point, but she's tired of the argument.
Their bargain with Horse concluded, the party continues on with the circus towards the Warlord's Throne. When they reach the field that the circus usually sets up in, Kuan-Xi's little carriage is there. The party troops up to the carriage and knocks on the door.
- "What brings you to the Warlord's Throne?"
- "I thought I would meet back up with you guys..." -Kuan-Xi
- "Are you still mad?" -Lijuan
- "Not at you." -Kuan-Xi
Kuan-Xi introduces Mei, reminding Min Feng that they met during the forging of the Horse talisman. Mei explains that in return for her father's assistance, Kuan-Xi has offered her help in making contact with the wives of the High Warlord; she hopes to make a bargain with one of them to appear at a time and place to be named later (that is, during a ritual when Wolf is to be put in the Cycle).
Kasumi tries to remember - did she have a better way to meet An Ming that wasn't "break into the palace and almost get killed"? Right - sending a note!
Mei explains a little bit further - the large Wolf spirit is allied with some of the northern beastmasters; in exchange for their aid putting Wolf in the Imperial Cycle, he is aiding them in overthrowing the Great Khan. This step, Mei understands is but one small part of the process.
A horse and rider arrive at the circus.
- "Hello, circus! It's you! I have been looking all over for you! I need your help to help Huian! He's been arrested by the High Warlord. For doing unnatural workings on the river, which doesn't make any sense." -Sai
Sai explains, somewhat haphazardly, that Huian has been looking for underground sources of water, and created an underground-places-dowsing machine. But now, what should she do? Should she return to the river, or sneak into the palace, or go away? Xian says she should stick with them.
People who have circus acts to rehearse stay at the circus, while everyone else heads to the river to pick up the stuff Sai and Huian left there. Their supplies include two boxes of powder, labeled "Sea Water" and "Pure Water". The powdered pure water is interestingly inexplicable. Lijuan notes that there are a lot of footprints back and forth between the river and the campsite, including down into the river. Footprints being left in the riverbed are kind of odd, but Sai says that's where Huian was taking his measurements. They didn't find any actual caves in the river, but Huian said there were caves around nearby.
That evening, the circus gives a grand performance. The Warlord sits in the royal box, with a woman in black veils (probably one of his wives, but it is not clear which one). Also in the royal box are a number of honored guests, one of whom Zhi-Hao recognizes as Shen-Shin Gao. (No one appears to be wearing a cursed hat.) Those who do particularly well in the performance get extra status, and after the performance is over, there is a reception for the performers and the VIP guests, in the palace.
Zhi-Hao takes the opportunity to chat with Shen-Shin. He says that the other VIPs are the royal forester, and an architect with the highway division of the Dragon Army, and an astrologer. Zhi-Hao says he'll drop by the arms master's training tomorrow morning - perhaps he can help with the Warlord's training, in exchange for some shtick-teaching.
The astrologer greets Xian, and admires her act, though her riddles were perhaps designed for a more common audience. Xian agrees that she does try to keep her act as broad as possible. The astrologer notes that he deals mostly with the highest of people, but it is good that there is entertainment for the masses as well. So... why is he in town? He has most urgent business, for the Warlord's ears only. Such as the Night of Gates, Xian speculates, and name drops the "Horse Spirit" as a source of her knowledge. The astrologer looks a little confounded, but notes that such information does always come from the realm of spirits, in the end.
Min Feng overhears a conversation between the architect and the forester. The architect is concerned about possible locations of underground caves below or near the highway, lest there be a collapse. The forester agrees to meet the architect on the morrow, to show him something about caves.
Lijuan chats with the forester about hunting. He doesn't think of the forest as a place of Shadows and Mystery and Wonder; he thinks it's trees and birds and rocks, and if you can't understand that, you can't really understand forests. Banditry is a problem, of course, but also, there's a whole problem with not being able to go twenty feet without being pestered by spirits and demons, little squirrel spirits and hamster spirits and things. Lijuan is enthralled by the idea of hamster spirits, and wants to meet them, but the forester is really anti-spirit in general. Xian, listening, suggests that the forester not bother the Warlord about spirits, just about bandits.
The NPCs continue to circulate amongst themselves for a while, but nobody can think of anything else to ask them. The Warlord and his wife leave, and then the gathering breaks up.
The party gets together afterwards, with a sense that they may have missed something. Did anyone talk to the highway guy about the changes to the Imperial Highway? No, though Min Feng mentions his meeting about caves scheduled for tomorrow. Sai wants to know if anyone has convinced the Warlord to let Huian go. No, no one talked to the Warlord. Mei wants to know if anyone arranged a meeting for her with one of the Warlord's wives. No, no one talked to the veiled woman.
- "I kept waiting for Cai Wen to start organizing things." -Xian
Xian decides to play "What would Cai Wen do?" and suggests that people start gathering information, to figure out what plots are actually going on.
- "So... Xian is party leader? Are we okay with that?" -Kasumi
Lijuan asks the local urchins why Huian is in jail, but they think that the Warlord is generally mean and throws people in jail because of that. Min Feng gets some more gathering information help, and learns that Huian is generally considered to be a harmless flake, but there was some sort of arrest warrant out for him in the Hidden City, and the highway engineer suggested that he could be trouble. Apparently the fact that Huian was cleared of the charges of being a Sorcerer did not get conveyed.
Kasumi writes a note for An Ming: I'm in town, it would be lovely to chat, there's a trusted acquaintance who would like to meet you with and make an offer. However, when she goes to deliver the note via a servant at the palace, the servant asks a number of questions about who she is and what business the note is regarding. Kasumi identifies herself, and says she is one of the circus performers, and the servant takes the note away.
The group contemplates whether they can rescue Huian in a straight-up breakout. Kasumi could do it, but she has given her oath to An Ming to not act against the Warlord or his people. Min Feng could probably break into the prison or out again, but both would be difficult. Doing anything legitimate won't be possible this late at night, so everyone heads to bed.
In the morning, a warning from Merit and Ringmaster Zhu is issued - last night's performance was great, but everyone will need to try for even more successes tonight, since the Warlord has said he will be coming to the second performance as well.
As Huian has not magically escaped from prison during the night, the group contemplates what to try. Could a bureaucrat pull some strings? Alas, nobody is a bureaucrat. Could people discredit the highway engineer? Such as Min Feng framing him for something? Possibly, but it was still the Warlord who had him arrested, so taking the engineer out of the picture won't automatically solve that.
- "Well, why don't we just find out who has the authority to let Huian go, and then I will arrange to talk to them alone." -Kuan-Xi
Min Feng and Kuan-Xi head to the palace, and try to figure out who has this sort of authority. Their best not-too-many-successes guess is that, in addition to the High Warlord, his chamberlain would be able to. They just manage to status their way into a meeting with him, after having to wait a while.
- "My status is 15 with my clothes on." -Kuan-Xi
Min Feng explains that they have come to beg for the release of Huian, on the grounds that he was cleared of the charges in the Hidden City. The chamberlain is dubious - do they have any proof of this, or just their word? Min Feng says that she has sent to the Hidden City for the documentation, and she'll go check on it now. Min Feng leaves the room, leaving Kuan-Xi and the chamberlain alone. When she returns a little while later, the chamberlain is entirely convinced that it is all as Kuan-Xi says and Huian is entirely innocent. It is so clear that he should be released, that the chamberlain will go and take care of it all.
Meanwhile, Kasumi has gone to keep an eye on the forester and the engineer, meeting for lunch. After they chat for a bit, they head into the woods, with the forester leading the way. Kasumi notes that, as the forester said at the party, spirits seem to plague him quite a bit. The engineer can't see them, but Kasumi is pretty sure that all the invisible things that the forester is reacting to are spirits. Anyway, the forester shows the engineer the entrance to a set of caves, under a large rock. The engineer says that he has been thinking about the forester's bandit problems, and what the forester needs is some bodyguards. Like the bodyguards that he could hire with this tael here, if he doesn't mention the cave to anyone else. The forester takes the tael, and the pair head back to the capital. Kasumi tries hard to remember where the rock is (it was next to two trees) and heads back herself.
Zhi-Hao spends the morning at Shen-Shin Gao's training session. He helps confirm a rumor that the circus dealt with the highway bandits since House Mong wasn't up to dealing with them, and gets an agreement for Shen-Shin to teach him some more shticks in return for his helping train the Warlord's soldiers.
Kasumi and Min Feng notice some ninjas; Zhi-Hao does not.
Huian arrives at the circus, very grateful for his rescue. Min Feng suggests "disguising him as a woman," in order to throw the highway engineer off his trail. Xian and Huian exchange whispers about Huian's continued disguise - Xian thinks Huian should stop pretending to be a guy, but Huian thinks Sai would be very unhappy to learn that Huian had been lying to her all this time. Xian thinks that Sai is pretty easy to distract and talk out of being upset, but Huian thinks it would be a big deal. For the rest of the run, Huian is a girl disguised as a boy disguised as a girl, and nobody can keep the pronouns straight.
The group discusses natural philosophy for a while. For example, Huian thinks that the Hidden City didn't actually move when it became unhidden, it was just that nobody had ever noticed it before. He has been looking for caves to find out more about the source of water, which he is confident is underground. Xian, puzzled, asks if water doesn't come from the sky, with the rain? Huian thinks that the rain is actually from the underground of the World Above, which makes an odd sort of sense. Speaking of the World Above, why is it invisible, anyway? Huian's theory is that it's like the Hidden City, in that nobody notices it either.
When the time comes for the night's circus performance, the Warlord arrives, with three of his wives; the astrologer and forester and the arms master show up, but the highway architect does not. Curses! He is surely already in the cave!
Everyone succeeds in getting more successes than the previous performance, impressing the Warlord; Lijuan and Xian tie for most successful, and they receive a minor boon, to be shared between them. (They must agree on what it is).
Afterwards, there is another party, and everyone vows to try to talk to more people. Zhi-Hao chats with the astrologer, and manages to fast-talk him into admitting that the Night of Gates will be next run. Xian chats briefly with the forester, and thinks that he's neither cursed nor plagued by weird chi problems.
Kuan-Xi (who doesn't have the bonus performance status) talks to the newest of the Warlord's wives, who happily makes small talk with her. She's sad that the circus will be moving on, and declares Lijuan her favorite performer.
Xiao Fa talks to the forester about his spirit woes, though he notes that there's a large Forest clansman paying close attention. Lijuan leaps in to ask him if he has asked the spirits to leave him be, but he says that they just make noises at him, they don't talk. Xiao Fa takes a careful patient history from him, and concludes that he has a lot of worldwalker potential, but probably has no actual interest, and that the time around the Night of Gates would be the biggest problem for him. Xiao Fa proselytizes a bit about natural philosophy, but also suggests that he learn something about worldwalking in order to use it defensively, to keep spirits at bay. Lijuan asks some more questions about spirit hamsters.
- "Before we turn him into a natural philosopher, we should find out if he's a dick." -Xian
The High Warlord announces that the astrologer has brought him important news, which he now tells everyone else: the Night of Gates will be several nights hence. Half of the court looks enthused, but the other half look kind of panicked. The forester turns white and leaves the party. The royal family takes their leave, and heads out as well.
Time to go investigate the caves, and catch up to the architect!
Kasumi doesn't remember very well where the rock is, but between her faint recollections and Huian's dowsing-for-caves device, they are able to narrow in on the giant rock. Lijuan checks around for tracks, and says that someone dragged something heavy up to the rock - probably a body. Oh, dear.
Pushing the rock open appears to require Tao rather than strength, but Master Deng manages anyway. Inside is a corridor leading down, with a symbol on the wall which does not look like the Horse symbol. Xian's best guess is that it is a nickname for Monkey - perhaps something like Monkeyshines.
The group explores through the maze of rooms, which loop back on themselves oddly. Some rooms are empty; some have terra cotta statues, and some are full of peril.
As they go deeper into the dungeon, they encounter sharp rocks, shrieking eels, freezingly cold icemelt, awfully rotting carrion, a narrow crevasse, scary blind worms, mirror-reflective crystal, impenetrable darkness, confusing echoes, slippery algae, and a really really scary dead tree.
The first "statue" room has a single terra cotta light scout in it. Lijuan writes "Bear" on the statue's armor with the crayon. The next room has two armed scouts, and Lijuan labels one of those as well. The rest of the party starts scolding her for vandalism, as she doesn't know how to write "Beary" in spirit symbology. The next room has three archers; after that, four infantry. The room after that has four terra cotta soldiers, and one tied-up ninja. Well, that's a little unexpected. Lijuan writes Bear on a soldier while everyone else is distracted by the ninja.
Xiao Fa manages to wake her up briefly, and her first reaction is to warn them that the highway architect was Lucky Chang, and they should tell Cai Wen. No, she didn't get Kasumi's note - there has been a lot more security around notes, after someone tried to assassinate the Warlord by sending him a cursed hat with a note. She was investigating all of the visitors, as she often does, but the "architect" somehow got the drop on her, and dragged her out to the cave, where he tied her to a terra cotta warrior and then she fell unconscious. Xiao Fa thinks that all her chi has been spent - clearly some sort of ritual.
This is no good! Clearly Lucky Chang is doing some sort of ritual involving the wife of the Warlord, to... to put Spider in the Cycle? But Spider is already in the Cycle. Hmm. Xiao Fa is pretty sure that the only things Spider needs to do are part of the "become in charge of the Cycle" ritual - crown a Spider Emperor and place his mark on the North and the South. And maybe change Bear Mountain's name back.
The group continues on through some more caves, past the six elite guards, until they get to the room with seven great terra cotta warriors, three on either side of their commander. Behind the warriors are crystal windows, showing rank upon rank of more warriors, waiting in line. Lijuan draws the Horse symbol on the commander, and writes "bear" on one of the others.
So... what now? Is there anything else worth exploring in the caves? Possibly, though no one is sure what. Kasumi notes that if they are going to sit around and talk about things, they should do that in the tea tent; if they are going to stay in the cave, they should keep exploring. They traipse through a few more rooms, and one more peril, and then call it a night and head back to the tea tent. An Ming thanks the group for her rescue, and heads back to the palace.
- Takanata and Madame Qin go to talk to the astrologer.
- Cai Wen talks to Broken Sword.
- Takanata summons An Ming to a meeting in the tea tent with himself, Cai Wen, Kuan-Xi, and Kasumi.