The First Step of Vengeance
|"Ambition and revenge are always hungry."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Spider in the Month of the Tortoise in the first Year of the Magpie since the White Pagoda was abandoned.|
The run takes place on the way to and at Iron Mountain.
Yanzi pokes her head into Yue-Mei's tent, where the latter is throwing things into a travelling bag, frowning mightily. Yanzi, by virtue of not saying anything, which she does very pointedly, gets Yue-Mei to explain. Yue-Mei is pretty sure that Takanata and Master Zhou are keeping secrets from her about her biological father, and are treating her like it's their business and not hers. This is weird and disturbing, but it is also particularly dangerous when Takanata pursues it - Yanyu told her that the whole subject is something that would be bad for the Butterfly Court to get wind of, and Takanata is right smack in the middle of the Butterfly Court. Master Zhou isn't, but he told her that it was dangerous to pursue, but she thinks he and Takanata have been pursuing it regardless, and not telling her about it, and blaming her for... she doesn't understand what. But the whole thing has reminded her that Master Zhou is happy enough to poke danger when the danger doesn't land on him, and that's why her father (Master Long) is dead (Yanzi winces at this), and she can't just stay here and putter along with the circus and assume that they'll all fix everything and take care of Tai Lung just in passing as one of their random plots, because in that case what was the whole point of them going north and learning about War?
Yanzi, correctly gathering that Yue-Mei's decision is resolved, if not entirely logical, raises an eyebrow. She isn't planning to go by herself, is, she? And leave her friends behind? Because didn't they all go north and learn about War together? Yue-Mei allows as her traveling companions of Yanzi and Broken Sword would not be unwelcome. Broken Sword, joining the conversation, notes that he can probably tell if the battle is winnable or not - this puts to rest any last qualms Yue-Mei has about fighting Tai Lung without the party. The three set off without briefing the rest of the party - based on talking to Kasumi about the Monkey Talisman, Yanzi is pretty clear that if they tell anyone else where they are going, all the party fighters will insist on coming along to help and take over the plan, and Yue-Mei is still unhappy about not being trusted with... whatever is going on with her birth father, and is unwilling to be turned into a sidekick in her vengeance.
On the Road
Heading north from Nine Terraces, the three travellers manage to avoid touching any vegetation, until after about half a day's travel they see a Dragon Army camp beside the road. Broken Sword notes that the camp is in a bit of disarray, and there aren't as many sentries as there should be. Plus it doesn't rate as a large enough threat. Clearly something is wrong, though it isn't clear what. Yue-Mei, still a bit single-minded, doesn't see how this is her plot, but both Yanzi and Broken Sword have been trained by travels with the circus that when you pass the Dragon Army on the road, you have to stop and ask them questions.
- "That's always the first thing that happens, is the Dragon Army walks by and you ply them with tea and find things out." -Broken Sword
- "We didn't bring any tea, we should keep going." -Yue-Mei
- "I brought tea." -Yanzi
The travellers hail the Dragon Army, and the sentries perk up a little at the appearance of a monk. Is she a healing monk, by any chance? The platoon is one that has been attached to several fire sorcerers, assigned to defoliate the vegetation south of the Wall. However, it turns out that there are a number of plants that react somewhat poorly to being set on fire, and a number of the soldiers are now sick and wheezing from fire-fate spores. Yanzi makes herbal tea (which helps a little), and Yue-Mei wraps the commander up in yellow silk (which helps quite a bit more, though it's slow). The commander is very pleased to have Helpful Travellers stop by like this, and starts making plans to have Yue-Mei cure all the fire-fate sufferers. Yue-Mei is non-plussed - she can only fix one person a run! She doesn't have time to fix everyone! It looks like Yue-Mei is about to be indefinitely conscripted by the Dragon Army when Yanzi steps in - she appreciates the commander's difficulty, but Yanzi is in the direct service of Master Zhou of Iron Mountain, and her companions are on a pressing mission to the Mountain, which cannot be delayed. The commander is impressed by the name-dropping, and insists that a soldier travel with them as an escort. Oh, dear. Well, it lets them be on the road again, and Yanzi leaves the remainder of her tea-for-people-with-coughs with the platoon.
Once they arrive, the trio must quickly come up with some sort of important message from Master Zhou to deliver, lest their soldier escort get suspicious. However, they don't actually have a message from Master Zhou. The soldier helpfully steers them into Lord Yu's queue - he seems somewhat suspicious that there is not actually any message at all - and Yanzi ends up improvising. They bear a message for Kar Fai, so they must deliver it at the Three Pagodas, rather than the Iron Fortress. Lord Yu warns them that Tai Lung is still in the area, though he has not been blocking all access to the Pagodas - they should be safe if they stick to the paths. However, Lord Yu does have his own questions for Kar Fai and Quan Lo, now that he thinks of it, so he attaches his own "guide" to the group, as travelling together might deter mischief. So the party now comprises five, and they head up the mountain. The trio wonders how they are going to get out of all this message-delivering so they can go find Tai Lung, and the Dragon Army escort becomes even more suspicious that there was never really any message.
As it turns out, Tai Lung is letting people who aren't on his personal hit list go up to the Three Pagodas, but Yanzi is one of the people he is hunting, so he appears on the rock overlooking the road where Anto once ran into him. He looks very dramatic, and the sunlight makes him extra fierce. His bandits loom from either side, arrows pointed at the group. This is entirely what the original trio was looking for, but the two messengers are not so pleased.
- "Yanzi of the White Pagoda may not pass, but if you surrender her, the rest of you may continue on." -Tai Lung
- "Er... we are official messengers of..." -Dragon Army guy
- "Kar Fai will not allow this molestation of official messengers of Lord Yu!" -Lord Yu's guide
- "As the favored student of Master Zhou, Yanzi of the White Pagoda is my rightful prey, and Kar Fai will not interfere." -Tai Lung
The Dragon Army guy is taken aback - Yanzi actually is the favored student of Master Zhou? He's sorry that he doubted her.
- "It is very sad that he has only learned wisdom at the moment of his death." -Mike
Broken Sword, evaluating the odds, thinks the battle is winnable - though not easy. He nods tightly to Yanzi and Yue-Mei, and they go into their battle plan. Yanzi declares Not for Amateurs to lock out the bandits - Yue-Mei is another martial artist, and Broken Sword can join either side of the battle as he prefers. However, that leaves the bandits to fill the two escorts with arrows, which was not part of the original plan, and Yanzi tells Broken Sword to go and deal with the archer side of things for a little while.
The battle between the three martial arts masters is an oddly lopsided one - Tai Lung is trying to kill Yanzi, but Yue-Mei is trying to kill Tai Lung. Yanzi goes on defense, leaving the relatively untouched Yue-Mei to pound on Tai Lung, and start finding his weaknesses.
When Tai Lung's vest is pulled aside after a strike, Yanzi spots a spider tattoo on his back. She is startled by that, as she had heard that there were no Marks of the Spider out there any longer. Tai Lung, seeing her surprise, laughs - while the others are not fit to brave the terrors of the Pass, he has done so and visited his Great Master himself. Broken Sword has a sudden chilling sense that his odds calculation may have failed to see part of the battle.
The battle continues - Broken Sword throws shuriken at archers who are unwise enough to poke their heads up, and gets the two escorts to cover, which he fortifies into Cover. Yanzi and Yue-Mei continue to whittle Tai Lung down - things seem to be going well, ominous senses of foreboding notwithstanding.
Tai Lung finally gets tired of Yanzi’s constant dodging, running, redirection (those poor archers) and healing potions, and decides to turn a couple of strikes towards Yue-Mei. But Yue-Mei reveals that she’s not in fact completely lost to her father’s teachings and Yields past most of their damage. Tai Lung strikes at Yanzi with a Quivering Palm - an odd tactic, as both she and Yue-Mei are sufficient masters of martial arts to dispel it - she redirects his attack back upon himself, but Tai Lung blocks.
Then, Yue-Mei, who has been building up some finding weakness, unleashes her big strike, sure to take Tai Lung down. However, Tai Lung has stolen Yanzi's redirection shtick - swiping shticks from White Pagoda masters appears to be something he has some practice at - and her strike is redirected straight into Yanzi's side. Yanzi crumples. Yue-Mei is horrified, but there's no stopping to retreat now. She spends all of her several karma to refresh her shticks, and strikes again, breaking Tai Lung's arm and rib. However, during the strike, a small spider crawls out of his collar and bites her on the wrist.
- "You must be that Yellow Silk girl. You've been chasing me all this time only to fail now? I think that's about the worst thing I've ever heard." -Tai Lung
Broken Sword realizes that someone somewhere has really really cheated, as spiders are not martial artists, and the spider was not part of his "winnable" calculation. Yanzi is down (though not dying) and Yue-Mei is dying (though not down). Broken Sword triggers his "time to gloat" shtick on Tai Lung, and spends a karma of his own to lure Tai Lung into the classic Villain Failure Mode of "leaving them to die, muah hah hah". If all three of them survive, then Broken Sword can probably parlay this into a defeat for Tai Lung rather than a win - maybe not a capital D defeat, but he'll count as driven off the trail to the Three Pagodas.
But... surviving. Broken Sword and Lord Yu's man both have some first aid, though are far down on hit points themselves. They can wake Yanzi up, and the group carries the quickly failing Yue-Mei up to the Green Pagoda, where they beseech Quan Lo's help. The Dragon Army escort and Lord Yu's man praise the heroism of the trio, and make it clear that they would certainly have been victorious ("More victorious" -Broken Sword, trying to avoid the overturning of Tai Lung's fragile 'defeat') if not for Cheater McCheatypants. Quan Lo says he cannot cure the poison, for the Spider's venom is beyond even his power, but he can ameliorate it, and split its effect so that it can be fought by mortals.
The battle of the spirit will take place in the Red Pagoda, and that will be Yue-Mei's, for it is the only one that can be fought while unconscious. Yanzi will battle the poison of the body, in the White Pagoda, leaving Broken Sword to battle the poison of the mind, in the Green Pagoda.
- "Wait. You have me on which battle?" -Broken Sword
An Extra Fight
The friends carry Yue-Mei to the Red Pagoda, and then Broken Sword heads back to the Green Pagoda, while Yanzi continues on to the White Pagoda. Kar Fai provides assistance with Yue-Mei's battle, and Quan Lo guides Broken Sword in the meditation that he is really not very good at, but Yanzi encounters some further problems.
The White Pagoda is currently guarded by monks of the Steadfast Heart, but they have not entered the senshi chamber, where Yanzi must go. When Yanzi attempts to enter, then the echo of Master Zhou (as he was when he was Master of the White Pagoda) arises to oppose her. This second battle is even more epic than the one with Tai Lung, but there is no one there to see. The echo of Master Zhou strikes at her, faster and stronger than Yanzi, faster and stronger than Master Zhou is now, and Yanzi finds that she is losing this fight a lot faster than the one against Tai Lung. But she realizes that the senshi chamber is not just a place of body, and summons her will, to add resolve and mind and wits to her failing body stats ("Use the pain!"). The echo of Master Zhou nods once, briefly, in approval, but the echo can play the same game and both combatants escalate.
Yanzi is close to falling when the echo of Master Zhou pauses to gather his chi, and then strikes with all of it, with the terrible combat version of the Quivering Palm (the one Tai Lung really really wants). Embracing her fate, she opens her arms, accepting the cost, and falls backwards... healed.
The echo of Master Zhou bows and vanishes. The senshi chamber makes it clear that she has proven herself, but after this, she may not return until she is ready to take the mantle of the White Pagoda from Master Zhou. She nods acceptance - she is not ready to do so at this time, but someday, she will be.
After the battle with the echo of Master Zhou, the battle with the physical aspect of the poison is nearly restful, especially as Yanzi has learned the secret of the senshi chamber and getting to add her mind and spirit to her body.
Back in the Green Pagoda, Broken Sword traverses an imaginary labyrinth that grows ever more complex and dangerous. He is really not the smartest of the trio, but what he does have in spades is stubbornness, and he relies on his resolve (and his remaining karma) to pull him through the ordeal, which it does in the end. Quan Lo congratulates him, but chides him for not finding the easier way.
- "Battles of the mind are not fought with the mind any more than battles of the body are fought with weapons and strength." -Quan Lo
- "Er... I thought they were." -Broken Sword
- "I know." -Quan Lo
In the Red Pagoda, Yue-Mei wrestles with all manner of her failures - being abandoned by birth parents who never cared for her, being a disappointment to Master Long in her studies, failing Master Long when Tai Lung struck him down, being mistrusted by Takanata and Master Zhou, failing in her vengeance against Tai Lung... failure upon failure upon failure. Only a vague sense that someone still has her back (Kar Fai) keeps her on her spiritual feet at all, but the wounds to her soul are deep and the poison has many avenues to attack.
Finally, Yue-Mei recalls something that her father said to her once, when she was young and still a novice in the school of Yellow Silk, and jealous of the older students who could do so much that she could not when she was stuck on the basic forms.
- "You are discontent because you cannot take the last step to the top of the mountain - but it is the first step which is the most important, and from it follow all the rest." -Long Shen
From that, she draws inspiration. Her battle against Tai Lung was not the last step, but it was the first. They have driven him from his place of advantage, and they have learned several of his secrets that will be key to his eventual defeat. Others may take the last step, but she has taken the first. Nothing can change that.
With that, Yue-Mei can push back the last of the soul-destroying poison. The scars on her soul are still there - suspicion, grief, abandonment - but she is not a failure, not in her father's eyes or in her own.
After each of their battles, the three friends gather in the garden of the Green Pagoda, saying little, and only leaning on each other in weariness and mutual support.
Yue-Mei will need to remain for some time still, until she is more fully healed, and the other two agree to remain with her. One of the brothers of the Green Pagoda will bring Yanzi's report back to the party, letting them know what has transpired.
- Takanata, Min Feng, Xiao Fa, Merit, and Cai Wen go to see what's up with the ducal politics in the Taiga.
- Shen-Ji visits the Myeong clan for some combat briefings.
- Xiao Fa heads to Iron Mountain to visit Yanzi. And maybe Kar Fai too.
- Shen-Ji starts construction on the Sakong riverwalk.
- Master Zhou visits Iron Mountain.
- Cai Wen gets captured by bandits.