Wolves in Wolves Clothing
|"The dog is loyal to its master; the wolf is loyal to its pack."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Crane in the Month of the Bear in the eighth Year of the Magpie since the thirty-fourth Great Northern Invasion.|
The run takes place in the Qin Chao Steppes.
Stone Dog Militia
Wei Han briefs the party on the current state of the war with the North. The Western front should hold, unless there are a lot more barbarians waiting in the wings that seems likely, but the Eastern front is kind of iffy. Of particular interest are a place on the Wall where Wei Han has a blind spot, and a hex over from that, a unit of Northerners crossed the Wall and then Mysteriously Vanished. Oh, and Wei Han's hand feels funny. Xiao Fa takes a look at his chi, and the obvious answer is that Anto (standing next to him) is casting necromancy on his hand. Anto doesn't think it's him, so it's probably an effect of necromancy being cast on a piece of the Wall. That suggests that the group should check out the blind spot.
Riding would be quicker, but Takanata is the only person who has his own horse. However, the Steppes cavalry is still in Cederhaven; many of them are recovering from being wounded in battle. The party (via Merit) has a lot of credit with the cavalry, so they can borrow five horses (there are five trained riders), and Kuan-Xi has her carriage, which Xiao Fa is willing to drive as long as it's not going fast.
Wei Han is keen to get there as quickly as possible, but that would involve leaving the carriage behind, so the group proceeds at a reasonable clip. Night falls with the group still a few hours from the Wall, and near a temporary armed camp of about seventy-five soldiers. The party approaches the camp, and the soldiers tell them to halt and ask who goes there. Wei Han gives his name, but it doesn't seem to impress the soldiers, so they're probably not Dragon Army. In fact, they're the Third Stone Dog Militia, and while they don't invite the party into their tents, they're willing to let them camp just by.
Xiao Fa sees to some of their wounded, who also seem to have a lot of corruption points. He asks if they've been seeing a lot of action, and they say that there's a big Northern rally point north of here. Master Deng tries to find out why they're here in particular, but this is just a temporary camp after a tactical retreat to heal up. They have scouts out, who were supposed to be back by sunset but still haven't returned. Min Feng asks around to find out more about the Northerners they've been fighting, but they seem to be a little fuzzy on the details. Wei Han tries to sense necromancy, but there's something confusing or odd about it. Wearing Takanata's tinfoil hat, he thinks maybe there's necromancy involved due north, but they're doing it wrong?
Wei Han talks to the soldiers, warning them of the corruption damage that fighting Northerners can cause. They're concerned, but don't have much that they can do about it. He brings in Xiao Fa to talk to their captain - the captain thinks that a cleansing ceremony would be a fine thing, but Xiao Fa suggests that he start with just one cleansing, on the captain himself. The captain has six corruption, so he is definitely leading from the front. Xiao Fa manages to get rid of the corruption - the source is still out there, and Xiao Fa thinks that the corruption is more focused than the usual kind (which are often just hanging out in order to be used by a passing bad guy) - this corruption has a purpose.
A wolf howls off to the east, and several horses and riders come in from the north. The riders are the returning scouts, who look exhausted.
- "Necromancy?" -Wei Han
- "No more so than everywhere else."
The scouts have been having a hard time - the Northerners have sent their own scouts ahead, causing trouble for the Steppes scouts. But the main force isn't up there any longer, so it's a clear path to the Wall except for the Northern scouts, who shouldn't be a big problem. The Stone Dog captain says that his plan is to get as much healing as possible from Xiao Fa, and then their troop will head north tomorrow.
Kasumi declares herself bored and tries to convince Min Feng to come north and climb the Wall. Zhi-Hao notes that the largest source of danger is the wolves to the east, and Wei Han warns the Stone Dog captain that northern Beastmasters will use animals as scouts as well, so he should watch out for wolves. Anto listens through the earth and notes that there's a wolf about a hundred yards to the east. Kasumi figures that getting a wolf is nearly as exciting as climbing the Wall, so the party decides that the sneaky people will try to circle around the wolf and flush it back towards the camp.
Kasumi, Min Feng, and Anto are the sneakiest, and Anto remembers that they should stay downwind, so the three circle around to behind the wolf, just as it starts to notice them. It scoots off to the south rather than running straight into the armed camp, and Anto and the others give chase. Back at the camp, others notice Anto running, so Wei Han and Zhi-Hao start chasing Anto.
Anto chain-pulls the wolf to him and grabs him, though not well. Kasumi decides that this is likely to be a feint or a distraction, as one wolf isn't much of a threat, and heads back to the camp. Min Feng shoots the wolf several times taking most of its hit points; it pulls free and bites Anto, just in time to be chopped in half by Zhi-Hao when he arrives. The group returns to the camp with the dead pieces of wolf, and Anto covered in wolf's blood.
Takanata, who has been giving Xiao Fa a calligraphy lesson, writes a poem to mark the occasion. People ponder what it might mean.
Neither sheep in wolf's clothing
Nor wolf in sheep's clothing
All sheep fear the wolf, no matter what its dress
- "Be distrustful of the militia, maybe." -Takanata
- "Who said we weren't already distrustful of the militia?" -Kasumi
- "We may have claimed distrust, but we have exhibited none." -Zhi-Hao
Kasumi tries to interpret the poem - does it mean that the Stone Dogs are dangerous?
- "They better be dangerous, if they're not, what are they doing here?" -Xiao Fa
But she doesn't think that the poem is about the Stone Dogs. Master Zhou, reading the poem, thinks it's a lot about actual wolves.
- "Are the wolves good guys, then?" -Zhi-Hao
- "No. The wolves are wolves." -Master Zhou
Scouts v. Scouts
Having taken care of the immediate opportunity for combat, Min Feng, Kasumi, and Anto set out to sneak again, this time northwards towards the Wall. They get about an hour north when Anto signals the others - he's spotted a northern barbarian scout sneaking southwards. Min Feng sees the scout, also sees the northern assassin sneaking up on Anto, and promptly shoots him (the assassin, not Anto). A third Northerner, an archer nobody had yet spotted, shoots Kasumi, and battle is engaged. Min Feng shoots the Northerners, Anto grabs and disarms the assassin, but gets shot twice. Min Feng is hit by a knife, and Kasumi grabs a Northerner's nose before being disarmed and then chopped. Anto gets distracted and loses some actions, and people start to realize that they seem to be fighting Northern versions of themselves somehow. Kasumi manages to escape her grab and toss a healing potion to Min Feng; the assassin escapes and throws a knife at Anto before fleeing. The other two northerners also flee, but only Anto gives chase before realizing that his teammates are not coming with him.
The group continues on to the Wall; Kasumi and Anto climb it, and lower a rope to Min Feng. On the Northern side of the Wall, there are a number of barbarian camps, surrounding a giant earthworks and some sort of construction project, like some sort of large ramp leading nowhere. It's not clear what it is - half a bridge? It's too far back to be a bridge over the Wall, so it's somewhat puzzling. Min Feng tries to sketch it. Anto listens through the earth, and can hear the sentries patrolling to the north and some fighting going on to the southeast.
Heading back to the camp, the journey goes without incident, and the trio reports shortly before dawn. Min Feng declares that it's bedtime, but Wei Han says she can sleep after the wall is fixed. Xiao Fa also fusses about the corruption points the three of them have accrued - similar to the ones the Stone Dog soldiers have - but he can get rid of them by the end of the run.
Anto briefs the Stone Dogs captain about the battle to the east and the trouble to the north. Wei Han persuades the captain that if he puts his men on the wall, Wei Han can make sure that he gets supplies (like tons of arrows) and possibly reinforcements. The captain is still concerned about the enemy unit running around south of the Wall, though, so he says he can meet Wei Han at the Wall at sunset and Wei Han can spend the day arranging the supplies.
Takanata considers a crossroads, while wearing his tinfoil hat:
- Will we more successfully figure out how to fix the wall by going north and looking at the wall, or by going east and looking for the people who snuck over the Wall?
He decides that if it was just him, he might be better off going east, but the party as a whole probably wants to go north. However, maybe Takanata could go east with the Stone Dogs, and let everyone else go north. The group takes a drop of blood from his horse for the monocle, and the non-Takanata group will bring Kuan-Xi's carriage; that way both sides should be able to get to each other quickly (as Takanata can arrive auspiciously).
The north-going party stops at the hill line where Wei Han thinks the "dead zone" begins. Xiao Fa examines the chi, and thinks that the outside Empire chi is curving away, and that there's an incursion of Northern chi across the wall, centered on a Northern blood mage. There's also a section right underneath the wall on the north side, full of the dead - one of the sections Wei Han has been worrying about. Xiao Fa thinks that using his shticks he could enter chi-combat with the northern mage remotely as they fight over the chi of the area. But that sort of combat is unlikely to be easy to predict how it will go, so he demurs for the moment.
Meanwhile, Takanata and the Stone Dogs have reached the scene of a battle - there's a whole Northern army unit dead. There is no sign of dead Imperial soldiers, which is particularly odd, though there are some dead wolves. Takanata isn't sure what to make of it. The Stone Dog captain does his best to track to see where the victors went, but he finds no sign of other soldiers either, though there are certainly a lot of wolf tracks. All the signs point to wolves, but it's puzzling. Takanata recalls Ni Cheng, the witch raised by wolves, but her pack certainly wasn't as large as this the last time the party encountered them. As he wanders around looking at the carnage, he notices a wolf some distance away, regarding him carefully. When he says he's going to go that way and talk to the wolf, the captain is confused - what wolf? Takanata rides in the direction of the wolf (his horse is not keen on this idea), though when he gets there, the battlefield seems farther behind than he thought it was. Takanata asks what happened, and the wolf turns towards the north and growls. Takanata asks if they can work together, and the wolf growls just a tiny bit and Takanata's horse spooks backwards several yards before he can get it under control again.
Takanata suggests something along the lines of if the wolf can figure out where the incoming soldiers are showing up and the like and let them know, then he'll make sure that people don't attack single wolves. The Butterfly Talisman thumps, and the wolf runs off. A quick Connections reading mostly confirms that Ni Cheng is with the wolves, and can be worked with if they're careful. Takanata briefs the Stone Dog captain that some of the wolves are being controlled by an Imperial sorceress, and shouldn't be attacked. The captain is dubious - Wei Han said that the wolves were being controlled by Northern beastmasters - but Takanata says he can tell them apart in a pinch. However, he should hurry to catch up with the party, so he'll meet the Stone Dogs at the Wall (since their enemies seem to be dead). Then, he sets off quickly to Auspiciously Arrive.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group has been heading into the dead zone, when they spot an armed party of Northerners apparently patrolling on this side of the Wall. Wei Han disapproves, and the party charges in. Master Zhou starts chopping some of the northerners, and takes a moment to critique Anto's form.
- "Anto! Remember to hold your chain high! Lose a die of your next attack." -Master Zhou
- "I recall there's some payout for that, but right now he's just being annoying." -Anto
Anto does his own chopping, and some of the northerners charge the backfield to attack the more fragile people - Anto puts up a wall of earth to try to protect them. Wei Han tries to take his automatic defensive attack against them, but it aborts against one of them, sort of like his hand cramping up. Off to the side of the battlefield, a wolf howls and everyone loses an action. Master Zhou gets targeted by several Northeners, and realizes that if he parries one of them, he'll get hit by an even larger followup/riposte attack.
A northern mage puts up a wall of Bone, drawing fire from Kasumi. Wei Han starts to see some of the attackers as party members, though he's sure he's being mind controlled into thinking it. He shouts to not attack Xiao Fa and Anto, but everyone else thinks he's deluded. Master Zhou punches a Northerner into next week with a move/disarm/stun combination.
At this point, Takanata shows up Auspiciously, and puts his hand on the ruff of the wolf. The wolf howls, and everyone except Wei Han loses two actions. The party curses wolves under their breath. One of the northerners tears off his armor and grows, Hulk-like, into a terribly muscled creature. The thing punches Zhi-Hao, who goes flying, loses his swords, and is stunned. Huh, that is definitely a lot like what Master Zhou did.
Takanata, wearing his tinfoil hat, is a little more clear on what is going on.
- "You're only fighting each other! I don't see anyone else!" -Takanata
- "We hypothesized that!" -Kasumi
Wei Han agrees with Takanata, and the others are eventually persuaded to stop inflicting damage. They head towards Takanata to confer, and the group of Northeners pull back to glower and menace the party, but the more they talk about what's going on the more indistinct the Northerners become, until they're gone.
Takanata briefs the others - Ni Cheng is organizing the wolves, but he doesn't know how she got quite that many. Anto realizes that his binding-sense is also going off - the party seems to have been bound by a deal with a spirit, to not attack lone wolves as long as Ni Cheng's wolves are providing them with info. Takanata thinks that was probably a deal with Wolf, not with Ni Cheng.
The wolf comes over to Anto and looks at him; Anto, unsure of the etiquette here, apologizes for having killed the other wolf. The wolf growls northwards. Anto asks if he wants to talk, and the wolf makes some more growly noises.
- "I want to talk to the Boss? Does this work like Horse?" -Anto
- "Grrrrrrrrrr" -the wolf
Anto remembers that the reason "I want to talk to the Boss" works with Horse is because someone has paid for that ability - nobody has made a deal with Wolf for a similar thing. The wolf walks around in a circle three times, and looks nobly off to the southeast. Hmm, perhaps they should go that way? Maybe? Wei Han really wants to go to the Wall, but Takanata overrules him.
- "I really don't want the eight of us to be jumped by five hundred Northerners." -Takanata
Wei Han asks the wolf if they have to go that way to solve the problem with the Wall. The wolf barks somewhat querulously, which Min Feng thinks might mean that the thing Wei Han said might have been something sort of like true if Wei Han were smarter. Hmm. The party rides off to the Southeast, as the wolf stays behind.
After some while, the horses start getting pretty skittish and easily spooked; people without much riding decide to tie up their horses and leave them behind, though Takanata and Min Feng bring theirs, unwilling to leave them to be possibly eaten by wolves. As the group proceeds forward, they start climbing the wolf gradient, passing single wolves and then small packs, until they are finally surrounded by dozens of wolves, and the white-haired witch is there.
- "I gather there is something you wish." -Ni Cheng
- "There is damage to the wall which is allowing the Northerners to exert more power in the Empire. We are hopeful to get to the wall and figure out how to repair the damage. There is a mysterious northern contraption they are building just north of the wall, and there are a lot of guys there. The militia is likely to get confused and attack itself again if it gets close. I hope we can avoid that ourselves, but it would be helpful to have enough force to have enough chance to repel the northern forces as we repair the wall." -Takanata
- "What do you offer in exchange for this aid?"
- "What do you want?"
- "Information. It has been given to me to understand that your group has access to sources of knowledge that are not freely available. I want some of that knowledge."
- "There are certainly things we know that are not commonly known, some of which we are willing to share. Your plan is to learn how to elevate Wolf?"
- "Yes. Share with me how to do so and I will tell you how to most easily defeat the threat, and provide you with the necessary aid."
Takanata defers to Xiao Fa - that's his information to decide to share or not. Ni Cheng looks surprised - that doesn't seem to match her expectations.
- "He's Dragon guy!" -Kasumi
She looks surprised again.
- "Alternately, I could just enter into single combat with Blood-Boy." -Xiao Fa
- "Who would you enter single combat with?" -Ni Cheng
- "The blood master on the other side of the wall."
Ni Cheng smiles.
- "You used your powers to sense his presence while you were within the field?"
- "Oh, good point." -Xiao Fa
- "I'm sure it would have been an epic battle." -Ni Cheng
The party is somewhat disappointed to not get to see the Xiao Fa / Xiao Fa Chi Master Cage Match. Xiao Fa asks Dragon's will - does he care if Xiao Fa makes this trade with Wolf? Dragon doesn’t seem to have anything particularly against Wolf, much like he didn’t have much against Horse. “Do what you must do,” seems to be the summary. As he thinks about it, Ni Cheng continues:
- "Perhaps I can clarify your thinking. Were you to continue with your plan to replace Tiger with Horse, where then would the Cycle's ferocity lie?"
There is an outburst of chatter - is replacing Tiger with Horse their plan? Takanata notes that there is not yet a decision on that question, which Ni Cheng also finds interesting. Xiao Fa thinks that Ni Cheng raises an interesting point, and they may need to think about that too. Anto wants to know whose spot Wolf is going after, but Ni Cheng says they have not gotten that far yet, not having the inside knowledge about the required working. Anto asks that she also agree that neither she nor Wolf will tell anyone else about the details. Ni Cheng frowns - unlike the party, she does not have a vast cohort of assistants, so she may need to recruit more aid, and she does not know what talented helpers might deduce from what she tells them. But she has no intention of spreading the knowledge to other spirits.
Xiao Fa concedes that she can recruit aid, and can tell them what they need to do what they need to do. Wei Han is suspicious - intending to not leak any information is not the same thing as promising to not leak any information - but Xiao Fa mostly only cares that she not pass around the entire greensheet. Min Feng suggests that they could promise to not tell anyone that Wolf is trying to join the Cycle, which comes out a little like a threat to tell people that Wolf is trying to join the cycle, but others also think that it may be tricky to keep a promise to not leak the information to Horse.
- "Let's make this deal and see how it goes. If it goes bad, we can sever the relationship." -Xiao Fa
- "That is appropriate. If need be, we could simply go to war." -Ni Cheng
Master Zhou thinks war with the wolves would actually be pretty exciting, but everyone else shushes him. Xiao Fa gives her the greensheet, and Ni Cheng explains what the party needs to do: ignore the giant camp of warriors and the pit of bones of the undead, and just take out that one particular beast mage, and she will take care of the rest.
Everyone is a little surprised that she thinks she can deal with the northerners north of the Wall, and asks about that. Can she keep her Wolf-based powers there? She says that she hasn't ever crossed the Wall herself, but wolves can certainly kill north of the Wall. (And even Wei Han has never really objected to animals crossing the Wall). She says she's had signs that she should cross, but she doesn't understand them, and doesn't really want to cross the Wall.
Across the Wall
That settled, it's time to go assassinate a beast mage! Xiao Fa thinks he can get the party through the opposition-people zone, now that he knows exactly what he's looking for. Takanata rides off to tell the militia not to show up, though.
- "If they attack first, it's probably not us." -Anto
The group, accompanied by a wolf, arrives at the Wall at dusk; the wolf leaves after they've arrived, and the party climbs the wall. There are three mini-camps very near the wall, with a necromancer, a beastmaster, and a battlemaster (Takanata thinks they're doing a terrible ritual that's causing the chi shift), along with their warrior bodyguards. It seems likely that some sort of distraction will be useful, so Shuyan is called in to provide 14 successes of a torchlit extra-mesmerizing snake dance in a run she's not in from the top of the wall.
Wei Han grumbles about sending people over the Wall, and Zhi-Hao fusses about why Wei Han is still making a fuss. Master Zhou tries to convince him to stop poking Wei Han in the psych lims.
Kasumi sneaks in first, followed by the other fighters, who arrive in position just as Shuyan starts dancing. Wei Han, Xiao Fa, and Takanata stay on the Wall, watching. Kasumi stabs the beastmaster, and his warriors are initially distracted by the mesmerizing snake dance.
- "I'm totally telling the Regent it's good we have a ninja the next time I talk to him." -Takanata
Anto grapples the beastmaster in time for some more stabbing. There is some concern that the necromancer may be able to raise the dead beastmaster, so Anto carries his body back towards the Wall as the fighting progresses. The battlemaster curses people's blades to turn in their hand, while the necromancer summons skeletons, though they don't run as fast as the fleeing party.
Zhi-Hao kills the necromancer, rendering the question of whether he can raise the beastmaster moot. As he dies, he and his skeletons release a great deal of death energy from teh well of bones, damaging people nearby.
- "Return and face me in single combat or declare yourself a craven who takes double damage from all foes." -Battlemage to Zhi-Hao, in Torghut
Zhi-Hao, not understanding Torghut, just shrugs and continues on plan to escape. Master Zhou, suspecting that that will work even if he doesn't understand, translates, but Zhi-Hao decides it's not worth going back for, and the party finishes fleeing back towards the Wall.
At that point, Ni Cheng's wolves leap across the wall. Some of their buffs (like the wall-spanning superleap) evaporate when they hit the ground, but they're still a fierce Northerner-slaying force, and the Northerners really aren't expecting an Empire unit to cross the wall, so don’t have much protection set up. Then, when Wei Han climbs down from the Wall, his hand feels better, and Takanata confirms that the terrible ritual has collapsed.
The group retreats from the Wall to confer. The Beastmaster's body doesn't have much interesting loot, but there is a cloak of warg-form which would no doubt cause a lot of corruption if anyone is able to use it.
As a final aside, Takanata notes that he was speaking to Autumn Rose, and she warned him that while the group has significant protection against being "considered intentional", she says Anto has brought himself to their attention, and he and Ringmaster Te are now both considered trouble by the Marked.
Xiao Fa manages to remove part of the curse on Master Deng - he will only take double damage until the end of the next two (significant) combats.
- Xiao Fa follows Wei Han around and tries to psychoanalyze him.
- Xiao Fa visits the Meihua Sannong in the Roof of the World.
- Kasumi and Grasshopper go shopping for monkey treasure.