Word of the Dragon
|"Deep doubts, deep wisdom. Small doubts, small wisdom."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Monkey in the Month of the Fox in the thirteenth Year of the Magpie since the Regency Council was formed.|
The run takes place (mostly) in Bear Mountain and the World Above.
Takanata thinks the best way to talk to the Great Dragon Spirit would be to ride west as omens from a month ago indicated that the spirit might have been heading that way. Then, they can try to combine Auspicious Arrival and Summoning. Shen-Ji notes that in order to (even attempt to) summon Dragon, he would have to know his name. Well, Kar Fai has the Dragon Talisman, which should have the name, so the group heads to the Steppes first.
Ting Ting lets them in at the Steppes monastery where Kar Fai is training some students with various belts, and clamor for a secret meeting in the back with Kar Fai about secret information that needs to be talked about secretly.
- "Everything that happens in this country is more complicated than it needs to be." -Kar Fai
A little kid in a white-belted gi, has set out tea just moments before; he bows deeply to Kar Fai, and then rushes off. Xiao Fa explains that he wants a look at the Dragon Talisman. Kar Fai wonders what Xiao Fa's plan is, and Xiao Fa explains that he will speak to Dragon with it. Kar Fai is impressed by that as an answer. He sips his tea for a moment or two, and then passes Xiao Fa the Talisman. Xiao Fa shows it around to the others.
Takanata has memorized too many Great Spirit Names to memorize even this slightly smaller one, but Xiao Fa, Wei Han, and Shen-Ji do so.
Takanata considers a crossroads: to send Dragon a dream telling him when and where they will be to try to summon him, or just to try to summon him. The former seems better. Off they go towards Bear Mountain. Merit considers the proper etiquette of addressing the Great Dragon Spirit. In his best estimate, the Dragon would prefer to be addressed more informally, but he requires that you follow protocol in dealing with him. (In particular, don't call him "Master" or "Boss" unless you mean it.) Takanata sends a dream:
"Great One, we petition an audience. We will be at Bear Mountain in two days, at which point we will enable legitimate contact between our worlds with our sorcerer."
Wei Han leaves all his Alchemist-marked items at Basewatch Hill, as bringing Alchemist spies to a meeting with the Dragon might not be the best idea. Speaking of items, should they bring a gift? (Xiao Fa thinks yes.) What kind? Merit pores over the items - there's the spirit power bottle, but that might be worth more to smaller spirits. A masterwork by Takanata would be nice, but Takanata doesn't want to spend the karma. Something from the Imperial Job? Merit doesn't want to give Dragon anything that's too valuable.
- "Dragon meets Magpie." -Shen-Ji
They settle on an unpublished poem by Ochi. Shen-Ji "summons" Dragon, and spends a Chi to get twenty successes. There's a warm breeze blowing, and the group follows it, along what is a fairly short path to a grand palace flying green banners. But as they get closer, the palace becomes more clearly somewhat damaged, and before the palace there is a battlefield full of armor and swords, long worn down. The palace still has majesty, but it is that of sorrow rather than grandeur.
- "The tower stands bleakly against the sky rather than proudly. It's a subtle distinction."
Xiao Fa goes to lay the fallen to rest, but there are no bones in the armor, though tricks of the light make it look as if there might be. The Dragon sigils on the armor aren't from throughout the ages, they seem to be from a particular age some time ago. Merit searches around for other sigils, and has a hard time of it, but does find some symbols of a cross-sectioned octagon, although they have been scorched nearly beyond recognition.
At the heavy gate, there's a gong hanging by just one rope. Wei Han offers twine to tie it up a bit better, and Merit considers how to repair it more fully, but finds himself rolling his Yang for a woodworking roll. (This is spiritwalking, after all). Takanata takes over repairing the gong while Wei Han sweeps up the immediate doorstep area.
The group sounds the gong, and the gate creaks open. Those who are familiar with the Hidden City recognize that this is obviously not the Hidden City, but it's still clear which way the throne room is. (As if the floor plan is not MIT, but some other large technical university).
The throne room itself is huge and grand, and the jade throne is particularly spectacular, but the giant dragon coiled on the throne puts the rest of the palace to shame. Everyone does the bowing-every-three-steps thing suitable to approach an emperor, (except Wei Han, who stands at attention), though everyone seems to have their own subtle shade of meaning on how much they mean the obeisance.
- "Be welcome."
Xiao Fa presents the Ochi poem - servants bring it up to Dragon when no one is looking. Merit grumps, as he would totally have tried to recruit a servant.
Xiao Fa leaps in first, possibly worried that someone else will start with "What's so great about you that we should be helping you?"
- "We have come to see you in the hopes that we might variously come to partake of wisdom only you can provide, and to come to understand you and your desires going forward." -Xiao Fa
- "My freedom was the work of many, but some more than others. Those who aided Me have my thanks. As to understanding Me going forward - that depends on where you are willing to go." -Dragon
(The subtext: are you asking for orders, or just chatting?)
Takanata notes that there are a number of matters, which everyone here would wish addressed, that they do not know how to proceed on. For instance, the Southern Wall is tainted and ill, and it would be good if she could be restored. The Northern Wall was more willing to assist them, because he had been outside the Empire. (Merit adds that the bonds of friendship helped too).
Dragon notes that it is difficult to see the extent of a trap from the inside, but that Wei Han's efforts have been on the correct path, and he is confident that they can restore what was lost. Wei Han explains that he doesn't know how much things have changed - his memories have been taken from him by a combination of his nature and Spider changing the nature of Dragon's empire. One of the reasons he is here is to reacquaint himself with Dragon and how he would have things be. But, for example, he doesn't know how permissive the Wall should be. What they have done was a large step, but he does not know if it was too large a step or too small.
Dragon believes that the decision as to "what should be" is not currently appropriate for him to comment upon, but as far as memories: In times past, the fellows of the Empire took defense behind the walls, and they were protected by the walls, but they did not hide behind them. And, the walls were not just for the army, they were for the people. Wei Han spends a Chi for this information, and also his long-running sanity damage (from having sent people over the Wall in the past) is cured. He looks surprisingly relaxed, which everyone else finds very disconcerting.
(All the rest of the questions also cost one or more chi for the one who most wishes the answers.)
So... was Dragon's description once true of the Southern Wall as well? Merit notes that there used to be a lot of trade with the South. Dragon says that the Walls were equal as well as opposite; even that must be true now as it was before. Wei Han notes that that would make them unbalanced now. Dragon is pleased at the wisdom of his servant.
Takanata notes that another matter they are concerned with is Merit's search for the keys of the Dragon's Hoard. The keys are scattered, and they have some connection to a trail for one of them, and an awareness of the location of another. Merit allows as he was kind of hoping to put off this particular discussion until later, but since it has come up now... well, he has been sandbagging on the deal he made with Magpie, but he thought they might need the resources from the Hoard to free Dragon, he didn't want to completely stop. But then they freed Dragon without the Hoard.
- "Why did you hold back?"
- "Once we realized the keys were not just physical objects, I wasn't sure of the metaphysical ramifications." -Merit
- "There are always metaphysical ramifications, regardless of whether what you do is here or the Worlds Below"
Dragon does appreciate that they have not looted his Hoard. But, as Merit notes, the hints given by Magpie contain significant information in themselves, so they did get something from Magpie even without finding all the keys.
- "But since it's your hoard and your keys... " -Merit
- "You must clarify for yourself the difference between Magpie's goals and your own. If you wished to acquire the Hoard to acquire Magpie's help and understanding, that is one thing. If you wished to acquire the hoard because Magpie gave you the opportunity to do so, that is another. But what you choose to do is not controlled by why Magpie wishes you to do it."
Merit explains that his main motive was to gather resources for the upcoming clash with Spider's forces. But, more relevantly, Takanata's divinations said that acquiring the Hoard for Magpie might provide a difficult path for better success in combating Spider. (Xiao Fa thinks that Dragon is making will rolls to not follow his psych lims, but the GM keeps poking him about it.)
- "Yes, having a Guardian of the Cycle in your debt would make many things easier. But if that is the extent of your interest, then that does make things clearer, and there is not an advantage to you in continuing to pursue it."
War with the Marked
- "We all believe that it will come to an open conflict between us and the Marked." -Shen-Ji
- "It already has."
Well, true, though it's more like it has moved from a cold war to a shadow war, rather than a hot war. Shen-Ji wants to know if Dragon has any instructions or suggestions for a battle plan, such as who to kill first.
- "The wise general does not bring battle to the enemy until he is ready to win. Should the lesser fall, the greater might sneer. When one of the greater falls, all the rest will take notice. The two easiest to remove are Tai Lung and the Yellow Prince. But the Yellow Prince is not necessarily loyal to their cause, and Tai Lung is a fool. The two most difficult would be the Alchemist and the Wanderer. A significant enough threat against one of them would certainly make all of them take notice. Those in between vary by degrees."
Then, Dragon looks sad. Though it may one day be necessary, he would wish to forestall a civil war - at least until it can be quickly won. He would recommend looking to their strength on all the battlefields before you trigger the war on one of them. For example, should the armies of the land move against them, what would be their defense? ("Run and hide").
Dragon pauses, and Xiao Fa thinks he's making more will rolls. More personally, Dragon says that though it may be necessary to do otherwise, and it may be impossible, he would wish to have his friend Li returned.
- "When you bring the war is to a large extent up to you. The leader of the opposition, inasmuch as they have a leader, is almost fanatical in his devotion to the shadows, and he will not open it up until you do. But he is good at winning from the shadows, so do not wait too long."
Does he have any suggestions as to strategy for how to take down the Alchemist, or resolving the situation of Li? Shen-Ji and Takanata are closer to dealing with the Alchemist than most can. The secret is not overcoming his power, it is understanding his motivation; Dragon can not expose what he knows of the Alchemist directly, for he is protected. But he comments, that they are both on paths that would lead to the end they seek. As for defeating Li, for all that he has a spider's nature, Dragon thinks that the Golden Prince would not tolerate open disloyalty in his number.
If someone else takes Spider's slot in the Cycle, then Li would have another choice to make, as he did before. Xiao Fa is surprised - he didn't realize a choice was involved. Dragon believes that when Spider joined the cycle, Li had to choose to accept a Spider nature or accept mortality.
- "He was not one of the ones who brought about the fall, but was yet another victim of it."
Xiao Fa says that he promised Li Kao that he would make the attempt to return Li the Wanderer to Dragon.
- "If you have promised, it is your honor that demands what you must do."
- "Is such a thing likely to succeed?" -Xiao Fa
- "No one (with the exception of some demons) opposes their own nature. Truly deep down, everyone acts according to their nature. If you seek to change him before defeating him, he will seek to prevent it. If you can prevent him from preventing you depends entirely on your preparation. But I preferred the day when his stories were told far and wide."
- "It appears that Toro is raising an army of demons to attack the guardians of the Cycle. He seeks to bring the end, as that is his nature. But I don't understand what the attempts he has made thus far would accomplish." -Takanata
- "Toro has tried before, as that is his nature, and his failures have taught him caution. He will probe before moving. But his ultimate success is not as dependent on his actions as he would hope. Should you allow the end to come about, he will win. Should you prevent the end, he will lose. It is not that he is raising an army to bring the end, it is that he is raising an army because the end is coming."
- "Why is it spirits and not demons in the cycle?"
- "The Empire was brought about to create order and a place in which things could become greater than they were. Spirits are, by their nature, stable. Demons are... more creatures of passion. The mixing of the two in the World Between leads to the ability to become great, but the demons are too undisciplined in their zeal. With a certain glaring exception, the closest thing to a demon in the Cycle would be Monkey. He is there because he is not a demon, but you could imagine things were he and his fellows a thousand times worse."
(Metagame: Spirits are "Who are you?" and demons are "What do you want?")
In theory, it would be possible to create a reasonable cycle with a demon in it. But the question being asked is like asking "why were demons excluded from the edifice built by spirits?" Because they did not choose to build it.
- "What are the ramifications of Dragon being in the Cycle, above the Cycle, both, or neither?" -Xiao Fa
First off, Dragon thinks the party is doing a commendable job of making sure it's not the Spider Empire. But he does think that getting him back in the Cycle would be good too.
- If he was on top but not in it, the most obvious difference would be that there would be very few with Dragon aspect. Some, maybe, but not many. Possibly just the Imperial bloodline.
- In the Cycle but not on top - that was the prior situation, which the Alchemist has demonstrated to be not necessarily permanent.
- In the Cycle and on top of it - they could fix the world.
- Neither - that's what you have now.
Takanata clarifies - he was not on top when he was replaced by Spider? Correct. Stepping down was the price paid to the others for accepting Phoenix into the Cycle.
Merit wants to know what a "fixed" world would look like. What is Dragon's perfectly imagined Empire? Dragon has to make a couple of will rolls, and Xiao Fa begins to think that part of Dragon's nature is transcending his nature.
Dragon says that a true Empire could become greater than just the pieces, through the action of its pieces. A true Dragon Empire has a striving to become more than it is, and those in it would, in some cases, similarly strive to be more than what they are.
- "I understand, Great One, that after you were freed, you spoke with some who aspire to become guardians of the Cycle. Do you have opinions on how to keep the Cycle appropriately balanced, were they to achieve their ambitions?" -Takanata
Dragon thinks that Takanata is wise to be concerned about balance, though notes that if he was both above and in the Cycle, he could deal with it however it turns out, he thinks. Also, Wolf has asked them a good question, and they should keep in mind that Wolf, as Tiger, is fierce and strong. Having spirits in the Cycle who can freely cross the Wall would be helpful, but if Wolf is the liaison to the North, then consider who should be the liaison to the South, and make that possible as well.
Dragon will not (this requires a hard will roll) hold grudges against those who failed to come to his support in the past, if they support his Empire in the future. But they should think not only of balance, but results: the results must be palatable but also achievable. There is no point in deciding that the Cycle must have a particular point of balance if they cannot tolerate the results for doing so. Such as if nearly a twelfth of important people have a <tiny>cough Monkey cough</tiny> unpalatable nature.
Shen-Ji realizes that while Dragon is making will rolls to rise above his baser personal opinions, he could probably be prodded into revealing more, and so prods him.
Dragon says that Horse and Wolf are hungry, because this is their opportunity. One might use that hunger to drive change, and if the party does not, someone else might. Dragon himself would oppose them if they were to try to remove Phoenix or Dog. Tortoise is useful, but he let others push the castle over because he was interested to see how it fell. Whale would be the one most easy to place deeply in debt, for he is so far behind. Magpie wants Dragon's stuff, which Dragon is most displeased by, and his position on Monkey has been made clear.
Takanata notes that Monkey has a function. Dragon agrees - but they all have functions. If Monkey were not to be in the Cycle, then his function would become less important. Similarly, internal balance is not the only criteria - the Empire cannot defend against external threat without some ferocity. So, don't throw Tiger and Bear out without putting Wolf in.
Xiao Fa notes that he is required to ask Dragon to meet with Whale.
- "Thus is your obligation fulfilled."
But... does Xiao Fa want him to meet Whale? Xiao Fa is concerned because Whale is kind of prone to kidnapping people. Dragon notes that Whale probably cannot capture him. Having been thrown low, there is no longer the hostage that can be used to compel him. Unless Whale captures Phoenix first - and let's see him try it. Having lost that which he must protect, he will not let himself be taken hostage a second time.
Xiao Fa decides that maybe he should have a conversation with Whale first and will get back to Dragon with the results.
Shen-Ji asks if he has any advice in his capacity as leader, as far as what to do about the Northern Barbarians coming. Dragon tells Wei Han to push them back.
- "Yes, sir." -Wei Han
Shen-Ji was hoping for something a little more concrete. Dragon notes that this is not the first time they have sought to bring order among themselves, and it will not last.
- "'You might treat with them, but do not expect them to have the power to keep all their promises, regardless of their intent."
How about the Southern barbarians? Dragon thinks that summer has passed, and the aggression of the South has been broken. That... sounds a little insufficient to most people, and Dragon's answer reminds a lot of people of how the Cycle Spirits behave when someone tells them about Aku.
Takanata decides to tempt fate, and hides behind a Wall of Fate, peeking out with Eyes of the I Ching just as he asks a followup question.
- "Forgive me, Great One, but I think there is more danger than you see from the South." -Takanata
- "Have her deal with it."
- "Yes, sir." -Wei Han
He gets a hint of darkening all around like happens when a cycle spirit fails to register incoming information about Aku, but this is strangely Southern flavored. Perhaps that’s why Dragon is shrugging off the Southern threat as not so important right now.
Wei Han wonders - there are some spirits who have established ways in which they might contact the party, or vice versa. How might they do so, if there are orders to be given or information that might be useful?
Dragon thinks that in the general case, Xiao Fa could buy a shtick, or Wei Han could buy a shtick about Northern matters in particular. In the most general case, someone could bargain with him for the ability to communicate - though it would requires some sort of appropriate linkage, since Merit doesn't have a dragon with one white foot. Or they could bargain with another to carry messages. And Dragon can send sworn servants of his, though that is more of a special case. (Wei Han doesn't count as a sworn servant of Dragon; he is a servant of the Empire. Wei Han points out that the Empire is Dragon's, but Dragon tries to keep the two separate).
Speaking of dragons with one white foot, could Xiao Fa go back and get the egg from the White Serpent Spirit? Dragon notes that the last time they saw the egg, it hatched and was caged. But since it is no longer in the nature of dragons to be bound, it has probably escaped by now.
The Dragon's Throne
- "Currently, Dragon's Throne is protected from entry, and in many ways barred against us. Is it possible to send agents in?" -Takanata
Dragon thinks that Takanata's assumptions are not quite right. The city cannot be closed to those who have keys to it. But, at the moment, the party has raised the ire of both the Alchemist and the Lord Mayor. That is not a function of the city so much as a function of the power of those two. Also, they are not the only ones who raised the ire of Spider and his minions - Master Horse did as well, and thus the Alchemist acted against his carriage. But with appropriate caution and disguise, they should be able to operate relatively freely.
Hmm. Should Dragon be given keys to the City, then? No, not keys, but the Emperor should open the door to him. Or the (sigh) Regency Council. Takanata makes sure - he's talking about the door at the end of the Jade Garden? Yes. Takanata notes that the Wu Xing could probably do so too. Dragon is surprised that there is a Wu Xing again, but agrees that he probably could.
Cash on the Barrelhead
Merit notes that Dragon was missing interesting and crucial information, about the new Wu Xing. He offers a (nearly) complete briefing, in exchange for a little bit of... help with his organization. Could Dragon put a Dragon-leadery shtick in the Shadow Band (an item Merit acquired earlier)? He could, though it would just be one use. Oh, that's less helpful. Anyway, Merit wants to form a spy organization that is loyal to the Empire, rather than to the leaders of the Empire.
Dragon can assist some, but it is awkward to provide long-running shtick-based support to a Magpie. He could provide one Dragon-ish shtick, but if Merit is serious about becoming some sort of Dragon-ish Imperial Watchman or Imperial Inquisitor (Merit twitches at the "Imperial" in the title, but Dragon thinks it an appropriate word when dealing with the duties of Empire), he might have to become a Dragon. He doesn’t recruit directly like this often, but Merit did ask, and so he will offer. Merit decides he needs some time to think about it.
Xiao Fa wants to know what he needs to know about becoming a candidate for Emperor.
- "There are nine traits. Should you have all nine, you will be Emperor. The proper way to become Emperor is to acquire all nine traits. If... you want to squeak by with less, you need someone to build a mechanic, and that mechanic may allow for competition."
- Support of the People
- Support of the Army
- Being a blood heir
- Support of the Regency Council
- Support of the Dragon
- Omens of Thrones
- Support of the Bureaucracy
- Support of the Nobility
- Support of the Imperial Consort
Merit notes that that makes Precious Jade's move more understandable, but Dragon corrects him. The Imperial Concubine is under the authority of the Imperial Consort. Precious Jade is the Imperial Concubine.
- "Ah, so there's not an Imperial Consort." -Merit
- "That had better not be Min Feng." -Takanata
Takanata remembers Lucky Chang considering a checklist: It should be a good omen, it'll count towards rallying the populace, it'll help secure the Regency Council, especially with that crazy thing with Spider and Monkey that it's better to not talk about. Of course, it won't accomplish all of them, but it'll take a step, and that's always nice, isn't it? That does seem to match parts of the same checklist.
But what about the Red Protocols, and the like? Dragon says that's if you're using a mechanic. For example, Support of the Dragon is worth two points if Dragon is in the Cycle, and you're using a mechanic. The Red Protocols double the support of the Bureaucracy if you follow them.
Wei Han tries to ask what they should ask, but Dragon says that it was about becoming Emperor.
- "Who is the Blue Dragon and what does it mean that he's the warden of the southern seas? " -Takanata
The Warden of the Southern Seas is one of the foundational offices of the Empire, in some ways like the Walls. One function is that they must be dedicated to guarding the southern seas, and preventing attack through those means. However... it is technically a high imperial office, and thus will score points in the become an emperor mechanic.
- "While he wears the mask of the Blue Dragon, Chang Wuyong is bound to aid in your goals and mine."
As part of a bargain they have made, Chang is required to wear the mask on particular occasions.
- "You guys need to know I'm going rogue." -Jerry, in the other room.
Takanata has gone down to zero chi; he uses his dreamwalking shtick, and falls asleep and enters the dreamworld. This causes his spirit to disappear.
- "Oh. Generous."
- "Can you tell us the location and current controllers of the Talismans?" -Shen-Ji
- "No. There are rules."
- "What about ex-Great-Spirit Talismans, or pre-Great-Spirit Talismans?"
Dragon thinks that would still be poor form, but he could technically locate the talismans of Wolf, Horse, and Whale. He doesn't think there are others at the moment.
- "What makes Kalkin special with regards to the rest of his… those guys?"
- "The main thing that makes him different, is that he does not like what they are. He does not think they should be. Some believe they are necessary. Some believe they are inevitable. He is the only one who believes that they are wrong."
Hmm. What is the difference between the Southern gods and the Great Spirits?
- "Spirits arise from the world, while gods arise from the works of men. Spirits predate gods, and gods predate the Empire. In their relationship to people, Great Cycle Spirits are to an extent external ideals, from which you can pick and choose. Gods, on the other hand, are internal desires magnified. One nurtures a spirit, one creates a god."
Are gods immortal? Essentially. If everyone left, the Jasmine River would continue to flow, and the Spirit of the Jasmine River would still be strong. If everyone left, a god would die. For instance, the Golden Prince was, as part of the treaty that founded the empire, given sustenance without requiring the worship of others.
So the gods are dependent on their worshipers?
- "It is difficult to be dependent on those you enslave, except for the way in which it is true. Rising to godhood is a form of ascension and enlightenment and great betterment, but it comes at a cost of one's fellows."
So Kalkin also feeds off his worshipers? Dragon thinks that Kalkin's followers are more fanatical than most, for they follow a god who rejects them.
Shen-Ji is starting to get kind of tired and old at this point (running out of chi). Wei Han stands between him and the Dragon, which helps a little.
- "What do you wish we'd asked? " -Wei Han
- "I wish you had spent a little more time on the details of entering me into the Cycle, but that will have to wait."
Merit needs to make up his mind. He doesn't want to annoy Magpie, and he really does want to retire someday, and thinks Dragons have less of a retirement plan than Magpies do. On the other hand, Dragon notes, Dragons do know a thing or two about hoards.
Merit decides to take the deal. Dragon quickly riffles through the memories Merit offers, which is everything except those secrets they are bound to keep, and that Spider is a skinwalking demon.
- "Oh, wow, you should have mentioned that. In any case, we can work out the details later."