There is now a conundrum: At maximum speed it is about 18 hours to Chiaroscuro and to the villages, but it is a few hours between the two. Many strategies are proposed, a number of which involve splitting the party (since Ah Nold can also fly at the same maximum speed as the ship, he could be diverted to the other target if the ship goes to one), but ultimately the conclusion is that the party’s power is much greater when working together, and Hallun will be able to survive long enough for them to investigate the villages first, as long as they do not dawdle. Kliptheros also points out that Chiaroscuro had many Waypoint Shrines and hopefully at least one still remains, making Chiaroscuro a desirable destination to refresh everyone after a long trip. There is also some discussion about whether her entourage, including Ogode will object to the course alterations, but the party eventually realizes that they can be manipulated and don’t have a lot of options other than be along for the ride anyway. With that settled, Welkin has Edelweiss double the ship speed and uses his WInd Jewel to add further speed for the entire 18 hour trip while setting a course for the first of the wiped-out villages. Everyone else gets rest, except Ah Nold, who busies himself making Barabella into his personal concubine.
The rest of the day and night pass, and the second day arrives as the Crimson Gale is heading towards the first village. At some point Ogode quizzes Welkin about their course deviation, but he smoothly lies about trying to pick up Seven Bounties Paste here which would save everyone time, and Ogode buys it. Soon the village comes into view. From a distance, corpses are visible everywhere, with some accompanying scavengers having arrived. The bodies appear to be twisted and contorted, but the cause of death is not clear.
Ah Nold’s Essence Sight reveals that not only are they all dead, but they have no hungry ghosts. Very strange and confusing, since the bodies have clearly been left out to rot and no rites have been performed over them. They should each have a hungry ghost dormant inside them, and yet clearly there is nothing.
Txori’s super hearing reveals a regular clicking sound coming from the town hall, so she sends Onyx out to scout more, and Onyx finds the central town hall is particularly full of bodies piled around a metal cube two feet to a side with the top ripped open and the front burned and blackened. There appears to be some vague residual writing underneath the scorch marks, so Txori uses Discerning Savant’s Eye to read the original text. There was apparently a dial marked with both Flametongue and Old Realm that said “Turn left for fast” and “Turn right for smooth”, and below the dial, in Old Realm only, “Turn down for what.”
At this point most of the players begin an agonizing groan while the DM cackles madly for about a minute.
Concerned that this box had or still has some mysterious, murderous power, Txori describes it and asks Grey for his input. He suggests that if it held a demon and if the box has crystal resonance structures within it, it could be used by a demon to infect the fabric of reality around it. He couldn’t tell without a closer look however. The party decides to send Barabella down since she’s most likely immune to whatever is down there, and she can release her assumption charm to become an unshaped Raksha temporarily, ensure she cannot transmit anything. She reluctantly heads down, does a cursory medical examination, and reports that they appear to have died from the Great Contagion. This puts everyone in a state of mild alarm and also spawns some debate (notably, Sam knows that the Great Contagion kill rate was only 90% and only hit once), but no one is letting Barabella back onto the ship until she releases her shape and becomes an unshaped Raksha to get back on, which she eventually does.
Ogode is highly troubled and wants them to get out of there for Hallun’s safety, and the ship soon takes off again, as Welkin steers for the second village which is on the way to Chiaroscuro. Once they arrive it’s the same story: dead bodies, no hungry ghosts, metal box in the middle of a building with bodies piled around. The party speeds ahead, locating the caravan while shielded in cloud cover, though Ah Nold scans it with Measure the Wind, finding an Essence 6 demon is somewhere within. The party speeds past the caravan and arrives at Chiaroscuro by midday.
Welkin has a new charm, Flag of All Nations Method, that makes his ship and crew appear to be friendly or pointless to whoever looks at it, and parks right outside Chiaroscuro. Ogode, Hallun and their cousins are rapidly offloaded from the ship, leaving the party free to prepare for this new threat. Welkin goes to the Waypoint Shrine since he hasn’t slept, while Txori and Grey and Sam start asking around for information. Txori finds no issue with the caravan, and in fact a lot of hype about its imminent arrival, so she uses her money to short stock for the arrival (essentially betting against the fortune of the caravan). Sam locates the Guild Factor responsible for arranging this caravan’s arrival, Zhukha, and tracks and soon mimics his assistant Portanna. Disguised as Portanna, Sam reveals to Zhukha that there are rumors that the caravan is cursed or possible dangerous. Zhukha shows great surprise but no confusion, and intends to squash these rumors. Meanwhile Txori gets to work spreading more of these rumors as fast as possible.
Ah Nold, meanwhile, got bored and went to the local guard barracks, started a big ruckus, and then trained all the guards in hand-to-hand combat. Because that’s how he is. Also while Sam is returning he feels that one of his hearthstone necklaces is turned around, triggering his superstitions about being lied to.
Once Sam, Txori and Welkin are all together and share information, Txori wants to know about the previous destinations of this caravan. With Welkin’s Flag of All Nations and Authority-Radiating Stance, he easily gets into the Guild Archives, with Txori there to sort through the bureaucracy. She finds the planned route the caravan most likely took, which does indeed seem to have taken it near the desert empire she recently fled. This is troubling. Sam also analyzes whether Txori, Grey, Welkin, and Ah Nold have each been forthcoming about their recent past, finding the most gaps in Welkin’s stories. He notes this for future reference.
The day is waning, and the caravan is due soon to arrive at the last big village before Chiaroscuro, so the party hustles back and Welkin drops Sam, Txori and Grey right in the caravan’s path, with Ah Nold in cloaking nearby and the ship hiding in the clouds. As the vanguard scout arrives and tells the party to move, they convince him they have urgent news for the caravan Captain regarding a spreading plague. They are brought to Captain Moslett, who listens intently to their news of plague but is unconvinced by their story that Zhukha sent them. Txori attempts to reinforce their story that they’re super secret Guild agents by having Grey send a message to Welkin to reveal the ship and land with Flag of All Nations active, which he does. This gets Moslett’s attention and he calls for the other ranking guild figure to attend, and in strides Makarios, the Sigil’s Dreamer and member of the guild. He listens intently to their words of spreading plague, and Txori’s social attack forces him to consider how to salvage the profits of the caravan.
While this is going on, Ah Nold hunts around with Essence Sight until he finds more of the boxes like the ones found in the villages, except without the tops blown off and faces melted. He gets to work stealing them one by one using his stealth, super speed and Principle of Motion. He manages (narrowly) to get them all undetected and doesn’t stop until the boxes are in a pile a mile away.
Txori continues stalling Makarios, who is now completely torn by his difficult situation. Finally he rolls his conviction, succeeds, and decides that the solution to these problems is to kill the party, blame them as guild impersonators (guilty) and conspirators against the caravan (also guilty) and responsible for spreading the plague, and then all his troubles go away. Join Battle!
Though Makarios has made the first hostile decision, Txori immediately focuses her anima banner and it grows to iconic status as she increases her essence score. This gets Ah Nold’s attention, as he is still scoping out the caravan, so he flies above the caravan and reactivates Principle of Motion. This incidentally also panics a number of Guildsmen, including the Caravan Captain, who flees into the desert.
Txori attempts to put an arrow through Makarios’s chest but he dodges, and Grey takes up a defensive position in front of her. Makarios seems for a moment like he wants to attack her, but facing two Exalted and a god-blooded doesn’t seem like a winning proposition when he himself is definitely not a fighter. Instead, he pulls the stuff of dreams and nightmares out of his robe and molds it for a moment before he disappears in a cloud of bats, essentially using both Hoodwink and Demateralize. Welkin is struck by the dazzling illusions but still manages to fly out to attack Makarios with a firebomb and tries to send his glider into the wagon guarded by Guild soldiers (however, that particular bit doesn’t work very well, as the glider almost hits Ah Nold instead). Sam is overcome with illusions and takes no actions, while Ah Nold negates them with Elusive Dream Defense. Txori and Grey hold their wills fast against the illusions, and Txori covers Grey as he sets fire to the nearest wagon. Ah Nold, seeing that Makarios has dematerialized, dematerializes himself as well to pursue, instantly sending him to iconic anima banner.
At this point, a sandrunner (a ship with sails and an engine that coasts over the desert on sleds) arrives out of the desert wastes at high speed with an Abyssal Exalted standing on the bow of the ship. To Sam and Welkin this seems like just another illusion, but Txori recognizes this is probably the White Bone Mistress, servant of the Unconquered Sun and ally to Sanity’s Weeping Wound. She shrieks about how she has been looking for Txori and Grey, and tracked them by finding Grey’s work. She makes a reference to their being many shades to his work… Sam slips into the crowd of panicking and confused caravan workers, altering his appearance to seem to be one of them.
Ah Nold can vaguely see all this happening with Essence Sight but he has more immediate concerns. Makarios is standing before him and has one moment to act, so he tries to bribe Ah Nold into letting him leave in exchange for items of great power. Ah Nold, not trusting the silver-tongued merchant, replies by denying the offer with an expended willpower and a magical pummel flurry that leaves Makarios unconscious.
Meanwhile, Txori attempts to put two arrows through the Mistress’s skull but she blocks, and then makes a leaping attack that savages Grey. Sam slips around a corner, successfully pretending to be a confused and hapless mortal, then after an aiming round, snags the Mistress with his fighting chain, giving Txori an opening to put two aggravated damage arrows in her chest. The White Bone Mistress’s superheavy soulsteel plate is quite remarkably tough, but she is badly wounded by the assault.
Ah Nold had noticed that one of Makarios’s trinkets, a magical spell construct, fell out of his hand and disintegrated, and it seems perhaps he will not be able to loot the body effectively. He tries taking off Makarios’s robe only to find another one underneath, and frustrated, he smashes Makarios’s skull in. Makers disintegrates into a demonic swirl of smoke.
Welkin, having plotted a number of different possibilities, has now been sprinting towards the sandrunner and arrives, finding a pilot, a spectral hound, and several nonthreatening undead servants. He uses a Presence charm to intimidate them to get off the ship, but they are not easily swayed, and the pilot seems prepared to attack Welkin. Welkin is hoping to claim the ship for his own if he can dispose of this essence-using pilot.
Sam and the Mistress struggle over the chain, and despite having a huge dice advantage, Sam fails to keep a hold of the White Bone Mistress, but manages to hold onto his chain. She makes an immediate attack to take his head off, which he narrowly manages to dodge despite its exceptional speed and power, and then in the blink of an eye the deathknight is sprinting back towards her sandrunner to kill Welkin and probably escape. Unfortunately, she didn’t know much about Ah Nold, who flies up behind her and rematerializes just in time to deliver a crushing blow to the back of her neck. This drops her and she soon bleeds out while Ah Nold smashes the pilot threatening Welkin, punts the spectral hound high into the night sky, and generally makes a mess of things. A hatch opens from the engine hold and another deathblooded, a young woman this time, pokes her head out, then rapidly slams the hatch shut. Welkin deposits bombs into the hinges of the hatch and blows them, concussing her and rendering her an easy target for Ah Nold’s smashing.
The party rapidly rounds up as many of the Guildsmen as possible and Txori takes advantage of her iconic-level anima banner to swear everyone there to an oath that they will never discuss what they have seen here with anyone. The party questions the Guildsmen and the deathblooded crew, finding that the caravan traded with the Empire of Sand and Bone, that Makarios and Minajikin got help there making the boxes in exchange for giving a lot of the collected souls back to Sanity’s Weeping Wound, and that the necrotic essence weapons seem to require human blood to work properly. The party leaves the caravan goods scattered around the evil sandrunner, with obvious signs of battles everywhere, and also executes the deathblooded and leaves their bodies near the deathknight. This is all to point blame at the undead and definitely away from the party.
The process of swearing oaths, interrogating the Deathblooded, collecting the boxes back into the ship, and destroying and looting the caravan takes most of the night, and as the dawn breaks the Crimson Gale sets out for Chiaroscuro again so Txori can cash in. As they are reaching the city, however, a strange, rhythmic noise begins to become audible. Everyone starts feeling a vague compulsion to dance but no one feels like giving in to it.
Welkin pulls off to circle the city and sends Barabella to watch over Hallun while Ah Nold flies in to scout, finding that the Elusive Dream Defense does in fact keep him from wanting to dance. What he sees is chaos: people dancing uncontrollably in the streets, each person apparently emitting the sound themselves. Ah Nold’s essence sight (and 11 successes) reveals something fascinating: each person seems to have some kind of tiny invisible thread of essence attached to them, and when they infect a new person that person becomes attached to an extension of the thread. Also people seem to be getting stronger and tougher the more they dance, beginning to smash through windows and walls with ease.
Ah Nold is deeply unnerved and reports back to the party, letting them know what he’s seen. Welkin continues to fly at a safe distance while Ah Nold flies back to conduct some more experiments at Txori’s suggestion. He finds the Guild Factor from before, carries him off, and brings him into range of the dancing. Soon the Guild Factor starts dancing uncontrollably as well and starts trying to grapple Ah Nold. He seems to start having some success so Ah Nold tries punching him, only to find in total shock that the Guild Factor’s toughness seems to be increasing exponentially. He soaks bashing and lethal with his full stamina, and he’s receiving a bonus to strength and stamina that is doubling periodically.
Ah Nold experiments with carrying him away from the music but this does nothing to dampen the effect. He then drops him from terminal velocity, only to watch him smash through every floor of a building and dance his way out the first floor along with everyone else who was in the building. Ah Nold gets to him again and finally punches him to death, then watches in horror as the man’s soul is dragged away through the invisible thread of essence. He immediately reports back that they have a huge problem.
Ah Nold’s scouting and Txori’s augmented senses help them locate the epicenter of the catastrophe, a building that is still standing though its neighbors have been smashed by now. Sam has plugged his ears while Txori uses Sagacious Reading of Intent to ignore the compulsion of the music, which has the ulterior motive of trying to make her dance herself to death. Welkin prepares to ram his ship into it, but Ah Nold wants to try and stop it himself first. He activates Principle of Motion and his cloaking field and jets down at maximum velocity past all the dancers and into what was probably a main auditorium on a lower floor. A seething, writhing mass of people dancing are gathered, and Ah Nold temporarily boosts his Essence score with his Twice-Striking Lightning Prism and uses Refinement of Flowing Shadows to perfectly dodge all the many random attacks coming at him (also using his Danger Sense to avoid being blindsided by flailing +64Str limbs) and starts shoving people aside trying to get to the center. He just comes within view of the center of the mass: one of the boxes like the ones they have on the ship with the dial turned down for “what”. He can’t reach it though, as new dancers get in his way as fast as he can push them, and he roars in frustration (and gains limit).
Ah Nold has been gone long enough that Welkin decides it’s ramming time. He has managed to steer the ship around the dancers being thrown high into the air once Sam and Txori start spotting for him, and now turns the ship onto a 60-degree plummet and plows into the building, using Hull-Preserving Technique to negate damage to the Crimson Gale while shattering the building, scattering the dancers and flinging the battered box into the air. Txori and Welkin then hit the box with aggravated damage, slaying the demon that was hidden inside (Ah Nold identified it as a Zolanski, a first-circle demon and progeny of Minajikin). All the essence thread attachments to the dancers immediately disappear, and they collapse, exhausted (including the ones who had dashed into the hold of the ship and were about to activates the other boxes). Ah Nold immediately reboards the Crimson Gale and they leave the way they got in very quickly.
They park near Hallun’s house, collect Barabella, and bring Hallun and her entire family over to the Tri-Khan’s palace (but leaving Welkin behind on the Crimson Gale), leaving them there for safekeeping and updating the Tri-Khan on the destruction of the caravan and that it must be related to the recent disaster of people destroying buildings with their dancing. Then after Ah Nold gets bored and leaves, Txori and Grey go to the marketplace, wait for the bad news to filter down, then promptly begin collecting their insurance monies and short-stock dues. Txori rapidly becomes very wealthy as a result (having bet her entire 4-dot resources on this venture, she is now up to 5 dots).
Sam and Ah Nold are resting on the Crimson Gale when suddenly he has a bad feeling about something about to happen. He alerts Sam and Welkin, scans the area around them, sees nothing, and gets worried. Measure the Wind does reveal the nearby presence of an Essence 6 Exalt, however. Welkin asks Edelweiss about this and she comments that someone has just landed on top of the gas bag. Sam and Welkin climb up one set of rigging while Ah Nold flies around the back side cloaked. Welkin and Sam get to the top and see nothing, but Ah Nold sees a man wearing black clothing including a mask covering his mouth and nose, with a blue jade left arm, several blue jade artifacts in his possession, and a left eye that is glowing blue. As soon as he spots Ah Nold with this eye he drops the bomb he was planting and takes off, leaping from cloud to cloud. Ah Nold paces him and tries punching him but the martial artist is very skilled, though he does take a few lumps. Ah Nold soon sees that he is leading Ah Nold directly towards the Chiaroscuro Realm Barracks, out of which are spilling at least half a dozen Dragon-blooded who are powering up their scenelong charms. Time to go!
Ah Nold breaks off pursuit, flies to the marketplace, grabs Txori and Grey, and books it back to the ship. Welkin has started the engines up while Sam has disarmed the bomb, and away they go. They note they’re being pursued by the spy who is riding a glider and using a Wind Jewel, but Txori starts shooting arrows to discourage further pursuit. Soon he lands and broods as the Crimson Gale makes its getaway. Txori complains that this is yet another city she won’t be able to come back to again. No sooner has everyone’s adrenaline rushes subsided when the blue table is glowing again, causing everyone to sigh, but this time, the orders are a bit different.
- Debbie (typed): I’m not comfortable risking our rewards^H^H^H^H^H^H^H her health.
- Sam rolls his compassion and succeeds! Alejo: “Hallun looks just a bit like your long lost sister Dora!” Debbie: “My one compassion weakness!”
- Alejo: “Don’t forget, you don’t actually know what happened at these villages yet. I’m a pretty creative dude so there’s lots of different ways I could have killed them all off.”
- Eli, Re: complaints by Ogode etc. “If nothing else I made a list of things could you look over it? ‘Sit down and shut the fuck up for an hour’ Or maybe ‘Climb into a barrel and count my fingers for a while'”
- Sam: “But the Great Contagion only had a 90% kill rate, so maybe this is the Greater Contagion.”
- Louis: “Maybe we should have enslaved the brains of the operation.” Alejo: “Instead of the genitalia of the operation you mean?”
- Eli, related: “But also [the village deaths] diagnosis came from a moron, so there is also that.”
- The DM also revealed at the end of the session that Barabella botched her medicine roll to identify what killed the village. Oops.
- Welkin: “This charm is my new parking permit.”
- DM: “There is apparently a big social media marketing push for this caravan. Hashtag #guildswag, and all that.”
- Louis, Re: Makarios: “The best part is, what is he gonna do, report his stolen Great Contagion?” Debbie: “You can get that insured, right?”
- DM: “Sam, you feel a compulsion to slip into a world of dreams and nightmares all around you.” “Yeah so does Debbie.”
- Eli: “No one’s ever prepared to get spirit suplexed.”
- DM: “Wow Makarios has Presence 3? Learn to optimize!! And he has Martial Arts 1 despite being like ten thousand years old. ‘Yeah I took martial arts once but I never really made it past orange belt’.”
- DM: “This is the last time I make a powerful enemy without surprise attack detection.”
- Eli: “IT’S A TARP!”
- Eli: “Keep in mind that touching someone may give you… mosh pit … -itis…”
- Louis: “I forgot not everyone can survive 300-feet falls”
- Alejo: *counting* “Let’s see, his strength bonus is 1, 2, 4, it’s up to +8 now.” Taylor and Debbie, alarmed: “Uhhh that goes up REALLY fast.” Alejo: “I know!”
- Debbie: “We don’t want a little girl to come up to the box and turn down for what”
- Eli: “That’s a lot of bricks and planks plastered to your ram prow… Yeah maybe we should just get to the palace through conventional means…”
- Tri-Khan, about the Guild: “They wear their secrets like undergarments” Eli: “So they have no secrets?” Louis: “Sentinel defense force undies!”
- Eli: “It’s not gambling if you directly influence the outcome.” Louis: “Right that’s not gambling, that’s cheating”