We're now past page 1,603 in this Chinese epic martial novel. In Vol. 3 of Outlaws of the Marsh, the scope of the action broadens significantly, from the individual and small scale melee clashes of Volumes 1 and 2, to predominantly large scale battles involving fortified villages, towns, and cities. Similarly, the targets of the outlaws' covert operations also shift toward larger targets, including the Eastern Capital of Kaifeng.
It took me slightly longer to read this volume (close to 40 days), as I had a few other books I was reading at the same time. The story continues to engage and entertain however.
A few things stand out in this volume:
Chivalrous values continue to trump realpolitik: when extremely competent enemy commanders (officials of the Chinese state) surrender, their respectful treatment by Song Jiang, the supreme chieftain of the outlaws, often compels them to join the outlaws' cause. Virtue wins out.
Song Jiang has a propensity to offer the supreme role to conquered commanders who join the outlaws. He does this repeatedly. Eventually, his veteran chieftains get really irritated by this, and threaten to quit if Song Jiang doesn't cease and desist from trying to yield the supreme role to others. [Incidentally, if I were to run my own martial arts campaign based on Outlaws, which I am tempted to do, I might begin it with an "Empty Fortress" scenario, in which the outlaw chieftains all quit, and everyone leaves in frustration with Song Jiang. It is up to the PCs to rebuild the grand rebel alliance, or do something new and different.]
The outlaws' opposition are an interesting bunch and include a commander who is a fire specialist, another who is a water specialist, another who is a master of the devastating (and perhaps legendary and impractical) chained cavalry tactic, as well as a master of the twin iron rod combat technique, and yet another who is an expert at throwing stones (!). [I actually checked my copy of Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades to see if that RPG has a stone throwing martial arts technique, but it doesn't. We'll probably be eventually creating one.]
The number of female combatants increases from two to three, as Sun Erniang, the Witch, joins Hu Sanniang, Ten Feet of Steel, and Mistress Gu, the Tigress. There is at least one battle in which they team up as a unit, and Mistress Gu also takes part in covert action inside a city under siege by the outlaws.
Chapter 71 comes very late in the volume (and around p. 1500 in the novel), but feels very much like a formalization of everything that has happened previously. After a major victory, Song Jiang convenes his chieftains for a supernatural ritual in their fortress on Mt. Liang, formalizing membership and governance among the outlaw chieftains, and assigning military and other duties to the heroes. The outlaws essentially instantiate a rebel government in a liberated zone. The narration lists the 36 stars of the Heavenly Spirts and 72 stars of the Earthly Fiends, which roughly sorts the heroes by status. During the ritual, the actual "list" falls from heaven inscribed on a stone, so the heroes and their government are divinely ordained to restore dignity, order, and justice to the imperial government.
We'll end with a quote from Chapter 72, when Song Jiang and close associates go undercover to see the lantern festival in the Eastern Capital (Kaifeng). They visit the home of one of the Emperor's favorite concubines. She serves our heroes tea, and the narrative describes the tea leaves as:
"finer than bird's tongues, [and] the brew was as fragrant as dragon's saliva."
Tonight was the fifth session of our Everway game, and the session started with the PCs arriving in a sphere with a mysterious red and gold comet (with moving parts; perhaps an orrery?) in the night sky, as well as a full moon.
The environment was fresh, wet, flat. Green, even in the darkness, with frog and cricket sounds.
The PCs spotted a large, city-sized object in the distance, sort of a bowl below, with a dome overhead. The approach. Human figures dart out of the way, and stay evasive.
The dome is made of a purplish-white material: porcelain. The PCs find a set of gates; the knock. A gatekeeper answers the door, invites them in.
Part of the porcelain dome has cracked, and fallen into the Purple City [this is where Whiskers said he hailed from]. This disaster happened in the last day. The gatekeeper says that the city is dangerous; a rebellion against the Cat Lords is underway. Barricades have formed. Humans have rebelled against their cat masters.
The party encounters a group of rebels, and clamber over the barricades to one of their headquarters. This group of rebels is led by a bloody-handed human named Blood; this is a new name. The rebel humans have renamed themselves that day.
The rebels have have books and scrolls that have been plundered from various wizards towers of the cats of the Purple City. There are a number of charm and illusion scrolls among the books. One text appears to be about the architecture of the city and its towers, but as Pahoeho spends time with this book, he suspects that it is a magical text about Air magic and teleportation. He later confirms that this text is also about gate magic, specifically air gates. Jumping off towers is one way to spherewalk. At one point the rebels also mention that there are winged cats in the city; some have feathery wings while other have leathery ones.
None of the locals have heard of Everway. Farming is a new concept to them. Pahoeho and Tom strongly suggest they learn how to farm. The Purple City was surrounded by deserts just a day ago, before the comet arrived. Conditions are good for farming now; the surrounding lands are lush. How did the city get food in the past, the PCs ask: from sludge grown below the city, and mushrooms and other fungi. The food is flavored with imported spices from across the desert. It is just OK.
Percy decides to use spirit magic to search for the human No Whiskers. He looks for a low Air person. There are a LOT of them around in the cats' towers. There are still cats in the city. Instead, he searches for other groups of humans who are high Air. Percy finds a group in one of the cat towers.
The PCs go to that tower. Osbert's magical sword Demonsbane begins pointing the way to the tower - an omen of things to come. The tower gate is closed and no one within responds to Pahoeho's knocking. Tom uses his magic to summon a rebac, and plays a rebel song that stirs up the crowd to bash in the tower gate.
The PCs go in, and ascend the tower. Up, up, up, to a room where a summoning ritual is underway. In the center of the ritual space is a chiming, pulsating mass from which spikes push out in all directions: a demon! Osbert charges the demon with his sword. He strikes well, but the demon is stronger: Osbert takes a wound from the demon's dark energies while his sword, Demonsbane is stuck in the demon.
Tom uses his musical magic to disrupt the demon's song. Pahoehoe taps on the shoulder of one of the summoners to distract them and hopefully weaken the summoning. Osbert plunges his sword even further into the flesh of the demon, as its pulsating mass forms numerous delightful lips to tempt and distract him. The sword plunges completely through the demon's mass, and into a wall on the opposite side of the tower wall.
Meanwhile, Pahoeho uses his Forge of Earth magic to reshape and ignite some of the stone flooring into a giant flaming glob of Earth. Pahoeho is immune to fire. He hurls the flaming stone glob at the demon, which explodes UP, blowing the top off the tower. Everyone flees.
Osbert heroically saves one of the summoners, pulling them to safety, and leaving Demonsbane behind. The heroes reassemble outside the tower, Tom performs a song about Bad Ideas - like summoning demons as anti-Cat Lord weapons of mass destruction. Such tactics can ruin revolutions. Tom uses Star River magic to teleport Demonsbane out of the tower and back into Osbert's hands.
Osbert discovers that the sword has a new pictograph on it: one which resembles the demon. It is hot to the touch. Apparently Demonsbane has a memory! New information for Osbert!
Osbert relates the story of his order of warriors, and its matriarchal rules of sword inheritance.
There is a BOOM from the outskirts of the city dome, and a huge chunk of porcelain wall comes flying in. Many are injured by flying porcelain shards. Pahoeho uses his healing magic to save many, transforming porcelain into flesh.
In march the dog-warriors, and an uncertain occupation begins.
Will the adventures of our heroes continue?
A couple of the inspirations for this, and the previous session include the Cat Lords of the Violet City, from Luka Rejec's The Ultraviolet Grasslands, and the magical porcelain dome from Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett's delightful novel, Havemercy.
Tonight's game took place entirely within the Library of All Worlds, and took a really bold turn. The action picked up where it left off last time, with Percy talking with some scribes about his home sphere, while Tom was in deep conversation with another scribe about music, and the Library's collections.
Pahoeho, meanwhile, was in the Library gift shop. He browsed the various wares there, and soon noticed another odd shopper.
Her appearance is rather odd. She either has extreme pallor, or her makeup is really caked on. It's probably the latter, as some tattoos are just visible on her face under the white. And then there's her amber eyes...
He greets Pahoeho, and flirts a bit. She calls him handsome, and asks if he's a Spherewalker. He says yes, having most recently visited Fire's Wall, and brags of being immune to flames. The young woman snaps her fingers, and a flame appears. She touches it to his hand and Pahoeho doesn't flinch a bit.
The Scratch sales clerk quickly says: "No open flames in the Library."
The young lady snaps her fingers again, and the flame goes out.
Pahoeho asks her name, and what she's doing in the Library.
The young lady's name is Shattered Tower. (Pahoeho internalizes this as Crashed Tower; that's what he calls her later in the game.) Pahoeho recognizes Tower as the last name of an Everwayan family, introduces himself as Pahoeho Sun (another Everwayan family). Shattered Tower gestures toward the hand drawn handbills she is leaving in a few places in the gift shop. The handbills invite people to attend the Woke Forum tonight, when the drumming starts at the Wattle and Dub, one of the wattle and daub dwellings in Strangerside.
Isn't the Woke Forum the group supporting the whole Year King initiative? Pahoeho asks Shattered what she thinks of the whole Year King thing. She rejoins that "It's better than being ruled forever by the Emeralds." Pahoeho replies: "Isn't the Year King an Emerald?" Shattered Tower says "Kind of, but not really."
Shattered Tower hands Pahoeho one of the handbills: "You should come."
Pahoeho decides to leave the gift shop after seeing Shattered Tower shoplift some reading glasses. She goes deeper into the Library. He goes out to a wine bar in eyeshot of the Library. He'll keep a lookout for her when she leaves. [Later, he does see Shattered Tower leave, with quite the stack of books. Generally speaking, removing books from the Library is #NotPermitted.]
Meanwhile Percy wants to find out where the cat Whiskers, and his human, No Whiskers, went. The young warrior, Osbert Haukmune, goes along with Percy. They go up a few levels in the library, and find a quiet place near some grandiose, well-guarded doors. Percy does some spirit scrying and goes into a trance.
There are a lot of spirits here; there is a spirit on practically every shelf in the Library. Percy can hear their intonations, their recitations of favorite texts. (These are Shelf-Bound Spirits.)
Percy scries for the cat, but picks up another disturbance: one of the Shelf-Bound Spirits, a few stacks away, has begin shouting the records it guards: census records, names of Everwayans long past. The disturbance spreads: the guards leave the grandiose doorway they were guarding. There are other sounds: tearing, grinding of paper. Munching sounds. Falling books, book chains rattling, scroll cases clattering onto the Library's tiled flooring.
Whiskers and No Whiskers are at the grandiose doorway. The doors gear open. They step through. The doors close and gears click and whirr and lock in place.
Percy calls for help. A librarian comes, begins to shout for help himself. More guards come. The guards all fall with gruesome, terrible wounds. The tearing, grinding sounds continue, as Osbert draws his sword and approaches the noise. Books open themselves in mid air, scrolls unfurl. Pages disappear in chunks. Munching, grinding.
More guards arrive, and a Librarian-Sorcerer (some badass from the Acquisitions, no doubt) begins casting a spell. Terrible creatures suddenly materialize. Big, blind silvery bugs are consuming the books and scrolls. One bug begins chanting and gesticulating, and a rough-edged chiming oval gateway appears.
The chiming disturbs Tom, who has been deep in the Music galleries of the library (poetry; musical theory; recorded music on scrolls, playable on special lecterns; countless musical instruments from the Million Spheres). The player-lecterns resonate from the gateway's chiming and the alarums of the shelf-bound spirits. Tom pursues the source of the sound, and discovers his friends.
The Thysanurians have escaped through the ovoid gate. The only remaining trace of their gate is a fissure suspended in midair. The dust of consumed books and scrolls mixes with the fallen guards' blood on the tile floors. Osbert helps with the clean-up. Ape-like creatures emerge from service doors and remove the bodies.
Eventually all of the party comes together by the grandiose, gear-locked doors. The twin Librarian Administrator-Scribes, Spiral Scratch and Circular Scratch, attend to the party. The PCs ask how the doors can be opened? "It requires a key" the Scratch brothers say. "Who has the key?" the PCs ask. "There are three keys: one is in the possession of the High Pontifex of the Chamber Platinum, one with the Emerald King, and one with the High Priest of Lord Hermanubis. None are available at the moment."
Tom uses his magic to summon a musical instrument. He summons a clavicembalo and begins to play.
The gearing turns and moves, and the doors open. Beyond the doors it is dark, illuminated only by a shaft of moonlight and by stars. (It is daytime.)
The PCs enter the chamber beyond the door. It is a small round space. The doors close. it remains dark except for the moonlight which illuminates the cast iron staircase which ascends up the tower.
Pahoeho takes the lead, followed by Tom, then Percy, and finally Osbert. Flashes of heat lightning far above, the smell of ozone as they ascend, flashes of Fortunes as they ascend the steps.
Each step is a grating. Looking down through the slats, the staircase goes down infinitely. And so it also goes up.
Pahoeho Sun, a son of Everway, recalls the legend of the Stepwise, a royal staircase that one must ascend in order to become King.
There are three great flashes of lighting and three Fortunes ring out with thunder:
A CAT'S MIAO.
And the PCs are in another world.
Thysanurians were created by Jim and Jody Garrison of Hereticwerks, and are used with their permission. Thysanurian image by Jim Garrison.
Does the Library of All Worlds have a gift shop? Of course it does! The Library of All Worlds receives guests from all over the Million Spheres. Expect the pricing to be unreasonable, as in any museum gift shop. Some of the items sold will even be the genuine article.
This is a sample of goods for sale:
Left hand amulet with a heart symbol in the palm - helps the wearer find the book that is their heart's desire
Right hand amulet with an eye in the palm - helps the wearer find books hidden out of sight
Fine papyrus paper, blank
Fine blades/abrasives for sharpening styluses
Bookmarks of all kinds (thick, thin, organic, inorganic)
Various book dusting implements, cloths, etc.
Book locks, chains, book frames and binders - everything to imprison a text
Fine scroll cases
Weatherproofed scroll cases
Paperweights (metal, jewels, stone) - symbols of deities, planets, Fortunes
Paperweights that prevent spirit-scrying
Warding items (charm-plaques) to protect libraries from spiritual intrusions, theft, and invasions
"Birds of Roundwander" -guide/checklist
"Lizards and Amphibians of Roundwander" -guide/checklist
"The Grand and All-Inclusive Bestiary of Fourcorner"
"Legendary Creatures of the Million Spheres" by Ulric Seen-It-All
"The Great Book of the Library" by Hermes Branch Crookstaff
"A Guide to the Library of All Worlds" - annotated map, possibly out-of-date
"A History of the Chamber Platinum, Including Biographies of Illustrious Founders and Travellers Among the Million Spheres" by Stacks Scratch
"That's Pretty Well It: A Guide to the Art of Hosting" by Allready Host
"Cuisine of the Million Spheres" by Alltrythat Host
"The Book of Emerald Bindings"
Numerous small vials of seeds from the Great Gardens
"A Treatise on the Gods and Fortunes"
Figurines of the various gods and goddesses of knowledge
Reading glasses of various sizes, magnifications, styles, and shapes; tinted lenses, clear lenses, etc.
Reading glasses for reading the texts buried within palimpsests
Reading glasses that convert characters to numbers according to varied cyphers; these are sold in pairs
That evening in Strangerside, Tom summoned and then played The Serpent. Its sound made it impossible for Percy three floors up in The Salt Mill to continue his efforts toward sleep. Percy through on a nightrobe and descended to the main floor where Tom was performing. Pahoeho forms a conga line, there is more drinking, and Percy, Tom, and Pahoehe retire late.
Percy sleeps surprisingly well, but our Spherewalkers have hangovers. Tom, Pahoeho, and Percy order the Strangerside equivalent of Bloody Marys with breakfast. Then they head to the Walker's Pyramid to see the sights, and learn what they can about this whole Year King thing.
The Walker's Pyramid is huge. The steps of this step pyramid are too large and far apart for a human, but there is a scaffolding on one side of the Walker's Pyramid that humans can climb.
Tom is a people watcher and takes an interest first in a dark skinned acrobat and dancer, whose routine includes tumbles off the side of the Walker's Pyramid, and conjuring coins behind kids' ears in the crowds that gather to watch him. He notices another dark skinned young man with lots of rings and an earcuff. He is holding an golden-eyed black cat, and curiously the young man has similar golden eyes.
Using the Pisces Zodiac Force of his Star River magic, Tom channels a spirit cat to speak with the cat that the man carries. The cat's name is Whiskers. The young man's name is No Whiskers. The cat is from a faraway Sphere that reportedly no one from Everway has ever visited.
What's Whisker's favorite realm? Merryflag, where humans delight in getting into bloody duels and vendettas over trivial slights.
Where are the best fish? The realm of Shallowsea, where my human can wade out into the water with a trident or a net and catch a feast.
No Whiskers is his human. Tom's spirit cat attempts to communicate with the human, but there isn't much Air there. What gives?
Pahoeho Sun finds this strange: he belongs to an Everwayan family and knows that there is no slavery in Everway. Well, maybe there is among recent immigrants in Strangerside; but any slave who sets foot within the city walls of Everway becomes a free person.
The party observes a procession comin from the direction of the Council House and Palace down Walker's Way to the Pyramid. Bright Mask, the priest of Osiris that Pahoehoe chatted up on the golden barge performs a bridal ceremony. The young Year King, Younger Wood, is wed to a heavily scarred Emerald woman who is missing a left eye, but has an unusual eye glyph tattooed on the palm of her right hand. Is she a mystic? A sorceress? Her name is Righteye Emerald.
Next comes a visit to an office of the Sun family located near the west side of the Walker's Pyramid, and adjacent to the Gold family house. Pahoeho wants to collect his allowance, and fortunately, it's one of the uncles who likes him who is running the office that day. Uncle gives Pahoeho a string of cash.
Local gossip that Uncle Three Sun shares: the Gold family (practically next door) is debating a name change to Jewell, or possibly to Jade. Pahoeho's uncle Three Sun speculates that the name change might invalidate some contracts that the Sun family has with the Gold family, which would be a great way to get out of some debt!
Pahoeho, Tom, and Percy ask Three Sun what he knows about the whole Year King situation. Uncle confirms that there hasn't been a Year King in Everway for hundreds or maybe thousands of years. The whole thing seems strange: one day, Great King Horizon Emerald is officiating at ceremonies, and the picture of health, and the next he is dead. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Year King project is pushed forward, and several rural Emeralds from the Emeraldcloak Forest of all places seem at the center of the project. For example, Righteye Emerald: who even heard of her before today. And the new Year King, who used to be Younger Wood (and now is supposedly Younger Emerald - for a year!) - he is from an obscure, unimportant offshoot of the Emerald family from the same area.
Three Sun shares his suspicion that all this has something to do with the trouble that Prince Woke, a recent arrival in Strangerside has been stirring up. He has been pointing to the refugee problem, the collapsing spheres, the stagnation of Everwayan culture, and the need for new leadership and civic renewal. Three Sun has heard a lot about his so-called Woke Forum in Strangerside. This Righteye Emerald is no stranger there! Someone needs to look into this Prince Woke, Three Sun says.
Three Sun also asks which spheres Tom and Percy come from, and offers that the Sun family is always looking for local partners among the spheres, since the family business is leading pilgrims to shrines among the spheres.
The party agrees that maybe someone should look into this Prince Woke (maybe indeed, us!), and Pahoeho wishes his uncle well. They head out, but first let's get lunch. "No more fish, please" pleads Percy, and Pahoeho suggests pasta instead. He knows a second story pasta and tomato sauce place nearby, just the thing, a heavy filling pasta place that everybody who matters knows: The Red Brick. It's not far from the Sun business office so they go there. A good filling meal and wine, consumed in moderation.
The party was going to head to Strangerside next, and look for this Prince Woke. But Percy and Tom are still thinking about Whiskers and No Whiskers. What is Whiskers up to and where is he going?
Percy uses his Water Magic to search the city for a human with very low Air. The GM draws Failing to See the Diamond, Reversed, a propitious draw. Interpretation: Percy spots No Whiskers, just as Whiskers and No Whiskers pass through the wards at the entrance to the Library of All Worlds. They pass through the leftmost archway into the Library.
The party decides to head right there and figure out what Whiskers is doing.
Pecuniary Scratch is waiting for them right at the entrance. He demands an inducement in exchange for entry.
Tom says he is at the Library to learn about Song. [You can almost feel the Platonic ideal form behind that capital "S".] Song, as in the mechanical vs. spiritual aspects of Song, as well as connections between Song and Magic.
Percy makes the practical offer with respect to inducements: knowledge about his Sphere, which appears to be unknown to the people of Everway. The party are welcomed into the Chamber of Welcoming Visitors from the Million Spheres [speculation here that its decor is as plunderous as that of the British Museum], and library staff bring out long rectangular Spherepath Scrolls which note details of individual spheres, and the gate connections between them.
Percy references knowing about Water Gates, which the Library's scribes and scholars dismiss with feigned disinterest (there is no credible record of gates tied to elements other than Earth!). Meanwhile, Pahoeho is browsing Library's gift shop, and about to get into trouble...