Fire and Ice
|"Just as tall trees are known by their shadows, so are good men known by their enemies."|| It is the day of the Early Dog in the month of the Phoenix, in the first Year of the Fox since the crowning of the Viridian Queen.|
The run takes place in the Strand
The countryside of the Strand is more perilous than previous travel on the highway or even the Savanna roads; Ringmaster Te's previous instructions to not touch anything and not eat anything failed to prevent all trouble in the last run. Therefore, Wei Han decides that scouting ahead to test out the peril may cut down on the danger to the actual circus caravan, so he, Lijuan, Cai Wen, Xian, and Shuyan head forward of the main caravan, leaving Hiro and Takanata behind (Takanata has no interest in going and looking for danger, and Southrons might be interested in kidnapping Hiro, so Wei Han wants him to stay put.).
The road ahead has a lot of overhanging trees, and is only barely wide enough for the circus wagons. The air is hot and muggy, and smells like swamp. Cai Wen, Shuyan, and Xian prove to not be experts in Strand survival: when Shuyan notices that one of her snakes has wandered up in a tree, she climbs up to get it and dislodges a lot of sap and pollen on Xian and Cai Wen in addition to herself. The sap proves to be very attractive to bugs, which is first noticed by Shuyan who panics at having BUGS ALL OVER HER. Lijuan pours her canteen over Shuyan's head; Xian tries to calm her down, but as he's covered in bugs himself, he is less of a calming influence than he might like, and she panics more. Master Zhou tells her sternly to stop it, and she decides that of bugs and Master Zhou, Master Zhou might be scarier, and calms down a bit.
The group straggles into the next town up, a small place called Four Wells. Wei Han arranges for baths and meals, and suffers through some mocking about taking naps under saparilla trees. The three bug-infested people are given some yellow powder to put in their bath, and end up without bugs, but smelling of sulfur. Cai Wen talks to the innkeeper to learn about the dangers of the nearby area, and picks up two temporary Strand survival skill ranks, which he can pass on half of to others with some quick instructions.
Xian asks around at the inn for local gossip. They do know that the Silken Wings Circus will be here soon - Ringmaster Te's advance guys have already gone through. They eventually find out that there were a couple of people who passed through recently asking about the circus - an old guy and a kid. The locals suggested they wait for the circus to arrive, but they said the matter was pressing, and headed off to the east to try to meet them. Xian pretends familiarity with them: "The kid was... a little rambunctious?" and gets more details - they went via the northern road rather than the southern road (the scouting party took the southern road, which is presumably why they didn't meet up). Worried, Lijuan reminds everyone that Spies Do Not Come Back from the Strand, so people should be careful in their information-gathering.
The scouting party also realizes that it is a little silly to try and hide the fact that they're not from the circus, given that they'll be back in a day or two and probably be recognized then, and shifts into pretending that they were never pretending to not be from the circus, but that they just forgot to mention it. It was probably the saparilla. They also get directions to Ancient Stones, the village where the two travellers were from. It's past Green Falls, down the stream that they call a river that really isn't anything like a river.
Xian mentions that he has heard a story about the village of Four Wells. That leads to the locals wondering whether the story included how to tell which wells are safe to drink from. Apparently, it did not. More drinks are bought for the locals, and Xian is warned to not drink from a well until he sees someone else drinking first.
Now that the scouting party has some information to relay, they decide to head back. There is some argument as to whether to return the way they came (in theory safer, and shorter) or go back on the north road for extra bonus exploration, and possibly to catch up to the other two travellers. Eventually, the group heads up to the start of the north road, and Lijuan directs Ho to smell the footprints that probably belong to the boy and the old man. Ho smells the path, a nearby tree, a puddle, and then points up the road. The party goes the other way, to the south road. Ho gives Lijuan a look as if to say he doesn't see why she bothered asking him to try to find their trail.
On the way back, Wei Han spots a saparilla tree, and backs into some poison ivy avoiding it, but everyone else manages to avoid the general environmental peril.
An Eccentric Visitor
Back in the circus caravan, Takanata shows his morning poem to Hiro:
- Ice which does not melt, but burns
- A touch of Winter at the heart of Summer (this line has a shadow underneath it)
- The truth is in the shadow, the action in the light
Hiro concludes that there are nefarious Ice Mages or Ice Demons in the area, and looks for some sort of fire to combat them with. He contacts Gipeno, a juggler, who juggles flaming torches (in addition to other dangerous items) in his circus act. Hiro asks to borrow some of the torches for use against the suspected ice-mage. Gipeno gives him two torches, and tosses him a third to see how he reacts. Having no actual juggling skill, Hiro does not fling the initial torches in the air, but tries to transfer both to one hand before catching the third. Gipeno decides he should stick with only two for now, and instructs him that you can set the torches on fire by rubbing them together; the only way to extinguish them is by submerging the flame entirely in water. Hiro contemplates the possibilities in setting his arrows on fire.
Meanwhile, Takanata notices someone he doesn't recognize looking at one of the luggage wagons - a young woman in green, with light brown hair. He points her out to Hiro, whose incredibly appraising eye notes that she would be quite good looking if she brushed her hair and took a bath. He goes to investigate, and Takanata notes with a sigh that now Hiro is going around and around the wagon looking for the mysterious stranger, while she perches atop the wagon watching him.
Hiro finally notices and jumps up to the top to introduce himself:
- "Hi, I'm Harmony!" -Hiro
- "Like a song?" -young woman
- "And you are?"
- "I don't sing, I dance."
- "Are you looking for something?" -Hiro
- "Do you have something?" -young woman
- "Doesn't everyone?"
- (She thinks about that.)
- "You're probably right. But I'm only looking for bad things."
There does seem to be something odd about her, from her conversational style...
Anyhow, she indicates that there is something bad in the box that she's standing on now (the one that has all the party loot, except for the Sphere of Harmony, which is off in its own Box). She suggests burning the box, which Hiro thinks may be an excessive reaction.
Hiro points out Takanata - that's his uncle, and he's very good at this sort of thing. They should tell him about the box, and then have tea. Hiro is hoping to distract the woman from the contents of the box (as she does seem likely to be distractable), but Takanata is all about talking to strangers about mysterious things. (Perhaps it comes of being an I Ching Master).
- "What sort of bad does it have in it?"
- "The worst kind!"
- "Mystically bad, politically bad, poisonous...?"
- "Is politics bad? No, I'm talking about the Horrible Bad from Beyond!"
Takanata has Hiro fetch the box and is about to open it when Hiro leaps in: "But first, time for tea!" Takanata manages to learn her name - Da-Xie - and asks if she lives around here. All around, she agrees.
- "Why is your heart submerged?" -Da-Xie
- "That's something of a personal matter." -Takanata
- "Oh, I'm not good at those." -Da-Xie
- "Oooh, I'm totally going to ask about that later." -Hiro
She sniffs her tea, dips a finger in it, then drinks it all down in a gulp. Takanata points out that normally, one takes a little longer over tea, and delicately sips his. She delicately sips her next cup, doing a spot-on Takanata impression. Hiro does his best to charm Da-Xie, since she's a babe, but doesn't get much farther than her telling him he's nice.
Takanata declares that it's time to open the box, and they do. He asks if the red strangling cord is the bad thing. She approves of the fact that he can tell, and says yes, it's from Beyond. She asks if they got it when they went south recently - she says that she followed some of them back after that. Ah, notes Takanata - she normally lives closer to the Wall? Yes, she does. "Which side?" Hiro asks, and is fixed with a withering and scornful glance - Da-Xie crossly says that she didn't come from Beyond.
Takanata asks Da-Xie if she knows which spirit the Jade Taiga is aligned with. She says the Jade Taiga's not next to the Wall, and asks if he's going to deal with the strangling cord. He's not sure what "dealing with" means - burning, throwing it back, something else? She says burning is good. Throwing it back might work, but it might just return.
Takanata asks if there's anything else bad around. She says she doesn't smell anything else. Takanata checks - how about bad things from the north? She says she doesn't go up there. (Takanata notes she also isn't identifying the Shackles of Silence as bad, and it was apparently southern magic).
Takanata tells Hiro to burn the strangling cord, which he does. Da-Xie takes her leave, saying that she'll be back in a few days to have more tea.
Seekers of Enlightenment
The scouting party straggles back to the circus caravan, smelling of sulfur and bug-bitten. Wei Han is decontaminated, and his armor scrubbed, before his poison ivy gets too bad. Once back, Lijuan asks Ho to try to find the old man and the boy, but Ho again gives Lijuan a Look. They have apparently not arrived at the circus's location yet, despite having quite a head start on the scouting group.
Hiro immediately suspects the old man of being the Ice Mage that they've been expecting, and Takanata shows everyone else the poem. They also mention Da-Xie's visit - it is not clear whether she was human or some sort of forest spirit.
- "She could totally have been from the other side of the Wall. It wasn't a dumb question!" -Hiro, defensively
Takanata confirms a guess that "A touch of winter at the heart of summer" refers to Wei Han. That is, one of the instances of it does.
Since the expected old man and boy have not turned up yet, the circus heads towards Four Wells on the southern road, and the scouting party heads up the north road (again leaving Takanata and Hiro to guard the circus). About halfway there, Ho starts barking and pointing - there seem to be some tracks left by a small boy, but they only came this far and then turned around.
Further up the road, some shouting can be heard: "If I get out of this, you will receive the beating of ten thousand lifetimes!" Then, a boy runs up, bows, and asks "Dear travelers, do you happen to have an axe of some sort? Or perhaps a sharp sword?" Some of the scouts point at Wei Han, who does have a sharp sword. The boy jumps about in delight: "Oh! We are saved, Master!"
The old man is enmeshed in a patch of tanglevines, and complains that the boy pushed him in; the boy claims the man stumbled. Wei Han and Master Zhou chop at the roots, releasing him. The old man introduces himself as Elder Ma-Chin, of the Village of Ancient Stones, and the boy as Soy. Elder Ma-Chin expresses his gratitude, and says he will not keep the group from their journey, as he and the boy do have a great deal to do.
Master Zhou says that he hears that they are looking for the circus - it will be in Four Wells tonight. Elder Ma-Chin is impressed by Master Zhou's knowledge, and says that he wishes to speak to Mystic Mondo, Enlightened Melina, and the Confounding Xian. Master Zhou, in an unaccountably informative mode, declares "Elder: this is Xian!"
Elder Ma-Chin bows deeply to Xian, and says that he and the whole of his village would be greatly appreciative if Xian would visit the village of Ancient Stones and provide his insights, as their mystic (Chen Shi-Jen) is in need of some assistance. Mystic Chen had recently returned safely from a quest for knowledge; they had a small dinner to welcome him back, but then after that, awoke to find his house completely encased in ice! This is beyond any of their knowledge.
The village has a small shrine dedicated to the ancestor spirits of the village, with a piece of star-metal as a revered relic. The mystic borrowed it for his trip, but did return with it. However, now the relic as well is trapped in the ice. The village's priest is planning to commune with the ancestor spirits to learn more.
The scouting party, with the two additions, continues back to Four Wells, and Xian asks for more details about the mystic and his "knowledge quest". Elder Ma-Chin doesn't know where he went, but it was over a week's travel. The mystic has only lived in Ancient Stones for several months, and has been of great assistance. Xian asks where he came from before - Elder Ma-Chin notes that "Many have asked, none have answered." He believes that Mystic Chen left his home after a personal tragedy, but they did not press very hard.
That evening, Xian introduces Elder Ma-Chin to Mystic Mondo and Enlightened Melina. Mondo, ever able to cut to the heart of the matter, asks if anyone saw the star-metal relic when Chen returned. Ma-Chin says yes, he saw two things in Chen's bag - the relic, and a piece of ice.
- "It was but fist-sized, it did not encase the house" -Ma-Chin
- "I am sure it was but a coincidence." -Hiro
Xian and Takanata recall that star-metal is said to be potent but difficult to control, when used in sorcery and ritual.
Finally, since Mondo has solved one puzzle and Xian has confounded, Enlightened Melina draws the veils of fate aside, and notes:
- "Star metal is but one of the keys you seek. This is not the only time this has happened, and while it may be possible to free her now, it is not certain whether it will happen soon or in the far future."
She collapses, drained from her exertions, and Hiro makes her tea.
The Village of Ancient Stones
The party (including Takanata and Hiro, this time) heads towards Ancient Stones. A couple of people fall in the stream, which gets them to Green Falls (the town halfway between Four Wells and Ancient Stones) in a much faster and wetter manner. On the second day of travel, several people twist their ankles (they're sure Soy tripped them), and are down a point of reflexes. After that, no more peril threatens before they reach the Village of Ancient Stones.
It is a small village, of perhaps a hundred people. And, sure enough, one of the small houses is encased in ice. At least, it seems to be ice, and is as cold as ice, but it is not melting and is dry to the touch. The villagers say that the ice glows faintly, and after dark, the shape of a man can faintly be seen. Shuyan looks at it with the heat-vision of a serpent, and notes a small heat source within. Soy lures Lijuan into licking the ice house, which proves unfortunate for her.
Elder Ma-Chin introduces the new arrivals to Elder Stonekeeper, the village priest. He says that at sunset, he plans to summon the aid of the village's ancestor spirits, hoping that they will succeed where shovels and icepicks have not.
Takanata looks at the ice, and thinks it looks more yang-y than most ice should - but also notes that up in the top of a nearby tree is Da-Xie, watching everything with interest. He heads in that direction, followed by Wei Han, who is already starting to regard the young woman with a deep disdain. Da-Xie looks down, asks "Oh, is it time for tea?" and jumps, flailing her arms and legs wildly. Hiro rushes over, and catches her as she falls - somehow the flailing turns to a perfect in-arms landing at the very end.
Hiro declares that he brought some tea, just in case, and starts to prepare it. Wei Han, exasperated, goes and takes out his frustrations on the ice with an ice pick. The ice does not chip at all - it barely scratches - but when Wei Han touches it, it is wet under his fingers. He tries digging a hole, and finds that the ice does not extend very far into the ground. He starts to dig under it.
Takanata asks Da-Xie what she thinks of the ice. She is surprised - was she supposed to have noticed it? It isn't from Beyond. Did she notice the man inside the house? No, not particularly. Lijuan tries to spot the figure of the man, but it's too bright, and the ice is too reflective to see much.
Da-Xie whispers complaints to Hiro - why did Hiro bring him (indicating Wei Han) down here? To keep Hiro safe. Da-Xie takes umbrage - that's her job!
- "Are you guarding us?" -Hiro
- "Why, are you in danger?" -Da-Xie
- "People keep telling me I am, but they're so wrong."
Hiro asks if Da-Xie saw the ritual at midwinter. She says she heard it, but she was farther away during midwinter. It's definitely going to happen again, she notes. Did Da-Xie know that Hiro's sister and he were in it? "You have a sister?" Da-Xie remarks in surprise. Hiro explains that the Southrons kidnapped them and tied them up and tried to kill them.
Da-Xie protests again: "They tied you up and did bad stuff, and you went and found Mr. Grumpy Grumpy-head to keep you safe, instead of me!" Hiro admits that this is true, though he figures she means Master Zhou (who else would be described as Mr. Grumpy Grumpy-Head?), and protests that he didn't know her then. She should come with them in the future! Master Zhou, suspecting a different identity for Mr. Grumpy Grumpy-Head, asks about Wei Han, and she does a mocking impersonation of him, stomping around on stiff arms and legs.
- "He follows orders and hits things with a stick and does everything the boring way." -Da-Xie
- "Ah, so you have met him before?" -Master Zhou
- "No, not this time." -Da-Xie
- "What?" -Cai Wen
- "'Not this time!' How is that not perfectly clear?" -Takanata
(Takanata has an unfair advantage in figuring this all out, having previously read Wei Han's I Ching, and gotten a result much like the I Ching for the Northern Wall; he's also been told that Yanyu says Wei Han's Cycle aspect is "Winter", some portion each of Bear, Dog, and Crane.)
Takanata asks Da-Xie if there is also a Spring and a Fall, but she doesn't think so. Master Zhou catches on:
- "You are Summer and he is Winter."
The discussion of what it means to be Summer or Winter is interrupted by Elder Stonekeeper, who says that as it will be sunset soon, he is starting the ritual to summon the ancestor spirits. Takanata and Master Zhou pay careful attention as he places carvings and flowers around the the frozen house - it doesn't look like a magic ritual, but is very reminiscent of Master Tien's exorcism.
As the ceremony begins, leaves begin to rustle and blow about, circling the house. Xian notes pockets of energy rising from the ground where the offerings were left. Stonekeeper calls upon the ancestor spirits to release the trapped mystic, and continues to chant. Then, as the sun touches the horizon, Da-Xie screams, and the leaves fall to the ground as if embarrassed to be in the air. Xian notes all of the invisible energy shooting off to the south. (Shuyan notes that the heat source is still there inside the ice).
Da-Xie asks, unhappily, "Why would they have stolen all of the ghosts?"
Hiro mentions that his sister is often considered a ghost. Da-Xie exclaims, "You have a sister!?" Hiro nods, "I do." Da-Xie frowns a bit and then takes Shuyan aside and whispers to her:
- "Usually, when your sister is a ghost, you say 'did' instead of 'do'" -Da-Xie to Shuyan
Hiro tests out his new shtick, learned from Ling and Lung, and sees through Hana's eyes - she is flying towards the south Wall at high speed, trapped. Takanata notes that it will be several days to get to the Wall, but if they hurry, they should reach it by midsummer. But that's days away - they can spend a few more minutes trying to fix the ice.
Takanata builds a fire under the ice, in the hole Wei Han dug and is surprised to see the ice grow down and engulf the fire. Da-Xie notes that this is very irritating, and says she's going to head off and try to find out where Hiro's sister is. She'll be back in a bit.
So... if fire makes the ice grow, does cooling it down make it melt? Lijuan tries pouring some water on it, and fans it with an origami fan that Takanata makes for her, but this doesn't seem to get rid of the ice.
In the nearby woods, some birds fly out of the trees. Wei Han is sure that something very irritating is going on, and heads into the woods to check. Da-Xie is standing in a circle of vines which seem to have grown up around her.
- "Spirit of the Butterfly, Spirit of the Phoenix, Spirit of the Serp... argh! What are you doing here? Don't you have Wintery stuff to deal with!? Leave me alone!"
Wei Han stomps back to the ice house, to be cornered by Hiro. If he's "winter", can't he do something about the ice. He points to the scratch marks left by the ice pick. "No, something that works", Hiro complains. Hiro badgers him into trying to push on the ice with his hand, and with effort, it's more than just wet but melts a little under his hand. As he pushes on the ice, his hand slowly sinks in, and then the ice reforms on the other side.
As Wei Han heads, slowly, into the ice, he's surrounded by coldness, and order. The irritating girl, Cai Wen wandering blithely into danger - it's all gone. He's very tempted to stay, but makes a resolve roll and keeps pushing forwards.
Outside, stormclouds start to roll in, and there are several lightning strikes in the field where Da-Xie was last seen.
The trip takes Wei Han all night; inside the house, there's a man who is frozen, in the act of turning away from the table and starting to run. On the table is a little stand, a rock, a piece of glass, and a candle. Wei Han pinches out the candle, and picks up the rock and the guy.
Outside, once the candle has been put out, the ice begins to sweat and drip. It is high summer in the south, and now that the ice suddenly seems to be just ice, it is more easily pick-axed apart. Inside, Wei Han notes with unhappiness that something has begun to ruin his perfect orderly place of peace. He sighs and carries the mystic and starmetal relic out.
Though rescued, Chen is badly chilled and will require several days of warm blankets and broth to become lucid again. Elder Stonekeeper says he has tried to communicate with the ancestor spirits - he could not reach them, and thinks they are in danger.
The village is very grateful for the party's efforts in rescuing Chen - is there anything they can offer to be of help in rescuing the ancestor spirits as well? The village's two plowhorses are borrowed, as well as the star-metal relic. Cai Wen asks about their best wilderness tracker, but that is apparently Soy. They decline to take him.
Hiro looks through Hana's eyes again - the southrons, led by the Guy Hiro Hates, have finished a ritual, and there is a big glowing dome over the circle that he and Hana are in. The other southrons are cleaning up the bits from the first ritual, and setting up for a new one, most notably building a large wood pile for a bonfire. Lijuan wonders if they took Hana in the hopes that Hiro would show up - but there is no stopping Hiro from charging to the rescue at this point.
Shadows On the Wall
The party dashes for the Southern Wall in the direction that Xian indicated the ancestor spirits went. When they are nearly there, on the Day of the Phoenix (that is, midsummer), Da-Xie meets the group and complains that they should have gotten faster horses. Takanata checks - was the storm her doing? Yes, she says, she was preparing. Hiro describes the ritual setup he has seen, and Cai Wen clarifies that they're "trying to make the yerg turn" (Xian re-clarifies that the word is "yuga", but Da-Xie is not interested in southern words). Da-Xie thinks from the description, they will be doing a ritual in the shadows cast by the fire onto the Wall.
The ritual begins - Hana and the leader are in the glowing circle, there are piles of wood, metal, water, and stone surrounding the circle, the bonfire is lit, and twelve people construct animal masks and put them on. They begin to run back and forth between the circle and the wall, ferrying... something. When the party reaches the scene, there have been several rounds of successful running, and each animal has scored one point for its season in the ritual tally.
Da-Xie tries to figure out what she can, while others start the fight.
- The closer you are to the wall, the stronger your shadow is. The farther away you are from the wall, the more reflexive your shadow is.
Lijuan shouts "Surrender or die!", though follows that up by immediately shooting her target. (Yoshi would be proud of the initial impulse, but might want to check up on the follow-through). Xian shouts "Wait, wait, stop everything! You need to use the talisman!" and waves an arrow at the cultists, but he is not yet very convincing, as he has forgotten to speak Senatali.
- When the tally of each season gets to 18 (Hana's age), it's done.
The leader calls out (translated by Cai Wen) telling the cultists to not stop to defend themselves - just keep running. Xian continues his fast talk, this time remembering his Senatali.
- "You need to plunge the talisman into the sacrifice!" -Xian
- "If you are telling them to stab my sister, we are going to have words after the combat." -Hiro
The Crane ritualist starts to be confused by the different instructions; the leader shouts at him that if he takes the 'talisman' then Kali will feast upon the entrails of his family for a dozen generations.
Takanata considers using the star metal to chop the wood - but southron rituals are so haphazard, that it's hard to be sure it would disrupt things as much as it would in a proper ritual. Cai Wen helps Xian confuse the Crane ritualist, and between the two of them he ends up befuddled enough that he will never really recover.
- This is very confusing. If we thwart them in the short term it could be worse in the long term. But if we don't thwart them, they win. Watch out for the thwackback. There's something I'm missing.
- "Is it possible we need to tag the wall and bring things back again?" -Wei Han
- "Don't be silly!" -Da-Xie
- "That probably means I'm right." -Wei Han
Takanata folds an origami butterfly, and flaps its wings on the wall. Da-Xie thinks that's great: "That's a two die butterfly! Attack shadows with it!" Even better, Takanata crosses the Butterfly-ritualist's shadow with his origami butterfly, and steals what it was carrying to the Wall (he thinks it's part of Hana's Yin, kind of.)
As Hiro charges into the arc of light cast by the fire on the Wall, his juggling torches burst into flames, and he (along with Hana and the leader, who are inside the glowing dome) casts no shadow on the Wall. He leaps into the dome and stabs the leader, but Hana is linked to him and takes equal damage (but has fewer hit points total!).
Master Zhou grabs the Tiger-ritualist's mask - it falls to pieces. However, there is still the shadow of a tiger on the Wall, no longer quite as controlled by the man casting it.
- If you take them down, or take their masks, their shadows keep doing the ritual. But Hiro has no shadow, so he's free to chop them!
Hiro tries to pull Hana out of the circle, but that doesn't work - much like trying to pull her out of the ghost trap didn't either. He takes her hair combs and puts them in his own hair, looking like her, but while the leader can't tell which is which at that point, he still can't get Hana out.
- Hiro is the only person who can take out a guy and his shadow at the same time.
The leader calls down lightning to try to strike Takanata (who has gotten far too irritating with his shadow-butterfly), but a second bolt of lightning (one of Da-Xie's) knocks it aside. Takanata, emboldened, manages to steal the Shadow of the Butterfly from the other guy to his own butterfly. Now his butterfly is the ritual Butterfly. Da-Xie declares that Takanata is pretty cool for an old guy, and smites the ex-Butterfly ritualist with a lightning bolt for good measure.
Hiro apologizes to Hana and thumps her, hoping that knocking her out will knock the leader out too, but he isn't able to knock her out automatically, and that just does both her and the leader more damage.
Xian alters the emotions of the Crane ritualist from confusion into submissive fear - as it turns out, he already had a lot of submissive fear, but now it's all directed at Xian.
Most of the party is attacking various shadows, and slowly taking them out of the ritual. Taking out the Tiger's shadow is a bit of a tactical problem, as that frees the Tiger ritualist to run around attacking people. Takanata takes the Shadow of the Butterfly to the edge of the firelight, and lets it go. After that, he makes an origami phoenix. It isn't very good, though - perhaps setting it on fire would help.
Wei Han takes out the Tiger ritualist just before the latter finishes killing Shuyan. He also tries to claim the Bear's shadow for his own, but just damages it enough to take it down. Hiro grapples with the leader (Aikido!), knocking him out of the center hex that he seems to need for lightning bolts. The party manages to take down the shadows of two of each season, so the ritual is still going on, but only very slowly. The cultists that have lost their shadows attempt to engage - the Tortoise ritualist nerve-strikes Xian, and the Fox tries to distract Lijuan - she giggles and bats her eyes, so he probably thinks it worked.
Wei Han tries to grab the leader through the glowing circle, but takes damage and is thrown back. The Magpie steals Lijuan's bow. Takanata tries to draw an exit with the elemental crayon, the way he drew an exit from the ghost trap. He spends the piece of Hana's yin that he has, and manages to clear four of the Fall-season tallies. The last Fall shadow is dropped, so the ritual cannot continue.
At this point, the leader switches to Plan B and shouts "The ritual is complete. I invoke the yang!" Lightning bolts strike all the cultists who have no shadows, and everyone in the party - except that Da-Xie, who was waiting for this, manages to ground out all the lightning except the bolt that hits Wei Han (she apologizes, but she just can't). Hiro also takes eight lightning bolts, but they seem to fill him with energy instead of slaying him dead. Takanata thinks now he has the giant reserve of Yang the way Hana has the giant reserve of Yin.
At this point, the leader's force field shrinks to be around just him, and he starts walking towards the Wall. Takanata runs as far forward as he can, throwing the star-metal talisman to Master Zhou and grabbing up Hiro's fallen fire-batons to try to cast a shadow of the leader on the wall with them.
Lijuan stands directly between the leader and the Wall, blocking his forward progress with two strength and bravado. Unfortunately, that's thirty-five points of damage for her as he tries to push by. Zhou touches the glowing aura with the starmetal. He takes damage, but the glowing aura leaps into the starmetal. Da-Xie shouts "Ancestor spirits, that's the right side, not the other guy!"
As the leader's shadow has appeared, people chop at it, but he manages to get to the wall and vanish into it before they can destroy his shadow. The last three cultists (Monkey, Serpent, Spider) try to kill themselves, but between much grabbing and distracting, Serpent is captured.
Da-Xie warns Hiro: "You're going to have to be careful. We could have ended the threat once and for all, but then you would be dead too. And you're nice, so that would be sad. You have to be extra careful now, though, and at midwinter you have to have Mr. Grumpy Grumpy-head help, because I won't be able to."
She thinks that Plan A was taking Hana's Yin to the Wall - this would have taken Hana out of being significant (though maybe then she would just be dead), but would have let the southrons have all that Yin to do whatever they wanted with themselves. Plan B was to shift to a much longer-term ritual - so now last Midwinter was "invoke the Yin" and this Midsummer is "invoke the Yang". Next they will probably do something to invoke the elements somehow. That will need to use powerful elemental essences - maybe big elemental spirits, maybe something else.
People ask if the plan should be just to take the fight to the Southrons and chase them over the Wall and kill them rather than waiting for them to come back. Da-Xie is adamant that under no circumstances should people go over the wall, and if they did, she wouldn't let them come back in. Everyone resolutely doesn't mention that they've all left the Empire already, since Da-Xie seems to be so bothered by the idea. And both Wei Han and Da-Xie can agree that it's unfortunate that the Wall hasn't gotten as much attention as it should.
Takanata reads the I Ching on the serpent cultist. He doesn't have a lot of future - he has pledged his Chi to another, and when the time comes to move on to the next world, he is not going to have a good time of it for his failures here. While he resembles a "Serpent" in nature (which is probably why he was chosen for this task), he is in no way actually touched by the Great Serpent Spirit.
- Hiro calls together Hana, Takanata, and Yoshi for a Tokai War Council.
- Takanata organizes a return trip to Ancient Stones (including so far Master Zhou, The Confounding Xian, Wei Han, Hiro, and Lijuan).
- Takanata delegates "Interrogate the remaining southron" to Cai Wen (plus others).
- Master Zhou gets Shen-Ji to look at the star-metal before it gets returned to Ancient Stones.
- Cai Wen, Wei Han, Merit, Kasumi, and Min Feng take a trip to the Savanna to look into the fate of the Butterfly Treasures.
- Master Zhou discovers that there is a monk of the Ascending Path in the circus, and interrogates him.
- Cai Wen and Master Zhou both try to get a briefing about Summer / Winter from Da-Xie. So do Hiro and Hana, but they also invite her to dinner.
- Wei Han, Cai Wen, Lijuan, Takanata, Anto, Xian, Shen-Ji and Master Zhou head west to look for the ice-covered pagoda. People collect perilous ice chips.
- Hiro leads an Expedition to the Top of the Wall.
- Anto, Master Zhou, and Xiao Fa visit a dojo in the Savanna of Tears where another Master of the Five Elements (Master Kangjon) teaches. They also meet Master Fu, who teaches the Way of the Leaping Flame, and Master Hwa, who teaches the Way of the Turning Wave.
- GM note for the future: The PCs not in the run are generally assumed to be busy doing circus-related tasks and should not be counted upon for protection. But Hiro is not kidnapped at this time.