|"Virtuous for ten years is still not enough; evil for one day is too much already."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Tiger, in the month of the Butterfly, long after the War.|
The run takes place in the World Below.
Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush had just touched the amulet of the Municipal Sorcerer. A moment later, they find themselves in the middle of a blasted landscape, full of craters and destruction - and ripper demons.
- "Shoot. I meant to buy Intimidation." -Shen-Ji
He tries to convince the demons that they are great and powerful sorcerers, and if the demons don't leave them alone, then Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush will trample them beneath their feet. The demons start converging, waiting for the larger ones to make a move.
- "Okay, I'm going to blow up the map... oh, shoot. She's here. I have to do this the hard way." -Shen-Ji
Shen-Ji hits the smaller demons with iron arrows, "killing" them, but both he and Ebon Brush take a claw attack (and Shen-Ji discovers he is not wearing his armor) as they try to get away from the demons. They build themselves a temporary fortress out of iron walls and brambles, taking a breather until they can shoot again. (Ebon Brush protests that she is not a fighter - walls of brambles and arrows with the enemy's name written on them are about her only combat shticks).
After the crowd of demons is defeated, it is time for bitter recriminations.
- "That was your plan? Toss me into a pile of demons? What did I ever do to you?" -Ebon Brush
Shen-Ji protests that it wasn't really his plan, it was Ming I's plan, and Ebon Brush wasn't supposed to win the contest. Ebon Brush is pretty sure that Shen-Ji was trying to get her to touch the amulet first, though, and is having none of Shen-Ji's protestations of innocence.
- "Ming I is worried I'm going to replace her as the Alchemist's Apprentice." -Shen-Ji
- "Well, are you?" -Ebon Brush
- "Now I am!"
- "Then you don't need the Municipal Sorcerer job. Once we get out of here, I'll take that and you can be the apprentice."
So... maybe they can find some forests around here somewhere, with friendly tengu to help them?
- "Think of this as your vacation before starting your new job. Like taking a year backpacking around the Twelve Kingdoms." -Shen-Ji
Backpacking aside, Shen-Ji assures Ebon Brush that his stalwart companions will totally be here any minute now to rescue them. Well, maybe not any minute now. They might take a while, so waiting around in the middle of the battlefield might not be the best plan. (Ebon Brush says her patron is not so much for storming the gates of the World Below, but she will no doubt write some strongly worded notes.)
The pair starts to walk around, exploring a bit. The whole area seems to be the site of a great battle between.... something, and something else. There is the occasional tree which has been chopped in half, or exploded, and there are scattered bits of chitinous shell, like a really big lobster. The scenery does not seem to change very much, and after a while, they find the bodies of the ripper demons again.
Shen-Ji examines the immediate area with Magical Analysis, and can see the fading remnants of the breach between worlds. It's not a permanent portal or even a permanent hole, and it's healing itself up again - though Shen-Ji thinks there's something not quite right about how it's doing so.
They build a bramble-iron shelter on the side of a crater for the night, and Shen-Ji also notes that the wall of iron seems less... iron-y... than it usually does. That would probably be an environmental effect for this particular Place, rather than an effect of the World Below in general.
Shen-Ji contemplates what he knows about the World Below - how would they get somewhere else? Aren't there supposed to be Paths? Places are definitely connected by Paths, but the things that makes them Paths is that you can usually see that they exist. It's possible to have a secret or hidden Path, but that would likely be for a particularly secret or hidden Place.
In the morning, the iron walls are all rusted and pitted. And, nobody seems to have arrived to rescue them. Could Ebon Brush send a message back to the world, with her calligraphy magic? She says that while she could have done so if she had set something up in advance, she didn't have any communication spells running when she was dropped here, as she was using all her dice for the competition.
- "So, how long do you think it will take them to get here?" -Ebon Brush
- "Well, I'm their only sorcerer, so they may need a while to find someone..." -Shen-Ji, totally maligning Kuan-Xi
The pair sets out again, but find it difficult to make too much progress away from the battlefield - the farther they get, the more tiring it is, and resting farther away is less restful. They decide to make a mad dash to see how far they can get, and after several hours of brisk walking, spot a dot on the horizon. As they approach, the dot becomes clearer - it's a snail shell the size of a small house.
A huge-mouthed frog hops up.
- "You're new here. You moving into Speedy's place?"
- "We're checking out the neighborhood."
- "This is pretty much the middle of the neighborhood, but nobody lives in Speedy's place, not since the war."
The frog explains that Speedy was "a demon of speed and time", and says that he could tell stories about the war, but when he gets to the end of the story, he'll have to eat Shen-Ji. Speedy used to travel around this area, zipping about with his house on his back. But there was a lobster, a demon of something more like stasis (and pinching), that took exception to Speedy, and they clashed in a titanic battle. The lobster certainly didn't win, but nobody has seen Speedy since either. This was cycles and cycles ago.
Are there other demons in the area that Shen-Ji should talk to? The frog says that Shen-Ji should beware of No Face Ko - his stories never have good endings.
Speaking of not-good endings, the frog decides it would be more polite to eat Ebon Brush, but before he can finish doing so, Shen-Ji fills him with arrows.
Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush continue to stay in the snail shell, and the longer they stay, the roomier it becomes. As the months pass, Ebon Brush starts to get quite cross - surely this is enough time for Shen-Ji's friends to mount a rescue? She's going to be trapped in this stupid place forever, and it's Shen-Ji's fault. The atmosphere of the snail shell grows chilly and unhappy, and thus ends the Year of the Magpie.
Early in the next winter, Shen-Ji hears Ebon Brush stomping about upstairs in the snail shell, and decides to stay downstairs. Then she comes in from outside. Hmm. They go upstairs to investigate, but there doesn't seem to be anyone there. The upstairs has a long hallway, with a bedroom at either end, and each day the hall gets longer, increasing the distance between them. Some footsteps are heard from Shen-Ji's room, and they come up behind him. His Yin senses suggest that there is a demon right behind him, but he doesn't bother to look.
- "Not even a little bit? Is that so much to ask?"
Shen-Ji asks what his name is, and the invisible demon boggles. He's going to start with that? Oh, well, a nickname will do. The demon's nickname is "Footsteps", apparently.
Shen-Ji suggests that he would be scarier if he teamed up with a demon of darkness and a demon of odd winds and a demon of unusual silences, and that he should probably practice in the Material World where things are less weird to start with. Footsteps doesn't have a good way to get to the Material World, though he notes that Abozu ("a blue monk who kidnaps children") gets up there a lot.
Shen-Ji name-drops Giichi as a demon of darkness who isn't available any longer, which intrigues the little demon, and in exchange for the story of the Shadow, he says that Shen-Ji can call on him (his true name is Betobeto) if he needs any scary footsteps. They have a pleasant afternoon chatting, and Shen-Ji tells Betobeto to go and stomp around at Ebon Brush's end of the hallway for the night. Ebon Brush is not pleased, though Betobeto is, and agrees that the whole spooky footsteps thing works better in the dark.
Ebon Brush makes a number of notes on a parchment, glaring at Shen-Ji.
A few months later, Shen-Ji is puttering around outside the snail shell, when he sees in the distance, a gate opening. It is the Gate of Five Elements, and Anto is waving to Shen-Ji to hurry, from the other side! Shen-Ji grabs Ebon Brush, and they run for the gate, but just as they are about to reach it, Anto stumbles backwards and the gate closes.
- "No! What kind of stupid friends do you have?" -Ebon Brush
- "Well, he's the Wu-Xing, but he's kind of on detached duty." -Shen-Ji
On the other side of the snail shell, another gate opens, with Anto waving more wildly. As they run for the gate, Anto shouts at them that he can't hold it open for much longer, and again it shuts before they reach it. There are brief bitter recriminations about who runs too slowly, until another gate opens to the north of the snail house. Again, they do not reach it in time; at this point, Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush head back into the house, tired of being taunted by gates.
In the morning, an Imperial palanquin, carried by burly men in livery, comes up to the snail shell, and Precious Jade waves from inside it, telling them to climb aboard. However, just as they reach the palanquin, one of the bearers stumbles, and the palanquin rolls away and vanishes. Okay, that seems a little implausible, even for the very desperate.
Ebon Brush, annoyed, writes something on a piece of paper, remarking that she hopes no demons steal their secrets when they escape. She folds the paper and fails to put it in her pocket, dropping it to the ground. Then they head to the next fake gate, and in a moment or two, behind them is an explosion, revealing an overly tall and spindly guy, covered with soot.
The mirage-demon agrees that that was fair, especially since he got them both several times. He's just passing through, and notes that they don't normally see mortals around this area. Speedy's place is the best place to stay, though.
So... where did he come from? The mirage demon waves his arm back towards a dock, with a large sailing ship docked, and various passengers disembarking. The demon is sure that the ship would be willing to give Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush a ride home, but they aren't so convinced.
Shen-Ji asks if the demon could provide them with a mirage of a nice tropical island. He certainly could, but what does Shen-Ji offer? Shen-Ji offers that the demon can torment Ebon Brush for a while, but the demon thinks he's perfectly capable of doing that without Shen-Ji arranging it. Shen-Ji suggests that possibly if the demon can get Shen-Ji to the Material World, then he could summon the demon there as a favor. This seems a little circular, plus the demon doesn't have a good way to get Shen-Ji home, so that negotiation doesn't get very far.
Shen-Ji offers to give the mirage demon some pointers on illusions and art (being an art sorcerer with art appreciation skill), in exchange for more information about Speedy and the Lobster. The battle between the two was what makes the whole area kind of restful, because their effects are still in place - sometimes larger demons stop by to have a training montage. The two aren't permanently gone, they just haven't rebuilt yet, and there are bets on as to who comes back first. (Most bets are on Speedy, since his shell persists).
Shen-Ji tells some stories about interesting visually dramatic places he has been, and the mirage demon warns him that if he sees a giant turtle in these parts, it's the Black Tortoise of Winter and Despair, and to keep his head down. Shen-Ji makes him a couple of sculptures, and he provides a "tropical isle" illusion for a couple of days, before heading on again .
It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that any hope of rescue is a false one. Ebon Brush plants a better garden around the outside of the snail shell, and seems to decide that if she's trapped here with Shen-Ji forever, she might as well stop blaming him for it. The atmosphere softens, and the long long hallway grows shorter again.
Thus ends the Year of the Bear.
Shen-Ji wonders whether living in the snail shell will help or hinder Speedy's return. His best guess is that making the shell more home-y will make it more likely that Speedy comes back first. Shen-Ji starts smashing all the lobster carapace bits that he comes across in his wanderings, though eventually he becomes sure that he is smashing the same bit of shell more than once.
Shen-Ji is out stomping on lobster shells one day, when he sees himself surrounded by a swarm of floating eyes. There is a scream from back towards the snail shell, and the floating eyes move to try to block him from reaching the shell. The eyes blink as if to say "Don't worry about it, everything will be fine," but Shen-Ji hops on his floating disk and floats above the eyes, getting back to the snail-house as quickly as possible.
In the garden, there's a blue monk with an arrow in one shoulder, with a bag with Ebon Brush's legs sticking out.
- "Abozu, stop!" -Shen-Ji
- "Who are you to speak the name of Abozu?" -Abozu
- "This is my house, and you are a trespasser."
- "Very well, I shall go."
- "But not with anything you have taken from here."
- "What do you care for this one?"
- "I shall miss her if she is gone."
Shen-Ji notes that Ebon Brush is not a child, and Abozu is defying his nature by taking one who is not a child. Abozu grumbles that there are not many children in the World Below, but confronted by Shen-Ji's demonic legalism, he drops Ebon Brush.
Abozu claims that it has been a long time since he has been satisfied by a child from the Material World - there is a new order that prevents travel the way it was once permitted. Shen-Ji notes that if Abozu had just talked to them first, they might have been able to help! Abozu is dubious - does Shen-Ji have a way to convince the great spirits that they are fit to walk in their lands? Shen-Ji claims that he does know why the great spirits have closed the walls between the worlds more firmly. Abozu says that if he explains, and they taste the truth of it, then they will be in his debt. Do they have a child who needs taking? Shen-Ji can't think of one, so the floating-eye-swarm offers the gift of sight, once for each of them. Shen-Ji haggles: once for each eye for each of them! Agreed, but they must give Abozu and the eyeswarm all of the details.
Shen-Ji tells the great story of the demon Aku taking the skin of Spider and trying to take over the whole Cycle, in quite a bit of detail. This sounds very implausible, but Abozu can tell that he is fulfilling the bargain, so at least he believes it is true. Which makes it an interesting story. The two demons go off again, somewhat disturbed, and Ebon Brush demonstrates her aptitude for working with Precious Jade with an impressive seduction roll.
Thus passes the Year of the Dog.
The next visitor to the snail house is the Black Donkey, who Shen-Ji recalls from a terrible ride on a past Night of Gates. However, the Donkey is not in its field, and does not seem inclined to force either of the sorcerers to ride him.
According to the Donkey, Horse is doing "too well", so Shen-Ji cuts a deal - once he has returned to the Material World, he will introduce the Black Donkey to the Witch Raised By Wolves, who works for a rival of Horse. In exchange, the Donkey will visit the nearby Places and tell him what may be coming. Shen-Ji asks if the Donkey can bring them to the Material World - probably, but they would not be likely to survive the journey.
Some months later, Ebon Brush says that she is pregnant. What this means with no bodies is a little unclear, but Shen-Ji thinks that the growing baby will tap its mother's (or father's) Tao instead of her body. As both parents would prefer a healthy child, Ebon Brush spends four tao, and Shen-Ji spends six.
Thus passes the Year of the Crane.
In the Year of the Tiger, a daughter is born, named Jia-Jia, and by the end of the year, it seems clear that she is growing faster than children normally do. Not that either of them is highly experienced with babies, but she's walking at six months, which seems a little early. She happily stomps on bits of lobster shell "like Daddy".
In the Year of the Tortoise, the visiting demons prove to be more interested in information than trouble, which is good, since the two visitors are Carnage and Shrike.
The little family is outside in the garden, when a small army of ripper demons starts to cross the landscape, with a taller demon lord in the center, and a smaller flappy thing near it. Shen-Ji tells Jia-Jia to go in the shell and shut the door, and then suggests that Ebon Brush set up protective thornbushes while he talks to the demons. As she has no interest in chatting with ripper demons, she heads to the shell to make it as protected as possible.
Shen-Ji heads to the large demon, and asks what causes them to pass through these lands. The demon Carnage says that he is moving his resources to the west, as there is more war coming there. Shen-Ji wonders if that's the same West as in the Material World - if it was North or South, he would be more confident that it was, but East and West he is less sure of.
Shen-Ji tells the stories of Giichi and Aku again, as they appear to be interesting commodities - Carnage thinks the story of Aku is intriguing, and he may need the assistance of Carnage some time soon. In return, Carnage says that he will tell details of any one battle that Shen-Ji chooses. It's been so long since Shen-Ji had to think of any material world battles, he picks the battle between Speedy and the Lobster Demon.
Carnage says that Speedy was actually a spirit, not a demon, who was a traveler, and who had come to travel through the World Below. The lobster was a demon of speed and time, and the battle between them completely broke time and space in this Place. Speedy had been sent to this Place by the Imperial Alchemist, and then he tipped the scales of the battle such that instead of a victory to one, the battle was equal and both of them fell. Then he took his prize, a piece of the lobster demon, and took it home, where he uses it to do something regarding his youth, but the details of that are beyond the tale of the battle.
Shen-Ji says that he is interested in setting up a hell contract with Carnage for the summoning of ripper demons - what is the traditional price to learn such a thing? Carnage says that a popular price is a vow to use the shtick in each combat at least once.
- "It's good to have carnage happen in more than just the combats it was planned for." -Carnage
Shen-Ji isn't keen on that one, but another possibility is to have the demons do a minimum amount of damage in a combat. (That means that the last one will be harder to get rid of until the requisite amount of damage has been done.)
The power of the shtick will be the damage multiplier that the demons do, and they will be required to do 100 hit points per power as part of the price. Shen-Ji throws his weight (and a karma) into a bargaining roll, and pushes the price down to 50 hit points per power, and he also learns one of the loopholes: that damage that takes someone negative doesn't count below zero unless the target dies. The cost (the price paid to the demons to summon them) is 10 hit points in blood per demon summoned, which can be healed only through normal rest and recuperation.
Shen-Ji asks about the possibility of the demons being summoned and then dispelled by a higher power or the like - what happens to the damage that is owed? Carnage says that he will collect it one way or another. Shen-Ji clarifies in the bargain that if he summons the same demons again in the same combat that they have been dispelled that they don't have to do twice as much damage. He would, however, have to pay the hit points to summon them a second time.
For the final piece of business - the hell contract must be put somewhere, and Shen-Ji doesn't actually have a body to put it on. Where or with whom would Shen-Ji like the hell contract delivered? He contemplates this question, and apparently decides that there isn't anyone in the party who he can trust with his descent into nefariousness, and asks to have it sent to his sister.
The Shrike asks if he has any enemies that he would like hung on a tree for all eternity, and while Shen-Ji is pretty clear that Ming I counts as such an enemy, he would rather have her just die, and declines the offer.
Thus passes the Year of the Tortoise.
In the next year, the demon visitor is one that Shen-Ji recognizes - Kibo! He is carrying a very tattered dream, as if it has been a long time coming.
Hmm. "As quickly as possible" seems a little unlikely at this point, but if time and space are broken, who knows? Ebon Brush can use her calligraphy sorcery to rewrite the dream, so she writes on the page that they are in the giant snail shell near the battlefield, and they provide warnings about some of the more dangerous demons in the area. Then, they give the dream back to Kibo and send him back to Takanata.
Jia-Jia is much disappointed at Kibo leaving again, as she thinks the little yumekui is one of the more interesting things she has seen in a while.
Thus ends the Year of the Monkey.
In the Year of the Butterfly, another somewhat familiar demon happens by - Muzxi, the metal-spined cactus. He brings word that while this is a particularly safe spot in the environs, things have begun to heat up in the rest of the World Below. Rumors have begun to fly that all the Great Spirits are really skinwalking demons, and the demons still in the World Below are contemplating rebellion.
Muzxi spends a couple of days in the garden, and then declares that it's time to go out and start poking things again, and heads out.
Thus ends the Year of the Butterfly.
Jia-Jia looks to be about twelve, and is a master lobster-shell-stomper in her own right. She is probably a little more fearless than anyone living in the World Below ought to be, and in the spring, she returns from a walk with a demon sidekick, who she calls Ghost Fire. She declares that Mommy said that kids are supposed to have pets, so now she has one. Ghost Fire seems to be a ball of cold fire, that can float about or halo Jia-Jia or nearby objects, and as far as Shen-Ji can tell, it isn't too dangerous. The main problem would be if it got stuck in someone (the way the rattle-headed spirits did), but since Jia-Jia doesn't have a body, that shouldn't be a problem.
Wait, Jia-Jia doesn't have a body. That's a little disturbing to have to think about head-on - Shen-Ji has been avoiding thinking about it so far.
Off in the distance, a great black tortoise begins to walk by, but all three of the family hide in the snail shell and put iron walls in front of the door, and it does not bother them.
In the Year of the Phoenix, Jia-Jia begins to show some talent in an art that combines her father's art sorcery and her mother's writing sorcery into what Ebon Brush terms "Depictomancy". The main thing that this manifests as is that sometimes she'll be doing something, and she'll want something from the house or elsewhere, and instead of getting it, she'll draw a picture of it instead and use the picture in ways that aren't really appropriate.
One day Jia-Jia announces that there is a strange guy over near the stream. Shen-Ji doesn't recall there being a stream, but they head over together, staying a safe distance away. The old man is grinding azuki beans between two rocks.
- "Will I grind my beans, or will I get a person to eat?"
- "I suspect beans. " -Shen-Ji
Jia-Jia is intrigued by the beans and wants to see more, but Shen-Ji tells her not to get any closer. Shen-Ji, looking closer, realizes that the beans are, in fact, made of people, and tells Jia-Jia that they would spoil her supper. They back away slowly, and nobody is eaten.
In the Year of the Serpent, tragedy strikes. Shen-Ji returns from a lobster-shell-cracking walk, and sees a gaping hole in the side of the snail shell. He rushes in, and finds some odd-colored blood, and a wall of brambles in front of the downstairs closet. Shen-Ji shouts for Ebon Brush and Jia-Jia, and Jia-Jia answers from the closet. She says that Mom put her in the closet and told her to not make any noise, but that she heard something say it was going to take her face!
The demon was mocking Ebon Brush, and she didn't say anything and didn't say anything, until it said that it already got Shen-Ji, and then she said "No!" and then Jia-Jia didn't hear anything else.
Shen-Ji goes upstairs, full of dread, and finds... something. It would be Ebon Brush's body if there were bodies here, but instead, it's just a husk, like a memory of someone's chi, slowly fading out of the world. He casts about for any sort of magical trail, but there's nothing, other than an imprint that a demon did something demonic here.
Shen-Ji tries to get Jia-Jia to draw a picture of what happened, and all she can come up with is a picture of No-Face Ko, now in a tree made of gnarled roots. Shen-Ji is at a loss for what else to do, so father and daughter sit together in shared grief, saying nothing.
Thus ends the Year of the Serpent.
The demons in the Year of the Fox are more friendly and talkative; these include Water Monkey, and Maelstrom. Water Monkey comes in to take shelter from the storm, though he is dripping enough water on the carpet that he might as well still be out in it. The oncoming spiral storm passes over the little snail shell, and then the doorbell chimes. At the door is a tall Child of the Bamboo.
Maelstrom wishes to speak again to the "one in red", who no longer speaks with them. He knew many ways, which Maelstrom would like to bargain to learn. Shen-Ji notes that they haven't spoken in ten years, but Yama does still owe him a briefing, so he can drop a word if he does ever see him again, and will try to convince him to speak to Maelstrom. Maelstrom notes that without Yama's ways, they cannot send someone to the Material World, but they can send a message, for there is still one who listens to their voice, in Dutiful Serenity. They will seek out No-Face Ko, and when they eventually find him, they will send a message to Shen-Ji to tell him where he is, if Shen-Ji is in the Material World by then.
Maelstrom leaves again, and Water Monkey is greatly puzzled by the whole thing. Shen-Ji tells the story of Spiral and Swiftgreen, in exchange for a confusing story about a party with monkeys - Water Monkey was originally a demon of Wet, but Monkey disguised him permanently as a monkey after he crashed one of Monkey's parties.
In the Year of the Spider, a demon named Carrion shows up, looking quite ominous with a man's body and a vulture's head, though he seems friendly enough. He used to spend a lot of time here in the old days, taking things that people have forgotten about, and making them go away permanently.
However, he seems a little too interested in learning what Jia-Jia's real name is, and Shen-Ji finally decides to put some iron arrows in him before anything else can happen.
Late in the year, Jia-Jia brings a sketch to Shen-Ji - does he recognize any of these demons?
The picture shows Kuan-Xi, Lijuan, Wei Han, Shuyan, Xian, Xiao Fa, and Master Zhou.
- "Ah, the demons of my youth." -Shen-Ji