Night of Gates
|"Down along the rocky shore,
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake."
| It is the Night of Gates, between summer and autumn, in the second Year of the Fox since the ascension of the High Warlord Ze.|
The run takes place mostly in the Forest of Chin
Deep in the Forest
While the Circus has been traveling through the City of Spires and performing there, Hiro has led an expedition (of Shen-Ji and Anto) to the Forest of Chin, to talk to his mentor Pir Pir, a tengu. Pir Pir has given them some advice about elemental spirits, and what to do about the Southerners, but notes that if they wish to meet more spirits, the thing that they should do is come with him to a Grand Council of Spirits and Demons that night. Sadly, even one as exalted as he, would not be able to get them in unless they had some stolen elephants with them. They question him on this point and he's quite clear that a stolen elephant would definitely make sure they get into the party... er... meeting.
So, they start planning how to kidnap elephants. Pir Pir makes them little hats out of twigs and berries to wear as disguises when they go to get the elephants, so no one will recognize them during their thievery. (After all, if they just give you elephants, they aren't stolen.) Hiro points out that the difficult part is getting the circus and them in the same place at the same time, with enough time left over to get the elephants to the council meeting. The circus itself is still back at the City of Spires. They are planning to come this way down river, but Hiro and the others aren't clear on the timing. Pir Pir says he will take care of that. Pir Pir heads off, leaving the trio in the clearing to work on their disguises.
- "You guys practice wearing hats, and I'll meet up with you again for stealing the elephants."
Back at the Circus
Morning dawns on the last day of summer, as the Circus is scheduled to head to a rented boat and start down the Jasmine River. Hana asks Shuyan about snakes as she has wanted a snake of her own ever since the yumekui trouble. Shuyan finds a baby grass snake for her, and gives her instructions on how to care for it, mostly involving feeding it baby mice when it's hungry but not otherwise. Sadly, Hana isn't as warm as most people are, so she's not as nice to hang out on, but being the Source of Food will probably still convince the snake she's OK. Once Hana finally has a snake, she finishes getting rid of the yumekui imposed psych-lim causing her to want snakes, but now feels responsible for the little thing, and is determined to look after it properly.
Elsewhere in the circus, one of Ringmaster Te's roustabouts comes to tell Master Deng that Te himself is sick; Zhi-Hao is in charge of getting everyone rounded up and moving onto the boat. Ringmaster Te will catch up to the boat when he feels better. That sounds very unusual, so Zhi-Hao goes to see him. Guys at the door of his tent (regular circus guys, not suspicious new guys) say that Ringmaster Te insists that he see no one. Zhi-Hao calls through the tent flap to confirm that it's really Ringmaster Te - he sounds pretty sick, and reiterates the instructions to get things moving.
When Shuyan hears about this, she worries about his health, and goes to visit the ringmaster to see if she can be of any medical assistance. He claims that he's too sick to see her, which doesn't sound good, but already has some medicine, so should be fine in a day or two and will catch up to the circus later. She makes him some healthy soup, and passes it under the flap of the tent, before finally rushing to meet the boat before it heads off down the Jasmine River.
Dread Pirates of the Jasmine River
With the circus heading downriver, a little disorganized because of the sudden ringmasterless departure, Yoshi worries a bit about river pirates. It seems they tend to be in places where the river bends and gets narrower, so there's shouldn't be a problem for some time. As the big riverboat heads down a non-bendy non-narrow stretch, some fog rolls in, and two small river barges start approaching the bigger ship, one from either side, except that one of them is very very far away (possibly even farther away than the river is wide).
Hana, the only one who gets a good look at one of the barges, flying a small pirate flag, realizes that the four figures in it are Horrible Monsters (one with a fish head, one with a horse head, one with a badger head, and one EVEN WORSE). She screams.
On the barge, Pir Pir (the even worse monster) checks to see if his crew has come up with a Clever Plan to board the boat and steal the elephants yet. Also, someone should make a dramatic speech? He tells them remember to cup your hands in front of your mouth when you do so. (As it turns out, if you don't, you sound like you're talking in scary monster speech and the people on the boat can't understand this).
Hiro (the fish-headed monster) laughs (which comes out as laughing horribly and scarily), and then cups his hands and shouts "We are the Dread Pirates of the Jasmine River. Surrender or be doomed!"
Yoshi contemplates why the fish-headed monster is doing this.
- "Ultimately, I think I'm doing this to save the world. It's pretty yak-shavey, but still." -Marleigh
Yoshi tells the party to hold their fire - the monsters are stealing elephants to save the world! Or something like that.
- "But there's no such thing as the Dread Pirates of the Jasmine River, and if there were, they wouldn't be four monsters in a rowboat." -Yoshi
The even-worse monster stands up and shouts scary monsterese at the ship, until he remembers to cup his hands in front of his mouth. "Watch out on the other side!" he warns, just as the very far away guy (not a monster, as far as anyone can tell) reaches out, picks up the elephant, and puts it on his very far away boat. Hey, that doesn't seem fair!
Yoshi notes that elephant thief's reason is more like "to one-up my brother in elephant-stealing", and that that isn't nearly as good as saving the world. He calls back "Dread Pirates of the Jasmine River - steal that elephant!", pointing at the elephant on the other boat. The fish monster (who seems to be better at remembering to cup his hands) calls back, "We will ally with you to steal that elephant - we accept your offer."
Zhi-Hao gets the outboard motor from Lijuan, and gets the captain to start attaching it to one of the dinghies hanging at the rear of the boat. This takes a little while, and in the meantime, the Dread Pirates of the Jasmine River have rounded the back of the boat and are heading in the direction of the far-away boat with the elephant on it.
Lijuan tries to call the elephant to come back to the ship, but it trumpets (very loudly, despite being so far away) sadly, since it can't cross the many thousands of feet of distance. It is after all, an elephant. Zhi-Hao throws a shuriken at the far-away guy, and, amazingly, the shuriken lofts through the air for the thousands of feet that it takes to get there and hit him.
Yoshi tries to get the lead monster on the pirate boat to explain what the elephants are for but doesn't get a good answer, while calling out to the other thief to "stand down and return our elephant!"
Taking heart from Zhi-Hao's shuriken throwing, Hana leaps for the far-away boat. She zooms into the air, across the huge distance, and onto the elephant's back, shouting "Ta-Dah!"
- "Wow, she's leveled up since I last saw her..." -Hiro
Yoshi leaps into the boat with the four monsters (which looks much easier, since it isn't far far away), and contemplates why the badger-demon (Anto) is doing this. As it turns out, the badger-demon is not really sure on the details, but he thinks it's thwarting evil somehow. How about the horse-demon? The horse-demon (Shen-Ji) has no idea why he's doing this. Yoshi also confers with the fish demon (Hiro) to see if it is trying to save the world in the same save the world plot as Yoshi is. The fish demon "uses its monster powers" (waving its arms around mysteriously and ominously) to determine that yes, it is. Yoshi finds that fascinating, especially the part that suggests that that the first half (using the monster powers) isn't true, but the second half (it's the same save-the-world plot) is true.
Meanwhile Zhi Hao and the Badger Demon (Anto) both follow Hana's lead and leap to the "far away" boat, crossing in the air and landing on opposite sides of the thief. The badger demon wraps the elephant thief up in its ... badgery tentacles, while Zhi Hao chops at the thief until he surrenders. He "unzooms" the boat at that point, and now it can be seen to be tethered to the side of the Circus's riverboat.
At this point, the horse and badger demons (still on plan "Steal that elephant") try to get the elephant into their boat. Hana, on top of the elephant, tries to distract them with a demure show of ankle, and does distract the badger-demon quite a bit. Shuyan throws a snake at the horse-demon, which proves distracting and also quite frightening to everyone else, as now the snake looks enormous and monstery as it battles with the horse-demon. The fish-demon decides to climb onto the elephant to stop Hana from flirting with Anto.
Still on target, Zhi-Hao tries to intimidate/interrogate the lone elephant thief, who explains that he was taking the elephant for acrobatics training. When that fails to impress, he says that he needed the elephant so that his wicked brother would not beat him. This doesn't sound much better. Zhi-Hao klonks him on the head, knocking him out.
The horse-demon finally manages to get the better of his snake, and throws it at the elephant. It lands in Hana's lap. She doesn't much mind, but the elephant doesn't like snakes, and rears up on its hind legs. The fish-monster manages to acrobatically land on its feet, but Hana starts to tip off the elephant into the river - only to be caught by the fish-demon instead. She screams, and brandishes the snake at it.
Hiro decides that this is enough demon-ing for one adventure, and takes off his fish-demon hat (which, once he's not wearing it, looks like a vaguely fish shaped hat made out of twigs).
- "Oh!" -Yoshi
- "Now, we are all going to go back onto the ship. And have tea!" -Hiro
Tea with the Tengu
Tea is provided, with great politeness and formality, by Hana. (Hiro gives her the spiced walnuts that he brought back from his trip; this is something like the third set of "walnuts for Hana" that has been bought, as everyone kept eating them). Anto also takes off his monster-hat, leaving just Shen-Ji disguised as a monster, until Hiro reaches into the horse's maw and takes his hat off too.
Hiro introduces Pir Pir (the "even worse" monster), who wanders around on deck around the mast, and reappears without his disguise as well. Hiro also explains that there will soon be a Great Council of Spirits and Demons...
- "Wait, are we still lying to them?" -Pir Pir
Pir Pir explains that tonight (between summer and autumn) will be the Night of Gates (those brought up most places know of this holiday as a time for costume parties and dancing; those brought up in the Forest of Chin know of this as a time to stay inside with the doors locked.) The great gates between the worlds open, the demons below and the spirits above meet, and... are they going with the great council meeting story or the big party story?
- "Which is more accurate?" -Hiro
- "Accurate? You are filled with crazy notions." -Pir Pir
Anyhow, Pir Pir insists that he (and the people he brings) will get more credit with the others at the party if he brings elephants - because... elephants!. Lijuan suggests bringing monkeys instead, but Pir Pir hurries to tell her not to mess with the monkeys. Especially the monkeys at the party. It's the Great Monkey Spirit opening the gates, after all! Hana makes sure to warn Min Su to be careful of the monkeys getting troublesome or particularly monkeyish. This leads to a mention of the two extra-monkeyish monkeys, and Hiro hopes that the original monkey isn't mad at him because of getting shot...
- "Wait, you shot the GREAT MONKEY SPIRIT with an arrow? Really? Oh, hah, you got me there." -Pir Pir
What should they do about the other elephant thief? Lijuan suggests giving him to Yoshi to reform, but it seems clear that he and Pir Pir know each other, and Zhi-Hao wants more details. Pir Pir wakes him up, and tells him that he has to tell Zhi-Hao his name, so that Pir Pir can talk about him. The other tengu is initially a little unhappy about doing so, but Zhi-Hao points out that he is tied up, and Hiro says that in the future when Hiro tells the story, it will involve Great Hour-Long Battles up and down the river, so the other tengu finally acquiesces and introduces himself as Tek Tek. He is a master of Space and Size (and also Time and other things). Pir Pir also notes that it will be hard for him to get eight people into the party; it might work better if he took four and Tek Tek took four.
Hana suggests that they will untie Tek Tek if he takes some of them to the party. Yoshi makes sure to add a codicil: that he not steal any of their elephants, and that he not cause any more trouble for them. And, they will give him cookies, Hiro additionally tacks on - but only until the end of tea. After everyone confirms that everyone knows what the agreement is, Tek Tek is untied, and, on request, demonstrates his mastery of Space and Size by making Lijuan very far away but also very tall at the same time.
As the riverboat docks for the evening, Hana wonders what they should all be wearing to the party and if there are any particular rules to be followed. Pir Pir checks - was she planning to leave by dawn or be trapped for all eternity? Hana would prefer the former. Pir Pir says she shouldn't tell anyone she's a spirit, then, but he'd be happy to provide a fancy monster hat. Alternatively, she can wear her best clothes and that could also be okay.
Pir Pir directs them to meet him and Tek Tek (with an elephant) at sunset in a clearing outside of the town - and to make sure nobody else is there.
- "You go clear the clearing, I'll go make hats, and rescue that Ringmaster guy, and meet you there..." -Pir Pir
- "Wait, what?" -Everyone
Pir Pir claims everything is under control, not to worry, and zooshes off. (Yoshi thinks whatever happened to Ringmaster Te, he's probably actually okay and not really harmed.)
While Pir Pir is gone, the group wonders whether they need to bring more than one elephant, but Hiro thinks not.
- "He wants to bring elephants to the party to make mischief, and one is probably sufficient." -Hiro
They also briefly pool what they know on demons, spirits, and so on. Demons are from the World Below; spirits are from the World Above. Demons are not necessarily malicious and spirits are not necessarily benevolent, but on the whole, demons are more likely to be trouble than spirits. Great Spirits are also from the world above. Some spirits are elemental-ish (the ones that the Southrons need for their ritual would be this kind). The Sun and the Moon are/have things more like Yang and Yin-ish spirits.
Hiro also mentions the advice that Pir Pir gave him about fighting the Southrons - find elemental spirits that might get grabbed, and arrange for some sort of booby trap or switch. Or, if Kali has enemies of her own, perhaps they can get those enemies as allies to fight Kali.
- "Does Kali come to these parties?" -Yoshi
People also contemplate rules that ought to be followed at parties like this, or in dealing with spirits and demons in general, from their knowledge of stories of other people who have done this sort of thing:
- Do not go if you are not invited.
- Do not eat food that is not for you (Yoshi notes that at a properly run party, what food is for you should be obvious).
- Don't make promises you don't plan to keep.
- Demons and spirits will be snooty to each other.
- Don't claim to be something you are not - you may find yourself forced to behave like what you have claimed.
What was going on before about Tek Tek's name, Hiro wonders? That was probably a Tengu thing - Pir Pir didn't want to interfere with a prank in progress, so until Tek Tek gave them his name, he might still be stealing the elephant, but once he had agreed not to, it was probably all good.
Then, the group sets off with their elephant.
- "I hate to make this sound like kindergarten or swimming lessons, but should we have a buddy system?" -Hiro
They reach the designated clearing, and Anto suggests checking around for hidden traps and people, since Pir Pir was clear that there shouldn't be other people there. And, in fact, Lijuan finds two little kids hiding in some bushes. She offers them cookies, but insists that they go home. They argue with each other about whose fault it is that they're not at home, and Lijuan warns them darkly about horse-headed monsters and giant badgers. Yoshi, Lijuan, and Anto take them home, with promises of tickets to the circus from Anto.
Tek Tek shows up, and passes out twiggy-looking hats to those who don't already have monster hats. He notes disapprovingly that Pir Pir isn't back yet from his mission to calm down some shouty guy. Tek Tek offers to demonstrate his "Got Your Head" shtick (No, it doesn't work on trees - trees don't have heads!) but no one volunteers. Hiro suggests that Tek Tek teach it to him, but Tek Tek doesn't want to fight with Pir Pir over Hiro.
Off in the distance, there is a huge thrumping noise, coming closer. The elephant begins to look nervous, and people surround it to pat it soothingly. As might be expected, the thrumping turns out to be Pir Pir, who shouts "Am I late?" at the top of his lungs. The Ringmaster was certainly shouty, he notes, but now it's time to go! Watch for monkeys, and if you see one, follow it!
Strange and Unusual Creatures
Shuyan spots the monkey first, and everyone troops after it for a little ways, until they reach a strange menagerie of creatures standing in line. Pir Pir directs them into the line, which is proceeding forwards to an archway with monkeys standing in it. Directly in front of our heroes is a small man-shaped creature made out of dry leaves; he seems rather nervous about the humans, and the elephant in particular. He presents his scroll to the monkeys, who let him in.
Pir Pir presents a scroll as well, and informs the monkeys importantly that these four are with him, those four are with Tek Tek, the snakes are with Shuyan, the dog is with Lijuan, "...and the elephant is with me." The monkey rolls its eyes, but lets everyone in. The banquet hall appears to be made of trees, arching high overhead. Monkeys carry around plates with food, and also lurk above in the branches.
The leafy guy shyly approaches Shuyan, and says with astonishment "Wow, you really were invited? Wow." He asks who invited them, and Shuyan says "The tengu." Leaf backs off quickly, and excuses himself to get a drink, where unspeakably weird things are offering glasses with colorful liquids. A monkey offers Hana a strange bite to eat - she worriedly asks if it is okay to eat, but the monkey nods.
There are large numbers of strange creatures of all sizes, but some include:
- Pir Pir
- Tek Tek
- Thorn (a twisted tangle of thorny vines, roughly man-shaped)
- Carrion (a dark man with a vulture's head)
- Gulper (a frog with a gaping maw)
- Muzxi (a cactus-lke guy with metal tines)
- Jaku (an imp)
- Kozetsu (a six-foot tall fat baby)
- Oni (a horned ogre)
- Heike and Gani (crabs with human faces)
- Gaeshi (who warms nice cool pillows)
- Water Monkey (a green-furred monkey, dripping water)
- Yumekui (that dream-eating demon the party has encountered before)
- A large number of Soot Sprites
- Brown Feet (a forest cat spirit)
- several Kitsune (fox spirits)
- Leaf (the dry-leaf spirit)
- No-Face (an amorphous black spirit with a white mask)
- Radish (a very fat vegetable spirit)
- Beko (a red cow)
- Amikiri (a spirit festooned with chains and ropes)
- Badger (also sometimes a teapot)
- Kawa Uso (a river otter)
- Swanla and Swanya (swan maidens)
- Kappa (a turtle-ish spirit with a depression filled with water in his head)
- Oni (a giant snail with a woman's face)
- Baku (similar to Yumekui, but less clawed)
- Chuff (a plump owl-ish spirit with large eyes)
Amikiri the Unbinder
Once the group arrives at the party, Anto notes that if they want help from elemental spirits, perhaps they can offer help to one. He uses his "nose for trouble" shtick to head in the direction of someone who needs help. The party heads into a dark corner of the hall, and encounters a spirit draped with broken nets and broken chains. He introduces himself as Amikiri the Unbinder, cutter of nets and breaker of chains.
Yoshi immediately becomes interested, and says that he has a friend who is bound, with a chi hook from beyond the Southern Wall. Amikiri looks dubious - it should not be possible to be affected by chi from beyond the Wall. Yoshi says that he came from beyond the wall and is here now. Amikiri thinks that might be more possible. Is the friend here? No, he is not. Amikiri takes some notes and says he will do some research and tell Yoshi what he discovers. Hiro says that he has been bound into a ritual against his will - can Amikiri do something about that? Amikiri takes some more notes. Anto asks if anyone else here is bound - Amikiri says that really, everyone is bound by something, but he will see what he can determine and get back to them.
- "I'm sorry, this may seem awfully forward, but I have this feeling that you need help." -Anto
- "I, need help? Why would you think that?" -Amikiri
- "Hmm. Was my nose leading me to him, or the guy he's standing on?" -Anto
But there's no one here but Amikiri now, at least. Amikiri excuses himself to head to the bar as well.
- "If he were just a guy wearing chains and stuff, would we have any way of telling?"
Shen-Ji notices that between the chains and vines and rope and so on, Amikiri does have all five elements in his accoutrements, though what that means is anyone's guess.
Yoshi and Lijuan head off to talk to the yumekui. The baku is nearby, and the two are kind of glowering at each other. The yumekui declares that it has been looking everywhere for Yoshi, though it was looking more in the material world and not here. It wants to eat more of his tasty ideals, and says it has been practicing doing things like just nibbling, and also, it has figured out how to spit things into people's dreams. So it has been spitting Yoshis into people's dreams, and then nibbling on them to see which ones changed, and the ones that changed are the ones that recognize Yoshi.
Yoshi drinks the ice wine he's been saving since the Butterfly Kingdom, and becomes extra-persuasive (and rather drunk), and glows with an inner light. While under the influence, he urges the yumekui to be good and eat only things that are good for people to have eaten. The yumekui wants to try to do this, and is willing to follow Yoshi while he tries to figure it out. Yoshi asks if the yumekui has a name - it doesn't have one of its own, and Yoshi names it Kibo.
The baku, nearby, shakes his head sadly, sure no good will come of this. Yoshi asks if the baku can help with this - it's really not sure that this is a good idea. It explains how it eats unhappiness and nightmares - people will get fixated on something, and that fixation will take on a life of its own, like a pearl in an oyster. The baku eats the pearl, but leaves the oyster. It thinks that yumekui are not so careful.
Some experimental nibbling happens - Kibo nibbles at Yoshi's glow, and says it's tasty but not filling. Then, Yoshi asks what Lijuan is worried about, and she's worried that the yumekui is going to eat Yoshi. With her permission, the yumekui tries to nibble away the worry. Well, okay, perhaps she doesn't have to worry about it eating Yoshi because it's eating her instead! Hana also wanders over, clearly worried about all the nibbling going on, and warns them against doing anything stupid. She also mentions to the yumekui that she thinks she's still missing bits of herself that it ate -- does it think it could spit them back, like it spat the Yoshi-dreams into people? It says it will experiment.
The yumekui says that Lijuan's worry doesn't seem as disconnected as the pearl analogy would suggest - it's more like a plum, around a plum stone, and it's work to nibble the fruit away. Well, it seems like the yumekui is interested in trying, at least.
Elsewhere, Shen-Ji encounters Muzxi, who identifies himself as a metal demon. Shen-Ji mentions that he's a metal sorceror, so maybe Muzxi has some things he might teach him.
- "Do you want to learn to bind metal to your own dark purposes?"
- "Um... yeah."
First though, Shen-Ji does remember to pass around the warnings from Hiro. Asking Muzxi where they might find metal spirits who might be fodder for Southron rituals, Muzxi describes the deep mines of the world, and says that such places are most appropriate. He can think of a good list and will give it to Shen-Ji sometime after the soup course.
Shuyan, meanwhile, is off talking to Jaku, who turns out to be a little imp attempting to tempt people into dancing for him. Shuyan and he make an agreement that she'll dance for him if he'll tell her a secret about snakes, and she starts dancing. Twenty minutes later, Master Deng comes by and sees that Shuyan is still dancing with the little imp, and so cuts in, breaking the spell. It is a party, and that sort of thing is allowed, so Jaku keeps his end of the bargain and whispers a snake-related secret into Shuyan's ear.
Hiro, meanwhile, is wandering around the party looking for element-related spirits to give his warnings to, and possibly organize prior to the southerners return. None of the spirits here are particularly elemental, but Kawa Uso knows a lot of the bigger water spirits, and Brown Feet knows a bunch of tree spirits. He'd really like to get in touch with a powerful wood sorcerer, as the wood spirits in his forest need some reorganizing, and he'd be grateful to help out if that happened. Sadly, the party doesn't know any wood sorcerers, so they promise to look him up if they find one.
Zhi Hao also, in chatting with the cat spirit, finds out that the party doesn't seem to be filling up as fast as it usually does. The usual number of guests seems to be arriving, but the place just isn't as crowded as he'd have expected...
This line of thought is interrupted by a great gong though, as the monkeys begin to pass out bowls to all the party goers, and the various guests start heading towards the soup serving stations. The humans regroup together to share conversations. Zhi-Hao mentions Brown Feet's observation about the party's sparsity, and they group speculates that maybe people are vanishing? However, now it is time for soup!
The party guests queue up to where the monkeys are ladling soup out of two large pots - one labeled "Spirit" and one labeled "Demon". When the first human gets to the front of the line, the monkeys look pained; one holds up a finger, and they confer. Several more monkeys show up, and they begin to put things together in a pot as well, carefully scrutinizing the humans as they do so.
- "They're going to make us human soup!" -Zhi-Hao
- "I don't like the sound of that..." -Shuyan
After a little while, the third pot is labeled "Human" and the party gets soup from there. No one seems to be drinking the soup yet, though - there seems to be a "wait until everyone is served" plan. Ho and Shuyan's snake both are served a bowl of human soup, and the elephant is given a bowl of demon soup. The humans clamor that the elephant should not be eating demon soup. The monkeys look at Pir Pir, who protests that the elephant is with him. The monkeys bring a new bowl of (human) soup for the elephant. Then, once everyone is served, everyone drinks their soup.
As it turns out, the monkeys are a little unclear on the differences between people, so the soup has a bit of everyone's characteristics in it. Each person gets one characteristic that may belong to someone else, but when they behave that way, they begin to think that they are the other person. Lijuan gets her own flavor, so she is twice as exuberant as usual; Yoshi starts behaving like Lijuan, Hiro like Anto, Hana also like Anto, Zhi-Hao like Hiro, and Shuyan like Zhi-Hao. (Anto and Shen-Ji don't trigger theirs, so there are three Antos all together).
Lijuan gathers up the soot sprites, and tries to convince them to join the circus. She and Yoshi (who also thinks he's Lijuan) strike up a game of catch with Kozetsu, adding more and more rules as they go. The game (or, rather, the two Lijuans) pulls in others like Hana and Shuyan; the baby becomes very unhappy and likely to shriek when someone leaves the game, but Lijuan keeps it distracted.
Seeing this madness, Beko goes to talk to the monkeys about the fact that the humans just started acting weird. As he's an expert in blood, and the maladies thereof, he quickly deduces that the soup is responsible and takes the monkeys to task for it.
Now that they realize that not all people are the same, and the soup may have caused a problem, the monkeys come and take away all the soup bowls from the humans again; anyone who has not already drunk enough to become someone else is safe. The two Lijuans decide that the monkeys are sad because they don't have soup of their own, and concoct a "soup" from Lijuan's spare dog treats, and whatever they can find behind the bar. They present it to the monkeys, pleased with themselves. The monkeys eye it, then take it back into the kitchen. A monkey returns to nod and pat his stomach to Lijuan, reassuring them that they found it tasty, but do not need any more. Really.
Elsewhere, Hiro (as Anto), now more enthusiastic about saving the world than usual, starts looking for people who might need help. He's quite exuberant about being helpful, but things start going wrong as several of the people he was talking to earlier just aren't around. He's looking for the otter spirit, known to be in quite tight with the water spirits, when he encounters Swanla, bereft because she can't find her sister. At this point, Hiro remembers one of Anto's other most famous characteristics, and goes into full-on "player"-mode. Between that, and Hiro's natural inclination to assist damsels in distress, Hiro places himself at the complete disposal of the beautiful swan lady, and they start scouring the party for her sister.
Sadly, not only do they not find her, but they start realizing that all sorts of other spirits are missing as well. Shen-Ji can not find Muzxi to talk about that list of mines he was promised, the otter spirit has vanished, and even Tek Tek can't figure out what happened to Pir Pir. People start getting together in groups and organizing searches, while looking for mysterious exits or other perils. Hiro guards Lady Swanla, and everyone spreads the word that something odd is up. The monkeys seems distressed as well, but don't have any bright ideas.
Lijuan and Yoshi-as-Lijuan talk to Kibo about the fact that Yoshi seems to be having the odd dream of being Lijuan. Yoshi isn't quite sure he isn't, but Lijuan is pretty sure about it. After some convincing both of Kibo and Yoshi, Kibo agrees to eat the Lijuan-dream out of Yoshi and return it to Lijuan next time she dreams. The "eating the Lijuan-dream" step works and Yoshi is now back to Yoshi, but the monkeys throw Kibo out for "fighting." They talk to the baku at this point - he also thinks he can do the same thing, and at this point, he wouldn't mind being thrown out - otherwise, he might find himself vanishing mysteriously! So, the baku fixes Hana (Zhi-Hao, channeling Hiro, says "fix Hana instead of me!"), and then makes it obvious he's eating someone, also getting thrown out.
During the partnered up searches, Amikiri lures Shen-Ji into a corner and shows him what Shen-Ji recognizes as a magic bottle. Nothing happens though, and Amikiri heads off to continue the search elsewhere. Shen-Ji finds this quite suspicious, and several people start watching Amikiri from afar to see if he's somehow connected to the vanishing spirits/demons.
Lijuan convinces Ho to follow Brown Feet's trail (he's missing also) - this is much like chasing a cat, so Ho is particularly good at it, and he eventually follows the trail (to no one's particular surprise) right up to Amikiri the Unbinder. Having figured out who the culprit is, the party is a little unsure what to do about it - can they just Get Him, or will they be thrown out (or worse) for fighting?
- "I don't know what the standards of evidence in the spirit world are..." -Shen-Ji
Shen-Ji sticks to Amikiri, while the rest of the group goes to tell the monkeys about what they've determined. The monkeys seem to find the evidence convincing, and draw a complicated circle on the ground. With gestures and a few misunderstandings, they indicate that the party is allowed to fight with Amikiri, but only in the circle.
After some thought, they recruit Swanla to stand in the circle and pretend to be stuck, while Zhi-Hao goes to fetch Amikiri, claiming that she has been bound in the circle, and he has to get her out. As pretexts go, that's a good one, so Amikiri does come up and step into the circle with Swanla, and promptly gets jumped on by the humans.
Hiro (still thinking he's Anto) attempts to grapple him, but isn't as good as the real Anto is. Yoshi, with Hana's help, makes a brave try at convincing him to surrender:
- "We can see you're in trouble - whoever you're gathering these spirits to impress, we can help you against them. You're the Unbinder, let them go free."
Yoshi thinks that should have worked, but didn't, probably due to some fatal flaw in his argument. Maybe he isn't really the Unbinder after all? Shuyan, who (as Zhi-Hao) has acquired a sword from Hiro (who doesn't think he needs it, as Anto), demands "Release those spirits, or I'll chop you!" Alas, he does not, or, at least, not in the desired method - instead, he uses a bit of Muzxi's power, and thousands of little metal needles pop out of him, damaging Hiro in particular but everyone else as well.
Clarifying the problem with Yoshi's argument, Amikiri shouts "Fool! I am not the Unbinder! Now you will face your doom!"
Zhi-Hao starts in on the stabbing. Hana, still on Yoshi's side, protests that it's not too late to work this out, but not if he keeps trying to hurt people. The real Anto wraps Amikiri up with his kusarigama, and Yoshi grapples with him over his bottle.
- "Don't break it! I don't know if that's good or bad, but it's clearly irrevocable."
Amikiri bats his swanlike eyes at Zhi-Hao (using another shtick from a captured spirit), who finds himself unable to attack for an action. Lijuan manages to pull out the bottle's stopper, but that doesn't do anything obvious. Amikiri then calls on Pir Pir's mimicry, and now looks just like Yoshi.
Anto decides that the thing to do is to split his dice and attack both of them. Hiro does the same thing (since that's what the real Anto would do).
- "Well, I'm Anto, so I don't have a good wits roll [to tell the two apart]" -Hiro
- "Hey!" -Anto
The two Yoshis and the bottle go into a swirling whirlwind (using one of captured Leaf's powers), but hit the circle boundary and come to a halt. No fleeing for him! A different stolen ability lets Amikiri stomp on the ground, producing a ripple of earth (again stopping at the circle boundary), which does everyone a bit of damage.
Zhi-Hao readies to chop both Yoshis as seems to be the popular wisdom, but this causes the real Yoshi to shout "No, don't chop us both, I'll die!" Zhi-Hao uses this outburst, burns two karma to see which one is which, and chops Amikiri, which, along with Hiro punching him, puts him down and dying.
Yoshi takes the bottle, and Shen-Ji proceeds to search him, discovering that the chains-and-vines is not actually part of him, but more like a cloak that he's wearing. When Shen-Ji removes it, it looks like a man underneath. Once that's revealed, the monkeys hit the gong several times and start leaping out of the trees to land nearby, surrounding the circle.
- "He wasn't invited." -Zhi-Hao
Shen-Ji closely examines the magic bottle - it looks like a bottle of spirit trapping/binding, but it's been overcharged to let it hold more than one spirit. It's easy enough to reverse the trap - fill it with water and pour it out.
Shen-Ji fills the bottle with water and pours it out. As each spirit escapes, it looks to a particular party member and thanks them for saving it. Favors are owed:
- Leaf: Shen-Ji
- Muzxie: Shuyan
Brown Feet: Anto
Kawa Uso: Yoshi
- Swanla: Hiro (who still manages to specialize in damsel-rescuing)
- Radish Spirit: Zhi-Hao
Beko the Red Cow: Hana
Pir Pir: Lijuan
Beko, who knows something of human blood, noses the people who are still confused about who they are (Shuyan, Hiro, and Zhi-Hao), and then noses the monkeys. The monkeys make them three new bowls of soup, which fixes their confusion.
Pir Pir explains that getting home, however, now that the party is winding down, may be a problem. Since there was an uninvited guest, the great gates (which would take people back to where they came from) have been shut and locked. The little gates are still open, but they lead where they lead - World Above, World Below, or somewhere in the Material World, but it's not easy to tell such gates apart. The party asks if it would be a bad idea to go through the spirit gates. Well, that will put them in the World Above, which could be seriously bad. Beko can tell them which of the little gates are spirit gates. Pir Pir can presumably tell them which are the demon gates, but no one is totally sure that they trust Pir Pir not to think it's amusing to have the party end up in the World Below, so Lijuan exuberantly burns her favor on getting him to tell her truthfully which are the demon gates.
Meanwhile, while people are looking at Amikiri, it becomes clear that the actual spirit Amikiri was essentially skinned and worn as a disguise, which is how the guy looked like a spirit to the monkeys. Eeew. People wonder what should be done with the remains? Perhaps taking them to a temple or shrine and laying them to rest is most appropriate.
Shen-Ji finishes looking at the bottle. He says that if you uncork it and get a spirit or demon to look inside, they will get sucked in. If the spirit is too big to fit, it will probably explode. As it is now, it's just a single spirit/demon trap - using the spirit's powers was probably a shtick, and the ritual to hold more than one was probably a Grand Ritual.
Lijuan, bored by all this talking, helps the monkeys clean up the remains of the kitchen and the banquet. Hiro briefs anything that looks like an elemental or nature spirit about the Southern Ritual and the possibility that someone may be trying to use them in a ritual. They note that none of them are the really big elemental spirits, like the spirit of the Jasmine River (water) or the spirit of the Taiga Bamboo (wood), but some of them may be able to pass the message along.
What will happen to Amikiri? Pir Pir thinks the justice of the spirits is to just leave him behind when the gates all close, and he'll be lost between the worlds forever. (He does not appear to be a Southron, and he has no tattoos, so he may not be tied to a previous plot). However, it would be good to know who or what he actually works for, so the group uses two of the healing potions from Master Hsi, and wakes him up.
Yoshi tries to convince him his master isn't going to help him - because his master is clearly evil and selfish - while Anto tries to tell him Talk or Die. He confesses: He is Tai Fong, an apprentice. He may not speak his master's name lest he die. His master's philosophy is "to receive great reward, you must dare greatly", so he dared greatly to come here to try to capture spirits, but it does not appear to have worked out for him. What kind of rewards does his master value? Power. Tai Fong wishes to serve at his master's side in the future, and this deed would have impressed him, had he succeeded. Yoshi presses: is his master worthy of his loyalty? Well, when his master wins, Tai Fong would be rewarded, but that won't happen now. Doesn't he deserve better than to be abandoned like this? Well, he didn't dare to hope he was worthy of actually overthrowing the master. What is the master's goal? The Master does not confide his plans in his apprentice, but his goal is domination, power, and perfection. How can they find the Master or his schemes? What will they do if he tells them, he asks wavering. Go and thwart him, Yoshi declares.
Giving in, and unhappy at his general fate, Tai Fong tells Yoshi that he must swear to go forth and thwart his master. His master's name is Shinjo-rushi, and he is the Imperial Alchemist. At this point, Tai Fong's blood turns to acid, though Yoshi uses his powers to give him a soft and painless passing into death.
Between Beko and Pir Pir, all but five gates have been ruled out. Anto has an ability to hear through earth; he hears the high fast winds of a barren peak through one of them. Hiro also has Ears of the Bat, and hears monks chanting through another. Shen-Ji notes that a third gate has the metallic sounds of fighting coming from it. The other two are unknown.
The monks seem like the potentially safest alternative; people (including the elephant) begin going through. They come out, falling into a room with twelve monks in a circle - there hardly seems room for an elephant. The monks seem unwilling to stop chanting, though. Hiro tries to drag one out of the way, but the room starts to go odd and wavering, so Hiro lets him ago. Then, there's a mighty thump of an elephant landing - on the roof.
As it turns out, this is the top floor of the Golden Spire, the tallest building in the world, and the monks were cleansing it after the previous trouble. It is not entirely clear how one gets an elephant down from the roof - there is a spiral stair around the wall, but it is sized for people, not elephants. Lijuan climbs up onto the roof to calm the elephant and keep it from either leaping off the roof or stomping through the ceiling of the upper room.
Hiro thinks that the best solution may just be to butcher it and buy another elephant, but the rest of the party is far too attached to it to agree. Eventually, the group decides to notify the King of the Jade Taiga (or, at least, his advisors) and the city authorities, and let them deal. Hana and others go to the Royal Palace to explain.
The King's architects are in fact able (with a lot of effort and expense) to rig up a block and tackle and pulleys to lower the elephant, but the end result is that the circus owes the King a favor for having put the elephant on the roof in the first place.
- "We should make sure everyone sees the elephant on the roof, it'll be great publicity for the circus."
- "A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! -- we sincerely hope!."
- Anto looks for Master Furuta in the City of Spires.
- Anto, Hana, and Shen-Ji go to visit Sasaki the Wood Sorcerer (Master Zhou, Shuyan, Lijuan, Xiao Fa, and Cai Wen stand by in the City of Spires if needed, but do not mob the sorcerer).
- Cai Wen and Master Zhou putter around the City of Spires looking for a kung fu master named Burnt Chalk.
- Cai Wen, Hana, and Wei Han visit the Hidden Orchid.
- Cai Wen and Ringmaster Te resolve the anti-favor by providing the architect with a month's guest-right to the Sunrise Tower (courtesy Cai Wen).