Stone in the Earth
|"If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Bear in the Month of the Tiger in the two hundred and fifty-ninth Year of the Magpie since the opening of the Exalted Library.|
The run takes place in the City of Light and in the village of Two Hills in the Strand.
Takanata is sleeping off a terrible hangover, when word goes out to the circus that Ringmaster Zhu wants everyone to pack up and start heading down to the Illuminated Precincts. The season has just started and they're already running behind schedule due to having stopped to put on a play in addition to their circus performances. Ringmaster Zhu declares that they'll be skipping the Port of Auspicious Voyage... because they've spent too much time in the Arcade already, that must be it.
Lijuan draws a picture, but it isn't clear yet what it indicates. A city herald announces that according to the city astrologers, the Festival of Gates is over, much to everyone's relief. The circus finishes packing up and heads south; Takanata continues to nap in one of the wagons.
A few hours south of the Harbor, the circus train heading south sees off in the distance a column of men marching north. It takes sharp eyes to recognize them as Dragon Army, though, as they look pretty bedraggled and shabby. The circus activates the Tea and Mini Performances protocol, and some of the officers trudge tiredly into the tea tent, asking how far the Harbor is, and are disappointed to hear that it's not closer. The group asks what happened to them, and the captain says that their ship went down, off the coast north of the City of Light. They're not allowed to give details, though. Shuyan tries to charm some of the lower ranking guys, and they still won't tell her exactly what happened to the ship, but admit that the Sea Lord was so mad that he told them they could walk back to the Harbor. Deng thinks they really do look like they've been shipwrecked - it's not an act - and Wei Han thinks that the captain might look familiar from a previous encounter with some boats. He reminisces, and the captain agrees - give him sea serpents to fight any day. Lijuan protests - they were panda whales, not sea serpents.
Takanata finally wakes up, and drinks some mint tea to soothe the pounding in his head. He decides he's not up to interrogating the army just yet.
There is a mini-performance put on for the soldiers (Ringmaster Zhu will get a report later as to who is and is not up to snuff in their performances), and the soldiers begin marching north with a bit more morale than they arrived with.
Deng wonders if the whole "not supposed to speak of this" was real or that they were just embarrassed, and decides that that they were probably told to never speak of it, but it was an easy order to follow.
The South Wall
Near the border with the Precincts, the circus starts to pass a small tent parked just by the side of the highway. There's a hole in the top of the tent, and a spiral of smoke rises out of it. It's a little odd for someone to be camped by the highway at mid-day, so Shuyan and Wei Han go to investigate. Shuyan claps at the tent entrance.
- "Hello? Are you here already?"
- "Um, I don't know if I'm the person you're expecting..." -Shuyan
- "Sure you are!"
Da-Xie pops out of the tent, wondering what took them so long. Wei Han wants to know if she noticed the soldiers going by, and she thinks they were probably bedraggled because they suck - they let people climb over the wall all winter. And one of her best guys went missing - Commander Zhou got reassigned somewhere stupid.
Speaking of the south, Zhi-Hao enquires - how does she feel about opening trade with the south? She doesn't know what he means - that's a terrible idea! No crossing the wall! The invaders keep coming over the wall and having annoying dreams. They're always dreaming about rocks, or maybe she's dreaming about them dreaming about rocks, or something like that. Takanata wonders if she means the Sankara stones, but she doesn't know what those are. Takanata says they're southern holy artifacts, but he's not sure.
Anyway. Whenever she dreams about the stupid rocks, the party is there, in a really dusty place, filled with books. So... they're looking in the Exalted Library for rocks? Are rocks there? No, in the dream, they're there, but then they brush the dust off and rush off somewhere else. Lijuan shows Da-Xie her picture - the rocks are probably in the flying city. Da-Xie is dubious - is the city really flying, or is that just perspective? Lijuan assures her that it's really flying. Wei Han gives Da-Xie a hard time about sleeping during the winter, but she gives him a hard time about sleeping through ENTIRE INVASIONS. Da-Xie thinks the party owes her for all the awesome stuff she did on the Shrouded Isle, and they're in the dream, so it's clearly their job to deal with this.
Takanata asks her - what does she think about changing the islands back? She thinks that would be nice. Her first island was a lot prettier, and the new one is kind of grim and filled with volcanoes.
- "If you're going to have an island filled with grumpy people, you might as well have him in charge of it." -Da-Xie
So... is the Shrouded Isle still blockaded? She says she can't tell from here, but she can go and check and meet them at the library.
- "Before you run off, is there anything else we should know?" -Takanata
- "Mr. Grumpy is not the only person who notices things while asleep, and I am not amused." -Da-Xie
- "Would you be able to tell if it was blockaded, if Whale was in the Cycle?" -Lijuan
- "Wait, what?" -Da-Xie
- "I'm working on a theory." -Lijuan
Da-Xie heads off to investigate the blockade, and Takanata goes back to his cart to work on some art. He carefully folds an origami balloon, and then inflates it and fills it with oil. But then - he can't put it down. Huh. Is this trying to show him how Sankara stones are dangerous and should not be put down? Yes, yes, it is. He tries to build a balloon holder out of sticks and teacups, and tries to balloon on it, but then when he checks to make sure it's balanced with his finger, it all collapses and the oil spills out.
The circus reaches the City of Light, and sets up in the field that the advance team has arranged for.
Wei Han goes out drinking in some Dragon Navy bars, and picks up gossip. The Sea Lord is said to be putting together a big force to do... something. That part isn't clear in the gossip. The blockade may be a lower priority. In the Army bars, it sounds like the army is fine, though Commander Sun is off in the west strategizing with the new Commander.
Takanata goes with most of the party to the library, and arranges for a researcher to bring him some books on southern religious artifacts (including books from the fiction section). He finds out that Southerners have two kind of magic items - first, the kind made by their dark chi, which are similar to magic items in the Empire (though very corrupting), and second, "holy" items, which don't have an analogue here, and the writer thinks are less specifically damaging to the chi. These holy items tend to be specific to the southern "gods", and limited, and rarer.
So... what other researchers have been here? Has anyone else been looking into Southern artifacts? No, no, not so much about southerners or fake gods or things like that. There were some people looking into the history of the decisions of the sages, some people looking into the history of naval warfare, some natural philosophers looking into geology, and a group of art enthusiasts looking into great and bad plays of the past.
Wei Han points out that geology is sort of like rocks and asks what books the natural philosophers were looking into. Sadly, they were all looking at books in the restricted stacks, so nothing can be done.
Wei Han, as an expert on rocks of the Wall, notes that rocks, even rocks in the Wall, are breakable. But the Wall itself is not breakable. Maybe this unbreakable rock thing is like that.
Lijuan and Kasumi go to a veterinarian and badger/bribe him into sending his assistant to go to the library to research pandas.
Yanyu is unavailable (the Festival of Gates was apparently pretty tiring for astrologers everywhere), so the group tries to think about what other library patrons they can involve to do them the favor of showing them into the restricted section. But it's gotten late, so perhaps they can figure out something in the morning.
Collecting the Dreamers
That night, Takanata dreamwalks to Da-Xie's dream about them doing research in the Exalted Library. Sure enough, she's there, but she complains - when she dreamed it before, the whole party was there, not just Takanata.
- "Are you a patron of the library?" -Takanata
- "Do I look that boring?" -Da-Xie
There is some discussion about trying to find a patron, or trying to visit the Temple of Eternal Dream (though Takanata says they no longer owe the party any favors). But if the rest of the party is asleep - maybe Takanata can just find them. He sets off...
- "WHERE DID YOU BRING US?" -Da-Xie, eyeing the sleeping pandas everywhere.
- "They're so fuzzy!" -Lijuan, off in the distance
Takanata is not all that good at sneaking over sleeping pandas, but they do not rend him to bits when they begin to wake. Lijuan is throwing a tea party with the pandas, and doesn't want to miss the party, but Takanata convinces her to meet them at the library after her party is over.
Kasumi is chopping ghosts, but is easily convinced to come along.
Deng, directed by the Prince, is leading a valiant Butterfly Kingdom army against the ravening hordes of the Savanna - the battle pauses to let Deng fight one on one versus Eto the Wolf.
- "So... can I borrow Master Deng?" -Takanata
- "Now? But the moment of our greatest victory is at hand!" -Ti Jun
- "I understand, but it is most pressing." -Takanata
The prince sighs and agrees, and cuts into the battle between Deng and Ti Jun. Deng stands back, offering pointers and coaching tips. Takanata frowns - will Deng please come along? But the Prince needs him now! The Prince says they will hold out until Deng returns, and everyone salutes him.
Heading for Shuyan, there is a sign warning everyone to not step off the path. As nobody is along who cares about the pretty flowers scattered around near the path, this not too hard. Then, they reach a big cave mouth, with fangs.
- "You have weird friends." -Da-Xie
Takanata claps at the entrance, and a handsome young man in a fancy hat and short shorts comes out. He is not impressed by Takanata or Kasumi or Da-Xie, but suggests that Zhi-Hao might be appropriate, once he's been to wardrobe. Deng looks appalled, but Takanata gives him a little push - go in and get Shuyan! Zhi-Hao gets shown to wardrobe, but suggests that maybe he should change on site, rather than beforehand. His escort thinks that's not a bad idea, and shows him in.
Deng is shown into a large room - there's a serpent-armed chair, some scantily clad young men with big fans, some others filling out paperwork, and snakes everywhere. Somewhere in another room, there's some sort of commotion.
- "You're not the boss of me!" -Shuyan
- "This is totally unacceptable!" -Merit
Shuyan storms out of the back, and sits on the throne, while young men start fanning her. Deng offers her his arm, and suggests that they continue outside where it's more private. Shuyan thinks that sounds good, so they go out of the cave arm in arm, where they meet Takanata and Kasumi and Da-Xie. This was not necessarily the dream Shuyan thought she was having, but Takanata explains that they're going to try to get into the library.
- "This may be easier to arrange here than outside of the dream." -Takanata
- "You'll do a lot to avoid spending three tael, won't you?" -Kasumi
Da-Xie brightly says that's everyone, so time to go. Takanata fixes her with a stern look - that's not everyone. Da-Xie is leaned on into admitting that Wei Han was in her dream, so perhaps they should get him. When they reach his dream, he's just standing there waiting.
- "Sergeant, we need you." -Takanata
- "Yes, sir." -Wei Han
Takanata leads everyone back to Da-Xie's dream of the library, which is besieged by pandas. The dreams of librarians are holding them off with clipboards and quills, and Lijuan keeps protesting that Takanata said that the pandas could come. Takanata gets Lijuan to call a halt to the panda invasion, and suggests that they go home and prepare for the next tea party. The pandas agree, totally insincerely, that they'll go home and wait for the tea party. Yup. Totally going home now. Just as the doors close, there is a shout outside: "Pandamonium!"
The group heads towards Restricted Archive Section Number three, only to be intercepted by a librarian. The party asserts - they're patrons! Very much! Patrons and assistant patrons! Da-Xie, calling upon extra authority, insists that Wei Han vouch that he works for her.
- "I am... currently in her employ..." -Wei Han, grudgingly
Da-Xie does a little victory dance, and the group gets to the part of the dream where they actually get to do research. There is a brief digression to contemplate what sort of Talismans people dream themselves wearing - the most interesting thing is that Shuyan, flush with power from her dream, is dreaming that she has the Serpent Talisman, which doubles strength and allows for unbreakable grabs.
The library mechanic involves starting stories which have clues, and subsidiary research books that can tie clues to maps via various skills. In real life it probably would have been very dry and boring, but in the World of Dream, the books have their own dreaming environments - a book about blunt weapons, grab, and gardening ends up being a battle with head-grabbing vines, and so on. There is underwater cart racing! Jousting! Ninja-juggling! A wolf with a paintbrush stuck in its paw!
All five source books are read:
Twenty-five clues later, the group is pretty sure that the tiny village of Two Hills (near the Dangerous Swamp of Danger), in the Strand, was the home of this long-ago monk. And then, everyone wakes up, and meets for breakfast, where Da-Xie meets them to report that the blockade is in fact down.
The circus will stay behind in the City of Light to put on another performance, but Da-Xie and company will go see what can be found in Two Hills. Takanata warns everyone that the Sankara stone may be like carrying a Talisman north of the wall. All the good benefits are reversed, but you can't put it down because then your god comes and smites you. (He realizes that latter part isn't true - your god doesn't come and smite you). Still - nobody pick it up. But if you do pick it up, don't put it down. You might be able to give it to someone else, if they accept the burden.
- "Well, we could always get Xiao Fa to take it."
As the group gets closer to the village, Da-Xie starts getting a little weirder and less interested in proceeding. Maybe she could wait back at the library? She doesn't seem willing to explain why she's suddenly hanging back, or less than her usual cheerful self; the people with psychology skill think she's failing her resolve rolls, for some reason. But they persuade her to keep coming, even though she really doesn't want to.
They finally reach the village - a tiny village beside a large hill.
- "Um... where's the second hill?" -everyone
The party troops in, and the villagers are astonished. Strangers! They don't get many of those. Are they lost?
- "We're from the circus, we're here to help!" -Lijuan
The villagers confirm that this is in fact the village of Two Hills, but when everyone wants to know where the second hill is, that seems to be a particularly funny joke. Are there any other strangers in town? No, just them. This really isn't the sort of place that strangers come. Can they speak to the village elders? Well, they've got an elder - someone escorts them to the elder's little house.
Lijuan introduces them all as from the circus. The elder, confused, offers to have a boy take them back to the road. Wei Han wants to know about the monk who had a burden who died here a long time ago. Kasumi wants to know about the second hill. How about the founding of the village - can he tell them about that? He's somewhat overwhelmed, but he tells them a somewhat rambly story about a cow that got stuck in a saparilla tree, such that they had to stay here, long long ago. Lijuan tells him the story of the elephant on the spire, but he doesn't really know what an elephant is, nor has he seen the Golden Spire, so he may not have a full appreciation of the tale.
Takanata checks with Da-Xie - can she tell who the Southerners are? She says there are several, but she can't narrow it down, because the whole village is full of badness. Takanate turns on his eyes of the I Ching, but is sad to see that there’s pretty much dark chi everywhere here, so he can’t tell villagers from bad guys. Maybe they’re all bad guys, but they don’t seem to do anything. He does think the dark chi is getting thinner as night approaches however.
The elder says that it's getting late, and if they don't want to leave, he should be able to find some people who have spare rooms that they can stay in. Everyone refuses any offers of hospitality - they can camp outside. The elder suggests a convenient field that they can use, so the party demands to use a different field, the one where Deng thinks the other hill would be if there was another hill. The elder thinks that they're in the middle of planting there, and they're planting rickmaw, so it would be inconvenient for the farmers and uncomfortable for the party.
The elder leads the party towards the field they can camp in, and warns them to not sleep on the daisy-lazies - he points out some areas where the grass is longer. The group sets up their tents, and then decides to sneak across town to the other side. Most people are fairly stealthy, but Wei Han and Da-Xie aren't very good at that, so when the villagers spot them, Wei Han says that they just want to go for a walk to watch the sunset. A young boy shows them the path to the top of a hill that will have a nice view.
- "I'll leave be now. I know you and your girl want to have some time alone."
At sunset, the empty field turns into a quarry with a path spiraling around to the bottom. The party members hiding in the field plummet down to the bottom, taking a lot of falling damage and being stunned for a bit. While they're stunned, the villagers sleepwalk down into the quarry and take up their places to start digging. Each of them has a little glowing light in front of them that they are looking into. In the "surprise round" of being stunned, Zhi-Hao looks into one of the glowing lights, and decides that digging sounds like a good idea.
A rather confused combat follows - people mostly attack the glowballs, fearing to hurt the villagers, and when a glowball controlling someone pops, the controlled people are free. But attacking a glowball is difficult without looking at it, and if the glowball doesn't pop, then this often leads to the person switching over to becoming a digger. Some of the "villagers" are really Southerners, but it's hard to tell a southerner from a villager until their glowball is popped, and only Takanata and Da-Xie have a good idea which are which. Takanata manages to attack a lot of glowballs simultaneously with a vial of smoke, and Wei Han discovers that at least some of the southerners have "Maya's shield", which reflects damage. An illusionary panda tiger appears near Lijuan's panda bear, fighting it, and Da-Xie is pinned down by two of the Southern priests in an invisible magical contest.
Takanata manages to spot the Southern leader, and memorizes his I Ching (having fought his glowball).
Takanata geases him to be down at the bottom of the quarry at the end of the next round, and curses him to have all the priests of Kali think he's a priest of Maya, and all the priests of Maya think he's a priest of Kali, just in case he gets away.
By the end of the next round, most of the identified southerners have fallen, but a lot of the party has been spending time digging. It is Wei Han who finally digs out the ancient remains of a wooden coffin, as the last of his entrancement pops, and the few enthralled villagers run in. Zhi-Hao chops what turns out to be an illusion, and then leaps all the way down to the bottom of the quarry, taking quite a bit of damage in his chase after the high priest.
People chop at the Southern high priest, but he deflects them with the last of his illusions, as he stands on the spot he was summoned to. One of the villagers picks up the stone, and Wei Han chops him almost in half. The Southern leader, outnumbered and out of illusions, makes his escape - Takanata thinks he has gone far to the south.
- "I will come back for the stone. You will rue the day: so say Kali and Maya"
The last of the enthrallments pop, and the hapless Farmer Ping (holder of the stone) flings himself to the ground begging the party not to kill him. Everyone assures him that nobody wants to kill him (the 58 points of damage Wei Han has done him notwithstanding). Then they order him to not give them the stone, and to not put it down. Terrified and with two remaining hit points, he obeys.
Lijuan tells him the story of the monk and the stone. Oh! It is the stone of Monk Chu! Oh no! That is a very large burden to carry, and Farmer Ping is just a very small farmer. He was buried beneath the... wait, where is the other hill?
- "Well, Ping, it appears that all the days of your life you must carry this, and protect it from all dark chi."
So... can someone heal Farmer Ping?
- "Won't he just get healed overnight?"
- "No, he won't." -Takanata, who understands how these items work.
Shuyan heals Farmer Ping, but it only has half effect on him. She spends quite a while getting him back up to 30 hit points.
The group explains to Farmer Ping that he will have to bear the stone now, and come with them to the circus. He protests weakly - he's not a monk, he's a farmer, there is spring planting that needs to be done - but there's only so much arguing the peasant can do in the face of the 20-status noble, and Farmer Ping bids farewell to his village and accompanies the party back to the circus in the City of Light.
- Xiao Fa takes the stone from Farmer Ping, and goes to visit (and retire to?) Two Hills.
- Takanata, Xiao Fa, Xian, and Min Feng go to visit House Teng.
- Wei Han commisions a smith to make chains to chain him up.
- Takanata and Min Feng and Yanyu visit the Shrouded Isle to ask after the Bandits of the Double Caldera.
- Cai Wen hires junior mercenaries in the Port of Propitious Voyage.