The Shadow of the Wall
|"Shadow is but the memory of light;
Light is but the place where the shadow has not yet fallen."
| It is the Day of the Late Crane in the Month of the Bear, in the third Year of the Fox since the Crowning of Ti Lao.|
The run begins in the Butterfly Kingdom and the Hon'eth Arcade, and ends in the southern Savanna of Tears.
Tokai Takanata, scholar and advisor to Ti Lao, begins his day in his court office. One of his first appointments is with his young nephew Yoshi, and the archer Lijuan, who Yoshi took in to reform six weeks ago. She has been serving the huntsman of House Tokai, and Takanata has had the job of placating those who have complained about Lijuan's past petty thefts. The pair has been summoned to report on her progress. However, as they enter the doorway, Takanata is distracted by a poem, which falls into his mind and he quickly writes down.
In his fine court hand, it reads:
- Two mice jump and tumble
- Pale as the moon, brown as a leaf
- Yet the same
- Two mice freeze beneath the sky
- Hearts fluttering in terror
- The claws descend
Then, in a rougher and harsher brushwork, barely recognizable as Takanata's own:
- The memory of light moves away from the shadow
This is quite puzzling, and the last line seems particularly nonsensical. However Takanata seems to have accidentally written the poem on the back of a letter from his (great-)niece Teng Mai, which mentions her twin son and daughter, so perhaps that is a clue to the meaning of the poem. While Takanata mulls over the poem, Yoshi waits patiently and Lijuan tries to edge back out of the door again, but eventually he comes to himself and interrogates them about Lijuan's progress.
Yoshi says that Lijuan has been doing very well. Takanata confirms that she is finding service to House Tokai acceptable, and has no inclination to return to her former proclivities. Then, he wonders if Yoshi has any currently pressing business - as it turns out, he does not. Well, Takanata is somewhat concerned about his great-niece and -nephew in the Hon'eth Arcade, due to the omens presaged in his poem. Takanata emphasizes the fact that the last line makes no sense, since the shadow is the memory of light, but the hairs on the back of his neck stand up to warn him that whatever it is, it's bad. Takanata arranges for the three of them to take ship for the Arcade that afternoon.
Meanwhile, in the Hon'eth Arcade, outside the House of the Lotus (a Blossom House particularly renowned for training of geisha), it is raining. There is a knock at the door, answered by Dutiful Hsung, the butler.
- "We have men working at the Lotus House?" -- Andrea
- "Well, he was born as a man..." -- Mike
Masters Chan and Feng are shown in out of the rain, their green cloaks dripping on the floor. Mr. Hsung tsks at the mess and summons someone to mop. The pair say they are here to see Teng Hanako, a young woman training to become a geisha. Mr. Hsung speaks to Hanako, and orders tea for her to serve in a tea ceremony. The two men say they have an important message from her parents, but they would prefer to speak in private. Mr. Hsung withdraws to an adjoining room while Hana serves tea. Master Chan says that her father wanted to give her something - and promptly clicks a brass manacle around her wrist. She tries to object, but is strangely unable to make any noise. The two men quickly bundle her out the window.
As it turns out, Teng Hiroki, Hana's twin brother, was lurking outside that very window wondering what was up with Hana. Seeing his sister being spirited away, Hiro leaps into the fray and attempts to rescue her. His battle-cry of "Unhand my sister, fiends!" is overheard through the windows and the partition by Mr. Hsung, who peeks into the private room to be sure everything is fine. Seeing the room empty and the window open, he attempts to raise the alarm. He also overhears some shouting outside in Senatali, the strange dialect spoken by those south of the great wall.
The fight is short-lived, however, as the kidnappers manage to get a silence manacle on Hiro as well, in exchange for taking a goodly hit or two. But they prove resilient and bundle the pair into a carriage which speeds off into the rainy night.
Mr. Hsung goes for reinforcements, but is only able to recruit two moppers and Madame Chew, none of whom are of great use in a fight, and the Lotus House staff charges outside only to see the carriage disappearing in the distance. Mr. Hsung does his best to explain the debacle to Madame Cho, the proprietress of the House, and manages to throw all the blame on Madame Chew.
Two days later, there is another knock on the door of the House of the Lotus, answered by a chastened Mr. Hsung. Takanata introduces himself, and says he is here to see his great-niece, Teng Hanako. This is not what Mr. Hsung wanted to hear, but he invites the group in, directing them to leave their weapons in an antechamber. Yoshi quietly notes that he is more worried and guilty than he appears.
Mr. Hsung reports to Madame Cho, who is incredulous. Tokai Takanata, Here? Himself!? She could not have conceived that he would have received the letter so soon. She rushes downstairs to see her guests, and suggests that perhaps it would be best if Mr. Hsung described what happened. Mr. Hsung humbly suggests that perhaps she would be better able to describe the whole picture. Surprisingly, Madame Cho loses the battle of wills, and is forced to admit that two nights past, Hana was... abducted. There has been no demand for ransom, and no sign of where she has been taken.
Since Madame Cho did not, in fact, see the altercation, Mr. Hsung is forced to narrate: Two gentlemen came to the door to see Takanata-san's great-niece. She recognized their names and came down and served them tea. The tea ceremony began, and then the window opened, and someone spoke in Senatali. Someone else (Mr. Hsung failed to recognize Hiro) was also involved, and then both Hana and the newcomer were bundled into a carriage and taken. The last thing Mr. Hsung heard was people arguing in Senatali, and the word "south" more clearly.
Madame Cho expresses her deep regret at all this, and offers the services of Mr. Hsung to aid in Hana's recovery. He makes frantic hand signals at her, but she is implacable. The green cloaks of the kidnappers are still in the closet, however - Lijuan notes some stinky mud on their hems. Takanata investigates Hana's room, and borrows her hair comb.
Meanwhile, the twins have awoken, and find themselves shackled together with the silent shackles, in something like an extra-large coffin. They try pounding on the lid, but that also makes no sound. Outside, they can hear a conversation that sounds like a border crossing - presumably between the Arcade and one of its neighbors. They try to rock back and forth to make the carriage shake, but the driver passes it off as a movement of the horses. The carriage journey continues.
Back in the Arcade, Yoshi gives the butler a pep talk to try and mend his broken spirits, and the group sets off south in a rented carriage, hoping to find someone who saw the two men. Takanata contemplates casting the I Ching on either Hana or the kidnappers, and has a very disconcerting sense that it is waiting to speak to him. He casts the I Ching for Hana, using five more dice than he ought to (Hana's Yin dice plus Hiro's Yang dice are added, and the "no more than doubling your stat" rule seems to not be in effect), and ends up throwing the sticks to the ground in something like a map, with a dot near the Southern Wall. Takanata finds this all quite disturbing - the I Ching has never been so insistent about a prophecy before.
Back in the coffin, Hiro has discovered that he has a pocketknife, and is beginning to chisel away at the lid with it. (In this, the shackles of silence prove useful, as his escape attempt makes no noise). But then the lid opens, revealing four soldiers, one holding a bowl. Hiro lunges at one of them with his pocket knife, and Hana follows to try and tackle him. All three go down in a flailing pile.
A fifth man, behind the guards, coldly orders: "Surrender now, or we just kill all three of you." As a demonstration, he blasts the fallen guard with dark flames. He glares at Hiro, who has grabbed the fallen guy's sword, and points at Hana. "Will she be next? Or shall we be more civilized, and discuss this over dinner?"
Hana agrees to talk to him, and he switches her manacles for a non-silence version. He explains that there is a thing that they must do, by a certain day, near the Wall, and the twins must be present.
- "While we appreciate your kind invitation, I am afraid my brother and I have business elsewhere." -- Hana
- "All your business elsewhere is but a shadow, for the place we are taking you is the whole purpose of your lives." -- Mysterious Gentleman
Hana is skeptical that he can tell the purpose of their lives, and wonders what dire consequences will happen if they are not there in six days. The failure of civilization, he claims. Hana is still skeptical.
- "Civilization is like the ocean -- it may change, but it cannot fail."
- "And yet, even the ocean was not always there, and one day it may be gone."
- "I am afraid your philosophy exceeds my humble capacity to understand."
In any event, he is afraid that the journey must proceed. It can proceed with food, and in relative comfort, or it can proceed in boxes. Which would she choose? After much pause, Hana agrees that the carriage is more comfortable than the box. "Then you need only secure your brother's cooperation, and it shall be so," the man assures her. Hiro gives Hana a Look, but allows himself to be handed into the coach, pausing only to fix the man with a baleful glare.
- "When you lay dying at my feet, remember this as the moment you could have averted your fate." -- Hiro
At the pronouncement of this curse, the mysterious gentleman sways back slightly on his feet, and looks unhappy, but he's not struck down in an instant or anything. Still, it was definitely significant.
Takanata's rescue team switches from carriage to rented horses once they leave the Imperial Highway - this allows them to make up some time, though there is some initial falling off of the horses due to inexperience. At the ferry crossing over the Jasmine River, the ferryman wishes Takanata luck: "Don't let the shadow of the Wall fall on you on the Day of the Dog."
Hiro, trying to find something to do to inconvenience their captors, drops the set of silence manacles out the window (the group behind them will eventually spot it and pick it up). Hana tries to use her feminine wiles on the guards during mealtimes - the mage is not as impressed, but the guards seem somewhat in awe of her.
Then, the kidnappers reach their ritual spot near the Southern Wall, and the twins are put in separate bamboo cages. Hiro has managed to hide a guard's katana on him. A darker-skinned man with a strange headdress examines both of them, chanting in Senatali, and then draws a line on Hana's forehead in mud. He makes it clear to all the guards that they need to be careful to keep the two separate and that the one with the line is not the same as the one without the line. Hana scrubs the mud off her forehead - one of the guards tries to put it back, but she blocks him. Another guard runs to fetch the shaman, but by the time he returns, Hiro has drawn a line on his forehead, and the guy is inexplicably satisfied with that, and seems to be chewing out the guard for making a big deal about nothing. Hiro and Hana are baffled by this, since they haven't done the usual trick of switching clothes to pretend to be the other. Hana tries to convince Hiro to get rid of his mark, since she thinks she's the person needed more for the ritual, and she doesn't want him to get hurt, but he's having none of it.
- "I'm not sure this is going to end well, and if it's not going to end well, I at least want to foil their plans." -- Hiro
Guards clear a large ritual area around the two cages, moving away all the rocks and debris, and then seventeen people in ritual garb with odd paraphernalia come out. Twelve arrange themselves in a large circle - one has a sword, one has a feather, one has a bowl full of salt, and so on. Then, the other five arrange themselves in a smaller circle, with the two cages at the center.
Hiro draws the katana, and chops through the ropes holding the cage together, but the mage quickly chi-bolts him into unconsciousness, and he falls next to the cage. Hana tries to put mud on her face to convince the mage that she's the one who should be marked, but he is not falling for her trickery, and jovially scolds her.
The outer twelve start to do various odd things - flipping around a rope, throwing the salt into the air, capering around. After a bit of that, the middle five start to work with water, fire, wood, earth, and metal. They begin to slowly step towards the twins, closing the circle. At the same time, the shadow of the southern Wall has begun to advance towards the center of the ritual circle. More chanting happens. Hana manages to distract the fire-ritualist with a striptease, so he ends up slightly out of position.
Then, four riders appear on the edge of the clearing! Mr. Hsung, hearing the invocations spoken in Senatali, says that the ritual started with invoking the Twelve Cycle Animals, then the five elements. Lijuan shoots the water-ritualist, distracting him as well, and the guards charge towards the rescue party. Surprisingly, Takanata leads the charge, calling "Hsung, get the boy out. You two [Lijuan and Yoshi], finish dropping Water." Yoshi charges towards the center of the ritual as well, leaving Lijuan and Mr. Hsung to deal with the nearby guards.
The ritual leader shouts out something panicked, which Mr. Hsung translates: "By all the gods, the two are switched. If you invoke the Tao, we'll all die!" This causes most of the ritualists to start to flee, but the fire-ritualist, who's been quite distracted by Hana's striptease, finishes invoking the Tao, and the sky erupts in lightning. One bolt hits Hana, shattering her cage - another seems to bounce off Hiro, and hits Hana as well. The air begins to glow, and the ritualists start to die. Yoshi takes some damage, but Takanata ignores it, though he isn't sure why. Their two horses are dead, however.
Hiro rushes to Hana, cradling her in his arms - for an instant, she appears dead, but then her eyes flutter and she wakes again, with a pounding headache and nearly blind from the blotches in front of her vision.
Most of the guards are also dead, but the few that were all the way to Mr. Hsung and Lijuan are still up. Yoshi invokes his "No Need for More Bloodshed" shtick, and convinces them to flee. They do. The lead ritualist vows, as he goes: "You may have stopped us here, but we will prevail. By all the gods, they shall yet rule."
Yoshi contemplates exactly why he (the ritualist) was doing all this. He can't figure out the details of the plan itself, but he's sure that it is this guy's Great Purpose in Life. He thinks of it as a great and good thing that must be done, though it will of course be unfortunate for the people living here when it happens.
Takanata decides that now that the shadow of the Wall has fallen upon all of them, it doesn't matter if they stay in it, and spends some time taking notes on the details of the magic ritual. The guards are armed with serrated swords, rather unusual to his eye.
Lijuan introduces herself to Hiro and Hana. Hiro thinks it unlikely that Lijuan is the scrawny little kid that he met five years ago, but Hana is more polite. Hiro and Lijuan track the ritualist - his tracks fade out once they are close to the Wall. Then, the story of the kidnapping is told to the rescuers - well, more like two stories, one with dramatic swearings of vengeance and billowing cloaks (Hiro's), and the other with much speculation about exactly who they are and what they were doing (Hana's). Masters Chang and Feng were two of the twelve ritualists, and the fact that they were friends of the Teng parents makes it a bit dangerous to think about going back home for the moment. Lijuan suggests that the twins return to the Butterfly Kingdom where they can be protected, and Takanata thinks that is a very good idea.
Hana brings up again the oddness that the cultists got them confused despite the fact that the twins were dressed differently and in different cages. Takanata thinks the explanation lies in their particularly strong resonance with the Tao, that also caused his own prophecies to go off so powerfully. So, even any casual pretense at switching took on additional force, due to that resonance. But the resonance is fading quickly now.The group heads to the Butterfly Kingdom with much to think about (dropping Mr. Hsung back in the Hon'eth Arcade to report back to the House of the Lotus).