Up for Grabs
|"The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is today."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Tortoise in the Month of the Phoenix in the second Year of the Spider since the ascension of the High Warlord Ze.|
The run takes place in the Forest of Chin.
Mysterious Forest Troubles
Merit sends off the Guardian Horn to his guys at Q Division to see if they can make anything of it, and the circus gets ready to head into the Forest of Chin. Hiro and some others, including Takanata and Cai Wen, have already gone ahead to contact Pir Pir and ask if he's heard anything about trouble with wood spirits (since Mola Ram may have been messing with them at Midsummer).
It's a few days of travel to reach the border of the forest, after which the number of peasants travelling in the opposite direction (not on the highway itself, but hiking beside it) increases. They seem to be refugees of some sort, carrying a lot of possessions with them, and people go out to ask them what's going on. Apparently, there is terrible stuff going on in the middle of the forest - there are trees eating people, floods, all sorts of natural and supernatural disasters. Merit talks to Ringmaster Te - the Ringmaster thinks that the circus should not be heading into the teeth of floods and man-eating trees, and will take a more northerly route, but that Merit and anyone he wants to bring with him should go make sure Takanata isn't stuck in a tree or something. Happy to have an excuse to investigate, Merit and the others head out after Hiro's group.
Meanwhile, at the advance scouting party, Pir Pir has been explaining to Hiro that there's been a big fight in a particular area of the Forest, and he really thinks it would be safer if Hiro and everyone else takes a nice vacation in the Roof of the World while things blow over. Hiro insists that he's already been to the Roof of the World and it's not very exciting, and he really does want to go and see what's happening in the fight. Some cute refugee girls come by, causing Cai Wen to wander off to see if they need help; Takanata and the others not in the run wander off with him, but are surely safe and won't need any further rescuing.
Merit's expeditionary force catches up with Hiro, as Master Deng scouts ahead. Pir Pir is dubious that this is really Master Deng, and suggests that Hiro quiz him on something that only Master Deng would know, but Hiro thinks that recognition is close enough.
- "Hello, Master Deng!" -Hiro
- "Hello, Hiro!" -Zhi-Hao
- "That's not really much of a password. I think you need something better." -Pir Pir
Pir Pir briefs the group in a bit more detail: at Midsummer, there was a lot of trouble with the big spirits and demons of the forest, resulting in three of the major wood spirits vanishing, and all their power going loose. This has led a number of slightly lesser spirits and demons to try to seize this power and the place of the previous wood spirits, and they're currently fighting between themselves over the place and the power. Each of the six currently holds some area surrounding a village, which has been more transformed to match their natures, and they are likely holding some people as part of that, as well. The party is pretty clear that Rescuing the People is good; Pir Pir also thinks that the group could thwart some of them and support others, and get a favor or two out of it. Plus, if there's some spare power lying around, he could certainly use it too. Hint hint hint.
The group comes to an agreement with Pir Pir - if he helps get information for them and acts as their guide, then they'll throw him some power when the time comes. They aren't sure what their goal is yet, so they're not sure how much power they'll have left over. He heads off to scout, and returns with a map and some more information:
Twisted Cedar and Brown Feet are both wood spirits, and of the six in contention, they seem the angriest. They have claimed their territory with violence, and rescuing their people will probably involve fighting. (People recall that Brown Feet owes Anto a favor, but they can't claim the favor in absentia.) Twisted Cedar supports the wildness of the forest while Brown Feet is usually a bit more interested in a properly run forest.
Ripple is a water spirit, normally the spirit of a small pond, but now attempting to be a large pond/marsh. Pir Pir isn't sure where the people in this area are. Fallible Path is a demon, and his territory is a maze to get in and out of. Dapple is also a demon, the kind that makes the forest interesting - in ways ranging from an old woman giving cryptic advice to the fact that the poisonous berries look just like the tasty ones. All three of these areas require solving a mechanic to get into, but will probably not require fighting.
The final sector confuses Pir Pir - it seems to be a perfectly normal friendly village, as far as he can tell, but there's definitely a spirit or demon or something in contention for the territory and the power somehow. He's not sure what's up with that. In the center, the wood is blasted and not woody - that's the locus of the missing wood spirits.
Hiro points out that the party warned all the wood spirits they could warn that there would be bad guys trying to cause trouble for wood spirits, so they should have some cred now that it happened.
Through the Village
The party decides that the best place to investigate first is the center. This requires passing through one of the other areas, so the Mysteriously Cheerful Village is picked as the target. Perhaps they can sneak around it. A bit of stealth serves to get some scouts to the edge of the village - it does appear to be a normal village, with about thirty villagers engaged in a bunch of fixing up. The villagers are a bit short and pudgy, and quite cheerful. As Xiao Fa tries to observe the chi of the village, it seems like they're engaged in a group song and dance number, except without the actual singing or music.
Everyone is worried about being absorbed into the overall cheeriness, so Xiao Fa offers to try to lead everyone through without being affected by the local chi, or disturbing it further. That seems like a good idea, so the group tie themselves together, and proceed through the village at a very very slow walking pace (Xiao Fa's shtick is rather meditative). Unfortunately, "not affecting the chi" does not mean "invisible", so the villagers come over to investigate the strange phenomenon nearly immediately.
The villagers try to ask the group what they're doing, and are alternately ignored or talked to, depending on who they ask. One of the villagers menaces the rope with a hedge clipper, causing Master Zhou to glower at him; several of the villagers fall in behind the roped line and dance a bit, as if it is a conga line. Xiao Fa sighs - while he isn't affecting the chi of the village, having all the villagers pile onto the procession is definitely affecting it. Some of the villagers decide that the party is unlikely to actually be humans - the villagers are definitely better at being human than these people are, who are all tied together and don't walk very fast - and ask who they work for, but they claim to not work for anyone. Ahah, so they must work for someone in secret. Perhaps they are building an Imperial Highway. Or maybe a secret Imperial Highway. For the Secret Emperor. A few signs are erected, and the trail behind the group is painted and labeled "Secret Imperial Highway." Merit admits that the group is from the circus, and they're doing Performance Art. None of the villagers is really sure what performance art is, but they are excited by the idea of a circus. They promise to have a circus tent ready if the group will stay, but nobody wants to stay any longer, and at this point they've finally reached the other side of the village, and are permitted to escape.
In the central area, the trees seem wilted and still, and there are no birds or animals anywhere. It's possibly even more creepy than the cheerful village. In the center, there's a cleared area where rituals seem to have been done.
Merit does some detective work and tracking, and notes that the group started with some sort of summoning ritual. Something may have gone wrong with that, as their tracks got stompy-er after the first summoning, and some of the ritual bits got crossed out and then some more summonings were done. After that, they moved to a different space and did a larger ritual. After that, their tracks got even stompy-er, and they headed a bit north to an area where the ground seems disturbed.
People try to figure out if the ground is disturbed because a giant tree vanished, or something else happened. The best guess that anyone has is that they dug a big hole and then filled it in afterwards. People are baffled by why they would bother to fill it in again.
- "You destroy the forest, and you think "That's an unsightly hole"? Nah." - Merit
Merit pulls out a shovel, and hands it to Zhi-Hao, who starts digging. Unfortunately, he's trying to re-dig a hole that was dug by a much larger number of people, so it seems likely to take a day or two, until he burns an energy to dig very very fast for a couple of hours, and reaches the top of a metal cage. The cage proves to be very hot, and he burns himself a bit clearing the top of dirt.
Pir Pir notes that the three missing spirits are in there, and they are really angry.
- "They say, um, release them, puny mortals, and feel their vengeance." -Pir Pir
- "And feel their vengeance?" -Everyone
Pir Pir notes that they're really very angry, at "people" in general, and while he tries to pass back the party's arguments that they are also against the people who bound the spirits, that isn't getting very far. There is some argument as to whether the spirits even deserve to be released, if they're going to be so nasty, but no firm conclusions are reached. It doesn't seem like much can be done here that won't lead to more trouble, if the spirits are going to wreak havoc once they get out, so the party decides to try to rescue some people, as that's a bit less ambiguous.
- "It's a choice between the right thing to do and the optimal thing to do, except that we don't know what the optimal thing to do is." -Zhi-Hao
The forest of Twisted Cedar requires a lot of survival rolls to pass through; Merit tries to look after Shuyan, and Hiro ends up taking the brunt of the damage. When they reach the remains of the village, the group finds the villagers trapped in grown-out wooden cages of their own, menaced by vines. And, when the group starts heading in, they have to battle vines, trees, and thorns, which are all a lot of trouble. Shuyan looses the two monkeys she brought (Pooky Tako and Osu) and sends them off for their own safety..
As the fighters engage with the plants and start to get some of the cages open, Pir Pir translates for Merit. Twisted Cedar does seem to be down on people - if people are going to put wood spirits in cages, wood spirits are going to put people in cages! That will show them! Twisted Cedar is also rather grumpy that the group half-dug-up the central three spirits but didn't free them - they don't seem to have earned much credit here. Merit wants the people released immediately, or at least soon, while the spirit is willing to threaten to kill them to make a point, and wants Merit to agree to go free the wood spirits ASAP. After much negotiation, and much more fighting (in which both sides come closer to losing than they are comfortable with, and Shuyan is nearly added to the stock of prisoners), Merit manages to strike a deal, that he will attempt to free the wood spirits, but has a week in which to do so. In return, Twisted Cedar will feed the prisoners and prevent them from dying, but gets to keep them for two weeks before letting them go. Merit leaves his Bracers of Blunting Steel as a deposit in case he can't free the trapped spirits, and Twisted Cedar haggles in one free thwarting attempt against Merit’s group after the first week.
The party makes a quick attempt to persuade the prisoners to not give up hope, and then flee. The monkeys are nowhere to be seen until they move on...
Master Zhou, Zhi-Hao, and Merit solve the labyrinth of Fallible Path, with a hint from Pooky Tako who returns with a clue. Shuyan (with some late assistance by Merit) solves the water reflections allowing entrance to Ripple, and Merit spots that one area of water is a mirror image. This is sufficiently enlightened that Osu nabs one of Ripple's power and returns to Shuyan with a first level Monkey scroll. Hiro and Xiao Fa (with some late assistance by everyone else) solve Dapple's hidden-objects puzzle.
The group starts with Fallible Path - that actually proves quite simple, once they finish the labyrinth and get to the central village. The villagers are all fine, though a little worried about being unable to leave. It requires another puzzle solution to leave, but that doesn't take too long, and the group exits. When the people are rescued, Fallible Path's three power goes back into the air - Pir Pir gets one, and two are put in Merit's spirit bottle. The bottle can probably hold one more power, though that'll make it very tight. Xiao Fa is pretty sure that the raw spirit power can't just be put in a person, but it might be able to be channeled into the Great Talismans to the Magpie or the Butterfly, rather than to one of the local spirits. On the other hand, it would probably be good if not too much of the power leaves the Forest of Chin; it's down one tree on the map now, and if the power all leaves, it'll probably be down one metaphorical tree for a while.
Merit accidentally declares that Pir Pir has been paid now, leading him to get cranky - if the party ends up with a lot more loot, he wants more of it too! Merit attempts to suggest that Pir Pir be "paid" only at the end, but Pir Pir is suspicious of Merit's magpie nature and doesn't want it to end up that all the power gets converted into scrolls and things and then needs to be used at the end as part of a bargain and there's none left for him. Pir Pir clearly thinks the spare loot should be divided evenly between him and the party, while Master Zhou leads the contingent who think the loot should be divided seven ways. Pir Pir protests that the people can't even use spirit power, and the Great Spirits don't need it, while it'll help him level up as a shtick source for Hiro.
- "Well, you being able to teach Hiro more helps him, but it doesn't help the rest of us any." -Master Zhou
- "Wow, harsh." -Pir Pir
The argument starts to head into serious bitter recrimination territory as people try to codify an arrangement which includes "but we don't know how much we'll need to broker a deal with the spirits, and we can't store more than three", until a general agreement to try and treat Pir Pir sort of fairly is sort of agreed to and Hiro shushes any further attempts to discuss it as just making things worse. Then, it's into Ripple's sector.
The pond-that-was has expanded, and the tops of the huts are visible. No people are obvious, though. Xiao Fa decides that the answers are in the water, so ties a rope around his waist and starts wading in. Fairly quickly, a strange figure swims up to him - mostly person-shaped, but swimming more like a fish or an eel, limbs streaming behind - and then reaches up to try to grab him and pull him under. Xiao Fa manages to dodge, and backpedals out of the water again. However, this is probably one of the villagers, so it will be hard to tell what is up without getting a closer look.
Zhi-Hao and Master Zhou, armed with the canes of dodging, go a little into the water and grab the fish-guy and pull him out. He flops about on the shore, trying to get back in, but he doesn't seem to be asphyxiating. Xiao Fa's does a chi diagnosis on him, and decides that he and the other fish-people are partly person, partly fish, and also partly dead - they seem to be being turned into some sort of undead marsh-wiggle sort of creature to haunt the lake. Eew! The party decides that This Must Be Fixed, but Xiao Fa is really the best equipped to deal with breaking chi curses. The enchantment is all of a piece, so he thinks he may be able to break it with one chi cleansing, if it's large enough.
People put together a haphazard pen made of bamboo and wood, and the two fighters pull out the ten fish-people and put them in the pen. Xiao Fa throws in his Chi and spends a karma to broaden the effect, and just manages to break the curse on them. The people awaken, no longer half-fish or half-dead, and the group escorts them away from the sunken village.
Two power go up in the air (one was already grabbed by Osu) - one goes into the spirit bottle, taking it up to three, and Hiro puts one into the Butterfly Talisman, which ends up creating a butterfly scroll and, also, making the talisman seem more impressive, and people more inclined to obey Hiro for a scene.
There's no more room for storing up spirit power, so the group heads back to the center to negotiate with the bound wood spirits.
Root, Bough, and Branch
Zhi-Hao spends another few hours digging up the rest of the cage. It looks like there's a lock on it, but that just needs some blacksmithing to break, rather than a complicated ritual.
Once Pir Pir starts to negotiate more seriously, he notes several things - they can all hear, but they bargain separately, and they all know that if the party agrees to free one, then the other two will be freed as well. So negotiation is less simple than it might seem. Pir Pir is pretty sure that they could offer to free one, and in return get him to both not be wrathful and stop another one from getting them while they flee. The party isn't psyched by that as an outcome - that still leaves one spirit trying to kill them, and two angry spirits for the long term.
After some consideration, the best bargain they can come up with is to offer one spirit the three power they have, as well as letting it go, in exchange for it not being wrathful and agreeing to thwart the other two from attacking. (With the three power, it can probably hold the other two off without much problem for enough time to let the party escape). All three spirits are willing to take the deal, so Merit gets Pir Pir to talk them into a bidding war. Each of them offers a different add-on to the deal:
- a single tree-teleport for one person or group
- one anti-earth or anti-water favor
- the identity of the other enemy who betrayed them (in addition to "the people who did this")
The party suspects that the answer to #3 is "Kali", but they've been talking about Kali and the Southerners, and Pir Pir thinks the spirit thinks it's new information for them. While Merit thinks that once Takanata knows there's information to be had, he can find it out, in general, people are most interested in the information, so that's the bargain they take.
The cage is broken, the spirits are freed, and as the party flees, Pir Pir says that Root (the winning spirit) says that the Demon of the Forest is the other enemy who betrayed them. The party declares that the last sector that has to be thwarted is the Cheerful Village, because it is entirely too cheerful and happy to be let be.
When the group heads back to the village, they find that the villagers have constructed a big circus tent, in enthusiastic hopes of having the circus perform. Shuyan happily launches into her snake dance (after an introduction by Xiao Fa that they also applaud quite happily for), providing a serious distraction, while everyone else starts to search the village for Clues.
- "You didn't want to watch that anyway."
- "The problem is that I did. That's the problem." -Merit
Xiao Fa follows the chi downstream, and wanders around the village. In general, the chi of the village is fairly normal, though there are little eddies here and there, and he circles some objects as he goes, and finally ends up in what seems to be the Mayor's house, in front of his writing desk, with a magnificient quill on it.
Merit plays with the ink and the paper on the desk, doing rubbings to reveal what was written on the most recent paper. Apparently, the last thing written was a proclamation that There Shall Be Built A Circus Tent. Hmm, that's not so helpful. Merit tosses his scratch paper in the fire.
Hiro gathers up the eight objects that Xiao Fa walked around, and Xiao Fa examines one of them - an umbrella - with chi diagnosis. He is horrified to realize that the umbrella is a person! Though... it's the sort of person that if he were going to be an object, he'd be an umbrella. Back at the circus tent, Master Zhou takes over from Shuyan, starting to teach the villagers kung fu, which they also find quite entertaining.
All the other villages have had ten people, so there are probably two people missing. Xiao Fa is pretty sure that, unlike the fish-people, each of these transformations is different, so he won't be able to fix them all together. The quill seems likely to be the mayor, so he chi-cleanses the mayor, and he turns from a quill into a guy. Simultaneously, in the circus tent, three of the villagers turn into tanuki, look surprised and sheepish, and run off into the woods. The mayor says that on Midsummer, there was a great shaking in all the trees, and then some crazy screaming coming from the direction of the center area, and then the trees started shaking even more, and then... then it all got confusing, sort of like a dream.
The Mayor gets escorted around the village to see if he recognizes anything else as a fellow transformation victim. He thinks the copper horseshoe over the stables is new, so the group takes that down too, and the last one is found to be the weathervane.
Xiao Fa tells a story about people being turned into things and turned back. A couple of the villagers, sad, ask if they're going to turn everyone back, and Xiao Fa says yes, they are. The villagers ask how? Xiao Fa says... um, with storytelling? After he tells another grand story, the villagers clap, and one nudges another... after a moment, several more of the villagers turn into tanuki, but these sit in the tent to see what the rest of the party will do to reverse the transformations. The ten villagers are each restored with a different method including:
- Chi cleansing on the Mayor
- Singing sad songs
- Dodging with the cane of free action
- Romantic stories and a kiss from the already-fixed husband
- An epic throw and catch of the bouncy-ball transformed kid
- A fake magic ritual with the elemental markers
- Arranging the feng shui of Sister Yu's house to need Sister Yu in it
- Training the shovel how to fight and then giving it an action
- One is an old buddy of Li Merit's.
Now that the tanuki have all been turned back into tanuki, the villagers are actually safe to stay in the village, but three power are freed, which are put in the spirit bottle.
After some more debate, two more power are traded to Root for an anti-earth or anti-water favor (for three, he'll give an arbitrary favor, but for two it has to be a particular favor), and one to Pir Pir.
Then, it's off to Dapple - all but one villager are rescued from distractions on the way out, but the tenth villager does go off into the forest on a quest. Still, that's enough to free the three power - two go in the bottle, and Pir Pir gets a third, enough to level him up.That leaves the forest balanced at three wood spirits (Root, Twisted Cedar, and Brown Feet), so the spirit battle will calm down in the future as things settle out. The party leaves with two spirit power stuck in Merit’s bottle, and Pir Pir leaves with enough power to level up.