|"The man without dreams has no past and no future, only an endless moment of the present."||It is the Day of the Early Monkey in the month of the Monkey, in the third Year of the Fox since the crowning of Ti Lao.|
On the Road Again
There is little left to do in the Port of Auspicious Voyage before the circus sets out again, south towards the City of Light (main port of the Illuminated Precincts). Xiao Fa frets over not having found anything properly aesthetic to rearrange with his new training in feng shui, and considers purchasing some potted plants. Shuyan frets over the fact that Master Zhou (who is training her in kung fu) has not yet assigned her any homework. Perhaps she is not worthy, she thinks.
Ringmaster Te posts Hiro on the lead elephant, and the circus gets under way. The journey up the spur to the main north/south highway is fairly uneventful, and the first several days of travel are fairly quiet. The only opposing traffic of note is one small caravan of fancy carriages; Hana is dispatched to offer them tea while the circus passes. Hana is a gracious conversationalist and tea server; Shuyan is an exemplary acrobat, and Yoshi demonstrates his Danger Cheffery. The travelling performance is perhaps not one of the circus' finest, but it serves to entertain the nobles and the circus caravan continues along.
On the third day of travel, the circus caravan starts to pass two young boys, who have partially climbed up onto the highway, and appear to be looking for soldiers. Having failed to find any so far, they ask after the circus strong man (yes, it has one), and whether he could help them. Yoshi explains that he is a Danger Chef, which is just as good at helping as a strong man. The boys are pulled up onto the highway, and the group tries to find out the problem. It is a bit difficult to determine exactly what it is, but after some interrogation, the story seems to be that the people in their village (a tiny rice-farming community named Xiaolu) have been replaced by walking, talking statues who look just like the original people. It is not yet clear what distinguishes a talking statue from an actual person - the boys admit that they do eat and so on, but both boys are adamant that they're Not Right in some fashion. Yoshi and Hiro admit to being Monster Hunters, and entirely capable of taking care of evil walking statues.
Xiao Fa repacks one of the circus carts into other carts, and requisitions it for the Monster Hunting Expedition. The two boys want to borrow the strong man, but Ringmaster Te doesn't want any of the top acts going off on a diversion. The little group can catch back up to the circus again, hopefully before they hit the City of Light, and they'll bring the Hunter's Map (and the other minor magic items) so they can catch back up to Cai Wen if the circus ends up going in another direction.
As the cart exits the highway and heads to the west, Hiro questions the boys (named Cheng and Hai-Sung). The turning-to-statues got really bad a couple of days ago, which is when they decided to come and get help. It happens in the morning, when you first wake up. It had kind of started maybe two days before that, that some people got like statues, but when their parents turned to statues, that freaked them out too much. Were the boys both at home when it happened? No, Cheng was staying with Hai-Sung's family, because a tree fell on their house and it needed fixing. How exactly are they different now that they're statues, Hana enquires? What did they do in the morning? Hai-Sung says his mother gave him breakfast. That doesn't seem all that bad, but on further questioning, he says normally she wouldn't just say "here's your breakfast," she'd say good morning, and give him breakfast, and tell him to sit down and be good, and to not cause trouble, and... Ah, notes Hana, so she's more quiet than usual? Yes, Hai-Sung agrees. And wrong.
Has anyone new visited Xiaolu recently? The boys recall that the rope salesman came by, but they'd seen him before. Does that count as new? Maybe not. Xiao Fa checks out their general health - they're peasant children, kind of tired and hungry and a little malnourished, but not in bad shape. Peasant kids don't have a lot of chi, but theirs is maybe even a little less than he might expect.
The boys ask if the party can bring some elephants with them, to go faster. Alas, no, that is not to be. Elephants prove an exciting subject of conversation in general - whether they can be eaten, how old they are, and then an interesting story by Xiao Fa about how Master Zhou created the elephants. The boys find this very exciting and terrifying, especially when it is suggested that Master Zhou turns people into elephants, rather than creating them from scratch.
Master Zhou demands to know from the boys what landmarks are near their village. Well... there is a tree. And some hills. And some rice fields, though they are not appreciably different than the rice fields being passed through now. Master Zhou glowers, the boys whimper that they can recognize their neighborhood even if they can't describe it.
- "I'm sure as long as you're good he won't turn you into elephants." -Hana
After most of the day's travel, the cart reaches the area near Xiaolu, and is parked under a tree just over a hill and out of sight of the village. Hiro and Xiao Fa creep forwards stealthily. There are people working in the rice paddies; some are hoeing or pulling out waterweed, and some are scaring fish into nets. It seems rather peaceful, and there is no immediate evidence that the farmers are actually talking statues. No one appears to notice the pair.
When the two decide to stop being sneaky and start towards some of the farmers, still no one appears to notice. No attention is paid to them at all, until Hiro says hello, and the farmer says hello and goes back to his fish-catching. Hiro asks about the village, and who is in charge - there is apparently no mayor, but the clan chief is several towns over. The man seems willing to answer questions, fairly tersely and without interest. Hiro asks how much a bag of fish is - one zhu - and buys the bag of fish. The farmer goes back to his fish-catching. Well, that seems somewhat anti-social, but not Monsteresque. On the other hand, a Sense Motive roll reveals absolutely no motive. Xiao Fa looks at the man's chi, and notes with some horror that it's not moving at all. Hiro says that the bag is too heavy for him - can he call a kid to carry it for him? The farmer shouts over another kid (named Tochi) who was working in the field, and tells him to carry the bag. He does so without comment. The affectless kid creeps out Hiro and Xiao Fa even more than the affectless adult, and they decide to retreat from the field with their bag of fish and kid.
Cheng and Hai-Sung are also somewhat spooked by Tochi (they agree that that's who he is), and there is some worry that whatever is affecting everyone might be contagious.
On the other hand, Hiro notes that if anyone wants to search anything in the town (is the fallen tree suspicious? the rope? Nobody is sure yet what to blame), probably anyone can look at anything and not get stopped. People investigate the fallen tree - it has been removed from on top of the house, and its limbs lopped off. The house is in the middle of repairs. They also look at the bedroll that Cheng and Hai-Sung were sleeping on - it's small, but not mystically protected in any way anyone can see.
Yoshi tries to pin down the timing between the fallen tree and when things started getting weird. The kids say that maybe when Mrs. Tsu didn't yell at them, that was the first thing. They didn't realize it was statues then, they just thought she wasn't yelling. And that was before the tree fell.
Master Zhou sneaks up behind Tochi, and then brings his staff crashing down on a nearby rock. Tochi looks, but doesn't jump or look worried. The other two boys, though, are sure that Master Zhou just tried to turn Tochi into an elephant and it didn't work! Shuyan assures them that Master Zhou has lots more powers than elephant-turning at hand. Xiao Fa examines Tochi for his overall health - he also has about the health you'd expect for a peasant kid. He doesn't wiggle at all during the examination, which Xiao Fa finds particularly wrong.
Yoshi tells some happy stories to try to cheer Tochi up, to no particular effect, though Cheng and Hai-Sung are somewhat cheered.
Xiao Fa does a walkabout around the area as evening starts to fall, and notes that the chi of the village as a whole is somewhat subdued and calm - and that the people aren't really affecting the chi at all - but that over in one rice field there's something that looks sort of like a self-contained chi fountain. It's not connected to the chi of the village, but supplied from somewhere else.
The Creature Found
It's getting dark enough that the villagers are coming in for supper. Cheng's mother tells him that it's dinner time, and goes into the house without seeing whether he follows. The party still doesn't really know how the chi-stilling is happening, so tell the kids to go back and guard the cart and eat there, while they go to investigate the weird area of the rice field.
After much searching, something the size of a large badger hole is located. Shuyan sends in one of her snakes, using the magic monocle to see through its eyes. Unfortunately, once it gets down the entrance to a larger opening, it sees a strange creature with an elephant's trunk and strong sharp claws - the creature grabs the snake with its trunk, and rends it to bits with its claws. Shuyan screams.
The description sounds a little familiar to those versed in the spirit realm (or ancient stories). A benign spirit called a baku (with the trunk of an elephant and paws of a tiger) is said to eat nightmares, leaving only good dreams for the sleeper, and is said to be good luck. This seems more like an evil version of such a thing (a yumekui?), perhaps a demon from the World Below instead of a spirit from the World Above.
Yoshi asks the two boys if they got any sleep while Cheng was staying with Hai-Sung. No, not really. They kept whispering to each other all night. Ah, so perhaps the yumekui hasn't gotten them because they haven't been dreaming. Hiro racks his brains for what he remembers about demons - there are the kind that have come all the way through, and are running around in the world. Them, you defeat and they go back to where they were. Others are in both places - the World Below and the world - but tend to stay in approximately one place, and have to be fought somehow in both worlds. The first fight is likely to be much more difficult than the second, after they are cut off. So - is this the sort of thing that is immobile and in both places, or is creeping around in the middle of the night eating dreams physically? Checking for tracks at the badger-tunnel doesn't show signs of anything having crawled in and out recently.
Shuyan thinks about the old stories about dream-foes. Most often, the hero will fight the opponent in his dream, and after that find that he is much less scary in the real world. Master Zhou thinks that most dream battles are solo, though it is sometimes possible to share a dream - husband and wife, or siblings, or another close tie, might allow that to happen.
This suggests that the best plan of attack is to fight the yumekui in dreams first, though it is not clear how the party will gather to do so. There is an attempt made to get the villagers to leave the village - Yoshi tells them there are rampaging... he grinds to a halt, unable to come up with any sort of lie, and Shuyan fills in "elephant demons"... rampaging elephant demons that they need to get out of the way from. Some of them go back to their houses and put furniture in front of the door; others are willing to follow Yoshi and the also-persuasive Hana to a nearby hill that Xiao Fa thinks is out of the yumekui's range.
As part of forming close ties, Master Zhou offers to train anyone who wishes to be trained. Yoshi is not sure that he wants to become a student for that reason in particular, but is willing to be taught kung fu. Master Zhou trains him for an hour, and notes that he may be able to fight the demon in the dreamworld by force of personality rather than intellect (as is most common in dreams).
The magic items are divided up, in case they prove helpful in the dream. Yoshi insists that he won't be able to remember that he has the map once he's asleep, so Xiao Fa tells him a bedtime story involving an exciting adventure with a magic map.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
The party camps as close to the badger-tunnel as possible on dry land, and tries to fall asleep. Those with meditation do a bit better at it.
- Xiao Fa dreams of his brother, shouting at him in pain and anguish, in a language he doesn't understand. Eventually, he shakes his fist at the sky, turns, and runs off. Xiao Fa follows...
- Yoshi dreams of tracking down Reiko, following a trail of massacres. The bodies are getting fresher, and he eventually finds some who are not yet dead. Unable to heal them, he follows after the trail...
- Shuyan dreams of the snake killed by the yumekui. She apologizes; the snake says it's sad to go, but was glad it was helpful. Would Shuyan like to come see it off to the World Above? She would like that, and follows after the snake...
- Hana dreams of being with Hiro in the kidnappers' carriage. Hiro shouts that he has to save Hana, that she'll get killed or something, and they have to flee. Hiro kicks open the carriage door, and holds his hand back to Hana. Is she coming? She follows after him.
- Hiro dreams of being with Hana in the kidnappers' carriage. Hana says that they have to get out - Hiro needs to protect her. She picks the lock on the door with a hairpin, and tumbles out. Hiro leaps out after her, and follows...
- Master Zhou dreams of teaching young students, faces upturned and wide-eyed to receive his wisdom. However, after a little while of demonstration, the students begin to look bored, and whisper to each other of a better teacher elsewhere. They begin to leave, out through the archway in the courtyard. Master Zhou grabs the last student and attempts to demonstrate amazing kung fu. The other students continue to leave, though, and even the one he has grabbed seems to be losing interest. Eventually, he chases after them...
Following the things and people they want, each dreamer reaches the center of the local dreaming, a circular area where everything is flowing inwards. They must build their own paths in. The basic rules are:
The dreamers start by heading for the center, where the yumekui is, but Yoshi and Shuyan realize that if they don't rescue the villagers from its domain first, fighting the yumekui will probably cause them to be lost. The party settles into a more tactical exploration, sending the higher-Tao people ahead to explore rooms and having others claim rooms behind to leave a path for villagers to escape. Finding all the missing villagers does result in losing a lot of things that they want and fear, though.
- '"Maybe we should take turns, to even out the damage?" -Hana
- "Nah, none of that stuff was important." -Yoshi, having already lost "Stop Reiko and redeem her" and "Save the Butterfly King!" and the like.
- "I'm worried you'll end up like those people out in the village." -Hana
- "I am afraid of that." -Yoshi, pointing to where it is on the list he's been making of things to fear
By the time the party reaches the center, they have sacrificed a great number of the things they want and fear:
|Hana||Hiro||Shuyan||Xiao Fa||Yoshi||Master Zhou|
|Find out about the demon||Save Hana||Mom to come back||The monster to stop eating the villagers' chi||To stop Reiko and get her back||To defeat the demon|
|Warn my parents about the ritualists||Kill the guy who kidnapped us that I vowed revenge on||Find the villagers||My real name||Save the Butterfly King!||For Yanyu to apologize|
|Find out what I'm supposed to learn to do that the I Ching said I could||Learn more mimic-magic||Learn more snake abilities||The date and place of my birth||The family recipe for Tempura Codfish||Respect|
|To be the perfect lady||Rule Dad's fiefdom with Hana||Revenge for the dead snake||The memory of my time on Iron Mountain||To restore my father to grace||"I want to not be in a dance number" -Master Zhou/Tom, as Hiro and Hana start to sing R-E-S-P-E-C-T|
|Hiro to be friends with Xiao Fa||A decent meal||Be a star performer||My aspect||To teach the monster to have its own dreams and desires|
|Not to have to be separated from Hiro when I grow up.||Kick the monster's ass||Cook the perfect meal||To discover Hana's purpose|
|Save Shuyan||Be able to defend myself||To be a great Feng Shui artist|
|Get to know everyone better||To learn enough kung fu to make Master Zhou proud|
|The elephants to not be afraid of my snakes||To return to the Harbor of Fortunate Arrival and help the orphans|
|To dance on the high wire|
|Snakes (lost during the combat)|
|Hana||Hiro||Shuyan||Xiao Fa||Yoshi||Master Zhou|
|The success of the people who tried to perform the ritual at the Southern Wall||Hana getting hurt||Everyone being taken away from me||That I abandoned my brother||Having to kill Reiko||Incompetence|
|Getting shown up in archery by Lijuan||My snakes turning on me||The reason I got severed||Getting Lijuan killed||Helplessness|
|My parents to find out that I've been dressing up as Hana||My aspect||Being wrong about being able to protect people without killing||"I fear being too far behind on the damage curve..." -Master Zhou/Tom|
Once the villagers are all saved, the party reaches the center again, and battles the yumekui. In the dreamworld, the creature is enormously bloated, but its claws are still sharp. Hiro discovers that his sword is no use, but others attempt to use their mind or will to damage it. It claws at them, draining stats and knocking them out of the room so that they must want new things to come back in.
Yoshi's persuasion that it should give up eating others' dreams is powerful, though not quite sufficient. Shuyan distracts it by flinging a snake at it, but then no longer wants her snakes. Xiao Fa manages to drain out some of the chi that it had collected, and Shuyan heals the chi as it flows back to the original source. Hana sings it a lullaby, and then (after being knocked out of the room) dresses as Hiro and the two of them puzzle it to determine which is which. Master Zhou tries to convince it to retreat to the real world, where it will stand a better chance in the fight, and Hiro finally hits it with persuasive logic and law that its behavior is beyond the rules.
- "Wait, how come I have dodge and you don't? That doesn't make any sense." -Hana to Hiro
- "That is because he is Yang, and you are Yin." -Master Zhou
Finally defeated, it withdraws, and the group of monster hunters awakens in the morning.
(As it turns out, people do end up with the magic items in the spirit world, but no one ever attempts to use one. Other items, such as swords and snakes, are made to vanish in the spirit world but are still there when the dreamers awake.)
Unfortunately, now that they are awake (and still missing many of the things they want), not everyone finds it necessary to defeat the demon in the real world. Hana manages to persuade Master Zhou and Hiro, and the others are still willing to fight it (and Yoshi no longer wants to persuade it instead). They get the villagers to dig up the spot in the rice field where the yumekui has nested, and, without its dream-self to back it up, it is easily bested, and vanishes back to the World Below in defeat.
At that, the hopes and fears that the creature has consumed start to flood back, and people must do their best to catch their own wishes. This is not a complete success, but everyone does manage to get some portion of what they lost back (except for Master Zhou, who chooses to not take back wanting Yanyu to apologize). The villagers, similarly, are subdued but no longer creepily affectless, and are most grateful to the monster hunters for rescuing them.
The party is feasted, with rice, fish, rice with fish sauce, fish with rice sauce, rice wine, fish beer, and the like.
- The circus has crossed from the Hon'eth Arcade into the Illuminated Precincts, but has not yet reached the City of Light.
- Xiao Fa tries to figure out how to heal the damage caused by the yumekui.
- Xiao Fa chats with Hana.
- Hana chats with Shuyan.
- Cai-Wen tries to organize a group (Anto, Shen-Ji, Kasumi, Wei Han, Takanata, possibly others) to do some information gathering and/or sorceror-meeting at a party.
- A group (Cai-Wen, Merit, Wei Han, Shen-Ji) goes shopping to investigate small magic items for sale.
- Cai-Wen suggests that some of the yumekui-eaten people (Shuyan, Yoshi) might be interested in visiting Madam Song?
- Cai-Wen goes out gambling (accompanied by Wei Han).
- Master Zhou beats up Xiao Fa to within several inches of his life.