|"A day of grief lasts longer than a year of joy."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Bear, in the month of the Butterfly, in the thirteenth Year of the Magpie since the Regency Council was formed.
in the thirteenth Year of the Magpie since the Regency Council was formed.|
The run takes place in the Hidden City and the World Below.
Xiao Fa chats with Huang Zhaojun about teaching Xiao Fa to perform the Dragon Dance. Zhaojun is a little nonplussed at this - the circus doesn't want to hire him, but they want to learn his act to perform themselves. After some consideration, he offers to teach Xiao Fa in exchange for the answers to some questions. Xiao Fa waffles - there are a lot of subjects that he has promised to not talk about, and he won't talk about those. Zhaojun doesn't like the idea of Xiao Fa getting to wall off all the interesting topics, and wants to know if "what is the broad overview of the forbidden subject" can be a question. No, it can't. After much haggling, they settle on "five questions, and if Xiao Fa refuses to answer enough of them that Zhaojun decides it's not worth it, then the bargain is off."
Master Zhou brings up the dream that Takanata received, in response to a dream that he tried to send Shen-Ji:
So - they're in some sort of snail shell belonging to Steely the Snail, and there are some potentially dangerous demons - after some research into previously encountered demons, the group thinks those are probably the Black Tortoise of Winter and Despair, the Blue Monk who Steals Children, the Shrike, the Black Donkey, the Forgetting, and No Face Ko, among others.
Lijuan draws some particularly ominous art. Master Zhou notes that Takanata tends to produce art of what will happen, Lijuan produces art of what will happen if you ignore it. That is, this is a warning, not a destiny. There is some argument as to whether this means that the group should run towards any tortoises (so as to not ignore them) or run away from them (so as to not be killed by them), which is exacerbated by the belief Master Zhou puts forward that tortoises get larger and scarier if you leave them alone.
Kuan-Xi receives a message from Shingao, telling her to come with her companions to the Jade District, and meet him in the Palace of Assisting the Earth. They should bring "any things that you might want to take with you into the World Below". The question of what to bring starts a separate argument as to whether that's "nearly everything" or "as little as possible." Xian is enthusiastic about the idea of bringing all sorts of things to trade to spirits, while Xiao Fa and Zhou caution that it's easy to forget what you have if you bring too much. Should they bring the Talismans? What if they can't get back? What is the plan for getting back, anyway? Shingao's note doesn't seem to have gone into very much detail.
- "You should keep this to give it to someone with an actual problem with frostbite." -Xian, giving a cold salve to Wei Han.
- "Yes, sir." -Wei Han
- "Don't call me that!" -Xian
On the way through the Jade Palace, Shuyan drops by to talk with Precious Jade in the Pavilion of Rain and Flowers. Precious Jade is glad to hear that there's a plan to rescue Ebon Brush, even if the exact plan is still a little iffy, and she gives Shuyan an ebony paintbrush to give to Ebon Brush when Shuyan sees her.
- "Good luck, and don't get killed!"
Shuyan joins the others in the Palace of Assisting the Earth. Shingao and the Alchemist are there, with a big ritual circle drawn in chalk and studded with candles. The Alchemist explains that while the group will be spiritwalking, he can tie their items to their chi so that they will go along with them. (He is not, however, willing to send Kawaii). Wait, wait, wait. So the Alchemist will see their items? That's no good! Master Zhou, Wei Han, and Shuyan flee again, bringing Kawaii and the Talismans, and head back to the Copper district.
Oh, and since they neglected to ask about the extraction plan before fleeing, they talk to Merit's horse. Can Horse arrange to get them out of the World Below if they get stuck there? Or, possibly, if the Imperial Alchemist is trapping them there? Can he quote them a range of prices for all circumstances?
- "There's a difference between 'please save us from unimaginable danger', and 'please save us from small danger while defeating the Imperial Alchemist'." -Horse
So, depending on the circumstances, the price is probably somewhere between three and "all of them". However, there aren't a lot of spare Horse Points around, so are there any errands they could run for Horse while they are down there? Horse has been provoked recently by Black Donkey, so he offers to give them a riding crop. If they make their best faith effort to ride the Black Donkey with the crop, then he will give the rider a horse point for each round that they stay on. But... what about getting off again? He says that they can spend two points to get off, or one point to get a mechanic to get off.
Shuyan pays one horse point to be able to contact Horse from the World Below this run, in case they need to further negotiate an extraction.
Back in the Jade Palace, Kuan-Xi asks Shingao about the exit strategy. He says that the two soul jars are built into the ritual, so if they can just put Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush into the jars, then everyone will come straight back. Of course, if they can't find them at all, then the failure mode is that they keep going. Kuan-Xi agrees that that might be a problem, so Shingao suggests that if they get lost or stuck, that they smash the two soul jars and he and the Alchemist will take that as a signal to improvise something to pull them back.
When everyone returns, the Alchemist explains that they will be sending them close to where Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush are, but there will still be choices on the way. The choices will let them go through a place, or a space between places. Going through a place, you will have to make a deal with, or deal with the mechanic of, the demon that is in that place. You can't avoid them or chop them, but there is guaranteed to be a way through. Between places, they may encounter travelling demons, but they may be possible to be fought and dispersed. Or they may be too big to fight. But they won't be bringing their mechanic with them.
Kuan-Xi asks if Shingao has heard of "the snail shell". He has not, but she spots the Alchemist freeze for a moment before he continues lighting candles.
Xiao Fa investigates the items that the Alchemist has fiddled with to let the group bring with them. He thinks that they have been tied to their chi, but also, that they have been tagged in some way, like Min Feng and Takanata memorize people to target.
The group is directed where to stand, and then Shingao says "Good luck" and throws a bucket of water over the chalk circle, and everyone is sent spiritwalking into the World Below.
The first choice is between:
- Where comes the sound of laughter and good company
- A space between, from which issues a horrible stench
The group picks the first - that sounds pleasant enough - and heads onto a warm beach, where Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush are sitting in lounge chairs. They wave, wondering what took the group so long, and beckon them over to offer fruity drinks.
Xian spends a Yin to learn that (unsurprisingly) this is all a lie, and Lijuan quizzes Shen-Ji on the name of her horse. As he cannot recall, she decides that he is an imposter.
Then progresses an interminable mechanic to identify the mirages, while Lijuan watches for tortoises. Eventually, after much hunting for tortoises, one shows up out of the ocean and eats Lijuan and Ho. It sulks that the group will not pose for a portrait together, and then stomps back off into the sea, leaving Shen-Ji despondent that the limbo contest will not happen.
Xian guesses a toucan, but her shtick warns her that that's only half, and she does not pay the penalty for a Wrong Guess.
As it takes quite a bit longer to identify the second image, the demon begins to bargain, offering to let them go in exchange for three tao, or two shadow staffs, or seven items. Despite it taking quite a while, nobody is willing to pay what seems like a too-steep price to escape.
- "We're going to be ready to beat something up next." -Lijuan
- "Take out our frustations on hapless demons?" -Kuan-Xi
- "They're not going to be hapless, they'll be fully happed." -Xian
Lijuan finally identifies the second image as a squirrel, and they escape.
- Where comes the smell of green grass and dry bones
- A space between with the sound of a great army moving
That first one sounds familiar, like the place that the party encountered the Black Donkey before. They leap upon that one, as part of the bargain with Horse.
- "Visitors. How wonderful." -Black Donkey
Lijuan gives him her hat to eat, which he does. Everyone reminds Lijuan that if she's making bargains with demons, she should do that before giving them the present rather than after. Black Donkey does not appear any more inclined to be cheerful, having disposed of the hat, but offers the group the standard bargain: give him one rider, and the rest can go.
- "How long does the rider have to ride?"
- "As long as he can."
Master Zhou offers to ride, as he is the one who wants horse points, and he confirms that if he manages to get off the donkey, then they all still get free passage. Once he starts using the riding crop, however, the donkey begins to buck terribly, and the ride is more difficult than expected, but Master Zhou is quite lucky and manages to garner five horse points. Donkey glowers at Master Zhou - he will remember him.
- Where comes no sound, and a faint smell of something long forgotten
- A space between, from which sounds a shrill buzzing
Hmm. That could be the Forgetting, where people could lose their stuff. Did the Shrike buzz? No, he kind of went "shing!" Do people want a fight? Or another mechanic? There is much indecision, until Wei Han flips a coin, and chooses the buzzing sound.
This places the group at one end of a map, with a swarm of bugs in the center. Lijuan shoots the swarm, and a single bug dies, which is not as helpful as she might have hoped. The Swarm begins to multiply, and go after people, stinging and buzzing.
Wei Han carries Kuan-Xi towards the far side of the field, as Xian and Lijuan are engulfed by swarms. Kuan-Xi summons up fog, which makes running more difficult, but also decreases the swarm attacks by a bit. Lijuan sets up a line of brambles to damage the swarms if they come through.
- "I'm trying to distance myself emotionally from this character who is about to die..." -Cael
Wei Han intercepts several swarms worth of damage, and Xiao Fa is swarmed, but eventually everyone either makes it to the far side, or is carried there, and escapes.
- Where comes the sound of swift movement and sharp steel rubbing together
- A space between, from which blows a cold, desperate wind
Well, that second one sounds like the Black Tortoise of Winter and Despair. Does that mean they should run towards it or run away? The argument comes to a head. Master Zhou ponders the whole "don't ignore the art" question again.
- "If Takanata drew the art, then we would be defeated by a tortoise. Since Lijuan drew the art, we may be defeated by a tortoise." -Master Zhou
Ah, that makes it a little clearer. Run away! They choose the Shrike. However, as before, the Shrike's maze is not quite a match for the speed of the party in zipping through it, and Shuyan reaches the Shrike's tree before the Shrike can get anyone.
The next set of choices is... between a cratered battlefield, and a cratered battlefield. There are trees which seem to have been chopped in half, and pieces of carapace underfoot, and trenches and holes as if a huge battle took place here many years ago. As the group wanders around, Master Zhou spots a tiny white circle off in the distance - the snail shell - and Ho heads that way.
The snail shell is surrounded by a little wooden fence and a garden, and Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush are standing in front of the shell. This pair seems a little less convincing than the previous one, as Shen-Ji looks quite a bit older, and Ebon Brush looks younger, as if she has been vampirically feeding on him or something.
- "What's the name of my horse?" -Lijuan
- "I have no idea." -Shen-Ji
- "Nobody knows the name of your horse!" -Master Zhou
Shen-Ji complains that it took them long enough - he seems to believe that twelve years have passed, while the party protests that it's only been about a week. Shen-Ji also asks if they ran into Ebon Brush, and everyone looks at the young woman standing next to him in confusion.
- "This is our daughter, Jia-Jia." -Shen-ji
- "Oh, my." -Xiao Fa
- "Weren't you engaged?" -Xian
- "That was twelve years ago! Besides, she had all of those shticks from Precious Jade..." -Shen-Ji
Shen-Ji explains that No-Face Ko took Ebon Brush, several years ago, and he hasn't been able to get her back. The group also boggles about what to do about Jia-Jia's soul - what happens if you have a soul but no body? Well, you could be a ghost. Or in a soul jar...
- "All that stuff you've been saying for all these years about bodies is real? I thought you were making that up!" -Jia-Jia
Lijuan asks Ho to find Ebon Brush, but after a bit of sniffing around, he goes into the snail shell, up the stairs, and into a bedroom, where he turns in a circle and whimpers.
Shen-Ji briefs the group on everything he learned about Speedy the Snail and the Lobster, and the Alchemist, as well as the demons he met.
- "I told the demons about Aku, and so they think all the Great Spirits are fakes and they're going to storm the World Above soon." -Shen-Ji
Xiao Fa meditates in the garden, and determines that the "hominess" that they've done to the snail shell will make it more likely that Speedy returns quickly, and they can accelerate that, but it still won't be instant. Maybe five years or a few dozen? Kuan-Xi reminds everyone that there is a deadline - Shen-ji's body won't last more than another day or two. He directs people where to put things, to improve the feng shui of the area, and then shapes the chi to be as fast as possible, but he thinks it'll still be another cycle at the outside.
Jia-Jia bursts into flames, but neither she nor Shen-Ji seems fazed by that. She explains that that is Ghost Fire, who is useful so she can see better. Shen-Ji mentions that she has some sort of artistic/drawing/writing talent, sort of mix between his art sorcery and Ebon Brush's calligraphic wood sorcery. Perhaps she can do something with the brush that Precious Jade gave to her? She uses the brush to try to paint where her mother is, and over the course of an hour, she makes a nice painting of Shen-Ji and Ebon Brush, looking their proper ages and hale and hearty, and the Imperial Alchemist looking down on them. Hmm. Then she stabs at the center of the painting, and... nothing happens.
- "Well, I guess that’s not a surprise; it’s never worked before. Never mind." -Jia-Jia
Kuan-Xi's best attempt to describe the painting is that it's like someone tried to make a sorcerous painting, but didn't know any sorcery... whatever that means. Xian explains, resorting to odder analogies:
- "Imagine, an XKCD comic is the thing in this world that looks the most like a Cray supercomputer, in the way that this painting is the thing in this world that looks most like the Gate of Five Elements."
Xian reads Jia-Jia's I Ching, and determines that she is destined to walk in her mother's footsteps, both spiritually and physically, through all of the worlds Xian knows. Xian boggles - that's a lot of worlds. And... it probably means that she needs to be put in Ebon Brush's body.
Master Zhou, surveying the place with Worldwalking, thinks that someone burned down the paths out. So, demons can go back to their Places, but they can't just walk out. So, there's no good way to walk from here to No-Face Ko, and they would need an active way to get somewhere else. Possibly Horse could do it.
Xian clarifies - the painting isn't Ebon Brush and Shen-Ji and the Alchemist, it's Jia-Jia and Shen-Ji and the Alchemist.
- "That looks more like Mom than I do." -Jia-Jia
- "But you will look more like her." -Xian
According to Xian, that's Jia-Jia in Ebon Brush's body, which looks, of course, like Ebon Brush. That's why they're the right age, because it's back in the Material World.
Well, there doesn't seem to be a good way to get to Ebon Brush from here, or to get Jia-Jia out other than in a soul jar, spare or not spare.
- "I'd be lying if I said I thought you'd be likely to find Ebon Brush, but I think we can look for her later." -Xian
Kuan-Xi spends three karma to turn her scrying pool into the ability to scry on a person rather than a place.
- "Her body is in the Jade Palace. Her face is in the trophy case of No-Face Ko. And the rest of her soul is in the Room of Cleansing Pumice." -Kuan-Xi
- "....Oh." -Everyone
Xiao Fa tries to talk to Jia-Jia about her mother being actually dead, not just missing, and the idea of her taking over her mother's body. These are serious issues and he thinks she should understand them better. But... she doesn't really understand the difference between "gone" and "dead", and she doesn't really understand bodies at all. She already knows that her mother is gone, and has come to terms with that, and she has been wearing her mother's clothes since she was tall enough to do so, so to the extent that she can understand, she already does.
That seems to be all that can be done, so Shen-Ji and Jia-Jia are put in the soul jars, and then everyone wakes up in the Palace of Assisting the Earth.
Anto and Precious Jade are there, along with the Alchemist and Shingao. They congratulate the party on a job well done.
The Alchemist regards Shen-Ji.
- "There have been some unfortunate incidents, and I am annoyed to find that I appear to be in your debt. So I have decided to repay you." -Alchemist
He takes a different soul jar from his pocket, and gives it to Shen-Ji.
- "Torment her for as long as you feel appropriate before letting her out."
- "Yoshi would want you to let her out right now!" -Lijuan
Kuan-Xi declares that she is donating all her clothes to the poor, and buying new ones without the Alchemist's mark on them.
- Li Merit's library is discovered to have disintegrated.
- Shen-Ji visits the House of Gainful Protection.
- Shen-Ji goes looking for Ni Cheng.
- Takanata, Master Zhou, and Xiao Fa talk to Horse.
- Takanata, Shen-Ji, Shuyan, and Jia-Jia go to visit Precious Jade.