|"To know of the existence of a secret is to know half the secret itself."|| The run begins on the day of the Early Tortoise in the month of the Magpie in the second Year of the Spider since the big saparilla tree fell on the Tong house.|
The run takes place around the village of Two Names on the border of the Strand and the Savanna.
Leaving the Savanna
As people wrap up the last of their business in Jabon, Lijuan notes again that Certain Parties have failed to put the magic crayon back in the party loot. Then, a carriage shows up at the inn - the driver says he's looking for Kuan-Xi, who had arranged previously for the carriage to take everyone to Nine Terraces. However, she and Anto haven't returned from their side trip yet, and there is some confusion as to whether or not that was expected.
- "They're off puttering." -Lijuan
- "Oh, is that what they're calling it these days?" -Everyone
The group decides that since the carriage has already been arranged for, they may as well take it, and claim to the carriage driver that they are the group that he's expecting. Off they go, leaving an urchin to pass along the message to anyone who turns up late back in Jabon (such as Yoshi). After several days of uneventful travel, as they get close to the border with the Strand, there's a crack noise, and the carriage jolts - the wheel seems to have come off, possibly due to a rock in the road. Several people get out to look around, and observe the subtle transition from grassy plain to swampy plain. Wei Han sees a faint ripple in the grass, heading northwards, as he looks for enemies, and Master Zhou notes that the carriage driver is unconscious. Shuyan jumps on top of the wagon to heal him (using her adorable snake as a distraction), and Lijuan offers to go hunt for dinner while the wagon gets fixed.
The driver is somewhat puzzled by what happened - he must have hit the only thing within a hundred miles! He starts fixing the wheel, while Wei Han holds the carriage up so it doesn't fall on him.
Everyone else starts looking around for ninja. There's still something off in the distance heading farther away, and Kasumi finds another unconscious body nearby in the grass. Shen-Ji (on his flying disc) and Lijuan start heading north after whoever it is that's fleeing (while Wei Han mutters darkly about splitting the party into ambushes, and Kasumi gets ready to snatch the carriage driver out from under the carriage if Wei Han has to drop it). Shuyan checks out the new unconscious body - whoever it is seems pretty far down, but has been stabilized by parties unknown so he's not making death checks, so it's going to take her a little while to get him up again.
Back in Jabon a few days ago, the urchin on the lookout for Yoshi finds him, and gives him instructions:
- "Lijuan says you should hire a coach to Nine Terraces and give me the change." -Urchin
- "Really?" -Yoshi
Oddly enough, the urchin appears to be telling the truth, but since Yoshi is still only in zhu, there's no useful change. However, he gives the urchin a couple of zhu anyways. Off he goes, only a few hours behind the original carriage.
Out on the plain, Shen-Ji loses sight of the ripple in the grass that he's following, and turns on his ability to sense magic, and notices a spot where there is some magic, dissipating. He points that spot out to Lijuan, who thinks that there were a bunch of dogs here, who ran off in a bunch of different directions. She starts tracking after one of them. Shuyan finishes waking up the unconscious man - he says his name is Big Feng, and he's from Two Names, a nearby town. He was at home, waiting for Little Peng to come home before they were going to go out gathering... and he's a little fuzzy on what happened next, but he seems to think the most likely explanation is that the party hit him on the head and brought him here.
As Lijuan and Ho head down the trail of the dog they're tracking, Ho starts getting kind of nervous and whimpery. Lijuan gets out a dog treat and whistles, which causes Ho to look expectant, until Lijuan says it's not for him, and then he sulks. She whistles again, and a very large wolf emerges from the grass and eats the treat. Lijuan attempts to tell it it's a good boy, which is not having a lot of effect, until she realizes that the main problem right now is that she isn't continuing to feed it. She keeps doing so, with whatever little treats she can find in her pockets. (Shen-Ji, overhead on his disk, decides that everything seems to be going okay, and he doesn't need to interfere.) She manages to convince it that everything she has is sufficient tribute, and escapes while it eats.
At this point, Yoshi's carriage turns up, and stops to see what's going on. Shuyan introduces the peasant she's healed, who is still a little confused as to whether or not he's her prisoner - he was at home until Shuyan hit him with a rock? Or something like that. He's never really been outside of Two Names before.
- "What are the two names?" -Wei Han
- "I'm not good at historical things..." -Big Feng
He's rather astounded to find himself "wandering around the Empire", and doesn't quite know what to do. Can they help him get home? Shen-Ji looks more closely at Big Feng, and notes that he's been affected by some sort of magic - witchcraft, he thinks.
Shen-Ji asks if there are any witches near his village - he says that there are swamp witches! Elder Laosao says that the swamp witches are why you shouldn't walk around the swamp late at night.
Meanwhile, Takanata, who has been waiting for the carriage to be repaired, builds himself a little puzzle out of folded colored paper - an egg with a serpent patterned in maze-like colors, wrapped around it, and a little heart. The puzzle is how to get the heart into the egg. This doesn't make a lot of sense to Takanata, who wonders about the symbology of it - is the serpent more like the Queen of the Strand, or the Great Serpent, or like someone he's never met? He thinks it's more like the last two and less like the first. Other people, equally bored, have finished searching the area nearby for other unconscious bodies, but the only other thing of interest that they find is the rock that was thrown at the coachman. It is a weapon that was used to harm someone, but it's a stone rather than a metal weapon, so the ritual of The Knife Returns won't be much help.
Since there seems to be little left to do at this spot in the road, the carriages set off again, with Wei Han and Kasumi sitting atop with the drivers. Once they leave the main road down the tiny winding track to Two Names, the carriages start having more trouble. Kuan-Xi's driver is paid for a week, so he'll go wherever, but Yoshi's driver, originally hired just to go to Nine Terraces, is a little more dubious. However, Yoshi is persuasive, and the goad that the other driver is having no trouble with the road is a good one to use, so Yoshi's carriage follows as well.
When the carriages reach the few houses that mark Two Names, villagers peek cautiously out at them. A few shutters are unbarred and doors are unblocked, and then one of the villagers shouts to get the Elder - it's the foreigners who took Big Feng! Yoshi leaps in to head off this misunderstanding, explaining about finding Big Feng injured on the road, and is again fairly persuasive, despite this being a rather implausible story.
- "We're from the circus and we're here to help!" -Kasumi
The village currently seems to be mostly women and older kids - they grudgingly admit that the men are out on patrol, and looking for Big Feng. Apparently, during the day, they go on patrols/searching, and at night, they set up a perimeter around the village.
- "Do I get the feeling that they're all turned into wolves and no one wants to say so?" -Yoshi
Elder Laosao turns up, and demands to know why these foreigners in their fancy carriages are here. Again, everyone explains that they are bringing Big Feng home after finding him on the road, and no, they did not kidnap him in the first place. Elder Laosao tries to trick the foreigners into giving their cunning kidnap plan away, but they are not fooled.
Various people ask more questions about the missing people, but Elder Laosao is generally unfriendly and wants to know why the foreigners should care anyway. Another woman, who introduces herself as Mistress Yunru, interjects at this point to tell the Elder to stop causing quite such a fuss, since they did bring Big Feng back, and seems willing to answer a few questions. Apparently Mistress Yunru has a guest room, which makes her much more tolerant of foreigners than anyone else in the village. She says that near a third of the townsfolk have vanished, one at a time, and come back two days later, but they're not right in the head when they come back, and don't remember what happened to them. After this kept happening, Elder Laosao got the menfolk to put together a guard after Big Feng vanished, and no one else vanished after that, but Big Feng didn't come back after two days.
Does Mistress Yunru know of any witches in these parts? She doesn't know of any herself, but maybe Elder Laosao would, or Tseng's wife Xue - as long as they don't mind her strange ways. Everyone pays more attention at the mention of someone with Strange Ways who knows about witches. Mistress Yunru explains that Xue is a foreigner, recently come to town about six years ago, so who knows what foreigners might know? Mistress Yunru is willing to take people to Woodcutter Tseng's house and introduce them, and does so. Woodcutter Tseng is, as is not surprising by now, somewhat suspicious of the foreigners and why they would be interested in what's going on the village, but Mistress Yunru explains that they helped Big Feng. Yoshi explains that they're concerned there may be a witch at work around the village.
- "Have you, or anyone in your household, seen any... snakes... around?" -Yoshi
- "Hey!" -Shuyan
Yoshi manages to convince Woodcutter Tseng that everyone in his family should be interviewed, starting with his wife, so he calls Xue in. However, when Yoshi starts asking for her help, she protests - she didn't take anyone! Just because Elder Laosao doesn't like her, that doesn't mean she has anything to do with the kidnappings!
Kasumi sympathizes - they've been having a hard time themselves, trying to talk to people, because it seems impossible to talk to anyone if you haven't been here forever. Xue agrees with that. When pressed, she says she's from another nearby village, not that far away, but she's still treated as a "foreigner." Has she noticed anything unusual going on, apart from people disappearing? Well, no, the people disappearing is really the unusual thing recently. Have there been any visitors recently? There's a foreigner every couple of weeks - sometimes someone comes to buy the current harvest of swamp orchids, and sometimes people are lost, sometimes they're looking for someone for one of the Queen's gatherings or making official announcements. Usually the rest of the town doesn't make them very welcome, whoever they are. The most recent previous visitor was a woman with white hair. Master Zhou looks suspicious, and asks Xue to tell them more of the woman with white hair. Apparently she asked questions, and then got run out of town.
- "Why was she run out of town?" -Zhou
- "Because she was a foreigner?" -Kasumi
- "Sssh!" -Zhou
- "Because she was a foreigner." -Xue
She was asking questions - actually, much like the party is doing. Maybe less about the other villagers, and more about the village. People are briefly distracted by the mention of swamp orchids, as well - what are they good for? Cooking, herbalism, that sort of thing. They're not illegal or psychotropic or anything like that. Does Xue know if there are wolves around? Sometimes, maybe more recently. Did anyone talk particularly much with the white-haired woman? Big Mei did, but then Elder Laosao chased the woman away. Hmm. Did Big Mei go missing? Yes, she was one of the first to vanish. People ask about Elder Laosao, but Xue doesn't want to talk about him. He's trying to drive her away, but she doesn't want to go.
Vanishing Into the Night
It's starting to get late, so it may be difficult to get the carriages back up the narrow path in the dark. The horses are picketed, most people plan to sleep in the carriages, and Takanata claims Mistress Yunru's guest room. Wei Han decides he should help with the perimeter, and with some work, gets Elder Laosao to mention Sen the Younger as the one to talk to about the pickets. Yoshi thinks that's a trick on Elder Laosao's part to make Wei Han insult Sen, and that he should call him Sen the Hunter. Wei Han finds Sen the Hunter, and confirms that there have been more wolves recently, which is bad. Wei Han asks about the village defenses, which immediately makes Sen suspicious - the foreigner is asking about the defenses! - but Wei Han manages to convince him that this is because he's guarding Takanata. The pickets seem to be set up reasonably competently, and the fact that nobody has vanished since they started may indicate that they're working. Wei Han suggests some improvements for the perimeter, because you can always make improvements, but decides Sen was doing a pretty good job.
Lijuan makes friends with the younger kids, who seem a little less xenophobic than everyone else. They are pretty well informed about the vanishings, and mention the fact that when boys get taken, they have lumps on their heads, but when girls come back, they don't. Lijuan talks one of the kids into learning Leaping Flame kung fu, but tells them not to use it for running away.
Yoshi goes back to talk to Elder Laosao about recent oddities. Elder Laosao notes that Tseng Xue infiltrated the town recently, and she could definitely be a witch. He gives a few more details about the disappearances - if you go out at night by yourself, you disappear. If nobody goes out at night, then someone may vanish from inside their house if they're alone. Has Elder Laosao noticed any wolves? Well, Sen the Elder is always saying that his son, Little Sen, has been seeing wolves around. He corrects himself - not Little Sen any more, he's Sen the Hunter now.
- "There's other hunters, but Sen the Hunter is the best." -Elder Laosao
- "Do you ever tell him that?" -Yoshi
Having been lured into Yoshi's clever trap, Elder Laosao ends up agreeing to try to praise his people a little more (that is, any).
- "Are there ever any stories about snake-witches?" -Yoshi
- "Yes! Like Tseng Xue!" -Elder Laosao
- "Hey! Will you stop with the 'snake-witches'? Snakes aren't evil! Maybe I want to be a snake-witch!" -Shuyan
Elder Laosao clarifies the taxonomy of witches - "swamp witches" are the witches that lurk in the swamp and get children who stay up past their bedtime. He doesn't believe in them any more, obviously. Snake witches come into your town and marry upstanding members of the community and turn them against you, and he does believe in them.
Since people who wander off alone tend to vanish, the party starts thinking of ways to wander off alone. Shuyan, grumpy about this whole snake-witch prejudice, decides to prove that snakes have nothing to do with the disappearances, and wanders out into the swamp to try to figure out where there are more snakes, climbing the snake gradient. There's two directions with more snakes. She follows the snake gradient up in one direction, and finds herself at Woodcutter Tseng's house. There are a lot of snakes around here, some of them quite remarkably handsome, but they seem well-trained already, and likely belong to Xue. Hmm. Maybe there's something to this snake-witch thing after all, Shuyan notes, but the snakes don't seem to be hostile any more than Xue does. She heads back into the swamp to follow the gradient in the other direction.
Meanwhile, Lijuan looks around for Little Peng, and tries to get more details on Big Feng's disappearance. Little Peng feels quite guilty that he didn't get home in time to save Big Feng from disappearing. Lijuan wonders why the witch got Big Feng and not Little Peng, if they were both alone? Little Peng wasn't alone, though, he was in the village with some of the other kids. Little Peng and Big Feng were going to go out together to gather swamp orchids - if they stayed together, they would have been safe.
Wei Han joins the perimeter guards, while Kasumi sneaks around nearby, since guarding doesn't seem to be considered a job for women here. Takanata finishes up a watercolor of the village, and retires to Mistress Yunru's guest room. Shen-Ji starts wondering where Shuyan has gone. Lijuan guards the picket of horses, which are worrying about wolves. Lijuan informs Takanata of the horses' behavior and he sends help.
- "Master Zhou, can you keep Lijuan calm?" -Takanata
- "I doubt it."
- "Well, just don't let the horses out of your sight."
Shuyan, meanwhile, on her Quest for Snakes, has followed the snake gradient through the swamp to a cave which has a large number of snakes in the entrance, with a "None Shall Pass!" look about them. She manages to convince them that she belongs in there too, being a snake and all, and they let her in.
Master Zhou notes that Lijuan is doing a fairly good job keeping the horses calm, in the face of the wolves surrounding them, but this is probably a bad thing. Ho runs for help, as Master Zhou shouts a warning.
- "Ho abandoned me?" -Lijuan, crestfallen
Kasumi and Wei Han are a ways away with Sen the Hunter, but Sen has keen ears for this sort of shout, and starts running back towards the village center. Kasumi and Wei Han follow.
- "You know how normally Lijuan in the face of vast danger is like 'Hi, vast danger!' ? Well, this time she's frozen in terror and can't move." -Mike
- "Is this a bad thing?" -Master Zhou
Master Zhou waits to see what the wolves do, as they close in tighter and tighter around Lijuan. Kasumi, either less interested in the psychodynamics of wolves or more concerned about Lijuan, leaps into the center of the wolf-ring as well, but then she also freezes. However, when Master Zhou attacks a wolf, that lets both Kasumi and Lijuan break out of their mesmerized terror. Wei Han pushes into the wolf-circle, and starts laying about him with his sword; Lijuan tries to shoo the wolves away, but they aren't listening to her. Several wolves bite at Wei Han and Master Zhou, and others growl at the people in the center of the circle, trying to terrify them again.
Due to some minor technical difficulties, two of the wolves are easily taken down, and the others bolt for the darkness outside the village. Sen the Hunter quickly kills the two fallen wolves. Ho returns with reinforcements: Big Feng, Little Feng, Big Peng, Little Peng, Big Mei, and Little Mei
- "Everyone in this town has names. I find that frightening." -Kasumi
How did the wolves get in past the perimeter, anyway? Sen has no idea how that can have happened. Lijuan offers to track the wolves back to where they came from - Sen can do that too, but he quickly finds that there are no incoming wolf tracks, and he blames Lijuan for messing the tracks up. The outgoing wolf tracks go into the swamp and vanish. Master Zhou notes that the wolves were acting as one, rather than acting as a pack of separate individuals.
While wolves were stalking Lijuan, Yoshi and Shen-Ji were stalking Shuyan. Asking around town only indicates that she headed out into the swamp, so they head out after her - Shen-Ji again takes to the air to try to spot signs of magic, and manages to follow her trail into the swamp. There, they find the cave with a large number of snakes, plus Shuyan, in the entrance. Both snakes and Shuyan have an air of "None Shall Pass!". Shuyan tells Yoshi and Shen-Ji that they're not permitted in the cave, and that she has to guard it. Yoshi notes that she thinks very strongly that it's her duty. They try to find out what she's guarding, but she doesn't know. The pair persuade her that she should go into the cave and find out what's in there, and then come back and tell them. That sounds reasonable to her, so she heads in. Some while later, it seems clear that Shuyan is skipping the "come back and tell them" step.
- "Well, that worked out well." -Shen-Ji
Yoshi attempts to convince the snakes that he's harmless and should get to go in the cave too. They seem willing to buy that he's harmless, so they'll be really regretful if they have to bite him if he tries to go in, but they don't seem willing to get out of the way.
- "They do seem strangely emotive snakes, in that we're even having this conversation." -Mike
- "Can you do anything about the magic? Because I think there's magic here!" -Yoshi to Shen-Ji
Yoshi and Shen-Ji decide that the plan calls for splitting up even further, so Shen-Ji starts flying back to the village, leaving Yoshi alone by the cave. Shen-Ji explains the problem.
- "Yoshi's at a cave..." -Shen-Ji
- "Yoshi's in trouble?" -Lijuan
- "Shuyan is probably in more trouble." -Yoshi
Shen-Ji explains that Shuyan went into a cave, and didn't come out. The villagers nod sagely, noting that she'll no doubt come back out in two days. The party is unwilling to wait two days, and gets ready to charge back out into the woods again. All the villagers think this is a bad idea, but when Wei Han spins it as "all the foreigners are leaving" they seem willing to stop arguing.
Of course, when everyone gets back to the cave, Yoshi is nowhere to be found. Lijuan tells Ho to try to find Yoshi, so Ho sets off to track. The path is long and complicated...
Shuyan has been happily guarding her charge with her fellow serpents, and after a while of uneventful guarding, curls up for a nap. What seems to be moments later, she finds herself being offered tea by Xue. She accepts the tea, a little confused, and Xue asks if she feels better. Shuyan thinks she does, though she's still puzzled. Xue explains that the contents of the cave must be protected and kept secret - can she count on Shuyan's help in this? She can, Shuyan says - though is making people vanish the right way to go about this?
Xue protests that she isn't the one making people vanish - that just makes more foreigners show up, and calling attention to things with kidnappings is not the way to protect a secret. At some point, Xue mentions being a spirit, much to Shuyan's surprise.
- "Wait, are you a spirit?" -Shuyan
- "Aren't you?" -Xue
- "Er... never mind about all this, then."
Shuyan does want to help, though, and also wonders if Xue can teach her more about serpents. Xue agrees that she can, but Shuyan has to promise to not give away the secret of the cave. She agrees, and they seal the deal with a sip of tea after which Shuyan finds that now she can't tell anyone about the contents of the cave.
Elsewhere, Yoshi opens his eyes. He's tied up, and there's a white-haired woman regarding him intently. She wants to know if he's ever seen this (showing him a painting of a large golden-y egg). He vaguely recalls that Shen-Ji has an egg that looks sort of like that, but doesn't immediately admit to it.
- "One of my friends has gone missing - might you know something about that?" -Yoshi
- "Actually, you're the one of your friends who has gone missing."
She has nothing to do with anyone else vanishing, and she doesn't want to hurt anyone - she's just looking for the egg. Why does she do this, then, Yoshi enquires? To ensure her own survival, she claims.
- "I have been as kind as I can. I tried to just show up and ask, but that doesn't work with these people. I've been careful to not hurt anyone... much."
They argue a bit more - she seems willing to talk more than she might otherwise, since she claims once he wakes up again later, he won't remember any of it. She says once she finds the egg, she'll be out of there. Yoshi wonders what she'll be off to do, but she finds it unlikely that he would care. She tries to keep to herself, and leave people alone. Her friends (she pats one of the wolves) are more reliable. Yoshi assures her that talking to people is better than talking to wolves - she notes that she tried talking to Big Mei, and then the rest of the people ran her out of town. Yoshi thinks the locals don't deal with people very well. She notes that they're alike in that.
She's not planning to steal the egg. She's just going to... put something on it.
- "Like a heart?" -Yoshi
- "How did you know?"
Yes, in fact, she wants to put her heart into it to keep it safe. Yoshi is concerned - will this make her stop having emotions? She claims not. Will any egg do? No, of course not. Yoshi suggests that she let him go to talk to his friends, who are both unusual and nice, and likely to be able to find the egg for her. Of course, that would mean letting him remember the conversation. He manages to talk her into this, and into giving him her name (Ni Cheng) though she still hits him on the head to knock him out so she can drop him back off in the woods.
By this time, Ho, who has been leading people on a trip through the woods, finally finds Yoshi, unconscious in a little clearing. They carry him back into town as the sun starts to rise, and find Shuyan there, looking around for everyone else. She evades the question of where she's been by fussing over Yoshi with first aid and healing snakes until he wakes up.
The discussion ensues - Yoshi says he found a witch named Ni Cheng, who wants to put her heart in some sort of egg thing that Shen-Ji has, so that she won't be killed. He's not sure by what - maybe just time. Shuyan says she can't say what she found, but thinks that Ni Cheng's plan is a bad one. People try to play twenty questions with Shuyan, and think that whatever it is is valuable and alive. Hmm. It does come out that Xue got her out of the cave ("Ahah, so she is a snake witch!"), so Takanata declares that they can just go and ask Xue, but maybe it's time to gather more information about the mundane side of things first.
The party heads off to Big Feng's house, which is full of brothers and sisters, including Big Mei (who is actually the smaller of the two children named Mei). Big Feng's parents are bakers, and hand out bread and sticky buns, which everyone but Lijuan happily takes. Big Mei says that Ni Cheng was nice - she showed Ni Cheng how to comb her hair - but other people were mean to her. Yoshi asks why people were mean to Ni Cheng, but Big Mei just thinks it's because she was a foreigner.
Takanata asks the parents (Kang and Ting-Yan) about the name of the town. Apparently, it's because this is an area that's changed hands a lot between the Savanna and the Strand, and every time someone won, they changed the name of the town back. Then it started going by "the town with two names", and by this point, nobody even remembers what the original names were.
Yoshi notes that this is probably the first time ever that he's seen Lijuan not eat when offered food, and not put spare food in her pockets. He asks her about that, and finds out that she's not hungry. In fact, she hasn't been hungry for a couple of days. Wait... when was the last time she ate? Breakfast, she thinks, before they started off on the carriage trip? Wait, that was days ago! Master Zhou glares at her, and demands to know what is wrong with her. She doesn't have a better answer than not being hungry. But it seems like it might date back to the last trip to the Eternal Dream temple, where people tried to investigate Lijuan's spider dreams about Yoshi (the dreams turned out to have been sent by Kibo the yumekui, in warning). At the end of the conversation with Kibo in the dream, Lijuan gave him some food - so maybe that was why she isn't hungry now.
Meanwhile, as most people try to figure out what's going on with Lijuan, Shuyan heads off to talk to Xue, accompanied by Wei Han and followed sneakily by Kasumi. Woodcutter Tseng is conveniently off cutting wood, so Xue is available for Secret Conversation. Wei Han waits outside, listening at the door, and Kasumi sneaks into the house. Shuyan tells Xue that Ni Cheng wants to put her heart in the thing in the cave, in order to become immortal. Xue thinks that's no good at all, and wants Shuyan and the others to take care of this. Shuyan and Xue decide that if, when the party comes to question her, Xue says that Ni Cheng is a horrible demon and should be defeated, they'll take care of it. Kasumi, having heard this plan, heads back to warn Takanata that this may happen.
Takanata and Master Zhou decide that it's time to stage an intervention with Yoshi. First, when he looked at the Great Spirit of the Spider on the Day of the Spider, and tried to understand why it does what it does, he seems to have influenced himself to become more spidery. Second, in getting Kibo to stop eating people's hopes and dreams, he's pressed him off his path, and he will stop being what he is and become something else. Yoshi thinks that he's becoming something better, and the argument turns into a philosophical stand-off between "The world is the way it is" and "The world could be better!". Nobody really ends up convinced.
Back at Xue's house, Shuyan starts to leave, and is confronted by Wei Han, who heard everything and tells her that one, he heard everything, and two, telling people that Ni Cheng was a demon would have backfired horribly. Shuyan confesses to Xue.
- "My friend who insisted on coming along with me heard our conversation!"
Xue says that she's willing to bring the rest of the party in on the negotiation, but they would need to agree to keep the secret, and exchange a secret of equal value to seal the deal. Shuyan and Wei Han return to explain this new plan to everyone else.
Yoshi notes that maybe, in the same way that Kibo ate Lijuan's appetite, maybe he can eat the witch's appetite to become immortal. There is some concern about this - won't that make Kibo want to become immortal? Well, he's a demon - isn't he already immortal? Maybe. Maybe not, Master Zhou mutters darkly, not if Yoshi keeps changing him.
- "If you keep changing him, he will no longer be Kibo." -Takanata, portentously
- "Actually, your Sense Mistake tells you that's explicitly false." -Mike
That causes some confusion, until Yoshi explains - he named the yumekui Kibo himself.
- "You named the demon. Wonderful." -Master Zhou
- "No wonder he's Yoshi-aspected now." -Takanata
- "What?" -Yoshi
There's some discussion of possible secrets to give to Xue then, everyone heads off to Xue's house.
- "We're here so you can convince us that the other wolf witch thing is evil." -Shen-Ji
- "I'm not a witch!" -Xue
The party explains that they've learned that Ni Cheng is trying to do something... Xue is impressed to learn that they've found out her name, which is progress in its own right. Kasumi notes that this isn't her plot, and why should she do anything about it? Xue notes that they could just tell her what they've learned and leave, and she would try to take care of it. Yoshi wonders why Xue thinks her goals and Ni Cheng's goals are at odds. Xue notes that Ni Cheng is a kidnapper, while Xue keeps the area safe. Because it's her home, people wonder? She agrees - that, and other reasons. Yoshi wonders why she does this, and discovers that it's her stern duty.
Xue suggests that she could provide a fuller explanation, if they tell her a secret of equal value. Kasumi is dubious - does that mean they just tell her secrets until she's bored? She is a bit offended, and says that this is a bargain in good faith - she will accept that they will not tell her lies, and they will accept that she will be truthful about whether or not a secret is valuable. Yoshi tries to get more details about Xue's secret in advance, and Xue says that Ni Cheng is searching for something that must remain hidden. What would Xue do, Yoshi wants to know, to thwart Ni Cheng? Xue admits that she can't see anything other than battle, if the witch persists. Yoshi still has some hope that she can be dissuaded.
Yoshi suggests that maybe they don't need to know the secret after all, if they can dissuade Ni Cheng. Master Zhou declares that they do need to know the secret, possibly on general principles.
As a starting position, Master Zhou tells her "The Strand used to be known as the Serpentine." She nods. "That is indeed very impressive, but sadly, that is something that we already know. But you are to be commended for knowing it yourself." Since she doesn't know the other countries, they throw in that what is now called Iron Mountain was Bear Mountain until the Day of the Early Spider this year, and that the Hidden City used to be the Dragon's Throne. She is surprised by the last one, but notes that that explains why her secret is important. She will not tell what they have told her, and they will not tell anyone that she is guarding a Dragon's egg. Everyone drinks tea in agreement, but then the Butterfly amulet that Takanata is wearing flashes brightly, and the agreement extends to the other members of the party (and the logs).
People wonder - if Ni Cheng put her heart in a dragon's egg, would she live forever? Xue is not sure, but is confident that it would be well protected. Would doing this hurt the egg? Xue is also not completely sure - she thinks it could be okay, but is also sure that it is not something that should be experimented with. Someone asks - they can't tell anyone about the egg, but can they use the information? Xue isn't sure what they mean - if they come and try to steal the egg, the snakes will bite them. However, if there comes a time when the egg is needed for something worthy, then that can be discussed then.
The group takes its leave, and heads back to the main village. Yoshi takes a nap, and talks to Kibo. He scolds Kibo for eating Lijuan's appetite, and suggests that he eat Ni Cheng's desire to become immortal. Kibo protests, and sends Yoshi a dream of Kibo sitting there minding his own business, when Lijuan went and stuffed food in his mouth! Then Yoshi wakes up, in time for everyone else napping for a while until evening.
Master Zhou goes back to try to convince Xue to move the Dragon's Egg to somewhere else - she doesn't think that's a good idea. Her husband has lived here all his life, and it would be unworkable to move now. Master Zhou thinks she's being kind of irrational about it, but doesn't make much headway.
There is some argument as to exactly what the plan is now - Yoshi should probably go walking in the woods to be captured again, but should that be a trap so that the group can try to get Ni Cheng? Or follow the wolves to where she takes Yoshi? It's not clear how well they can be followed, or how well people can hide, so the plans are kind of iffy, and also, the goal is unclear - talk to Ni Cheng or attack her? Takanata considers the crossroads that they are at, and decides that she is more likely to keep her heart from the egg if the group reasons with her, rather than fights her. So, people hide near the clearing where Yoshi will be, and he pockets one of Shuyan's small snakes. Shuyan wears the monocle to see through the snake's eyes.
Yoshi gets surrounded by wolves closing in on him, and he freezes in terror before a thrown rock hits him on the head. A rope of white hair descends from the treetops, and snatches him up out of the ring of wolves, and Ni Cheng starts leaping from treetop to treetop with Yoshi. Lijuan runs after them, and is (amazingly) able to keep up, with her new hunter shtick - everyone else is left rather far behind.
Yoshi wakes up again in Ni Cheng's den, and wonders why he always has to be tied up.
- "Mostly, people attack me when I kidnap them." -Ni Cheng
- "She just needs social skills. This is sort of an Asperger's witch..." -Meg
Ni Cheng asks if Yoshi's friends are going to lead her to the egg and it's all good? No? She didn't think so. She throws up her hands in exasperation - this is all really becoming too much trouble. If she lets Yoshi go, will he agree to make sure that they don't pursue her? Yoshi tries to sell her again on the joys of living with people instead of wolves, but she is confident now that people are too much trouble.
Yoshi wishes he could have met her before she started hitting him on the head, as she doesn't seem that bad. She snorts. "Just some bad, is that it? And you did kill two of my wolves." She presses further on whether he's willing to agree to let her be. He says he's just worried about her. She says that this whole egg business was so that she didn't have to worry about things, but see how that turned out? Yoshi thinks maybe she could help have people and wolves get along better, but she doesn't think that's likely. People don't get along with wolves, she claims. She does, Yoshi notes. She says she's only technically people, having been raised by wolves. Yoshi gives her a crash course in etiquette (and an inspirational speech with 11 successes!), and convinces her to spend a few points on Charismatic and Happiness. As a sign of good faith, she even agrees to skip bonking him on the head as she leaves, though she doesn't actually untie him.
Just as Ni Cheng is leaving the cave, Lijuan arrives, leading the others to the cave. Betrayal! However, since Shuyan knows that Yoshi is fine, it doesn't devolve to "Get 'em!" and she gets to make a parting vow with her new Charismatic skill:
- "Your friend is inside. I depart, but you have not seen the last of me."
Once Yoshi is untied, and first aided some more, Master Zhou trains with him, to try to learn more about his Spider-touched state. That night, Yoshi has a dream:
Takanata wanders around the area with the Eyes of the I Ching up - he thinks that the snakes around here are all connected to the White Snake Spirit, and that there is a chi bubble of some sort around the cave, keeping it from interacting with the nearby area.
Yoshi tells Elder Laosao that the kidnappings were due to a wandering witch, and not Xue. He's relatively convinced that she wasn't behind this trouble, but he remains suspicious of the snake-witch foreigner who wormed her way into town recently. Wei Han talks to Sen the Hunter and asks if he might be able to teach Lijuan some hunting, and he agrees to share some of his skills with her.
Then, everyone piles back into the carriages, and head the rest of the way to Nine Terraces. Rooms are acquired, and Takanata goes out to pick up the next step in the riddle path of following Ti Jun. He heads to the palace, and enquires within: he has been told that his Highness Ti Jun was visiting the city.
- "You are uncommonly well informed, my Lord... if you would come this way..."
The servants bring in tea and fruit and things that might be fruit if you live in the Strand, and close the window drapes, and then...
- "A side passage is opened, and in walks Prince Ti Jun." -Mike
- "What? That can't be right!" -Everyone
- "...well, at least, someone who looks like the prince."
- "That's better."
Takanata says that he brings a message from His Highness's parents: that they would like him to return home. He nods, smiling a little ruefully.
- "I'm surprised it took so long. Well, perhaps we should spend a day or two to prepare for the journey, and then head back to the Butterfly Kingdom. What could possibly go wrong?" -Ti Jun
- Lijuan, Shuyan, and Anto (and Kuan-Xi) go visit Two Names.
- Shen-Ji visits the Myeong clan.
- Cai-Wen visits Lei-Ling again.
- Wei Han meets with Ti-Jun.
- Master Zhou and Takanata go to talk to the Iron Mountain messengers who were struck by the Quivering Palm.
- Anto and Yoshi visit the Temple of the Bending Reed, where Ajeel is.
- Takanata drops by Madame Tsen's tea house.
- Master Zhou, Cai Wen, and Zhi-Hao go to meet with Ti-Jun.
- Takanata and Wei Han go investigate the ice pagoda again, with some detours into sticklebushes along the way.
- Takanata and Master Zhou go to talk to the sage Meng Ao. He is somewhat unwell.