Spirits of Men
|"He approaches nearest to gods who knows how to be silent."|| It is a little while after the defeat of the Shadow.|
The run takes place mostly in the City of Spires and elsewhere.
Anto has made a promise to Spiral and Swiftgreen that he will arrange to have one of them move to the opposite world, as of the end of this book. That deadline is swiftly approaching, so he intends to go back to Dutiful Serenity and just gate one of them through. However, when a gate is opened, all sorts of things could come through, so he is worried about releasing demons and spirits that are not bound by the bargain that Spiral and Swiftgreen have made. Takanata and Shen-Ji agree to come along to see about dealing with anything untoward that happens.
There is also that hunger demon that Anto freed - it owes him a favor. He decides to bring it along, in order to have it eat anything that comes through that Anto doesn't want there. When the party arrives at the restaurant in the Hon'eth Arcade, it seems to be doing good business, and there aren't any mysterious (public) disappearances from nearby.
- "I didn't eat anyone I wasn't supposed to. Why did you come here?" -Demon
- "I'm glad to hear that, and I have a task I think you would be well suited for. I want to call in my favor." -Anto
Anto explains - he will be opening several portals, and wants the demon (who we will name Omnom) to eat any unsavory things that come through.
- "Or savory things!" -Takanata
A New Temple
The group takes a river barge upriver towards Dutiful Serenity. They have to stop in Gangmul to get more supplies, as everyone has been extra-hungry, and then they stop again at the City of Spires.
On the road to Dutiful Serenity, both Takanata and Anto have a hard time spotting the way there. There is a fork in the road between Industrious Fruition and Rejoicing Industry, which seems to only have two choices, but Shen-Ji can see the third sign, as can Takanata when he wears his tinfoil hat.
Once they get to the town itself, it seems to be less regimented than it was the last time the group was here, though it's still busy. There are several new buildings, including a Temple of Continuing Remembrance. The party heads in there to introduce themselves - there's a priest there, setting up the candles, and a tall man in red robes with a sword slung across his back, silently advising on where to put the candles. When the group comes in, the red-robed man holds up a hand to pause them for a moment, as they finish their candle-moving. Takanata considers the feng shui of the arrangement - it's not quite what he would have expected, but he can see the principles behind the choices. Shen-Ji, considering the arrangement with chi mastery, also sees some of the principles, but he's pretty sure that the candles can't be the only important thing.
Once the monk and the red-robed guy finish with the candles, the priest asks how they can be of service, and the red-robed guy retires to a corner of the temple. Anto introduces himself and his companions. The priest is pleased that they found the village - how was the road? Would a bigger sign help? Takanata suggests stationing a person at the crossroads, or building a store with someone who would give directions. The priest invites them to the noonday meal - he seems to want lunch early, so the acolytes start fixing a hurried brunch. The guy in red robes seems to be talking to someone outside the temple - whoever it is seems to be right near Omnom, though most people can't see the demon very clearly. Anto wonders if this is one of the two champions of Spiral and Swiftgreen, but he didn't get a chance to meet them before.
The priest says that things have been going better; the village elders were on board with the changes, but it was hard to explain to the peasants why what they were doing was so terribly wrong. Now that they have a temple and ancestor shrines, they seem to understand better. And they're building a larger shrine to the ancestors of the village who are no longer known by name.
Anto asks after the priest's... assistant? guard? The priest explains that he's just a traveler who seems to know a lot about the temple.
- "A traveler, not a wanderer?" -Shen-Ji
Oh, wait, Anto recognizes him after all, having met him in Whispered Secrets II - that's Yama.
- "I have been expecting your arrival. I came to ensure that you and the two others do not say or do anything inappropriate." -Yama
- "Inappropriate?!" -Anto, astonished
Anto points out that Yama's concerns have already been disrupted.
- "No, not the trifling business arrangements. While mildly tedious, those can be replaced. That's not a problem. But - you have come to do momentous things, and I am interested in seeing that they are done correctly."
- "What sort of incorrectness are we talking about?" -Anto
- "I am interested in making sure that things are put back where they belong. I don't mind if you rearrange the cupboards, as long as you don't leave anything on the floor."
Anto thinks they're in agreement, though there may be some different definitions of metaphors going on. Yama goes back to wandering around the temple - he spends a little while doing something that looks like rearranging the smoke from the prayer sticks.
Anto talks to the priest - he thinks that maybe he shouldn't be taking advice from the traveler. The priest says that he's made some design suggestions about the ancestor shrine, and the devotional materials, and "he's clearly quite interested in our work". Anto decides that saying that he's a southern god might be a little disturbing, so confines himself to hinting darkly that he might be up to some sort of no good. Shen-Ji thinks it might be dangerous to oppose him while he's STANDING RIGHT THERE.
Anto asks Omnom what he talked to Yama about.
- "Is it important? Is your knowing important?" -Omnom
- "Yes." -Anto
- "Then, what do you offer me to know?"
He sounds a bit more official than he did during the boat trip - he was willing to move around to not be seen at request then. Anto promises him the box of magic candy at the end of the run, if he's helpful and explanatory during the run. The demon agrees, and says that Yama told him to not eat anything in the temple, and asked why he was here. He said that he was supposed to eat things Anto didn't like; Yama asked what Anto didn't like, but the demon said nobody had bothered to tell him that yet. Yama thought that he might have opportunity to indulge if things got out of hand, but Omnom said that Anto would have to specify what.
Okay... so it sounds like the thing Yama is particularly interested is whether there are other spirits and demons running around here. Like Omnom (who, incidentally, thinks that being in the Material World is awesome).
The group checks in with the village elder. He says that he was informed that they would be arriving today to complete the arrangement, and he is at their disposal if they need any assistance. Anto doesn't think they'll need anything, and asks how things have been going. The elder doesn't really care for all this construction and new ideas that's been going on. And there have been almost a half dozen visitors since Anto was last here! It's so busy now!
Takanata asks if Omnom knows anything about the Hungry Darkness. He says it's been many cycles since someone confused them, but that's not him.
- "That guy doesn't understand hunger. He takes no joy out of eating!" -Omnom
Omnom thinks that the great thing about being hungry is that you can eat more, whereas the Hungry Darkness is never satisfied. Omnom thinks he's doing hunger wrong. Anyway, he'll show him if he ever shows up, but nobody has seen him in many cycles.
Takanata asks if the demesnes of the Hungry Darkness in the World Below are abandoned. Omnom says he hasn't been in the World Below for a while, and he never really went there in particular, as there are a lot of dangerous things if you wander around. But if the Hungry Darkness is gone, he would be surprised if someone just moved in. But if someone did, you'd want to meet them, in a never-wanting-to-meet-them sense. Takanata wonders if the Black Donkey would be big enough to move in. Omnom is surprised - they know Donkey? Shen-Ji says that he rode Donkey, and Omnom is dubious and then impressed - he looks a lot healthier than most of Donkey's riders.
After all this conversation, it's time for lunch. Yama eats some rice, looking a little puzzled. Takanata asks after the particulars that Yama thinks require his attention.
- "I have had some indication that the Darkness at the End is coming - I am hopeful that this is not that time." -Takanata
- "That time is not now. From your perspective, it may be coming - that is not decided. But that is not what concerns us today." -Yama
The party decides that they should confine their pestering of Yama to once per meal, so once they have finished eating, they head to the field to talk to Spiral and Swiftgreen.
The two champions of Spiral and Swiftgreen are there, along with the village elder. The elder chants, pleading for the audience of his patrons, the guardians of their town. The champions speak.
- "You have come." -both
- "It is the appropriate time to conclude terms. Have you decided?" -Anto
- "We have each decided, but we have not both decided. There are many compelling arguments in both directions. We have argued long and hard and are at an impasse. It comes down to a question between water and spirit. Would you suggest one or the other?"
- "Can you explain further?"
- "The world above is the source of the world in which you live. " -Swiftgreen
- "The world below is the inspiration of the world in which you live." -Spiral
- "Which is more important?" -Both
- "Wait, how do water and spirit come into that? " -Anto
- "Water comes from the heaven and provides life, and spirit provides inspiration, would be my guess." -Takanata
- "When we are together, we will have to be together in a place. That place will be a source of being in your world, or a font of being in your world." -Both
They frown, as the words do not seem to be making things clearer.
- "For being such small things, you are very complicated."
- "Do you value the mountain for its size and strength, or its position and power?"
- "Yes." -Anto
- "This is why we have not decided."
The World Below is more metaphorical; the World Above is more physical. Anto tells them that neither of the two is more important, but they will have to choose for themselves. They agree to decide by sunset.
The group heads back to the temple for tea and snacks. Takanata takes a few portable snacks, and wanders around the town, to check out the other new buildings. One is a little dormitory for the priest and acolytes from the temple, and another is an enclosure for a large ancestor shrine. There's an artist who is drawing some pictures on the wall - Takanata spots Yama among the pictures, which he frowns at. The artist seems competent but not inspired.
Shen-Ji spends some time meditating in the temple, trying to figure out what's going on with the candles. He comes to the conclusion that this is definitely a good place for clarifying your thoughts about who has gone before. But the changes are ... sort of like feng shui, but backwards. Xiao Fa might come in and look for the places that suggested "continuing remembrance" places, and accentuate them. Yama, instead, has looked for the places that did not suggest "continuing remembrance", and fixed them. In addition to that, there is a subtle difference between the continuing remembrance of those who have passed, and the first step of actual passing.
- "It's like trying to design a funeral home with your last rites skill. Almost appropriate, but not quite."
- "Thank you, my lord, for the inspiration and information." -Shen-Ji
- "If you have been inspired, you are most welcome." -Yama
Shen-Ji asks if he has any message to convey to the Lady of Flame and Rebirth. Yama says that is a generous offer - but while in the past it has been difficult to communicate with her, it is now less difficult. But of course, if Shen-Ji sees her, give her his compliments and regards.
- "As a small favor, might one who continues to wish to be enlightened and inspired, how might one seek this path?" -Shen-Ji
- "As you have seen in your own cycle, it is often easier to displace and consume what another has built, than to build yourself. In the South, we do not have a God of Magic, as you would understand the term, so there is not one who would teach you those things that you would wish to know. But that does not mean they cannot be learned." -Yama
Dinner (with sticky buns) is next; Anto skips dinner to meditate and become immune to wood, just in case. Yama has some questions of his own, this time.
- "Why are you going to the effort?" -Yama
- "Our friend made an agreement with them. I am here to assist him. At the time, he thought it would avert a fight that would cost the lives of most of the villagers." -Takanata
- "Ah, that is a noble reason."
Takanata notes that when Yama spoke with Min Feng, he said that if someone wished to have a way to contact him in the future, they need only ask. Yama agrees, and asks if that is something that Takanata wants. Takanata cautiously says that it depends on the consequences. He doesn't want his chi to be altered. Yama, after some consideration, says that he can provide a messenger, one of the few he has who originated from inside the Empire but is now in the South. If Takanata has need of him, he can come to this temple and pray, and the messenger will carry those words to Yama, "without the need of sanctifying your chi."
- "I did visit the World After..." -Takanata
- "I was most impressed with your return." -Yama
- "Could you describe the differences?"
- "There is one great difference. Here, things seem to be organized (if I may use the term) by a vast self-feeding bureaucracy. In the South, things are organized by me. It is a responsibility that I do not shuffle off on underlings not prepared to handle it, as some arrange things."
Takanata is confused - does the South not distinguish between the World Above and the World After? Yama says they do - the World Above and the World After and the True World are all different. Takanata continues to be confused - isn't Yama a resident of the World Above the South? Yama says no, by no means. "That is a key difference between here and there." If one of the denizens of the World Above in the South wanted to rise to a position similar to Yama and his fellows, her best option would be to move to the north, as they do not tolerate that in the South.
- "Might I ask, then, where you reside?" -Takanata
- "I am often called the Traveller, I do not stay in one place very often, but I am myself here in this world. When I travel to the others, it is travel. This is my home. The reason I am here is to ensure that when you move one from above to below (or vice versa), that they remember that this is not their home." -Yama
Takanata continues to boggle. Are Yama's fellows also denizens of this world? Yes, they are. Yama says he'll see them on the field, leaving Takanata with his head spinning.
At sunset, the group heads back out to the bamboo-surrounded field where Spiral and Swiftgreen were summoned. The elder is there again, as well as the two champions, Yama, and Omnom.
Yama suggests that Anto open both gates at the same time, thus minimizing the transit time, but Anto thinks that it's safer to do one at a time. Swiftgreen and Spiral have finally agreed that Swiftgreen will go to the World Below.
Anto opens a portal to the World Above, and Swiftgreen swooshes through. Some debris and leaves blow through with her passage, and Anto tells Omnom to eat the debris. It costs Anto some chi to close the portal, and the wind picks up in the field.
Anto opens a portal to the World Below, but he isn't as solid with this opening, and it's a little ways away. Three ripper demons leap through the portal, and a brief fight begins. Swiftgreen seems to be dallying a bit on her way to the portal, and Spiral is approaching the portal on the other side, which makes everyone nervous, and Anto yells at Swiftgreen to hurry.
More ripper demons leap through. Anto calls for the Brothers of the Steadfast Heart (but they will have a hard time finding Dutiful Serenity), but Shen-Ji is extra-shooty, and Omnom gets to eat a lot of destroyed ripper demons.
Takanata urges Swiftgreen once more ("My Lady, remember your name. You are Swiftgreen."), and she goes through to the World Below. Anto slams the portal shut. Omnom eats the last of the ripper demons whole - he definitely seems bigger than he used to be.
- "Were you expecting what is happening?" -Yama
- "..." -everyone
- "No." -Takanata
One of the champions has collapsed; the other says that they are thankful (using the construction that means there is no additional obligation implied) and that their name is Maelstrom. Then, he collapses as well.
- "That name doesn't sound very friendly..." -Anto
- "But it's a metaphorical maelstrom!" -Shen-Ji
The cloak of confusion around the village has now broken, so the Steadfast Heart brothers arrive, but there is little left for them to do. They help look at the unconscious people - while their chi has been temporarily disrupted, they will recover.
Yama tells Anto that he did better than he expected.
- "Had I known your strength, I would not necessarily have thought it as important to arrive myself. But you do need more study. You relied too much on the nature of the spirit, without accounting for the fact that you yourself were breaking that nature. But you compensated well." -Yama
- "I learn by doing." -Anto
- "As must all." -Yama
The group heads back to the temple for late supper.
Anto apologizes (with no additional obligation implied) - his suspicions for why Yama was there were baseless. Yama admits that he is often the most misunderstood - or second-most - of his fellows. Shen-Ji wonders who the first is, and Yama notes that there is one who cannot be understood.
Yama does wonder if Anto would be willing to explain his involvement. Anto says that he was originally drawn here to complete the quest of one who no longer exists, but whose responsibilities he took upon himself. That one's nature was to oppose bindings of all sorts. To that, the arrangement that Yama made here was anathema. Yama is puzzled - sending them to His realm instead of Anto's? Anto clarifies - it was actually the part about being bound to a stone in the middle that was objectionable.
- "I will avoid such storage in lands that belong to you. But it was inconvenient to pick them up frequently." -Yanma
Anto notes that he has seen the way others have bound themselves to Yama's fellows, and the stone might not be the only objection. But others entered into that sort of relationship voluntarily, and the people from this village had no choice. Anyhow, the situation is now resolved to Anto's satisfaction.
Yama checks with Takanata - he will be able to convince Anto that the arrangement with the messenger is okay? Takanata thinks so.
At the end of the meal, Shen-Ji breaks a lucky egg he happened to find, and it has a medallion with a skull on it. Yama appears interested in it, and Shen-Ji offers to trade it for "enlightenment." Yama does not think that enlightenment is easily given in an instant, and that those who do not have it often do not wish their fellows to obtain it. However, he will see what arrangements could be made.
- "If you are looking for the secrets of Southern magic, I can arrange something sooner. If you want more than that, it will take longer." -Yama
- "I had been aiming fairly high." -Shen-Ji
- "Well, I will consider what is within your grasp." -Yama
Takanata asks - what happens if one puts down a burden that does not belong here, that belongs to one of Yama's fellows. (For example, a Sankara Stone).
- "The details vary, but a burden that you set down is no longer yours to worry about." -Yama, not answering the question
Takanata does a connections reading, trying to figure out what is up with Southern Gods, and gets some further confusion in answer.
As Yama leaves, he notes that if Anto is concerned about where those who pass end, Yama is willing to make a trade.
- "If you are willing to freely choose to grant Me your soul for a limited period - a year - after you pass, I will return to you one of those from here that is currently in My care." -Yama
- "Don't do that." -Takanata
Yama says that is the answer he predicted, though he thought he would ask. He did not believe it an unreasonable offer - were there points to negotiate, or is that it? Anto says there's no use in negotiation, let's call it a day.
Yama picks up his sword and heads out, noting that it has been a most interesting experience. Shen-Ji will hear from him again, and he expects to see Anto again. Oh, and Takanata should give his regards to his granddaughter.The trip back to the restaurant with Omnom is tough, as everyone is hungry the entire time, and it's hard to keep enough food on board. Anto apologizes to the boatman and pays for the extra food, and returns Omnom to his restaurant, after giving him the magic candy. Omnom points out how helpful he was - he even made Yama extra-hungry so he would come eat with them at meals and they could ask him questions.