|"It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one's step and emerge again into the light, there indeed lies toil."||It is the day of the Early Crane in the month of the Butterfly, in the first Year of the Fox since the crowning of the Viridian Queen.|
The circus is wrapping up its business in the City of Light, ready for the long trek across to the Strand. Hana and Zhi-Hao are drinking tea in the tea tent, when an elephant steps into the tent and starts to mess with the tea makings. Zhi-Hao sends one of the circus roustabouts off to get an elephant handler boy, and manages to leap onto its back. The roustabout starts by finding Li Merit, first to get told whenever there is a problem. He also is starting to hear that other elephants have run amok. Xiao Fa finds that all of the elephant-shackles have been opened. Kasumi starts to search for the ninja that she figures must be around to take advantage of the confusion - she hears a "click" behind her and sees the tea cupboard swinging open, but no ninja.
Min Feng goes to search for the Sphere of Harmony, finds a note left by Xian saying it has been moved to a different box, and finds the new box unlocked and empty. She also runs to let Li Merit know - he has finished tracking down another of the elephants by now. Yet another elephant menaces Shen-Ji, who gets out of its path, and starts looking for Min Su, as he figures this is all the fault of the monkeys. Min Feng finds a monkey's pawprint near the box that used to have the Sphere of Harmony - it looks like Shen-Ji was right.
Shen-Ji finds Min Su looking for Li Merit herself, in some consternation. The "lockpicking monkey" has gone missing, and has left her a valuable-looking treasure.
- "Do you know what I should do with this?" -Min-Su, with the Sphere of Harmony
- "Read it! Read it for typos!" - everyone
Her tent is full of other items that the monkey has stolen and left there. Merit takes the Sphere and reassures her that it is one of the forgeries having to do with the mess with the tribute ship.
- "I look for monkeys." -Shen-Ji
- "He's a master tracker..." -Min-Feng
- "Really?" -everyone else
- "No! He takes carriages into the woods!" -Min-Feng
Nevertheless, Shen-Ji manages to follow the sounds of shrieking women into the shower tent, where there is a monkey working on unchaining the arrangement with the water barrel. Shen-Ji shouts for Min-Su, who arrives and snaps her fingers at the monkey. It dutifully leaps to her shoulder. She takes him back to the monkey tent, and puts him in his cage. She takes the locks off all the other monkey cages (replacing them with sticks), and puts them all on this one cage.
Min-Feng offers to take the rest of the stuff that the monkey has collected back to its owners - there is some jewelry, 22 li of money, various packets of letters tied with string, and a sealed box marked with a water symbol with Takanata's name. They all appear to be things that might have been locked up.
- "My stick?" -Master Zhou
- "Do you lock your stick up at night? Then no." -Mike
Min-Feng returns the loot, but not before reading all the letters, in case they're incriminating. They appear to mostly be personal letters, love letters - one set from a number of different women in different cities on the Circus's route - but nothing that appears to be written to or from a spy. (She gets a point in KS: Circus for free).
Meanwhile, Shen-Ji tries to "console" the women from the shower tent, but they are not impressed and chase him away.
Min-Su asks if anyone knows anything about the Spirit World; most people point at Master Zhou. Has he heard of the legend of the Seven Enlightened Monkeys, she wonders. As it turns out he has. There is an ancient tale which says that the Great Monkey Spirit always has a small piece of his being hidden away in each of seven monkeys. If one monkey dies, that piece moves to another monkey, elsewhere. Finding all seven of them is the first step in learning the true name of the Great Monkey Spirit. Anyhow, Master Zhou cannot immediately discern by visual inspection if this is an Enlightened Monkey, and Shen-Ji only gets one success on trying to figure out if it is more like a monkey, sorcery-wise, than regular monkeys are. However, it has opened most of the locks on its cage at this point - Min-Su snaps her fingers at it, and it hands over the rest.
Merit suggests not locking the cage, but putting it on its side, with another cage on top. That seems to keep it put for the moment.
Ringmaster Te declares that it is time to leave the City of Light. First thing in the morning, they will be heading out, and they will be rolling overland, not traveling on an Imperial Highway. "Take the usual precautions, and we'll all be fine," he warns, and Merit points out the number of newcomers, and asks him to run a special briefing session for the circus crew who haven't heard the usual precautions yet.
- "Ringmaster Te: Ringmaster. Li Merit: Ruiner of Fun." -Drew
The precautions are for the most part tied to the fact that there's no barrier to wandering up and messing with the circus when it's not traveling on a raised highway. Be careful for people joining the caravan and stealing things. Be careful to not insult anyone in the Savanna, and be careful not to eat anything in the Strand.
- "Are our own provisions all right?" -Hana
- "Sigh. They're all going to die." -Ringmaster Te
In addition to not eating anything in the Strand, don't touch anything. The question is raised whether there is anything that is considered particularly insulting in the Savanna that people wouldn't guess? Don't insult the honor of the Dragon Army, Merit notes. Or the honor of anyone else in the Savanna. Or suggest that they're weak. Actually, as insults go, these are pretty standard, but Merit suggests just not talking to anyone in the Savanna at all. Hana thinks that being polite should be sufficient. It isn't clear whether being from the Butterfly Kingdom will be a problem, now that the blockade is over.
- "We could just claim to not be from the Butterfly Kingdom." -Zhi-Hao
- "There's a problem with that..." -Merit, indicating the enormous circus
The next morning, the circus gets under way. Merit arranges for the couple of little kids who actually travel with the circus (because their parents work in it) to take turns watching the Lockpicking Monkey (or Monko, as Min Feng names him). Min Feng and Xiao Fa also volunteer to watch, and Min Feng starts passing him locks to unlock and pass back. That seems to calms him down quite a bit, and she finds it boring long before the monkey does.
After several days of uneventful travel, they pass from the Illuminated Precincts into the Savanna of Tears.
Master Zhou, keeping on particular watch the first night spent in the Savanna, hears a rough coughing growl off the road. He notes the animal noises to the others, and extra torches are lit.
- "It's another monkey..."
- "A big fierce monkey!"
- "I think those are called 'gorillas'." -Kasumi
- "A monkey eel!" -Drew
Later that night, Kasumi wakes to hear a strange noise in the night. Unlike Master Zhou, she goes to investigate what it is (in case it is another ninja), and sneaks into the grasses to look for the source. Eventually, she finds two glowing eyes, regarding her in the darkness, and stops. The eyes do not move either. The two look at each other for a long time, until the moon rises and reveals a tiger. Kasumi concludes that tigers are Definitely Not Her Job, and manages to vanish behind a bush by throwing all her Yin into stealth. The tiger leaps on the bush where she just was, and she hightails it back to the circus.
In the morning, Merit mentions to non-martial-looking travelers that he's seen a tiger, and be careful. They say that farther along, the terrain gets a bit wetter, so there may be fewer tigers at that point. They also mention a Dragon Army training camp up the road, probably that the circus will pass tomorrow.
- "Dun du dunnnnh!" -Brian
It's Zhi-Hao's turn to ride the lead elephant, so he is the first to spot an approaching dust cloud off in the distance and to the right. The party worries about the dust cloud - is it a sandstorm? A stampede? a cavalry charge? If it keeps moving in the direction of the circus, it might arrive in an hour. Merit thinks, tactically speaking, that it makes no sense to send a cavalry charge against a circus caravan, and especially not from an hour away, but issues instructions to have the circus continue forward for another half hour and then stop to see what happens. Half an hour later, it looks like the dust cloud is moving in a different direction, so perhaps it is on some sort of maneuvers.
Zhi-Hao notes that the camp in that (approximate) direction is where he was stationed when he was a Dragon Army trainer, and he'd like to stop by and say hello. Master Zhou and Xiao Fa go with him, in case of tigers (well, Xiao Fa has also been there before). The camp is a big stockade, with guards at the gate, but Zhi-Hao is able to get permission to enter. Master Eto ("the Wolf") is still out on training maneuvers, however. Zhi-Hao asks when he might be back - the guard notes "On a day like today with the sun high and hot, they'll be wilting around three, so... probably sunset." Master Zhou nods approvingly. Once inside the palisade, security is much laxer, and there are not many soldiers around. The cook takes it upon himself to feed the three travelers a mini-feast, and teases Zhi-Hao about being "back for more training with the Wolf."
The three visitors stay until evening, when the soldiers return. Zhi-Hao and Master Eto do the "manly hug thing". Eto asks how things are going with Zhi-Hao's father (he had returned to the Butterfly Kingdom when Venerable Deng broke his legs. Zhi-Hao says he finally had vengeance on the man who attacked his father. Eto says this calls for celebration! There are drinks for everyone - Master Zhou manages to sip his slowly, but Xiao Fa has to make health checks to stay sober in the face of so much vigorous drinking. Zhi-Hao says he's been the weapons master for the Butterfly Court, which causes some good-humored mockery: "You're good, but not even you can teach those guys, right?" But he's traveling now with the Silken Wings Circus, heading west to the Strand. The visitors try to get what gossip they can, but the rumors about the dockworkers' riots seem similar here to those in previous cities. There appears to be some disappointment that there wasn't a war between the Savanna and the Butterfly Kingdom, as that would have been more interesting. Maybe next time.
The night of drinking and story-swapping continues; Zhi-Hao points out Xiao Fa as "the guy who was at that fight I told you about." That gets him more drinks, and some comradely thumping. Master Zhou asks Master Eto about how Dragon Army training works. They do basic training first, the same for everyone. Break them down and get them to forget bad habits and silly ideas, and teach them specializations after that.
Meanwhile, back at the circus, in the Perils of Overland Travel, Hana avoids getting sunburnt, and Shen-Ji spots the bulk of the Southern Wall off in the distance. The circus will probably be coming closest to the place that the original Southron ritual took place, tomorrow.
Later that afternoon, Min Feng spots someone fallen in the grass near the road, twitching and flopping around. She goes to fetch Li Merit, and everyone else comes along to see (except the three still at the army encampment). The guy lying in the grass is covered in mud, badly scratched, with an inflamed arm. Merit thinks he has, at least, poison shingles from a poison shingle tree, dehydration, scratches on his back from both tree branches and a blade, and delirium possibly from hallucinogenic mushrooms. Min Feng gets him some water.
The guy sees Merit, fixes him with staring eyes, and warns "They're in the frying pan! They're in the frying pan!" before passing out. Merit does what he can to make the guy comfortable, including getting him new clean clothes and strip searching him in the process. He appears to be a not-very-competent spy: he has his knife hidden in the obvious place, that sort of thing.
- "Has he written down his passphrases?" -Drew
- "He's not that bad a spy." -Mike
Once the army encampment group returns, Xiao Fa brews up a salve for the shingles, and gives him sips of water to get him less dehydrated, but thinks that the mushrooms will need an antidote if he's to recover quickly. The antidote should be reasonably common in the next town - but that means Merit also has one. They administer the antidote, and he wakes up again, long enough to say "Gau Tso! The chicken is in the frying pan!" Xiao Fa thinks he'll be more coherent in the morning. It seems likely that the hapless guy has staggered out of the Strand, but further details will have to wait until he has recovered enough to be lucid. Merit says he doesn't know this guy, but that Gau Tso is an old friend of his, another "traveling merchant".
Wall Without Shadow
The circus crosses the border and pulls into a small town in the Strand without further incident. The refugee appears to be improving and will hopefully be awake and lucid sometime soon.
Shen-Ji wants to take a ride down south with Hana to inspect the ritual site near the wall. She wonders if that is a good idea. He admits that it's an idea, and concedes that it might be worth bringing more company in case of trouble. Master Zhou, Zhi-Hao, Kasumi and Xiao Fa are recruited to join them, and the six head off on the circus's horses, pushing them hard to get there while there is still light in the day. Merit and Min-Feng stay behind with the refugee, in case he wakes up.
The party reaches the clearing where the ritual was performed on Midwinter's day - the first thing that is obvious is that during the summer, the shadow of the Wall stretches south, rather than north. Kasumi finds a rusted sword; the outdoorsmen note that it's been a long time since anyone was here doing anything interesting, and there are no informative tracks from six months ago.
Arriving at the ritual site, Xiao Fa meditates on the chi of the area, and walks, mesmerized, right up to the Wall, places his hands upon it and appears to commune with it. Shen-Ji examines the ritual site, but finds pretty much none of the material clues remain. However, the area still resonates strongly in the chi, and Shen-Ji's Yin is strong enough to sense it. He determines the ritual was supposed to be Yin, but it ended up being Yin and Yang together. It was supposed to make darkness separate from the absence of light (not that that makes sense). Instead, it did horrific things mostly to Hana but possibly also to Hiro. Originally it was likely intended to be a direct attack on Yin everywhere.
Shen-Ji and Zhou discuss it and decide that, had the original ritual succeeded, it would have been necessary to follow it up with another ritual attacking the Yang on the midsummer solstice. Since it failed, this follow up is either more or less important, but they are unsure which. It's also possible that the followup should occur at the Northern Wall instead of the Southern, but then Shen-Ji thinks it should use Northern magics, and things just get complicated from there.
After about half an hour of discussion about rituals, people notice that Xiao Fa is still off communing with the wall. Zhou pokes him with a stick a few times, and calls his name, but he is non-responsive. So for the good of all, Master Zhou picks him up and throws him to the ground hard enough to snap him out of it.
- "What, this again?" -Xiao Fa, waking up
He explains that he was "following the chi flow downstream", and he had just reached the ocean, when Master Zhou pushed him over.
- "That was just a few moments, no?" -Xiao Fa
- "No." -Master Zhou
Shen-Ji also notes that the most important thing about the ritual location was the shadow of the Wall crossing it, which is not here now. So, a future ritual might need to be done on the other side of the wall or do something else to account for the ritual significance of it.
Kasumi considers climbing the wall, but decides it is not unclimbable enough. The GMs belatedly point out that her shtick on climbing unclimbable surfaces does work to climb climbable surfaces as well, that's just less interesting.
An Uninformative Briefing
Back at the circus, the refugee wakes up. He boggles to see Merit - did he make it all the way back to the Butterfly Kingdom? Damn, he's good! Merit informs him that no, he did not make it all the way back to the Butterfly Kingdom, just barely out of the Strand.
He goes by "Slippery Reed", and explains that the Queen sent three full spy teams into the Strand, to look into the poison and antidote used to poison the King. That didn't go so well, it turns out. (Merit recalls how under the king people knew enough not to send spies to the Strand). Gau Tso said he wasn't sending people without going himself, and he was Reed's training officer, so he brought Reed along but told him to not do anything. He didn't do anything, and he didn't know anything - so then, when the men with green sedge hats came to take the other spies away while they were in Qiqing, getting ready to leave, they didn't take him. Gau Tso told him to report back to the Butterfly kingdom, and not attempt to rescue anyone by himself. He did follow the captives long enough to see when they were thrown in to "a door in the forest," and he describes to Merit where the doors are.
The three teams were investigating
- where the poison came from
- where the antidote came from
- why spies in the Strand vanish
Meanwhile, the ritual investigation team rides back to the circus in the dark. When they return to the circus, they discover that their ninja is quieter than usual. In fact, she seems to have gone missing. Three riders go back to try to find her, and discover the horse and ninja by the side of the road - the horse has a broken leg, and Kasumi is unconscious and lying in a patch of poison ivy.
Zhi-Hao puts the horse out of its misery, and Xiao Fa tries to figure out how to get her out without getting her totally poison-ivied. Her ninja clothes might protect her, he thinks, so he wakes her up and carefully lifts her out (getting poison ivy all over himself in the process).
Everyone returns to the circus; Xiao Fa makes salve for both himself and Kasumi, and then disposes of her ninja clothes. Merit frowns at the loss of the horse, and then briefs everyone on the spy plot.
Slippery Reed is given a few li and a horse and sent on his way, with instructions: Remember the clues about the door in the woods, and the green hats. Then, report directly to the Home Office - submit three written reports, one to each division, before talking to anyone.
- "At no point should it happen that he goes to someone and they say 'Who else have you told?' and the answer is 'no one'." -Merit
Into the Coil
The party sets off, bringing the map to find Cai Wen, so they can be sure to find the slower-moving circus if it takes a while. Merit retrieves protective clothes and herbal antidotes from an old supply cache just north of the Strand, and Min Feng brings Monko. It is a journey of many days more, further into the Strand, to reach the "doors in the woods" - two brass doors leading into a low mound.
Eventually, the group reaches the site described by Reed, and sees five guards moving around in front of the doors. The most important point seems to be to prevent letting them flee inside to alert anyone within, but people are not sure that they can take out five guards very quickly (or at all). A plan is devised - Hana will make things very very spooky, some people will creep up to the top of the hill and jump down - Kasumi and Master Zhou doing nose grabs and nerve strikes immediately to stop the guards closest to the doors. Merit will try to bluff to scare the rest of them away - he and Xiao Fa concoct something to put on the weapons that smells and looks as though it might be poison.
The plan is enacted. As the night gets spookier, the guards start remarking that they have "a bad feeling about this". Mist starts to rise from the ground, and strange and creepy sounds come from the jungle. Once everyone is good and truly nervous, the combatants jump down - Kasumi and Master Zhou stun their foes, and Merit tries his bluff.
- "The hell portal inside should be well opened. Kill these, so that their souls may feed the fire." -Li Merit
- "Xian would be so proud." -Mike
One of the non-stunned guards shouts at the others to keep it together, but two of them flee. Master Zhou shackles him with the Shackles of Silence, and the two stunned guards are knocked down, followed by the third. The three guards are looted for their green hats, and Monko unlocks the great brass doors.
The dungeon (which the party will eventually discover is called the Coil) is a long and narrow corridor leading forward, with cells on either side. The group progresses in, encountering some number of perils at ever-increasing difficulties. (As part of the mechanic, any given person who succeeds at passing a peril can bring one other person for free, or more people by spending tokens). The perils include:
- Bend Bars, Blocking Chi Flow, Confused Guards, Depressing Bones, Fighty Guards, Greedy Guards, Guard Dogs, Guard Post, Hidden Latch, Impressible Guards, Locked Turnstiles, Magical Horribleness, Mesmerizing Guard Serpents, Nearby Guards, Old-Fashioned Puzzle Locks, Persuasive Guards, Pit Trap, Poison Gas, Poisonous Spores, Rolling Boulders, Slick Floor, Sneaky Guards, Softie Guards, Sticky Webs, Swinging Blade Trap, Twisty Little Passages All Alike, Ucky Muck, Very Unpleasant Worms, Watchful Guards, Withstand Cold, and Zillions of Needles.
Each of the cells is found to have one of the captured spies, though they have forgotten most of the knowledge they knew; each one of them only has a scrap of the briefing remaining.
Turning back again would cause the difficulty to continue to increase, and after the group has progressed in a little ways, the un-perilous rooms behind them start to be replaced. Their carefully constructed path of returning without peril is destroyed, and it seems likely that they will be unable to leave. However, the two party members who can get through walls (Hana and Min Feng) realize that in the same way they can bring people with them past a peril, they can also bring people with them through the outer wall to freedom, so the dungeon run becomes "Forward Or Die!".
Eventually, Gau Tso and all of the spies but one are rescued before the combination of peril and doors not pointing in the correct direction lead the rescuers to decide that it is too dangerous to go further. Three briefings are pieced together:
Gau Tso says that the Chief told the Queen that it was too dangerous to go into the Strand, but she insisted. The Chief thought maybe the mission was a distraction for something else, but didn't know what. Gau Tso and the other spies head back towards the Butterfly Kingdom to report and get checked over, and their rescuers start the long trek back to the Circus.
Location Note: The Circus is making its way up the long tail of the Strand; puttering can reach the Illuminated Precincts, or the Savanna of Tears, but not Iron Mountain.
- Yoshi heads off to the Teng lands in the Forest of Chin to deliver a messsage from Hana and Hiro. He'll be back later.
- Takanata and Hana zip back to the Illuminated Precincts to do some library research.
- Wei Han goes back to the Illuminated Precincts to talk to the garrison there.
- Wei Han, Cai Wen, and Xiao Fa take a quick side trip into the Savanna to talk to the army and other people that present themselves.
- Wei Han, in conjunction with at least Cai Wen, Lijuan, and Shen-Ji, plans a scouting mission to explore the further-ahead parts of the Strand.