Cave of Wonders
|"Marriages are not as they are made, but as they turn out."|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Tortoise in the Month of the Serpent in the two hundred and fifty-ninth Year of the Magpie since the opening of the Exalted Library.|
The run takes place on Olive Partridge Island in the Illuminated Precincts
The circus moves out, heading down the Imperial Highway for the Illuminated Precincts. After about a day of uneventful travel, a fast courier approaches from the south. Since the last courier was unwilling to provide a briefing, the party decides that they need to squeeze this one a little harder, and Merit instructs the circus wagons to "accidentally" block the highway.
The courier pulls up, annoyed, and yells at the wagons to move. His uniform indicates that he's a courier from the Southeast Command (under Commander Sun). Xiao Fa apologizes for the wagons, and offers tea. He asks for a waterskin - he has no time for tea - and Lijuan gives some water to his horse instead. Merit asks if there is anything they need to worry about or any interesting emergencies going on, and the courier says no, he just has dispatches to deliver.
Xian warns the courier that there are sick horses at the Harbor courier station, or at least, there were a week ago. That worries the courier, as he will need to change horses there, but there's not much he can do about it.
Min Feng eyes the courier's saddlebags - there's one bulky saddlebag, and a thinner one tied shut with a complicated knot. It takes quite a bit of stealth and sleight of hand, but she gets the knot undone and copies the dispatch, then re-forges the knot. Merit gestures to the wagons, and they dramatically finish moving out of the way. The courier heads away again.
The dispatch proves to be from Commander Sun to the Obsidian Warlord - the previously reported fleet buildup did not stop at the expected limits; the fleet was joined by three more fleets of the same size, so it must be now classed as an armada.
Merit and the others try to remember anything they can about the South, but they didn't really get a clear idea from their one trip to Gateway to Riches.
- "It's like you came down from Canada and explored Seattle for a bit, but you still haven't figured out how the federal government works."
Another courier rides up - this one is an old buddy of Merit's, and is interested in borrowing Merit's NPC strike team to perform a surveillance op against Han Hsu. Merit says he can get him a dossier, but the buddy says that he has the dossier they have on file at home, and they sent him to find out more. Merit says he can't spare his strike team, as there's a Southern armada out there that he might have to deal with. He gives the old buddy twenty li and sends him on his way.
Merit lets the party know that Ti Lao is setting up surveillance on the head of the Monkey King Opera Company. Xian comments that he's pleasantly surprised to hear that - he was expecting the King would just have the man killed. Merit thinks that the surveillance is probably the first step along those lines, depending on what he's up to. Well, right now, he's writing a play about Suzuki Tamiyo, that Xian is paying for. Wait, what? Well, okay, the play is less about the things that Ti Lao wants kept secret and more about the things that the King of the Hon'eth Arcade wants kept secret. But it'll probably bring down the Arcade when it's performed. Wait, what?
- "Okay, maybe I need to read this log." -Merit
Anyway, it doesn't seem like it will be good for Han Hsu when the Beautiful Spy Service finds out about this, regardless of whose secrets are worse. Xian protests that Han Hsu doesn't just tell everyone about this sort of thing, though maybe if he thinks it would make for good drama...
- "So, the nuclear bomb is in the hands of the person who might be able to convince people that it's aesthetically a good idea. Which includes you, because your brain is mushier than your mouth." -Merit
The rest of the trip to the Illuminated Precincts is uneventful, and arrives in the evening. The circus sets up in its usual performance space, and Shen-Ji and his friends head to Olive Partridge Island, the Sakong lands.
Merit wonders who is in town for the wedding - his guys return with a list:
- Sakong Yue
- Sakong Lu Chu
- Mother Sakong Nan
- Sakong Yat-Sen
- Sakong Zhen-Li
- Yun Ling
- Stoneback Cho
- Hsu Verity
- Fiercest Blow of the Myeong Clan
- Master Tranh
- Venerable Deng
- Yuwen Fire-Eye
- Yang Tsi-Ya
- three demons whose names the guy didn't get
He also gets a briefing from his spy in Commander Sun's office. They have ship numbers on the Southern Fleet (very large), and some more information like flags on some of them, like a golden elephant. Merit remembers a map with a golden elephant on it, off to the northeast - it's a political region of some sort.
Min Feng overhears Jia-Jia talking to someone she doesn't know (it's actually Lu Chu). Lu Chu explains that there's a place that they can go that they can get eps! The two head off together, followed stealthily by Min Feng. After a while, Jia-Jia bursts into flames, startling Lu Chu, and she tells Min Feng to come out. They say that they're going to train, and Min Feng says she wants to come too. Lu Chu shows them a cave near the edge of the island, with a lot of sharp stalactites and stalagmites. She demonstrates how to leap from stalagmite to stalagmite to a ledge at the far side of the cave; all three girls do about equally well. There's a sign on the ledge saying "get to here to get EPs". Lu Chu complains that the cave was awesomer before the cave-in. Min Feng spends a yin (to see hidden or disguised things) and gets a headache. Lu Chu invites the other two to come back tomorrow for more training, though Min Feng thinks that after the wedding is better.
Most of the rest of the party shows up to check in with Mother Sakong, offering to help with final preparations. Merit mentions that he's good at event planning, and gets given a list of things to do, most importantly, to get the workmen off the island for the duration of the wedding celebrations. He goes to shoo them away, but they're having trouble setting up the mini-dams sufficient to leave them unattended for several days without overflowing. They say getting another water mage might help. When Merit and Shen-Ji find Yun Ling, she's doing a lot of water moving already, not goofing off, though she thinks that they will be done in time. Merit installs the Icon of Aquatic Motion on the workman supervisor's boat, so he can zip around a bit faster, and Shen-Ji throws some walls of iron in to try to shore things up. Merit notes that the walls will last less long than Shen-Ji expects, so he should probably come back tomorrow to put them back again, since metal sorcery is particularly vulnerable to water.
Xian spends a Yin, and gets a headache as well. Xiao Fa examines her chi, and thinks, as a first guess, that it's self-inflicted chi damage, but he'll be able to get a better idea if he sees it happen.
Shen-Ji asks Jia-Jia if any of her old friends are around (he's worrying about the demons who appear to be on the guest list). She says she hasn't seen any, and asks Ghostfire if he noticed anything else strange around here. Apparently he can't say, which is making Jia-Jia annoyed. Merit tries to get her to convince Ghostfire to explain what he can say about what he can't say, but she ends up getting a headache when he explains to her what he can’t say.
Min Feng brings everyone down to Lu Chu's cave, but it doesn't seem particularly interesting or magical. Xiao Fa thinks that the chi is a little perilous, but doesn't seem to have any particular "punch yourself in the head" character.
Lijuan introduces Ho and her imaginary hamster to Mother Sakong, and then asks where the group has gone. She and Mother Sakong wander about asking the workmen, and then following a track Lijuan finds, down to the cave. Mother Sakong is a little dubious about the cave, and thinks she will need to put up a fence to avoid people wandering in. The group leaves the cave and heads back to the main estate, and Mother Sakong charms Stoneback Cho into agreeing to put up a stone wall.
Merit chats with the earth mage, trying to find out what sorts of complications he's run into ("...like suspicious cave systems..."), but Cho doesn't seem to think that there are any real problems. Merit gets a copy of the building plan, to compare with Xiao Fa's initial design later, in case there are Mysterious Chi Differences.
Merit declares that Shen-Ji needs to be taken out drinking (with Xiao Fa), which seems to help with the headaches. Gi-Su finds the group, and joins them - he's here with Master Tranh.
- "How did you meet your bride? Did you ensorcel her?" -Gi-Su
Gi-Su's philosophical dilemma comes back up - chi is more boring than sorcery.
- "Chi lines are boring - they just keep going, and you keep following them." -Gi-Su
- "Well, if you're Xiao Fa, you walk into walls." -Merit
Gi-Su doesn't seem to have that problem; Xiao Fa notes that he has The Eye.
Meanwhile, Xian, Lijuan, Min Feng, Jia-Jia, and Lu Chu take Yue out for a bachelorette party. (Lijuan, as the married woman, gets to be the chaperone.) They chat with Yue, as none of the party women have met her yet, and learn that she is an accomplished amateur musician and an enthusiastic library scholar; she hopes someday to become a Patron of the Exalted Library.
- "It's just three tael..." -Lijuan
Well, her family can't afford it at the moment; left unstated is that the reason that her marriage was arranged with Shen-Ji is his money.
(The women put their heads together later and buy a library patronage as a wedding present; Merit decides to buy himself one as well.)
Xian offers Yue an I Ching reading. It reads:
Xian gives her an edited version that paraphrases the ominous parts to sound rather less ominous.
The day of the wedding dawns bright and cheerful. Lots of small boats are arriving at the (newly renovated) docks, and there are congratulations given to everyone. Hsu Verity remarks to Shen-Ji that he has put her friends into something of a tizzy, and Yuwen Fire-Eye offers brisk congratulations. Xian, watching Yuwen carefully, opens a memory packet and wonders to herself.
Jia-Jia notes that there's a demon watching Shen-Ji. Shen-Ji says there are two, but the only one Jia-Jia knows about is a demon of discerning vision.
Inside the house, though, things are in disarray, as Mother Sakong appears to have gone missing. The servants are serving appetizers before they've been cooked, nobody knows what they should be doing...
- "Oh. How tragic." -Shen-Ji
- "Okay, if you got rid of her, just let us know and we can avoid investigating." -Merit
Lu Chu and Jia-Jia head up to Yue's room to help her (and distract her from anything going wrong).
The cave is the most mysterious thing going on so far, so Gi-Su, Xiao Fa, Xian and Shen-Ji head there. Xian spends the walk over interrogating Shen-Ji about various things, including why Ming I hated him so much. However, when they reach where the cave is, the entrance is blocked with a solid stone wall. Xian spends a Yin and gets another headache, and Xiao Fa thinks that her chi rebounded off of something, causing the feedback. Xiao Fa explains the situation to Gi-Su, who squints at the chi, and then walks forward, ducking around something unseen and walking through the wall as well. Xiao Fa tries following the chi downstream, while holding down Chi Riposte, and walks through the wall as well.
Merit, Lijuan, and Min Feng start with the house, where Merit does his best to put things in order, and acquires the Sakong majordomo, who is particularly worried. Mother Sakong's bed is made and doesn't appear to have been slept in; there is a pot of cold tea, and two empty teacups. Ah... wasn't she having tea with Stoneback Cho last night? Ho takes Mother Sakong's scent, and starts indicating a direction. Looking out the window from Mother Sakong's room, Merit spots that one of the servants is moving as if he is wearing armor underneath his silks, which is odd. Min Feng memorizes him.
The second group follows Ho, who leads them to the cave, where they meet the first group, staring in confusion at the wall. Ho runs through the wall, but Lijuan bounces off again. Li Merit takes out the Orb of Light, one of the Imperial Treasures, and to him, the wall isn't there. He has everyone hold hands and lead him through - this proves very painful for everyone who isn't him, and Min Feng doesn't make it, but then she walks through the wall afterwards to join everyone inside.
The cavern of stalactites and stalagmites is still there, but there is a neatly paved stone path down the center. Also, there are two exits that no one remembers seeing before, where the caved-in sections used to be. Lijuan notes that nobody has gone off to the sides recently, and, also, there's no sign of any cave-in having happened or having been cleaned up.
A side room to the left has stalactites, but the liquid dripping from them hisses and spits. There is a sign in a niche on the far wall, saying "You have to touch here to get the EPs". Everyone eyes it very suspiciously. Merit passes the Orb of Light to Shen-Ji, who looks around and spots a many-eyed demon watching him. That's probably the "demon of discerning vision" that Jia-Jia mentioned. Merit's guess is that it is a spy from the Imperial Alchemist. So... it saw the Orb of Light, but the Alchemist probably already knows that the Imperial Job was them. Shen-Ji goes to the niche, but doesn't immediately get EPs. Treachery!
Someone walks through the illusionary wall, spots the group, and runs out again, shouting in Senatali that they're inside the wards. The group starts to give chase, but Xian calls them to a halt.
- "They are disturbed that we are in here. Therefore, we want to be in here." -Xian
Shen-Ji puts up an iron wall just inside the illusionary wall, and they keep going forward. The next room is damp and blood-warm, and nearly full of bubbling mud. There are signs saying "hold your breath" and "touch here for eps", as if the room was once underwater. Most people are able to get past the mud without too much pain, but Merit (who is clever enough to put all his stuff in a mud-resistant satchel first) botches his dex roll and falls in. The group pulls him out with a rope, but he feels like he has an all-over sunburn.
Off in the distance, chanting can be heard: Kali mana Maya mana...
The next room looks perfectly safe and restful, except that Shen-Ji (who has the Orb of Light) thinks that it is full of tar, and there is a guy with a torch waiting to drop it in.
- "Yes, it looks saaaaafe. Let's just rest here. But let's not sully this room with our mud. Yet." -Shen-Ji
He writes "hidden cultist, torch, room filled with tar" with Lijuan's crayon on the wall where the cultist can’t see. Xian and Min Feng try to see the tar, but just get more of a headache.
Shen-Ji shoots the cultist and his torch, knocking it back, but in the cultist's next action, he kicks it into the tar and everything bursts into flames.
- "Now you shoot him, right?" -Xian
Many arrows later, the cultist dies.
Xiao Fa runs through the fire, then drops and rolls to put it out. He finds himself in a larger room on a ledge above a large pool, with a small island in the center. The island has a very small building, with four unmoving Southerners in white robes around it. A little further out are several Southerners in black robes, also not moving, and Mother Sakong and Stoneback Cho, not moving. Farther out, more Southerners in black robes are standing in water up to their chests, pouring dark chi at the central structure. Four Southerners in yellow robes are walking on the water directing them. There are some more black-robed guys on the ledge about the water.
One of the black-robes chops at Xiao Fa, simplifying the question of who the bad guys are.
- "Intruders! If you move again, we will kill the old woman!" -Yellow-robe
- "That's not a very impressive threat." -Shen-Ji
Combat is somewhat muddled - some people are cautious about coming through the fire, and the ledge is crowded. Merit demonstrates that running through the fire and jumping into the lake works pretty well, and (now that he has the Orb of Light) he spots Yama and another invisible person in white, at the edge of the room arguing.
The dark chi being sent by the black-robes manages to punt one of the white-robes from the central island. He flies into the water, rises out of it in a slow-motion move, and then kicks one of the black-robes across the room. After that, though, the white-robe gets very very old and collapses into the water.
Shen-Ji summons a pair of ripper demons, much to everyone else's consternation, and tells them to kill the yellow-robe priests.
Xian shouts (in Senatali) "Most holy one! Put this on, for invincibility against the demon" and hands him a mouse cage. He manages to convince one of the yellow-robes to put on the "helm of protection".
- "At this point, Merit notices that the discussion between the gods stops. The god in white covers his mouth. Yama facepalms."
Xiao Fa pulls Mother Sakong out of the center, while the black-robes keep ejecting the white-robes from the frozen area. Merit's best guess is that the central structure is a small temple to Kalkin, and that the frozen people are actually in very very slow time. The black guys are Kali cultists, working for four copies of someone dressed as a priest of Maya.
Xian convinces one of the cultists to use an escape smoke to flee. Xiao Fa leaps in front of a dark chi bolt, and redirects it back at one of the black-robes. However, Gi-Su is still trapped on the other side of the fire and doesn't see Xiao Fa's fancy maneuver.
- "Darn it!" -Xiao Fa
Ripper demons chew up one of the yellow-robed priests, and he vanishes. The mouse cage on his head vanishes and appears on another yellow-robed priest's head. Hmm. There's some illusioning going on, and the ripper demons aren't fulfilling the amount of actual bloodshed they have to do.
Gi-Su crosses into the lake room, and Xiao Fa spends a karma to repeat his cool maneuver, impressing Gi-Su with the wonders of chi mastery. He's also impressed by the bubble of frozen time, which he gets nearly close enough to touch without getting stuck. The bubble looks like most of the time has leaked out at this point. Stoneback Cho tries to get Mother Sakong out, but they run into Shen-Ji's iron wall at the front of the cave complex. Mother Sakong is not pleased by Shen-Ji's deathtrap.
- "Is there anything we should be doing to prevent that?" -Merit to the two Southern gods
- "Well, it's all messed up now." -Kalkin
The last of the black-robes fall, as the white-robes totter and die of old age. The yellow-robes vanish, and combat is over.
- "I suggest one of you get in there quickly." -Kalkin
Chatting with Gods
Xiao Fa runs into the temple, and there's one last white-robed priest, very very old, holding a Sankara stone. But Xiao Fa is wearing a Talisman, and can't take it, so he shouts for help. Lijuan rushes in, and grabs the Greater Sankara Stone of Destruction out of the priest's hands as he dies.
Merit seizes the opportunity to try and get any information he can out of Yama and Kalkin.
- "Thus far, Butterfly has guided us to where these things are about to fall. Unless you're guiding us here?" -Merit
- "Me? No. Do you know how hard it was to hide these things in the first place?" -Kalkin
- "Maybe we could help you more?"
- "So... you guys work for your Butterfly spirit?"
- "Well, that's just the thing we happen to be doing to keep everyone from dying horrible deaths, and we're in favor of stopping horrible deaths. Personally, I mostly worked for Butterfly's kingdom, before Spider kind of took it over."
- "There have been some changes..." -Yama
Kalkin notes that it's up to the party to keep his stone safe now, since his security system has been destroyed.
- "What does "safe" mean? Can’t you take it?"
- "No, I can't." -Kalkin
- "No, he can't." -Yama
Wait, so, if the effect is reversed, then is this a magic item that will cause Lijuan to not cause trouble and destruction? Everyone does a little victory dance.
- "Don't put it down, don't give it to the minions of Kali." -Kalkin
- "Stop telling them to do things. It's not allowed." -Yama
- "They already knew that anyway." -Kalkin
Anyway Kalkin was going to protect it himself, but SOMEONE said it was against the rules.
- "Which it is." -Yama
The party suggests giving it to an immortal, but Kalkin thinks that most of the North's immortals are animals. No, no, there are immortal people too. Well, that's a possibility.
- "So, what's your plan?" -Kalkin
- "We have a wedding to go to."
- "Yeah, we're trying to thwart the end of the world kind of as a side plot."
- "The end of the world?" -Kalkin
- "The yuga." -Yama
- "Oh, yeah, that." -Kalkin
- "Does that stone have something to do with the Yuga?" -Xian
- "Kali would think so." -Kalkin
- "Then your stone is in ignorant hands." -Xian
Merit and Xian really think that everyone would be best served by Kalkin telling them everything, but while Kalkin might be talked into it, Yama is clear that that isn't acceptable. But Kalkin can probably find a priest to send, if Merit can get him a visa.
- "Um... that's another of those things that have changed." -Merit
Merit explains that Spider replacing Dragon has resulted in the Walls being more xenophobic.
Yama remarks that he has a brief errand to run, and wanders into the room of fire, where Shen-Ji is - he points out the beholder demon, and ends up being introduced to Mother Sakong and Stoneback Cho.
- "Now that we're coming to it, are you planning to follow up on that information I gave you? Because that's one way to resolve this situation." -Yama
- "Do they know what they're doing? Do they really know what they're doing?" -Shen-Ji
- "They don't have a clue." -Yama
- "Well, I didn't break it to them." -Shen-Ji
Back in the lake room, the party rails against the no-briefings-from-Kalkin rules; the rules are apparently imposed by Yama and the other big gods, but not the three "high" gods. Kalkin doesn’t want to make a splash though as he has only just returned, so the other gods don’t realize that that he's back yet.
- "Yama does."
- "Well, you try hiding from Yama."
The party offers to work for Kalkin without telling anyone he's back, except without actually technically working for him. They can seal up the temple, but leave notes for Kalkin in it if necessary, and he might mysteriously show up later if they do. (No, Kalkin didn't put up the signs about getting eps.)
- "Have you ever heard the saying "the great spirits help those who help themselves?" No? Do you not have that saying? Anyway, that's the prime tenet of my philosophy. So don't be leaving notes for trivial matters." -Kalkin
Merit talks Kalkin into the idea that giving him a briefing on the current state of the Empire might be worth something, but halfway into it, Mother Sakong insists that it is time for Shen-Ji to come back to the house and get married, so it has to be cut short.
The wedding itself is pleasant, but anticlimactic compared to the previous excitement. Yama and Kalkin are seen sitting towards the back, and Kalkin makes a little blessing gesture at the happy couple, much to Yama's disapproval.
- "It's a wedding, we're allowed to give blessings." -Kalkin
- "They're not our people!" -Yama
- "It's just a small blessing. Don't forget, I'm a special case too."
- Shen-Ji visits the Elemental Braid at the Cup of Five Virtues.
- Takanata goes to talk to Ti Lao.