|"What are the three terrors of the Fire swamp?"|| The run begins on the first day of spring, the Day of the Early Tiger in the month of the Tiger in the two hundred and fifty-ninth Year of the Spider since the opening of the Exalted Library.|
The run takes place in the City of Light, and in a swamp in the Strand.
Ringmaster Te gathers the circus together, and announces that Her Majesty Ti Wren has suggested that the circus not leave directly on the heels of such poor omens as wholesale slaughter of and by zombies; perhaps they might wait a week for final polishing, and leave on a more auspicious note? He must admit that she has a point, so the Silken Wings Circus will not be setting off immediately. Performers should polish their acts in the coming week or so - which everyone takes to mean "a week's vacation".
Wei Han takes the ringmaster’s advice seriously and goes off to train with the circus strongman in the hopes of improving both their skills. Others search about for diversion. As it turns out, about a year ago, Takanata, Anto, Shen-Ji and Cai Wen went to a party on Golden Dove Island in the Illuminated Precincts. To their surprise, the four of them are invited to attend again this year. Unfortunately, Lord Takanata and Anto are not around to accept their invitations, but Shen-Ji and Cai Wen are happy to take up the slack and start looking around for a couple of people to accompany them.
- "Since I don't have a date, I speak to my old friend, to see if he wants to go to a party." -Shen-Ji
- "Not as your date..." -Zhi-Hao
Elsewhere, Shen Wei Han is summoned to speak to the Butterfly Prince. The prince commends him on his work during the zombie crisis, and both in way of thanks, and in recognition of Wei Han’s position as the only Dragon Army soldier officially appointed to the Butterfly Kingdom, presents him with a set of "Butterfly Dragon Armor".
In the end, Cai Wen and Shen-Ji decide to bring Shen Wei Han and Master Deng with them to the party. They head down to the docks to get a boat over to the Precincts. Wei Han paves the way with his courier baton. The captain of the ship is worried that they want to leave under cover of darkness or something, but the party assures him that they expect a nice normal departure. So, they head out and arrive a couple of days later, without incident, in the City of Light.
Upon getting to the docks Cai Wen asks around for local news. Rumor on the street seems to be that the Revered Council of Sages has decided to give in to the Obsidian Warlord's demands. The guy on the street is not totally clear what those demands are, but it has to do with taxes, and tribute. Wei Han is not surprised the Warlord needs more money/troops, though Shen-Ji thinks it's odd for the Warlord to be doing this personally - taxes are a Regency Council sort of thing. Wei Han goes to talk to the local garrison to try and gather more info. There, the story is that it’s time for the Sages to pull their weight... so they’ll be making powerful magical artifacts of some sort for the army.
- "Speaking of powerful magical artifacts, what in the Spirits' name are you wearing?"
Under some friendly ribbing, Wei Han admits to having saved the Prince's life a couple of times and received this nice highly-functional armor as a reward. The soldiers decide they need to get in on that sort of action! But it's kind of froofy, don't you think? And, don't let the Obsidian Warlord see that - he's snapping up all the mojo armor. Wei Han looks at his armor - it seems brand new, as far as he can tell, but he assures them it’s more functional than froofy.
Intelligence gathered, the party gets rooms at an inn, and Cai Wen makes himself spiffy in preparation for the party. Wei Han polishes himself up too, as best he can.
Golden Dove Island
Folks get a little canal boat, and get poled to Golden Dove Island. There are guards on the docks keeping the riff-raff off the island, but as they have invitations there are no problems. The party itself is to be held in a lovely multi-story home surrounded by beds of flowers.
There's a majordomo at the door, welcoming people.
- "Be most welcome in the house of He Bai Lan."
- "Oooh, is that our host?"
Cai Wen is at 14 status due to cleaning up so nicely, so a whisper runs through the crowd that Cai Wen has arrived. This seems to attract attention from a couple of the other party-goers. At one corner, Willow picks up a second drink and heads towards Cai Wen. At another, Zhantai (the apprentice of Yuwen Fire-Eye) picks up a second drink and heads towards Cai Wen. He wonders if this will be a problem. Thinking about it, two molls competing for his attention are more likely to embarrass themselves first, then embarrass their patrons, and only beyond that embarrass Cai Wen. Though he doesn’t really want to embarrass Yuwen Fire-Eye, so maybe he can hand them both off to other people. He happily greets them both, and during their near collision to get to him, their glasses clink as if they were toasting each other. He steers Zhantai's drink towards Shen-Ji and Willow's drink towards Zhi-Hao.
- "We'll see how this goes, if I become the great Dispenser of Molls..." -Cai Wen
There is a perilous charisma roll, but he doesn't blow it too badly. Shen-Ji talks to Zhantai and asks about her studies? She says they are slower now because of all of the the extra work from the Council, but things aren’t going too badly. Willow talks to Deng. He asks her what the news is with the Council these days? She says it’s mostly business as usual, though a bit of adjustment with the new taxes. But, overall, things are progressing as they always do, which is to say, quite slowly.
An older woman breezes up to the group. Cai Wen notes that she is not a babe according to his standards, but she probably was once.
She introduces herself as Hai Ling and notes that she has heard a fair bit about the party members from her apprentice, Qin Yanyu. She takes a moment to admire Shen Wei Han’s new armor.
- "I have heard much of his prowess in battle - interesting to see that his prowess in social occasions is similarly fierce." -Hai Ling
Madam Hai Ling carefully notes the relationships between Cai Wen, Zhantai, and Willow. Adding in the other three men, she concludes, "I don't think I've seen such an auspicious group of unmarried young people in years."
Asking what brings them here, the party notes that they have a little break. Hai-Ling approves of men beholden to their duty yet still willing to make time for the important things. She wouldn't wish to spoil their good times, and so excuses herself while gesturing towards the dance floor. Zhi-Hao asks Willow to dance. Shen-Ji dances with Zhantai. Cai Wen of course ends up standing around with Shen Wei Han.
During the dance, Shen-Ji talks to Zhantai a bit. She’s a little annoyed as they have a lot of things to do better than making invulnerable fireproof armor for some warlord. Well, not any warlord, but, really, how often is he in actual combat? They have to pull three or four elementalists, the best artificers, etc., off of important projects to get this new armor done.
On the other end of the dance floor, Willow mentions to Master Deng that she hadn't expected the circus group to be here. As truth would have it, she's actually working right now - she had to get some of the important sages and mages together in order to complete some requests for the Council. She's arranged for the conversations - they need to pass some informational chits between them, and with a little luck, they should be able to finish the plans for the armor without the usual massive research effort. Given her tendencies, Mage Yuwen should be pleased with the project, but the others, perhaps less so.
Cai Wen notices this is not a grandly high status party; most people aren't approaching him. He makes the rounds with Madam Hai-Ling. She takes him to meet the historian Bao Gui, who recognizes him as one of those young men with the kraken stories last year. Cai Wen doesn't really remember, but he’s happy to talk about how the kraken attacks have risen in the past few years. Madam Hai-Ling also introduces him to Miro, the Artificer, and Master He Bai.
Shen-Ji notes to Zhantai that he would also be interested in being part of the talking to people, so they head to her master. Zhi Hao and Willow are also heading over to Miro, who happens to be talking to Yuwen. Thus, Willow and Zhantai converge on the same place at the same time once more. They have a little spat, as Willow would like to let the mages alone so her mechanic can progress, and Zhantai wants to stay where the interesting magical discussion is.
- "You sense a disturbance in the molls." -Mike
- "I've taken an unexpected tack, but it might not be working out as I thought." -Cai Wen to Hai-Ling
Hai Ling notes that in things like this, one must be more... vigilant. Splitting them up was clever, but now they are together again.
Shen-Ji supports Zhantai, leading Zhi Hao to come in on Willow's side:
- "Shen Ji and his date are beating up on your date." -Mike
Miro, getting tired of the bickering, is thinking about going off for more food. Cai Wen swoops in with a dumpling platter from a passing servant to try to sort things out. He realizes the problem was that he forgot to brief Shen-Ji and Zhi Hao to keep them apart. Cai Wen asks Willow about her mechanic to lure her and Zhi Hao away.
The other four talk about Magic. Shen-Ji butters up Miro the Artificer with comments like “the armor is the most onerous of things to be constructed for the Warlord so the Council went to the best to get the job done” and gets the conversation going again. They talk about making the armor. Zhantai was talking to Hai-Ling earlier - she has an immunity to fire shtick, as does Yuwen, so they should both be useful in the ritual. Miro has several shticks in creating items. He's never done it this way before, by going to a party and talking to random people to come up with a ritual. After some discussion, they realize they are still short two requirements. They need something that ties the fire into life - the best thing is ichor or secretions or blood from a giant fire salamander. And it would be nice to be able to make a little figurine of the armor out of water. If it were ice that would work, but then it would melt, so they need to figure out some thing to stand in for ice that doesn’t melt. Shen-Ji takes this opportunity to mention the ice chips of doom.
Across the room, Zhi Hao is talking to Willow, who is grumpy about Zhantai, but then suddenly looks back towards the conversation, concerned. "Wait, purple chits? There weren't supposed to be purple informational chits. This was an RGB mechanic. Now it's unbalanced... no, we're going to have to go over there and fix it.” Zhi Hao, who has no idea whatsoever what’s she’s talking about, lets her drag him back over to the main conversation and berates Shen-Ji for interjecting unexpected information into the mechanic. Now the whole thing is unbalanced and won’t produce a working ritual. She thinks about it for a while, and decides that since he introduced the ice chips of doom knowledge, Shen-Ji will have to personally acquire the salamander secretions to patch it up again. While Willow is patching her mechanic, Zhi Hao takes a moment to ask Cai Wen about her.
- "While she's off in the corner, tell me about her?" -Zhi Hao
- "She's an assistant to..." -Cai Wen
- "No, about her."
- "An avid observer of mechanics of things... really a wonderful girl, when she warms up."
With Willow’s pronouncement that the party has to go get the salamander blood herself, Yuwen is crushed. "Oh, I don't get to go to the swamp myself? How terrible. Shall we get more snacks?"
Asking where these giant fire salamanders could be found, the party is told about a small swamp on the edge of the Strand. It’s called the Swamp of Peril, or Swamp of Doom, or something... should be no problem. Wei Han asks if they could get a local guide, but is told they’ll at least have to head out there to do that and no one here would qualify.
Meanwhile, Shen-Ji, still talking to the mages, spends three karma and introduces a subtle flaw in the ritual for the Warlord’s armor. In theory, it will all work just as expected, but (drawing on the weakness of the ice) if the Obsidian Warlord is ever immersed in sea water, all of his defenses should go down. Perhaps that’ll prove useful someday.
Since Cai Wen is flirting with Zhantai, Willow flirts with Zhi-Hao. She invites him to stay here in the city while his companions go off to battle the giant fire salamander on their own. Of course, Master Deng thinks he might be useful on such a trip, so regretfully declines. Hai-Ling swoops in and takes Willow off for some discussions before she can press Zhi Hao into anything...
Into the Swamp
Thus, given these developments, people decide it’s worthwhile to head off to the swamp and get some salamander goo. They head out to the Strand, and find a local who can brief them on the dangers (and mechanics!) of the Swamp of Ambiguous Danger.
There’s a Hat Mechanic, in which they wander around the swamp making lots of rolls. Swimming, Feats of Strength, Climbing, Rust Avoidance, Tiger Fighting, Morale Checks, etc. All the while, they are spending countless karma points while gathering temporary Tracking and Survival levels needed to find the Giant Fire Salamander.
Unfortunately, in the end, Zhi-Hao finds himself just a little short. He knows the salamander is nearby, but can’t locate it. So he calls upon his favor from the Radish Spirit. Suddenly, a very tasty radish appears on the ground and lures a tiny little salamander out of hiding. It starts munching on the radish and ignores them completely. They’re a little worried that it’s not as Giant as they were expecting but after sneaking up on it, Wei Han chops it in half.
Suddenly there’s a giant roar from behind them, as a Giant Flaming Salamander emerges from the swamp to avenge its slain child. Zhi-Hao slips behind it and attacks. As the combat progresses, the salamander burns more and more of the swamp and the party. Finally, though, the beast is killed. Shen-Ji collects salamander gore from everyone.
- "Your sample, sir." -Zhi-Hao
Having burned much of the swamp in the combat, the trip out is far easier than the trip in. On the way out, Zhi Hao notices that half of the magic radish appears to have survived the blaze, so he scoops it up as they leave.
They return quickly to the Precincts and Shen-Ji delivers the ice and gore to Yuwen. She seems to realize the flaw built into the ritual, but decides to keep that information to herself.
Before they depart, Hai-Ling wonders what Zhi Hao's intentions are, as they might be appropriate considering her readings with regards to Willow and Zhi Hao. He suggests that he was going to spend some time with her, have some fun, and see what develops. Hai-Ling frowns. Well, does he seek the services of one such herself? If Willow is not to his liking, then she might find a better match. He demurs for the moment, but promises to contact Qin Yanyu when it’s time for him to seek matchmaker services.Zhi-Hao and Willow have one final date, as do Shen-Ji and Zhantai. Cai Wen wonders where all of the girls went and arranges for a boat back to the Butterfly Kingdom. They’ll probably be late, but hopefully, the circus won’t leave without them.