|"Deer hunter, waste not your arrow upon the hare."|| The run begins on the day of the Early Spider in the month of Spider Rising in the first Year of the Spider since the Butterfly King was Poisoned.|
The run takes place to, from, and on the Shrouded Isle.
The last thing anyone remembers is dawn on the Day of the Spider, and being "scattered through the world" by Aku, the Great Spirit of the Spider. As everyone tumbles through the void, they hear Aku's great voice threaten: "Now that your friends are scattered, you can suffer my personal ministrations... Wait... what?" As Shuyan, Shen-Ji, and Xian wonder what to make of that, they are distracted by a Splash as they fall into water.
Shen-Ji and Xian manage to initially keep their heads above water; Shuyan is not so lucky. Xian sees a dark shape, backlit against the dawn, as he begins to swim towards Shuyan.
- "I'm rethinking my commitment to knife-throwing. It isn't helping me very much here." -Shuyan
Xian manages to pull Shuyan up, though at the cost of going down himself. Shen-Ji is still doing his best to not drown, and doesn't have time for anything else. Shuyan pulls Xian back up, so now everyone is breathing, though being out in what appears to be the middle of the ocean doesn't seem good for long-term prospects, so all three hapless swimmers start shouting to attract the attention of whatever it is Xian has spotted. Happily, it is a ship rather than a sea serpent.
The ship alters course to head towards the swimmers, though then two archers on board take aim at them, only to be shouted at by a woman in black who throws a rope instead. An argument ensues - the archers think the three swimmers are spies, but the woman thinks that drowning in the ocean is a poor strategy for spies.
Shuyan drags Xian to the rope, and Shen-Ji follows. The three get pulled aboard the small ship - Xian notes that it is called the Silent Predator. One archer runs to fetch the captain, while the woman in black asks questions. The answer to the question "how did you get here?" is deemed Complicated, but Xian notes that they have no boat or raft, and did not expect to be in the ocean. Shen-Ji explains that they are from the Butterfly Kingdom, and appeared magically, due to things going awry. Ah, that is at least an understandable explanation.
Captain Togo appears, wondering what to do with them. Shen-Ji suggests letting them off at the ship's next port of call. Captain Togo doesn't seem to think this is as simple as all that, but says for the moment, they can have a cabin to get warm and dry again, and then it can be discussed. The woman in black tells Captain Togo she'll take care of it, and that he shouldn't worry - this seems somewhat inexplicable. Does she think they're someone else, that they need to be worried about? Was she expecting some other set of people to be swimming around in the ocean? Xian thinks that she's worried for them rather than about them.
Hot beverages are brought in, and the party members dry off and try to figure out what tack to take.
- "The more ignorant we are, the more reassuring we are. So we ought to be pretty reassuring."
The woman pokes her head in - she has a plan! They haven't seen any phoenixes, have they? No, they haven't, though this question does not decrease the overall confusion level. Shen-Ji tries to find out her name, but Xian is more worried about being killed and names seem to him to be a less pressing issue. She returns with Captain Togo, who says that the woman should make sure that they know the rules and don't blow it - and if they keep up their end, they can have a cut. He leaves again, but again, the confusion has not lessened. The woman asks if any of them have done any hunting before - Shuyan says she's hunted mice for her snake, but that's about it.
The woman explains that there's a bit of time pressure that wasn't part of the original plan, and is also why they can't just drop the three travelers off. They recently left the Butterfly Kingdom, and once they're done, they'll be heading to the City of Light, but it appears that the Dragon Army is about to blockade the Shrouded Isle. Their original plan was to go in and spend as much time as they needed, but now they only have about a day and a half to get things done. To get what done? Oh, was that not clear? (No, it wasn't!). They're phoenix poachers. Since none of these three have seen a phoenix, that's helpful - a phoenix can't be caught by people who have already seen one, so professional phoenix poachers need a rotating crew of novices to attract the phoenixes. She points out that phoenix poaching is frowned upon by the inhabitants - that's not going to be a problem, is it? Shen-Ji says, not at the moment. Xian, who has been watching her closely, thinks she was actually a little disappointed at that answer.
- "Wait, do you mean illegal?" -Xian
Xian didn't even know that people hunted phoenixes. She explains that they're useful to alchemists. Phoenix feathers can be made into a wide variety of items, the most popular of which is the Phoenix Down potion.
There is much hinting trying to get at what happens if the hunt fails to go well. Especially since it's illegal. Xian wonders why it's illegal, and the woman goes on a short diatribe about how there aren't that many of them left and really, hunting them to extinction is not going to help anyone. She catches herself there, as if she blurted a bit more than she intended. Xian carefully stipulates that he doesn't want to wipe them out. She says the captain assures them that there's no danger of that. She starts laying out the overall plan. Since there's basically only one shot at this, there will probably be a couple of teams sent on the island to get what they can, then everyone meets back at the ship and they sail out before the Imperial blockade comes down.
She describes the actual process of phoenix hunting. A novice who's never seen a phoenix is sent near a likely place alone to wait. Eventually, if no one else is obviously around, a phoenix may come up and attempt to impress the novice with its majesty. Apparently, they only do that once for each person, and while they are busy preening and fluffing themselves out, a hidden archer gets a chance to take a shot. Usually, only one shot is possible, as after the first the phoenix snaps out of it and flies off, or breaths fire, or whatever. So the first shot has to count. The novice is usually too stunned by the phoenix itself to be helpful beyond being bait.
It's at this point that Shuyan suddenly realizes that this process involves killing the phoenix. Yes, the woman thought she has made that clear. Apparently, she's not very good at making things clear. Shen-Ji asks how many of these highly skilled archers the captain has at his disposal - there are three on board. The captain himself is an expert tracker, and knows just about everything there is to know about the local terrain and the usual behavior of phoenixes. Given his tracking skill, the group thinks they are unlikely to be able to slip away during the hunt.
On a clarification kick, the woman in black explains, "Just to be clear", that either way the hunt goes, the party will get a ride out, unless the hunt goes so disastrously that nobody leaves the island at all...
Everyone nods sagely at her emphasis about how the hunt could go either way, but leaves it to Xian to probe further. He tries to get her to explain why she signed on to this mission in the first place, as she's clearly not quite so enthusiastic about hunting down phoenixes. Perhaps it was just curiosity. The woman cautiously agrees, though she's clearly hiding some further motives. Xian suggests that what she really needs are some close friends on this mission. People she can confide in. People with the same temperament as her own.
Finally breaking, she admits her plot. She's here to to sabotage the mission, because there aren't that many phoenixes left and she doesn't want to see them hunted to extinction the way the dragons were.
- "Dragons? No, wait. We'll get back to that later."
She doesn't have a great plan, though. She was mostly planning to become "overwrought" at seeing a phoenix, freak out and scare it away before it could get shot.
The captain has debts and a reputation to uphold. (He's actually quite famous in phoenix hunting circles.) Thus, she doesn't think there really any way to just talk him out of it. They need to make the hunt fail, but fail in a way that leaves them mostly blameless with a ride off the island. Shen-Ji proposes that the best way to protect the phoenixes while maintaining an aura of innocence is to get shot by the archers after subtly interposing themselves between the arrows and the phoenixes. No one would be crazy enough to take a placed shot to the back just to protect a bird, so it's the perfect cover. Shuyan is particularly impressed with Shen-Ji's dedication to the cause, having experienced this particular get-filled-with-arrows-for-the-cause plan herself. She reminds people that it's really unpleasant.
- "Perhaps I have pinned my hopes and dreams to crazy people."
- "You have, but we're competent crazy people." -Xian
Shen-Ji is willing to be shot, but others are not clear this is a good idea.
The captain reveals the overall plan: the boat will be split into two groups. He will go with the newcomers and take one of the archers. This group will go to the Springs of Needful Blessings, which are sulfurous hot springs.
- "It is said that the person who submerges themself in the spring of needful blessings is blessed."
- "With second degree burns!" -Xian
The other group - two archers and the woman - will go to the Summit of Fire, and search there. Hopefully, both groups will bag a phoenix, and head back to the boat.
The ship starts sneaking in towards the island. They're warned to stay quiet, as there are locals charged with patrolling the area, but it shouldn't be a problem as they are not a big force and the captain is familiar with their schedule and methods.
En route, the party considers just ditching everyone, and getting themselves stranded on the Shrouded Isle during the blockade. Maybe they could somehow contact that ship with the ghost fog to get them out of here. Presumably the locals will be happy to see them, as they can blow the phoenix hunter's cover. But in the end, it's decided there are just too many unknowns to risk it.
Springs of Needful Blessings
The groups split up and our heroes trek through the almost tropical mists and jungles towards the Springs of Needful Blessings. Captain Togo keeps a close eye on them as they go, with the archer bringing up the rear, so there's not a great chance to escape in any case.
Once arriving at the springs, they get ready. Xian is instructed to go stand between three of the springs and look innocent. Shuyan and Shen-Ji are given leather hoods to wear, so they don't accidentally see Xian's phoenix and ruin their own chances for later. Everyone other than Xian takes up a stealthy position in the brush around the springs, and the captain sneaks a fair bit away. People ask the archer why the captain left, and he explains that the phoenixes really hate the captain. They won't come anywhere near here if he's around.
Sadly, no phoenix shows up for Xian. So he and Shen-Ji are swapped and the plan is enacted again with Shen-Ji acting as phoenix bait.
Ah ha! After a bit of waiting, a phoenix finally shows up and starts showing off to Shen-Ji. Shen-Ji makes a massive will roll and is not rendered stupefied by the phoenix's majesty. This gives him the chance to act stupefied and slowly move his way to between the archer and the bird. The archer complains to Xian, but Xian has a hood so can't tell what's going on in any case. The archer slides around the grove a little to get a better shot on the bird and finally manages to set on up. Shen-Ji can't get in the way anymore, as the archer is firing directly over the hot-spring. With amazing timing, Shen-Ji "falls" into the hot spring, just as the arrow is coming, and screens the bird from the attack, taking it in his own back.
Shen-Ji takes damage from the hot water, and a pile more damage from the arrow, but does seems to be a bit more buff than he was when he woke up this morning. Perhaps the spring blessed him after all.
The phoenix squawks and flies off, the captain returns, and the bitter recriminations phase commences.
Xian thinks that "he fell over into the pool and then I shot him" is much less plausible than "I shot him and then he fell over", and is somewhat persuasive towards that end pushing the blame for this fiasco onto the archer. The captain agrees, when Shen-Ji tosses in several successes of "It's not my fault."
The captain explains that since blood has been spilt here, no more phoenixes will show up here today. So they may as well head to the other location and help the other team. As punishment, the archer is assigned to make a litter for the wounded Shen-Ji, and pull him up the mountain to the Summit of Fire. Shen-Ji thinks this was the best plan ever. Not only did he save a phoenix, now he gets a ride up the hill.
The archer, now quite grumpy, convinces the captain to tell the newbies to get into the pools before they leave - maybe they'll get blessed and be better at attracting a phoenix. Shuyan says she can't swim. Xian gets in and takes some damage from the hot water. He does seem to become more compelling though, so Shuyan jumps in too. She also feels blessed, if somewhat burned.
Summit of Fire
They head to the Summit of Fire. Chochiro (Aha! They finally get her name!) is shouting about not wanting to fall into the volcano, and her archers are shouting at her to be quiet lest she scare a phoenix away. When the other team arrives, the archers ask what happened and Shen-Ji immediately leaps in with "He shot me!", causing another loud argument. Finally the captain restores order, and the hunting plan is started anew. Shuyan is sent up to the rim and all three archers lay in wait. The other novices (less Shen-Ji) are given hoods again.
While hanging around up on the rim of the volcano, Shuyan notices something shiny down inside just below the lip, but she keeps it quiet for now. After a bit of waiting, nothing appears to happen, so Xian is swapped in for another try. He also sees the shiny thing, down towards the lava. He calls to the others about it, and Shen-Ji manages to get himself dragged up to the summit. The archers say this is madness as he's already seen a phoenix, but Xian spins a web of words around them, and temporarily convinces them that perhaps it will work twice for him because he's a vast "mental sorcerer".
While he's left up there alone, Shen-Ji takes the opportunity to "fall" into the volcano. He lands on his summoned disk, of course, but it's quite dramatic looking from outside. Floating down, he finds that the shiny thing is a phoenix egg. He starts scooping it up. All this delay, though, has caused the captain to return. An argument erupts as he tries to figure out what's going on. Just as people are about to come to blows, a phoenix appears to Chochiro. She stands there slack-jawed over its majesty, and the captain quickly orders the archers to fire before it leaves.
Xian throws himself in the way and shouts, "Wait! That's not a real phoenix! That's the Great Phoenix Spirit!" He's amazingly convincing. Two of the archers are stunned to see a great spirit. The captain, suddenly terrified, runs off! "Shit - it found me!" Shen-Ji uses the confusion to get back out of the volcano and dismiss his flying disk, but one archer stays on target. He fires at the phoenix, but Xian shouts, "Fool! You'll get us all killed!" and pushes him just as he releases. The arrow strikes Chochiro in the shoulder, and the phoenix squawks and flies away in a flurry of feathers. The party manages to pocket the four dropped feathers.
It turns out the archer who fired was the same one who fired at the pools.
- "What is with you shooting other people?" -Xian
- "You shoved me!"
- "I saved your life!"
Xian throws in his yang for one final attempt at word-dancing and manages to convince both the captain and the archer that this regrettable incident wasn't really anyone's fault. There won't be any more phoenixes today, so everyone heads back to the ship to get out of this place.
Back on the ship, people are briefed on the blockade. It looks like it was pre-planned. As soon as the first of the year arrived, ships started moving. As the Silent Predator leaves, it can see a couple of blockade ships taking up positions behind them. There's not going to be any travel to the Shrouded Isle for quite a while, it seems.
After some first aid, Chochiro finally wakes up. The party gives her one of the phoenix feathers and asks her more about what's really going on with her. Grateful, she explains that she was instructed (by a traveling wise-woman who used to visit her village in the Strand) to go on a quest. Well, geased more than instructed, really. She has to do some kind of favor for each of the great Cycle Spirits. She's finished tasks for the Snake, Tiger, Magpie, Tortoise, and now Phoenix. She'll be heading to the Butterfly Kingdom next to see what she can do in the service the Great Butterfly Spirit there. Xian questions her about this wise-woman some more. Sadly, no one has seen the woman since she geased Chochiro, so there was never any chance to ask her clarifications. She traveled around and visited their village in the Strand every few months for years, but after her encounter with Chochiro, she hasn't returned.
Suddenly remembering, they ask Chochiro about hunting dragons to extinction. She doesn't really know what's up with that, but she knows there aren't any dragons any more. There definitely used to be real dragons, and now there aren't. None. Anywhere. She says that the phoenixes are the last magical animals left, so that's why she thought protecting them from poachers would be a good service to the Great Phoenix Spirit.
Arriving in the City of Light, the party examines the phoenix feather market. Given the blockade, they estimate they could sell the phoenix feathers for around 10 li each, but decide to keep them, hoping for a better opportunity in the future.
- Shen-Ji arranges for passage back to the Butterfly Kingom for the group, by way of the Port of Auspicious Voyage.