Four Flavors of Heaven
Part 1 ~ Of Ink and Mists
With a triumphant crescendo, the eighty-eight musicians, dancers, performers, and singers burst into a medley of movement and music. Silk paper streams from the sky, coating every surface with a multitude of colors.
Just like that, the Celestial Festival begins. Crowds throng Xin's narrow streets. Merchants and vendors hawk their wares and food, each voice competing against its neighbor. Children dodge and weave their way through the crowd, picking up dropped coppers and spending them just as quickly on the nearest toy or treat.
Slowly but surely, the mass of people make their way from Xin's Eastern and Western Gates, passing through the city's Inner District before reaching the Harmonious Garden Bridge where the Celestial Court awaits its children.
Theories about the Court's Challenge are bandied about by all. The reigning theory is that the Court will host a great tournament to find the most worthy warrior. As such, hopeful fighters and brawlers of all kinds are decked in their finest weaponry and armor; all peace-bound of course.
Little by little, you make your way just adjacent to the Bridge. Old Soeji has convened his posse in the Laughing Dragon Teahouse for a few words of wisdom before the ceremonial announcement.
Feel free to interact with any potential NPC on your way to the Teahouse. Or perhaps you are already there? Whatever the case, it appears your sponsor has yet to show his face.
Shiro carefully picks his way through the marketplace, sampling the food here and there. Skewers, dumplings and buns all fought for his attention, the scents of a dozen different delicacies filling the air. The masked man buys a chicken skewer, carefully slipping the treat under his mask for a bite.
Shiro's dog, Gou, notices that his master is getting a treat and looks up at him expectantly. The ninja takes a small piece of meat off the skewer and does a circular motion with his finger. The dog rolls quickly before returning to his master's feet, where the masked ninja rewards him. The two of them sample chicken feet, fried squid tentacles and a variety of small tarts before being interrupted by a runner.
The message received says that Old Soeji has called his entire family to meet at the Laughing Dragon Teahouse. Shiro does not relish the idea of meeting his siblings again, but his devotion to his grandfather would not let him avoid such a confrontation. Spreading what remained of his pocket change amongst the local children, the masked man makes his way for the secluded teahouse.
He was greeted at the front door by a rather attractive woman in a traditional dress. Shiro mentions Soeji and he is lead to one of the larger tea rooms, where several people were already waiting. He perks up at the thought of seeing his grandfather again, but Old Soeji isn't there. The attendant leaves, and Shiro is alone with a bunch of relative strangers.
Gou waits patiently outside the teahouse, watching passersby.
Standing still enamored with the parade of traditional dances is a man, not quite brimming with the wisdom of age but still not lacking the energetic aura of youth. The white bamboo hat obscures a good portion of his face but is contrasts by the smart brown leather duster he wears. As he cranes his neck to look at the passing dragon, you catch a glimpse of a pistol holstered to his right side. He yellow decaying smile flashes, complimenting the traditional unshowered stink of a sailor, as the dancing finishes. ”Best be heading to the Teahouse” he says to no one particular, although maybe no one responds based on the smell of alcohol coming from his mouth.
Staggering his way towards the Teahouse, its a miracle of the Celestials that he makes it there. ”Well, well, well. Pretty lady. You’re looking at one of Soeji’s champions, how about you and I meet for some tea later huh?” His general look and attitude is enough to turn off the attendant at the front door and she emotionlessly walks him to the room where Soeji’s team is meeting.
As he walks into the room, he finishes his sentence, ”.....come on! I’m a....hic....great time!”, before the door shuts on him abruptly. He sighs and turns around. ”Well look at everyone Old Soeji convinced to help him. Names Mingqun Yun, call me Yun. Best damn shot in Yuanzi. You’ll be thanking me after the first battle.” As he stumbles into an empty chair.
Being of the type to never be late for anything, Piella was already at the Teahouse. Her pony was tied up out in the stables already and she had slowly limped into the establishment. There she waited half a day, patiently humming to herself and drinking tea. However, when the music started, she headed outside to view the sights.
Entertaining music, small plays, and silk paper streams were snatched by her attention. Aside from the wonders of the world in which she had recently traveled through to get to Old Soeji's home, the lively city was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen. Nothing like the dismal mining camp and the lonely, almost always empty, general store she took care of back home. An hour passed and her leg began to feel sore, so she hobbled her way back to the Teahouse and Gou was there outside now. Her arrival at Old Soeji's not long ago had revealed the masked man, Shiro to her. Though she had not fully gotten to know him personally, mostly it was his dog that always caught her eye.
"Oh there you are! What a good doggie. Yes, you are!" she will enthusiastically call out to the dog whether or not they had forged a friendship already or not. If Gou was open to being pet by her at this point, she would, of course, scritch all the best spots dogs love before heading inside to the room.
Seeing Shiro there, she would comment in greeting, "I saw your dog outside." Piella would head back to the small kneeling table she had been sitting at most of the day and would ease herself down painfully down onto the large pillow to relax her leg. "I'm glad you made it safely."
It was then that Yun came in and introduced himself. His behavior reminded her of some of the miners, and despite his putridity, that was pretty common among those she knew. They didn't have fanfare and celebrations in her town on this level. It was mostly people getting drunk to dull the pain of hard labor.
"Welcome, Yun," she exclaimed in response. "I'm sure you will be of great aid to us. Since we haven't gotten to know each other very well yet, my name is Piella," she will announce, with a small yet shapely hand placed on her collarbone to gesture toward herself.
Shiro nods his head to Piella and just watches the drunken fool. I hope he is a practitioner of Zui Quan... "Heida, I am called Shiro Heida. Are we the only ones gathered for this event?" Shiro sits rigidly, his knees folded underneath him. A small cup of tea sits cooling beside him, Lapsang Souchong from the aroma.
Lung appears completely lost in the swirling crowd, eyeing one person, then the next, with an air of awe and suspicion. "Excuse--ex-cuse me, sir!" he says, a little indignantly, when a goat cart full of various somewhat unhappy looking turtles and exotic birds blocks his path for quite some time. The vendor looks at him with a sleepy face that radiates a complete lack of concern. Lung attempts to be polite. "If I could just--I'm rather late--" He does his best to scoot around the goats and cart.
He passes some truly fearsome, gleaming wrestler types, and wonders if they are tournament contestants. Goodness, he thinks. They are the size of water buffalo. And then a number of scrolls and sacred etchings, which do catch his eye for a moment. Fakes? That looks suspicious...anyhow.
Ignoring his growling stomach and the amazing contortions of some of the dancers, he finally gets to the Teahouse. Waiting a heartbeat, he enters the larger tea room, bowing upon his entry.
"I am Lung Shanyang of Yinxu Monastery. I--" he pauses. That gnome girl is here! Coincidence!? Never! "I--am honored to be among your company," he finishes, unbowing to a straight backed and austere full height.
As each of you arrives, the cortege of cramped Yuanzians shifts to accommodate each new "family member" within the Tea house.
They politely let Shiro through, though a few ask if they can pet Gou.
Yun's arrival is met with raucous cheers, spilled tea, and the venomous looks of the tea house's proprietor.
Piella had already been there for some time so she'd already reserved a small corner of the table for herself.
Lung's poised entrance is met with courteous bows and nods before he's ushered into the fold.
Each of you is treated as one of the "family." Uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, pets, and one fuming tea house owner.
The door to the Tea House suddenly bursts open, and a young boy darts in. Before he gets two steps in, the Tea House owner's eyes bore daggers into his skull and he wisely choose to close the door very quietly behind him before continuing.
A large man amid the "family" calls out to him.
"Bao! There you are! So, what's the hold up!"
The boy pushes through the crowd before answering.
"Soeji's on his way. He just finished offerin' up a prayer at the family shrine and he told me ta' tell you all to get ready. We're gonna march the whole darn clan straight ta' the bridge."
Cheers erupt around the Tea House again. The owner's clearly had enough and takes refuge in the backroom.
"You hear that Soejis? We're going to make an entrance even the gods won't soon forget!" The large man stands up tall, hoisting Bao onto his shoulders as cheers of "Soeji! Soeji!" echo around the Tea House.
Cups are refilled, snacks are passed, eaten, and stuffed into pockets for later. The mood seems to swell as everyone awaits the patriarch's arrival.
I realize I used the OOC text incorrectly in the opening post, so my apologies. A quick GM tip for those writing long texts, but please do a copy of it before submitting in case of timeout; that way, nothing is lost!
To Shiro, she would answer, "No, I don't think so. I've spent most of the day with these people. I think everyone here is a Soeji clan member--or at least most of the people I've met thus far are." To which that would be further answered when Bao entered.
As Lung entered and bowed respectfully, it brought a more delightful smile to Piella's face. "Thank you," she hummed out excitedly in response to being honored. It was good to see a more familiar face. Gesturing to herself first, she would then gesture to each in the direct room they were in. "I am Piella Pollyhum-Prettyfoot, this is Shiro Heida, and this here is Minqun Yun, or Yun as he prefers."
Due to her position relaxing on the pillow, it was quite easy now to see her child-sized, cute, slender little feet. They were, in fact, pretty and well cared for; as silly as it would be to stare at someone's feet.
When Bao entered, Piella perked up and listened intently to what he had to say. She too had prayed earlier that morning to the whole of the celestial court before even arriving in the city that today would be blessed for them, so she was glad to hear Soeji like-wise was doing so.
"Soeji!" Piella would call out with the others with mirth and a delightful laugh. However, unlike many others who proceeded to continue to enjoy their remaining time while waiting for Soeji, she had to hobble to get her pony ready.
"I'll be outside getting my pony, 'Plod', ready for the journey if anyone needs me."
Shiro remains seated, raising his mug of tea in celebration. The masked man does not drink though, preferring to keep his face hidden around so many people.
When Piella takes her leave, Shiro stands up and follows her. "Here. Allow me to assist you." The younger man offers to help her walk to the stables and prepare her horse. Gou dutifully watches the streets as the gnome's steed is readied.
Yun joins in any sort of raucous celebration and shouts ”Soeji!!!!” as loud as anyone else. Thankfully, the oolong begins the sober up the sailor and seeing that the gnome and the masked man left, he takes note of Lung.
”Lung Shanyang, I know you. But from where? Did you spend anytime in Shuishang? No, no too proper for a port city. Hmmmm, must be around Piaofeng then yes? You were one of those healers. Hows a vassal to the monastery find his way here?”
A quiet chuckle escaped Piella's lips at the howling "Soeji" cry that came from Yun. His vibrancy made her happy.
"Thank you, Shiro."
Piella's hands were generally cool to the touch and would feel very soft wrapped about Shiro's inner arm. Her toppling limp would ease due to his support, which could easily be seen to cause her relief. As the two left the room, people would ask where she's going. It was clear that some were affectionate toward Piella already as part of the family.
"Shiro here is going to help me get my pony ready so I am not left in the dust as we storm the bridge!"
A brilliant smile would be flashed to the mob of Soejis, hopefully inciting them to chant again! With that, she would slip out into the noise-filled streets with Shiro.
"Did you get to explore much of the city? There were so many wonders my eyes couldn't hardly see them all!"
"The sights and smells of the market were too much, Gou and I spent the day sampling various foods. If you get the chance, Jīnqiáo Dumpling was quite good..." Shiro seem to enjoy expanding his palate, and gives a half dozen recommendations for good food.
Helping the gnome atop her pony, Shiro thinks about the coming Challenge. "Have you heard anything of the other clans? Supposedly the Zhú sì made quite a showing during the last challenge, hopefully we do not meet them too soon." Remembering the coming events, Shiro takes a moment to limber his body, stretching his muscles. Gou sees his master and follows suit.
Lung bows to Menqin. "Yes, honored Uncle Yun. I have done healing in the service of Yinxu. I was chosen by my teacher to come here. I may have seen you by the...er...mijiu* barrels?"
He tries not to follow Piella's path out the door with his eyes, and certainly not her feet...
"Er, Shiro, was it? You said there were dumplings..." Lung gazes at the gathering and notes a lack of dumplings. "We may...get a few before we march? Do we have time? Er...if there's time."
Lung appears to be wrestling with the formal obeisance to his duty to Old Soeji and the great need to fill his belly.
Almost everyone knows about the last challenge 88 years ago. Old Soeji talks about it non-stoop after all. From the stories you heard, the Court tasked the hopefuls with recovering a single tail feather from Xunsun, the Sky Dancer. A legendary blue-colored phoenix that was said to roost high atop Lord Yungang, the highest peak in Yuanzi.
@Lung: There's plenty of tea and food for everyone at the tables. Quite a heft amount has already been eaten or pocketed, but there's still half a dozen plates heaped high with all manner of festival food.
Another few minutes pass, and the Soeji Clan's chanting eventually devolves into praises, both probable and highly unbelievable about Old Soeji's accomplishments.
"Old Soeji spits so hard, his saliva could crack the Walls of Xin!"
"Old Soeji's drinking is so formidable, his breathe is as flammable as a dragon's!"
"Old Soeji's so ancient, he probably is a dragon!"
The praise quickly devolves into an impromptu contest between some of the louder Clan members. Others merely listen and cheer. At the same time, everyone slowly begins getting ready for Old Soeji's arrival and to meet the gods.
They made their way past Gou and over toward the stables. There, her pony "Plod" sat being fed hay by the stable boy. The crunching noise of chewed hay could be heard with the occasional happy whinny coming from the pony. It was as though Piella never fed the beast. Perhaps that was why Plod was a bit fat? As they made their way there, in conversation, Piella would nod to Shiro.
"I ate so much food today I can't even remember what I ate anymore..."
Despite her failure to remember them all, she too would share at least a few unique cuisines that he did not mention in his explorations, as well as some of the many unique teas she had gotten to try during the day.
It was strange to have human hands touching her sides to help her onto her pony instead of her gnomish father's, but it was appreciated, and Shiro would find that she was extremely light to lift; like lifting a dutch oven pot would be similar in weight comparison.
"Thank you again. That was very nice of you," she would comment briefly as she adjusted herself in her saddle. As he spoke of the clans, she shook her head. Piella was actually quite uncultured except for the occasional reading of books in Piaofeng's library. Actually exploring and meeting the various people and seeing the places of the world was another matter. Her journey to Old Soeji's was one of her first trips other than her half-day trips from the mining encampment.
"No, not much. I know just the stories of them that Old Soeji told about when he went after Xunsun. I am somewhat worried about Yun though. Do you think he's sober enough if they start today? I hope we at least have a day to relax."
She would angle Plod away from the food to his disgust and would move him closer to the entrance to prepare for others who were ready to leave the establishment.
"It sounds like things are getting crazy in there!"
"Oh! there they are. And there, and there..." Lung begins to fill a plate and then his mouth with a variety of vegetables, dumplings, rice, and cups of tea.
Shiro shrugged at Piella's question. "I am not familiar with Yun... perhaps he is a practitioner of Zui Quan, the Drunken Fist? Soeji did see something within him after all." The masked man gently lead the way back into the revelry.
Seeing Yun shovel food into his face did not inspire confidence in his ability. Shiro was rather glad his face was covered by the mask at that moment.
"You must be right," she responded as she stopped next to the door with Plod. "I shouldn't worry."
She would give a tiny wave as he headed back inside to the festivities. She mostly didn't know what he meant by drunken style, but whatever those words were, it seemed to fill him with the hope that Yun could be of worth. Her eyes moved to the bridge and their coming glory. Would she see the Soejis win?
"Oh...Plod, what are we doing here?" the girl asked her silent pony. Slowly she leaned forward onto the saddle, laying her head against Plod's neck. "What did he see in me that made him think I could do anything of worth towards eternal glory? I can't even walk..."
She hung her head and ran her hands through the pony's coarse hair. "I hope I don't have to climb a mountain..." Part of her was unsure that the fat pony could even make it up a hill.
"No more of that negativity. We are going to win one for the old man now aren't we?!" she exclaimed to herself in earshot of the pony, who simply ignored her voice. After all, she just stole him away from food.
The gathering continues with seemingly unending energy when Old Soeji himself finally walks up the path, hot stepping it as fast as he can. His sculpted cane seems to almost drill holes into the stone pavement as he plows full speed towards the Tea House.
Coming up to the entrance he turns towards Piella on her pony.
"At least someone is ready! Everyone else is so slow!"
He slams the door open with his cane and berates the Clan inside.
"Soeji says to be ready and what do I find? Everyone stuffing themselves!"
Thrown off by how much he just saw Lung inhale, Yun looks around nervously for a way to get away from the black hole that appears to be Lung’s stomach when Old Soeji walks in. Trying to continue the party, Yun shouts loudly ”The man of the hour himself!Do not yell, we are only to trying to get into the spirit of the festival. You want morale yo be high yes?A toast! To Old Soeji, may the Celestial Court grant you your prize. Now give us some words of wisdom, the rice wine is particularly good here.” He says as he shoves a cup of rice wine into the old man’s hand.
Shiro bowed deeply as his grandfather arrived. He relaxes somewhat as Yun speaks, taking a small cup of tea to join in the toast. It was to be several days of exercise, no doubt, and relaxing before such tests was important. "To Soeji! May the clan find victory!"
Lung freezes, dumpling in his mouth, and one more working its way down his gullet, and tries to bow to Old Soeji.
Terror lept in the inward thinking gnome as Soeji's voice greeted her. The near-prostrate gnome normally bowed in his presence, but it was almost like she was already bowing. In response, her body sort of 'half wiggled' in the motion of a bow without really dipping lower (or else she would have fallen out of her saddle).
"Ready as I can be. May the Celestial Council guide your way to bring us into victory."
A small chuckle escaped her lips as the elderly man still had the strength to slam open the door with his cane. Surely he was more capable than her? Piella knew that any moment the clan would surge forth from the doors, so she hustled Plod to the edge of the bridge to be partially out of the way and partially to be all the more ready for the march across it.
Plod stopped by the bridge. The beauty of the day, the sights, the smells, and all the sounds of the city screamed out to her gnomish senses. Far off, dancers still worked in unison to perform. Fresh smells met her nose from a nearby pork bun stall and the laughter and joviality of the general crowd all seemed to amp up the little gnome from her slump as she waited for the surge of Soejis.
Piella waited, and as she did so, she tapped her fingers on the leather saddle to the music coming from the dancers nearby as she watched them with fascination. It brought to mind the importance of announcing your presence. The dancers, when they started, did so with a dramatic flurry of clashing symbols. In like manner, so too the Soejis' needed to march to the initial sound of glory. To catch the eye. To stir the heart. All that was important for their intents. The moment the surge of Teahouse patrons began to flood enthusiastically into the street, she would cast ghost sound, to the blast of loud announcing drums; as loud as she could muster.
Ghost sound is at the level of volume of 4 humans shouting for a duration of 6 seconds. Aka three loud drum blasts
Shiro quietly pulled a small whistle from within his uniform, playing a short burst of notes. The whistle produced a sound too high for human ears, but Gou knew it was time to rejoin his master.
@ Yun: Soeji gladly accepts the cup, drains it in a single sweeping motion, and slams it hard onto the table. The Clan cheers in response and downs their own cups once more.
@ Everyone: Soeji bows dramatically back to each of you in turn, shakes hands with those who offer, and waves the throng into the street. As Peilla's drums echo throughout the din of the streets, a broad smile stretches his weather-beaten features.
"Now that's the Soeji way! A grand entrance for the champions! Forward Clan, let us show Yuanzi that a Soeji's actions are as loud as their words!"
The entire Clan, all thirty-odd of them, joins into the festive march, thumping their own drums and strumming their instruments. Little Bao darts forward to join Piella and Plod, plucking at a badly-tuned sanxian.
As the procession arrives at the bridge, the assembled festival-goers happily make way for the Soejis, letting them loudly march all the way up the pagoda at the center of the bridge, where all the known contestants have assembled to meet their Gods.
Whilst the others were raucous and loud, Shiro followed behind quietly. He was nervous at the prospect of the celestial challenge. He hadn't been training for it all his life, like some of the other contestants, but took comfort in his grandfather's trust.
He and Gou took the rear, marveling at the sights and sounds of the festival. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, after all.
Lung looks around, trying to figure out what to do. "Do we...join in the procession?" He looks for cues from Shiro and Piella.
Piella would smile brightly toward Lung and nod, giving him a wave up toward the front of the procession with her and Bao. As the drums sounded, she didn't feel like verbally responding to him because the Soejis only got louder and louder as more of them hit the street. It seemed she had started something quite "parade-like". With Lung and the others in tow, she would chuckle at little Bao and proceed forward with him. The pagoda loomed ahead, and they certainly would know that the Soejis had arrived.
Being anything but quiet, the cheery little gnome would be singing and (slightly) dancing a little in her saddle with those moving up alongside of her. At the very least she would take their hand and shimmy her shoulders back and forth.
Plod did not like these sounds and events at all.
The Soejis in a short time had become her new family, and they had embraced her as well. For that reason, it was not uncommon to see her singing cheek-to-cheek with certain members who earlier in the day had talked extensively with her to get to know her better. She, after all, was a bit of a family favorite. Not on the level of Bao of course, who was their mascot, but definitely special being that she was the only gnome who bothered to show up.
Singing untrained: 1d20 + 4 ⇒ (11) + 4 = 15
Despite his normal demeanor, Yun hangs back letting everyone go ahead of him out of the tea house. ”Alright, Yun, don’t screw this up. This is your opportunity.” He slaps himself in the face a couple times, both to sober up and psyche him up for the content ahead.
He takes a bottle of wine spirits off the wall, uncorks it, takes a swig and puts it back.
”Heres for your troubles, sorry about the mess” He puts 10 gold coins down on a now wobbly table and winks at the tea house owner and the attendant, ”Tell all your friends to cheer for Team Soeji.”
He stumbles after the procession, shouting from the back as soon as he joins the column.
The Soejis haphazardly assemble close to the pagoda and after another five or so minutes of festive outbursts, finally settle down back to reasonable levels.
The Clan talks loudly not only among themselves but also with the other contestants, offering snacks and tea "smuggled" out of the Tea House.
Soeji waves the lot of you towards him as he huddles on the periphery of the group.
"I expected more, hmmph. Looks like quite a few loudmouths have given up early. Good. More chance for us!"
He turns and points out each contestant in turn.
Soeji indicates a middle-aged human with a bald head, jovial face, rotund belly, and wrapped in fine silks. "That's Tao Wei of Shuishang. Fine merchant. Nice guy. Don't be fooled by his appearance, he is as smart as they come."
He turns and points to two young contestant, a male human with a mane of red hair and a female half-elf with long flowing black hair. "Chang & Sui. Both locals from Xin. They're very popular. Chang's a bit of a hothead but his sister's good at keeping him reasonable." Chang is happily joining in with the Clan while Sui reads from a small journal, keeping an eye on her brother simultaneously.
"I'd hoped they'd show up!" He points to a small group consisting of a wizened male dwarf, a young and smiling female halfling, and a very bored looking male elf. "Buwei, Jingyi, and Yazhu. They're from all over Yuanzi. Not even sure where, but they get around. Good explorers and fast friends." He waves at the group and the halfling energetically waves back.
"Ok, now for the tough ones." He points out, albeit with more subtlety, two different contestants. The first is a tall, imposing Kitsune with long silver hair. "That's Meifen. She's from Qiao and is determined to win the contest this year. She's not mean, but do not get on her bad side."
He then points out a middle-aged human decked in imposing ebony armor. "And that's Zhihao, he's the one we need to be careful with. He's powerful even if he's not one to boast. He has connections, wealth, prestige, and a strong belief in "might makes right." Best we stay as far away from him as possible."
He stares at Zhihao a little longer, then finally hocks and spits.
"Ah what do we care. We're going to win after all!"
He looks at the four of you.
"I'm happy you're here. I have a feeling that fate's on our side today."
He smiles broadly at you, then motions for the four of you to follow him to the front of the Clan.
The gnome sang those five more minutes until all seemed to be settling down. Angling her pony, she moved closer to Old Soeji as he beckoned her and the others. As best she could, Piella took note of the weaponry, disposition, and presence of each of the contestants. As far as she was concerned, they were allies in one great cause, but enemies in terms of the competition. She idly wondered whether any were violent in their pursuits. She would be ready either way.
"We will win for you, don't you worry...," she stated with studious eyes at the competition.
The little gnome seemed to be more confident than Soeji with her stares at the other contestants. There was bravery within the small package that was Piella. A slew of questions came from her as they advanced.
"Can you tell us more about how to get on Meifen's good side, and how to get on her bad side if need be?"
"How did Chang and Sui become popular? And how is he a hothead? Is he violent? What sets him off?"
"Also...I know not to underestimate merchants, as I am one! How is Tao Wei smart though? What has he done in the past that has you worried?"
Lung bows again and follows Old Soeji.
His indecisiveness and awkwardness melt away, as his Iron Scroll flashes into his hand like a sacred cudgel, almost faster than the eye can see. He gives each of the contestants a firm stare if they cross his field of vision.
"We will not fail you, O Head of the Soeji Clan."
Without changing his steely glare outward, he says to Piella, "Their weaknesses will soon reveal themselves."
Shiro nods at Lung's words, keeping quiet as he watches the other contestants. The masked man takes mental note of the weapons, equipment and followers of their competitors. Almost reflexively, he checks his own gauntlets and armor, making sure he's ready for anything.
"We shall not fail you, Grandfather." Gou wags his tail, happy to be with the old man again.
Yun shouts with the Soeji clan while they wait at the gate and as everyone quiets to listen to Old Soeji, Yun continues shouting a few seconds after everyone stops before realizing his error and staying quiet.
”I’ve had run in with Tao Wei before. Hired my crew to deliver some goods for him. Seems nice enough, not contest material though.”
Yun listens intently though to the rest, sizing them, before loading a bullet in his pistol. He looks at those around him, then Old Soeji and says ”We’ll do our best old man.” and flashing the widest, toothless grin most people have seen.
Soeji quickly answers Piella's questions.
"Meifen? Best we just be wary if our contest brings us to Qiao. She won't appreciate us infringing on her territory... even if some of us are from Qiao too."
Chang and Sui are local kids and they've been preparing for the contest for years. They're local heroes too so that helps. As for Chang being a hothead, he's just easily riled up. Not violent, but pretty rash."
"I say Tao Wei's smart because he's the only man to ever manage to rip me off. Let's just leave it at that." He gives a short wave to Tao Wei again. "As for being contest material, he's got a lot of friends and favors owed. Don't count him out."
A deafening drumbeat sounds across the bridge. The voices, singing, and dancing all slow to a halt as every eye turns to the pagoda.
A group of white-robed clerics step out from the pagoda, each bearing a silken banner with one of the Celestial Court's insignia. They each bring the banner to a designated place around the Pagoda.
Beneath each banner, the clerics place a stone bowl, and within each bowl they place small offerings.
Each cleric takes a step back, and in unison chants a wordless prayer, arms raised to the skies above.
The crowd joins in on the following verses.
This is a very well known hymn. Everyone who wishes to join in may.
As the hymn reaches a climax, the clouds above seem to swirl and dance, and with a thunderous clap and flash of light, the ceremony is over.
Thick billowing smoke pours forth from the pagoda as five radiant figures emerge.
Piella bit her lip as Lung half put her in her place. He wasn't wrong. Perhaps she was a bit explosive in her questioning, but then Soeji answers her anyway, giving rise to a bright smile. Clearly he wanted them to know about his competition. At the moment, Tao Wei was more feared by her than Zihahao. He was a singular enemy, but with Tao Wei, who knew who had their back and who had his?
Deafening drums shook her out of her obsessive thoughts and a little scream of fright eeked out of her lips. Perhaps it was the silence that had been created from the slowdown from their earlier parade, but for whatever reason, the anticipation of the moment and the beat of that drum jump-scared her.
As the clerics came out, she watched every movement, seemingly alert to nothing else. Her heart trembled as the chant grew among the crowd and she joined in. "Am I really here? I can't believe I'm doing this!" She pinched herself to make sure this wasn't a dream.
Another jump-scare at the climax of the hymn let out another eek from her before she clasped her hands over her mouth so it would stop happening. It was a good thing too, as when she saw the five figures emerge, she could cover her dropped jaw. Naturally, she faceplanted to show reverence, even then feeling like it was not enough and dismounted from Plod painfully to bow down on the ground.
Shiro watches the ceremony with reverence, like many others here, it was the first time he'd ever seen the celestials descend. The masked man joined his voice with the others for a while, before breaking into muffled coughing. He slips a honey candy under his mask and falls quiet.
As the five great celestials reveal themselves, Shiro quickly sinks into a kneeling position, head bowed lowly.
With a calculating intensity Yun listened to Old Soeji continue to talk about the others taking place in the contest. He would listen briefly and look at the competition, combining Old Soeji’s words with a deft and comprehensive analysis of the individual themselves. To anyone paying attention this was not the drunk Yun of the teahouse, this was a man who enjoyed contests and enjoyed beating his opponents.
His concentration is broken as the clerics appear and the crowd begins to chant. When taken in its cacophonous unity, it sounds as though Yun joined in the chanting, but anyone close enough to him would just hear incoherent mumbles occasionally broken by the correct word here and there.
Despite his irreverent nature, the drunk falls down when the celestials incarnate, although whether from alcohol or genuine worship is anybody’s guess.
Lung prostrates himself before the Celestial Court and begins mumbling a long, protracted prayer. "Blessed be the Court. Blessed be their dwelling. Blessings upon the Dragon..." His list goes on to recite the Court members, their lodgings, their meeting places, the ambrosia and nectar upon which they sup, the enemies which tremble and quail at their incarnation...
At last, the five Celestial of Yuanzi walk the mortal realm once more. Though at first glance they appear mortal-enough, the radiant light emanating from their bodies and the way in which parts of their form flow like swirling ink emphasizes their otherworldly nature.
Lanxu is a tall, graceful elven woman with golden scale-pattern tattoos. She wears a flowing robe the color of the wild sea.
Baijiao is a massive human man wearing a veritable mountain of snow-encrusted furs and leathers. His thick black hair and beard are a sight to behold.
Hongwei is a stocky, fiery red-and-gold haired dwarf man with bronze skin. His eyes shine like molten gold and embers dance around him.
Yinyu is a lithe halfling woman wearing a rainbow colored cape composed of thousands of feathers. A steady breeze blows about her.
Jinyan is an androgynous gnome with silver hair and purple eyes. He floats a few feet off the ground.
The five deities step forward to address the citizens of Yuanzi. Formal salutations are given. Warm thanks for the welcoming ceremony are offered. Blessings for the future are spoken. Then, the moment everyone has been waiting for begins.
Jinyan steps forward.
"We have long discussed what challenge to offer up to our Children this Festival. Though Baijiao was firm on his desire to hold a fighting tournament, we ultimately decided on a contest that we felt celebrated all of our Children and their works."
"For this Festival, the Celestial Court challenges each and every willing participant to present, sixteen days from now, a banquet fit for the gods. The food, the performances, the atmosphere; all must be fitting of the Celestial Court."
Surprised gasps quickly followed by a mixture of clapping, laughing, moaning, sighing, and puzzled looks ring out from the crowd.
"While the contestants go forth, the Court shall remain here in the Pagoda, awaiting any offerings you wish to offer up, and answering your requests and questions."
"For now, we wish good luck to all contestants, and great fortune to all; contestants and festival-goers alike!"
The five gods bow deeply and ceremoniously stride back into the pagoda.
Would the wonders never cease? Piella had all the worry in the world that the competition would be a mortal battle to the death. It was certainly within the rights of the Court to ask such of them. Glee spread over her face instead at the offered challenge, but she wondered just what proficiency her companions and she had in presenting a banquet fit for the gods.
She watched them stride back into the pagoda, marveling at their strangely unique forms. Perhaps that was partly the key she would focus on. The elements to which she perceived...
As they disappeared, she would rise again painfully and hold onto the reigns of Plod as she looked to Old Soeji for his direction. Were they on their own now? She wasn't sure how all this worked.
At first Lung is frozen. I've cooked rice and dumplings for my Masters...how can I prepare a banquet? I am a monk! But then his analytical mind begins turning the problem over and over, like a statuette wrapped in silk cord.
"Calligraphy...I can write scrolls..I could even write on sweet cakes! With palm sugar and squid ink! My knowledge of the Celestial Planes--I have read what they like to each, each of the Blessed Members of the Celestial Court. And we can query them..." He mutters, then speaks a bit louder, raising up his head, now spinning faster with ideas.
He ticks off ideas. "And ceremonial combat, everyone enjoys that." He glances at Shiro and Piella, shaking his head slightly at Yun with a smile. "We should make plans, friends. A common purpose unites us. I say, thinking about dumplings has made me hungry again."