The woman points out each member of the group.
"That's Teng, Hao Mu, Yao and Tao, Daiyu, and I'm Meiling."
She happily finds you accommodations in an unused tent.
"You sleep well friends. Do let us know if you need anything. It's not often we get visitors you know."
The next morning, you wake to a cloudless day. The cold still seeps through your regular clothes, but the sun offers a spot of hope amid the frigid temperatures at the base camp.
Eggs, meat, vegetables, and bread are being prepared by Yao and Tao in the main tent. The smell wafts throughout the camp, much like yesterday.
A rap at the tent's opening is heard.
"Food's cooking if you want some friends. Wouldn't want you leaving too late if you're still set on scaling Lord Yunfang."
We can say the wagon can make it to base camp with some very careful piloting. Any further however would be impossible.
"Well if you're going to be heading up there regardless, the least we can do is help you out. We have some spare gear; ropes, warm clothing, and the like. If you stay to the south face of Lord Yunfang you should have an easier time too. The north face is known for having claimed too many lives."
You get a feeling she's being truly honest and happy to help. You see some weapons around, but none are being hidden. They're simply there for self defense.
"Oh! Of course we know Yijun. Hard not to. Nobody else fool enough to scale Lord Yunfang barefoot. Says his faith in the Celestials and his bottles are enough to keep his heart roaring like a dragon."
She glances at you.
"I hope you're not hoping to scale the mountain yourself. That's a day of rough hiking and climbing in some truly dreadful conditions. The sky may look clear and pretty but the cold's the real killer."
How urgent is it that you see him?"
A round face peeks out from the layers of animal hide, squinting into the evening darkness.
What's that? A master? Get in here, let's sort this out."
Inside the largest tent, a group of a half dozen or so mountaineers, goatherds, and traders sit around a roaring fire pit. Skewers of meat roast over the fire while a massive cast iron pot simmers gently, wafting delicious scents into the enclosed space.
The men and women present make room for the three of you to join them on the rough, woven rugs laid out across the floor.
One of the women pushes bowls of stew and a skewer into your hands before asking:
"So, who is it exactly you're looking for? Couldn't quite make out what you were shouting about out there."
Not letting the cold conditions get the better of them, the group manages to reach the Upper Shijing base camp before nightfall. The smell of goat meat roasting and stewing carries you the rest of the way until at last you reach a collection of tents made from thick hides.
A series of tracks had led you there, human footprints judging by the size.
The bird sent on its way and mountaineering equipment purchased and prepared, you make for the edge of Piaofeng's borders.
The path here diverges.
The Path of Jade is heavily-worn and paved, leading into the Yesheng Summits, and then onto Qiao.
The other, a barely-used hiking trail known as the Lord's Pilgrimage, heads westward and upwards into Shijing's highest peaks. A day of rough walking should get you to the base of the mountains, and most likely where the base camp will be set up.
If you wish to wait for Yijun, the drunken master, Shiro had asked around and learned he would only return in a week or so. You could always go climbing after him yourselves of course.
In the meantime, you send a messenger bird to Soeji. I'll leave it up to you to decide the contents of that message.
None of the legendary creatures mentioned in the Four Flavors seems to be on the locals mind besides one; the Great Thunder Bird.
Said to nest high atop Lord Yunfang, the highest peak of the mountains, legends say it controls the weather; from calming breezes, to violent storms. Many have attempted the ascent, but none have yet returned with the bird, or with one of its eggs.
The other creatures do sound somewhat familiar to the mountain villagers but not enough for any concrete information. Best try asking around the other villages and towns.
Reading and re-reading the Four Flavors, it becomes clear that not everything within is likely to be accomplished quite the same way. Elements of the food and preparation style become apparent, but you get the feeling you are unlikely going to need to replicate the monumental tasks the Celestials performed; especially punching an Ox's spirit out of its body.
The descriptions of each of the food however does seem to indicate only a specific creature could serve as the new portion of the Four Flavors of Heaven. Not any old carp or shrimp would do.
You have a choice ahead of you now. Do you go on alone to your next stop? Return to Soeji? Send him a message perhaps? There is much left to be done!
A check around the house seems to indicate that no one is attempting to spy on you. At least not this early in the competition.
Piella finishes preparing the room while Lung unfurls the scroll.
Their great work completed, the five Celestials finally set foot upon Yuanzi. Exhausted from their labors, each of them sought to rest and replenish their forces.
As such, each of the Celestials brought food, representing each of their five dominions.
First was Lanxu. Unwinding her great net, she cast a single thread into both the Jinghua Sea and the Leiguang River. From the sea she pulled forth a single crab, its shell gleaming as blue as the sea itself. From the river she pulled forth a single fish, a carp as golden as the Yuanzi sun.
With five strokes of her silver knife, she prepared both of her catches and presented them to the other Celestials, but was unsure of how to prepare them.
Second was Baijiao. Pulling back his celestial robe, Baijiao found a single white-haired ox. Bowing low, Baijiao disrobed and grasped the ox by its horns. The two wrestled until eventually the ox bowed its head in defeat.
Not wanting to make the creature suffer, Baijiao struck it with his outer palm, separating body and spirit. Baijiao struck the earth thrice and pulled forth salt, soy, and rice. Of these he formed a sauce by crushing them between his palms.
With his great axe, Baijiao prepared the rich beef but was also left wondering how to prepare the meat.
Third was Hongwei. Impressed by the other Celestials and seeking to help, he asked that Yinyu go next, allowing him time to return from the Underworld with his course as well as with the means to prepare the courses.
Yinyu this went next. Climbing to the the summit of Lord Yunfang, the highest peak of Shijing, she drew her bow and with a single arrow took down one of the mighty Léiniǎo, Great Thunder Bird, that nested there.
Claiming the great bird's eggs, Yinyu returned down the mountain. Once back in Xin, she prepared the eggs into rich noodles to eat with the the Great Thunder Bird.
At that very moment, Hongwei returned from his journey below. In his right hand he carried a sack containing bok choy, bamboo shoots, ginger, garlic, scallions, mushrooms, and snow peas collected on his journey to and from the Underworld. In his left hand, he held a single flame of purest blue; the flame of a Spirit Dragon, offered willingly to the Celestials.
Blowing hard upon the flame, Hongwei split it into four, allowing the Celestials to cook their courses. As they did so, the fifth Celestial, Jinyan, saw that though the gods had prepared a splendid feast, none had sought to quench their thirst.
Jinyan flew into the sky above, and gathered rain clouds around him. With a mighty roar, they squeezed the rain from the lowland clouds and the snow from the highland clouds. Jinyan plucked a single tea leaf from the vast Heartland, and returned with a refreshment to counterbalance the great heat of the four courses.
With the cooking done, the Celestials sat upon their pagoda in the Heart of Xin, and had their first meal upon Yuanzi.
Bao's excited bouncing almost knocks a shelf over before Piella's mother grabs him by the collar, stuffs a baked pastry into his mouth, and plops him on a chair at the table.
"Don't you move a muscle until you're done eating your snack."
Bao nods, mouth full of honey and bread.
"I can close some shutters if you want to discuss it here dears. Give you some privacy."
Gen bows low.
"Then I give you thanks from the bottom of my heart. I look forward to seeing what wonders you produce. Now, if you'll excuse me, I will need to speak with my father first. I will happily escort you back to the main gates."
The four of you walk amicably back through the Qigang grounds, and waving farewell, you head back to Piella's house to pick up Bao.
You're met by Mrs. Pollyhum-Prettyfoot and Bao at the front door to the general store.
"I told you it was them coming! I told you!"
Bao can barely contain his excitement.
We're nearing the end of our first chapter Part 1 ~ Of Ink and Mists!
A return trip home and then we're done!
Start thinking about your second level progression, since I'll be leveling you up at the end of each chapter, regardless of XP. There'll be a few more combat encounters in the near future (as a friendly GM heads up.)
"We have been lax in our spiritual duties, it's true. It seems our ancestors still wish to give us a chance. I give you thanks for bringing this news to me."
He rises and stretches.
"I am glad that I was able to help you in your endeavors. Whatever the spirits saw fit to give you is yours to keep. I will make the trip up the mountain myself tomorrow, and after that make my way to Xin. I'm sure my father will understand."
He hesitates for a moment.
"If you would grant me a request, I'd very much like to be there when you present to the Celestial Court. It would be an honor for the Qigang to stand by the Soeji clan this year."
He nods at Shiro's brief explanation and asks a few follow up questions to Lung, especially about the fire spirit and the shrine. Eventually, he gets to the heart of the subject.
"I take it you were successful then? I do not need to see it, but I am very curious as to whether or not the spirits provided you with a piece of the True History."
As your discussion continues, you finally make your way to the base of the mountain.
There, you see Gen waiting for you, sitting cross legged in the shade of a tree near the mountain path, book in hand.
As you cross back into the mortal realm, he glances up, sees you, and waves you over.
"Welcome back! Come, sit with me and tell me of your travel to the summit. Was it a success? What was the shrine like?"
Zhou Qigang. As for a message, I believe there is no need. I believe after this, Gen might take a renewed interest in connecting with his spiritual side. That is more than enough for me."
He waves towards the entrance and the mountain.
"I will ensure your return down Blue Crane Mountain goes smoothly. Beyond the gates however, you must be vigilant. You now possess quite a priceless treasure."
"And please, try not to get food on it while cooking."
With that he fades into the mists along with the other spirits.
Apologies for the delays!
"An honorable opponent does not flee before a mightier foe."
Knowledge (history): 1d20 + 8 ⇒ (12) + 8 = 20
The spirit moves the last of its pieces as the round ends.
"A clear victory for the three of you." He motions to the board. "But also a lesson."
You notice the pieces' final positions form a pattern of sorts. The spirit indicates his own blue pieces first.
"There are few who will truly oppose you on your journey. While some may stand in your way, they are few and far between. Be mindful of their power, but be confident in your own strength and purpose."
He indicates Piella's green pieces. "You will meet many on this journey who will require aid. Help those in need, and surely you will find victory. Do not be misled by their plight either. Strong hearts and courage may not win every battle, but they will surely emerge victorious in the end."
He motions to the remaining yellow and red pieces. "Swiftness of action. The ability to make decisions and follow through. Whether through strength or subtlety, you possess everything needed to succeed in your task."
With a flick of his hand, the disc floats over to land in Lung's hands.
"A gift, from one player to another."
With a second flourish, a great tome fades in before him.
"And let's not forget the promised reward. You have shown courage and kindness, cunning and respect. I see no reason to not provide you with what you seek."
A handful of pages unfurl from the book and drift over to land on the game board.
"The Four Flavors of Heaven. Quite a fascinating read. You will need to return to the mortal realm before the pages manifest enough to be read. I do hope to hear what you make of them."
With that, the spirit waits if you have anything to add before vanishing into the mists of the shrine.
The spirit winces as Lung charges into his pieces. Shio springs his trap and the spirit attempts to counter...
Bluff: 1d20 + 5 ⇒ (17) + 5 = 22
... landing Shio and Piella's pieces into a trap. Their pieces cornered, the spirit breathes a sigh of relief.
"There are indeed three of you, and one of me, but the match isn't over until the enemy is defeated. Do not be overly confident. Much can still happen in the final round."
The Qigang ancestor thinks for a moment, then makes a move of its own.
Perception: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (17) + 2 = 19
Moving the blue pieces in thought out, straightforward formations, he closes in around Piella's pieces, losing a few to Lung's strategic advances. A few turns later, he pauses, finally noticing Shiro's maneuver.
"It would appear my timing was slightly off. No matter, in battle, one must be willing to sacrifice to gain the upper hand. The lady's weakness seemed to be the perfect target to take advantage of, but it looks like you already form a formidable team. I will be more careful in the following round."
Onwards to round 2!
The figure slowly condenses into a more recognizable form, that of a young human dressed in fine, but clearly well worn traveling clothes. A smile cracks its shadowy face.
"Soejis! Why didn't you start with that? Well, this is a surprise, but a welcome one at that!"
The spirit makes a swirling motion with his left hand and a voluminous tome materializes out of the mists, its form composed of the same ink and mist substance as all other spiritual beings.
"It is true however, the True History is not something we share so lightly. Considering our past relations however, I'm sure a lighter challenge could be proposed?"
A shimmer passes through the other spectral forms.
"Perfect! It's in agreement then!"
Another swirl of the hand, and the book vanishes. Taking its place is a circular stone disc, with two dozen wooden pieces arranged upon it. The spirit holds the disc aloft in front of the four of you.
"I propose a game of Hao Gushi. I shall play as the blue pieces, while you shall play as red, green, and yellow. The rules are simple, each turn we..."
The explanations go on for some time, but you quickly grasp the premise. Hao Gushi is a miniature war game of sorts, where you attempt to capture the other player's pieces.
The game will be abstracted into three rounds. Each round, each of you will choose to perform one of the following tests: Perception, Bluff, Intimidate, Knowledge (history), or Sleight of Hand. You seek to roll as high as possible. If you succeed, you will progress in some way. Fail, and you may lose some pieces. After three rounds, the game will end.
The figure finishes setting up the pieces and wraps up the explanations.
He motions to the three of you.
"Guests always make the first move.
As you present the offering, the memorial stones glow blue and faint ripple surges through the mist.
Incorporeal forms, humanoid in appearance, form from within the spectral mists.
A low susurrus cuts through the hummed prayer, a simple question forming:
"What is it you seek in the land of spirits?"
One of the figures floats above the offering table, featureless and unmoving.
As Shiro slips inside, Piella shoots a quick peek.
The inside of the shrine proper is sparse but well built. Memorial stones carved with the names of the deceased Qigang family members fill the edges of the great circular chamber.
A squat stone offering table sits in the middle of the room, carved to resemble a crane spreading its wings in flight.
The room is illuminated by pale, ghostly-blue flames that ebb and flow above you. Occasionally one dips low enough and touches a memorial stone, which echoes with a glow of its own before fading away.
The chanting continues, slightly louder, but there's no one to be seen.
You progress up the mountainside. Piella's keen eyes spot a few other heavily mist-shrouded areas, but being patient proves well worth it as the mist parts after a few minutes.
You stay careful, and eventually reach the summit of Blue Crane Mountain where the Qigang family shrine stands proudly.
As you approach the gate to the walls surrounding the shrine, a whispered song can be faintly heard.
Knowledge (Religion) 15:
The song is hard to hear, but it appears to be a prayer invoking good luck, protection, and tranquility.
The shrine itself looms some three stories tall behind the walls. A lone ghostly crane glides by overhead before landing on the roof of the shrine. Despite the mist growing thick, you feel safe.
Desperately, Lung's last swing connects and finishes off the ferocious spirit. It howls one final time as its body dissolves into ash and ink, leaving a coarse residue where it once stood.
You pause to catch your breaths. As you do, the mists part slightly and feel less cloying. The shrine seems to glow softly in the pale spirit-light and you hear a hum, not quite a voice, echo through your head and...
The Spirits are Thankful: 1d6 + 3 ⇒ (2) + 3 = 5
... you feel your wounds fade slowly away. Each of you heals 5 damage. If this would put you above your maximum health, you gain it as temporary hit points as long as you stay within the Spirit Realm.
You have cleansed this place, and are rewarded for it.
Despite Shiro's positioning, he lands a solid blow to the creature.
Total Damage: 10
Lung gets patched up twice and breathes a little easier.
Sensing a new potential threat, and ignoring the small dog, the creature lunges at Shiro...
Attack: 1d20 + 5 ⇒ (18) + 5 = 23
... and delivers an equally vicious wound.
I seem to be rolling high, whew... Definitely going to remove some fights down the line.
Lung rushes forward and succeeds in cracking a solid blow to the creature.
Shiro successfully tumbles through and flanks alongside Lung, but his claws only rake air.
Piella finishes her spell, and you all feel invigorated. She readies her weapon towards the wolf-like beast.
The Meizha-Lang wheels around, baying unnaturally before deciding on a target. It lunges towards Lung and...
Fiery bite: 1d20 + 5 ⇒ (15) + 5 = 20
... sinks its teeth deep into Lung's side, tearing and searing simultaneously.
Lung eyes the platform, but spies nothing out of place.
As the three of you stop to catch your breath and restore your energy, a scraping sound comes from the roof of the stone shrine. A wolf-like beast of inky black, charred, and blackened hide, its flesh split in places and seeping a crimson splatters of ink. The slaving creature stalks closer, snarling gutturally as smoke billows from its maw.
You've all heard tales of the wild, unbound spirits that inhabit the realm.
Knowledge (religion) DC 12:
You recognize it as a Meizha-Lang, otherwise known as a Fiery Wolf of the Mountain. Although not that large, their fiery bite sears flesh and soul. They hunger for still living souls to feast upon.
Piella Initiative: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (13) + 2 = 15
Luckily, you were quick to react, and get a head start on the fiend.
Combat ~ Round 1
I won't bother with a grid and battle map. I find cinematic action to be quicker. If it can reasonably be done, go ahead.
The path winds around the mountain, curving left and right as it forms switchbacks ever upwards.
The mists ensure nothing but the path before you are easily seen, but you eventually see your first stop on this road up. A small stone platform intersects the path up. A small stone shrine is built into the mountain face. A stone railing surrounds the platform.
You are still some ways from it.
Bao happily takes the offered honey candy and, waving goodbye, heads back to Piella's house.
"I'll make sure to send someone by the house to make sure he's fine," offers Gen.
As the three of you take a first step through the Black Gate, Gen bows. "Good luck! May the Celestials guide your way!"
As soon as you cross the Gate's threshold, your vision becomes clouded in pale, swirling mist. The landscape before you takes on a decidedly spectral appearance, seeming to be composed of both real material and ink, reminiscent of the Celestial Court's appearance.
You truly are within their realm now, or at least partially attuned with it.
A distant whispered chanting high above echoes of the rocks.
The path before you is steep, but walkable. There's just a lot of steps.
"Wonderful! I must admit, I feel a bit uneasy with asking something of you but I hope it's a fair trade. Now, if you need to prepare anything, please do so and then meet me in the grounds behind the estate."
Those who join him are led through a wide grass and pebble garden until, as promised, you reach the two stone gates.
Gen motions towards the black gate.
"That way lies what you seek. I will wait for you here, or if something comes up I will ensure someone else is."
He bows to you.
"I wish you all the best. The Spirit Realm isn't without dangers but this close to a town, there shouldn't be too much in your way."