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The Jade Arenas of Heaven: Auspicious Convocation [IC]

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"Pardon me. Is this the address of the one known as Cannonade?"

Joe Macayle tensed immediately. The man at his door stood in a black and saffron robe -- not a rough-spun monk's garment, but something more regal. He carried a jade tablet in his hand and studied him closely. Joe looked down both sides of the hall before pulling the man into his apartment.

"I merely asked -- !"

"Yeah, and that can be a problem," he said as he shut the door. "Now, what the hell is that about? How do you know how I am?"

"The Registry of Names pointed me here! I was told to address you by title --" He shook his head. "Damn you, Liu, I should've known you'd try to get me in trouble. Just because of that incident with the tea-lady a decade back..."

"Okay. Let's try that again. What the hell is the Registry of Names? Who are you? And why were you at my door?"

"The Registry of Names is one of the bureaus of the Celestial Bureaucracy. I am Wu Xintao, one of the officers of the Convocation on Martialry. And I have been asked to extend the hand of invitation." He held out the jade tablet. "Or rather, the writ."

Joe took the tablet, holding it at arm's length at first to make sure it wasn't going to explode. Once he was sure it was stable, he brought it forward. The jade was dark enough that the English writing carved into it stood out clearly in the light of the apartment.

"On the occasion of his 1781st year of ascension:

Guan Yu, god of war and head of the Convocation on Martialry, by writ and honor of the Jade Emperor, extends the invitation of all to a grand martial tournament on the marble courts of Tian. All styles are welcome, ways of fist, sword, gun, and sorcery. Lodgings and board shall be provided for the duration of your stay."

Joe looked up at Wu. "Don't go anywhere," he said. He dashed over to his computer, opened Wikipedia, and did a quick search.

"Tian (Chinese: 天; pinyin: tiÄn; Wade–Giles: t'ien; literally "Sky or heaven, heavens; god, gods") is one of the oldest Chinese terms for the cosmos and a key concept in Chinese mythology, philosophy, and religion. During the Shang Dynasty (17th–11th centuries BCE) the Chinese called god Shangdi (ä¸Šå¸ "lord on high") or Di ("lord"), and during the Zhou Dynasty (11th–3rd centuries BCE) Tian "heaven; god" became synonymous with Shangdi. Heaven worship was, for thousands of years, the orthodox state religion of imperial China."

"In the Western world, Guan is sometimes called the Taoist God of War, probably because he is one of the most well-known military generals worshiped by the Chinese people. This is a misconception of his role, as, unlike Mars or Týr, Guan, as a god, does not necessarily bless those who go to battle but rather people who observe the code of brotherhood and righteousness."

Joe turned back from the computer to Wu. "Just so I'm clear," he said. "There's a brawl, being held by the Chinese god of martial brotherhood, going on up in Heaven. This sound about right?"

"He is not so much the Chinese god," said Wu, "as he is an agent of the Celestial Bureaucracy. But in other aspects, you are correct."

"And he wants me for a tournament... why?"

"The invitation has gone out to individuals all across the globe, and even to the outer stretches of the cosmos and the plains beyond. Those who have been selected have earned the interest of the Convocation for various reasons, be it determination, potential, or experience."

"Huh. Well, how long is this supposed to last? I've, uh... got some business..."

"The Convocation is aware that many of the entrants would have a sense of a higher calling. Hence, the decree of the Jade Emperor has altered the pace of the heavens. Three days may pass in Tian, but shall pass in three seconds on this plane. To be honest, this is giving us a great chance to catch up on paperwork."

Joe considered the tablet. "One second," he said. He ducked into his bedroom; he'd been in the act of getting into his costume when the knock on the door had come, and it wasn't that hard to finish up. When he came out, Cannonade handed the tablet over.

"Well, when a god hands you an invitation, kinda hard to turn it down," he said. "Let's go."

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Jessica Parker had a relatively more mundane summons; as wired as the Lab was, and with the benefit of her technopathic abilities, she knew when she had a new email or cell phone call nearly before her computer did. She was sitting in the high-energy physics lab, waiting on some test data, when the familiar tingle started at the base of her spine. The young inventor hummed tunelessly as she accessed the server -- only to experience an odd sensation. The email was being written as she watched.

Jessica double-checked and discovered that the data hadn't been sent, per say. It would be closer to say that it was being formed, character by character, on the Lab servers, coming into being without any outside agency. The immaculate email? The idea was only half a joke, though, as a near-instantaneous search of Wikipedia gave her the run-down on Tian and Guan Guan. Well, she could hardly say it was the oddest thing that had happened to her since putting on the armor for the first time.

An hour later, tests concluded and (some very interesting) data saved to her suit, she was hovering over the city. To be exact, she was hovering over a point in Riverside, near the edge of the stratosphere. The heroine was up there just long enough to wonder if this was some kind of joke or attempted attack, then a slit appeared in the sky and opened wide. Beyond was a carefully tended, almost geometrically-perfect landscape of golden pagodas and small gardens. Ironclad gave an approving nod at the careful layout and floated through.

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Etain had started loving the weekends more and more. Before when she just started school she would be stuck inside studying to keep up, and even if she went outside it was too cold to do anything there for long. Now though, it was warming up, and the homework was getting lighter as the end of term was coming and than there would be two months where she did not have to attend school every weekday(even though she had summer school, it was only two hours a day for two days out of the week). Also, because Lynn had been nice enough to make her one, she already had proper swimwear and could spend some time at the Parkhurst pool if it was too cold to go to the beach. Really, she smiled to herself at the prospect of the free days as she sat in the back of the car and it drove to her guardian's house. That smile dropped a little bit when she saw a man in a robe, and an aura associated with an order of godlike power.

Stepping out of the car she moved walked up to the person examining him more thoroughly. She wasn't smiling, but not exactly frowning either, because while she lacked fondness for any gods in general this didn't seem to be an overly maliviant figure.

"Ms. Changeling a presume?"

"You may presume what you want, I may ask, why are you here?"

The man furrowed his brow at Etain's sharp tone before pulling out an envelope,

"I am not here for trouble I assure, I am Tua Qui of the Celestial Bueruea and I wish to extend this invitiation to you."

Looking at the man, she took the envelope but didn't open it,

"What is this for?"

"Read it and find out."

Etain took a few seconds to examine the envelope, and after determining that it had no binding magic or teleportation on it, she opened it carefully and read the contents.

"A tournament, well that is strange. It has been a while since I have fought in one, but how did you know to look for me here."

"This address was listed on the celestial registry."

"I see, and how long will this last?"

"Three days,"

Etain furrowed her brows, that would mean she'd have to miss a school day, she didn't know if her guardians would agree to that,

"However for the convience of those entering, the time change will only make the trip on earth about three seconds,"

The addition made Etain's face relax, that was far more doable, and within the range of her neither missing her weekend or school, all that she would require is permission from....

"Well if that is all, than I see no reason why you cannot go."

Etain nearly jumped at the voice of Ms. Fowler. She didn't realize she had arrived during the conversation, but she looked upon her guardian than the messenger,

"It really is not any trouble?"

"He did say that you will be back in three seconds, and you said you did such things when you were home."

The last word hung up in the air, but Etain was smiling still at at acceptance,

"Yes,"

She smiled and looked towards the messenger,

"Please, wait a minute while I go pack my things, than we can go."

Roughly ten minutes later with a suitcase a woman in an orange dress with matching wings and a monarch themed masquerade mask made her way out the front,

"Alright, I am ready to go,"

She turned and waved to Ms. Fowler who smiled as she and the messenger disappeared from sight.

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Morgan pushed the door to the Boston townhouse, walking in and dusting off his coat. Nick and company had been kind enough to let him use the Parkhurst dimensional portal to let him and his friends jump through during a few days off, and he'd been eager to introduce Vicky and John to his dad, see a few of his old stomping grounds, maybe visit a sandwich stand ran by a pair of troll brothers. They made a mean hoagie.

"Dad, hey Dad! I'm home, brought a couple of friends to visit!"

No answer, which confused him. Morgan motioned for his friends to wait for a moment, then he stepped inside and looked about, checking the living room and kitchen, before calling them inside.

"I think he's out shopping, looks like we'll have to wait a bit. C'mon in!"

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John was only paying half attention to the current situation, his mind still back to the incident that happened two days ago. He himself was not sure if it was a random occurrence or something more, but he had agreed to go along with Mr. Morgan and Miss Victoria in the hopes that he could stake his mind off of it. Also, they had promised to eat 'hoagies' which sounded suspect to him many levels, did upon further description seem plausibly edible. He was just about to cross the threshold into Morgans' childhood home when invited inside and felt something jab him in the lower back. Biting back a hiss of pain, he fished the offending object out of his backpacks pocket and blinked at the mahjong tile in his hand, as the engraving glowed slightly and was becoming brighter. What?

Two Days Ago, Claremont Academy Training Room - 5:15 AM

53, 54, 55. John was mentally counting his pushups as the door to the room opened. He continued hip reps as he looked toward the door seeing a petite female teenager of oriental heritage enter the room.

“Oh! Pardon me, I didn't think anybody else would be here this early.â€

“It's ok." 64! "I can move elsewhere if you need me to." 68! "Just ask." 70!

She nodded, and proceeded to start practicing various katas in the largest available floorspace. He kept an eye on her throughout, surprised at her repertoire of knowledge. There were things in there he had never seen before, but mixed were identifiable styles.

About a half hour later he had just fished his normal routine when she stopped and smiled at him as he wiped the sweat off his face with a towel from his bag. “I saw you watching, would you care to spar?†“I am sorry, but I do not believe my style would be suitable for sparring one of your caliber Miss...†“Oh, I have forgotten my manners! I am called Ni Chang. She held out her hand in greeting. He gave her a firm handshake as he continued his last sentence. "Miss Chang it is a pleasure to meet you, but I have a more utilitarian style that is usually frowned upon in sparring."

“It'll be okay. I'm tougher than I look!" She smiled at him. “Please?â€

John felt his resistance eroding. “Okay, but some ground rules first. No powers, no disabling strikes, and we'll go best out of 5 downs. Are those acceptable terms, Miss Chang?â€

She nodded. “Yep! But if you need to use powers don't feel bad!†John taped up his fists as she started putting on her sparring gear. “I would prefer not to rely on my powers to have a friendly spar. It would also not be fair to you or our agreement, Miss Chang.â€

Her smile disappeared and was replaced by a smirk. We'll just have to see about that now, won't we?†“Indeed." John fished with the taping, and looked over to her. "I am also wondering what the official names for some of your styles are called. There were some in your katas have never seen before." Her smile was back at that, not to mention disturbingly catlike. “Well then. How about I show them to you?" she said as John had finished putting on his gloves and head protector. “Sure,†was his unwitting response.

Fifteen minutes later he was on his back, staring at the ceiling with his chest heaving in exertion. She looked a little winded at best.

She sat on a bench near him, "You qualify." "...what?," was all John managed to get out. "Here. Read." She held an scroll written in elegant calligraphic brushstrokes to his face.

"On the occasion of his 1781st year of ascension:

Guan Yu, god of war and head of the Convocation on Martialry, by writ and honor of the Jade Emperor, extends the invitation of all to a grand martial tournament on the marble courts of Tian. All styles are welcome, ways of fist, sword, gun, and sorcery. Lodgings and board shall be provided for the duration of your stay."

He sat upright as she rolled up the scroll. "So you want me to participate in this, why exactly?" She laughed. "John, believe it or not you have interested parties in the Celestial Bureaucracy for a host of reasons, be it for good or ill." She handed him a small object. It was a jade mahjong tile with an intricate white lotus design engraved on it. "That is your ticket. There is still some time left before the tournament begins as we finish up the invitations and preparations. I look forward to seeing you there." With that she was gone. John stood up and looked around the empty room before returning his gaze to the tile. Sounds interesting, he thought to himself as he pocketed it.

As John finished his recollection about the tile, it flashed brilliantly as he he stepped through the doorway of the house. Instead of winding up inside Morgan's fathers' house he was in an ornate courtyard, with Ni Chang standing there in formal robes and he was wearing his full combat uniform. "Greetings Myrmidon. Welcome to the tournament."

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Vicky followed Morgan into his father's home, setting her bag neatly by the door as she entered. "Okay, mind if I bum a soda? I don't know what it is about other people's teleportation but it always leaves me thirsty," she asked, following her boyfriend into the kitchen. Snagging the can of coke, she popped the top and took a long pull from it. "Ah, sweet sugary energy."

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The home of Dr. Viktor Archeville, Hanover

"You must be mistaken. I'm not a martial artist. I just punch things for a living," Mona repeated for emphasis.

Across the table sat a woman in her mid forties, dressed in flowing burgundy robes. Her bearing had a certain regal quality, even as she delicately sipped the Turkish coffee Mona offered. Sipping down the cup, the woman gently replied, "While certainly true, your physique, philosophical inclinations and martial ability all fall within acceptable domains for the tournament. Your reluctance to commit to the tournament is an auspicious sign indeed."

Mona sighed and read the invitation once more. More specifically, she picked up the ornate penjing and perused the English script glazed on pot.

"On the occasion of his 1781st year of ascension:

Guan Yu, god of war and head of the Convocation on Martialry, by writ and honor of the Jade Emperor, extends the invitation of all to a grand martial tournament on the marble courts of Tian. All styles are welcome, ways of fist, sword, gun, and sorcery. Lodgings and board shall be provided for the duration of your stay."

"This tournament is completely voluntary, you say?" A skeptical glance weaved it's way through the branches.

"Of course. My lord Guan Yu is not war-like. Instead his focus is righteous, honorable combat," the woman began, her tone patient, "and the avoidance of unnecessary conflict." Left unsaid was her implication of Fulcrum's similarity in philosophy.

"How did my name come up? We're a long way from the Celestial Bureaucracy of the Middle Kingdom."

A mischievous smile played over the woman's lips. "Many powers watch one another in the Heavens. You have admirers among my pantheon as surely as among others. Although I will advise you that such attentions are not always positive."

Mona leaned back in her chair and contemplated the tiny tree.

After some minutes, the woman stood, straightened her robe and bowed, saying, "Thank you for your hospitality. I will relay your answer to Guan Yu immediately."

"Wait. I'll go. On second thought, I wouldn't miss this for all the tea in China."

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Crow grinned and kissed his girlfriend on the cheek, feeling a mite giddy at the prospect of showing his friends around where he used to hang out. He even did a little dance when her back was turned, though the good feeling was a mite dampened when he realized she'd taken the last Coke. Facepalming, the teen poked his head out of the kitchen and at the open door, cocking his head to the side.

"Hey John, you left the door open!"

No answer. Morgan blinked, then walked over and poked his head out the door. No John. He stepped back inside and closed the door, then walked through the kitchen and past Wisp, into the living room.

"Jo-"

The end of the name died on his lips as one of the trophies on his dad's mantle, a very ornate-looking vase that he hadn't quite noticed before, started glowing, brightening up the entire room in a warm golden light.

"...Uh, Vicky?"

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The golden light quickly grew to fill the entire room, washing out everything. When it faded, the living room was gone; in its place was a vast courtyard of pristine white marble, ringed on all sides by pagodas wrought in red and green. Hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals crowded the pagoda - some in the costumes of the superhero trade, others in ornate robes, still others in military gear. In the distance, Crow and Wisp swore they could make out Myrmidon, and further still, Changeling. A young man in a cerulean robe pushed through the crowd, his eyes locked on a pad of paper and a stylus.

"It is a pleasure to see you, Red Hand. Welcome once more to -- " He looked up from his pad. "Oh. You're not Red Hand." He turned his head -- incongruously, he bore a Bluetooth-style earpiece. "Boss? We may have a small problem..,"

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Gregory was speeding back to his apartment, the wind whipping through his black hair. He had grown it out recently, and Gossamer had said it looked very "Fabioesque". His light jacket was billowing behind him like a cape, and he rounded another corner. He laughed with the pleasure of driving, although he yearned to be on a more open road. The bike skidded to a stop as he expertly braked just before his parking space. He slipped his keys in his jacket pocket and clicked the door open. He clicked on the lights, and froze.

"How did you get in here?" he said, his fists already clenched.

"Please don't hit me!" A small man in a regal robe was standing at his entranceway, holding a sandwich and a beer.

"You have two seconds to tell me how you got in and WHY YOU ARE STEALING MY BEER!"

The man closed his eyes tightly and spoke in a quick monotone. "You've been invited by Guan Yu, god of war and head of the Convocation on Martialry..."

After an explanation, Gregory unclenched his fist, and rubbed his chin. "I'll have to tell Goss when I get back. But yeah, that sounds good. Let me get my stuff." Gregory suited up, and the two teleported away, the bottle of beer crashing to the floor after the two left the apartment.

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The golden light quickly grew to fill the entire room, washing out everything. When it faded, the living room was gone; in its place was a vast courtyard of pristine white marble, ringed on all sides by pagodas wrought in red and green. Hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals crowded the pagoda - some in the costumes of the superhero trade, others in ornate robes, still others in military gear. In the distance, Crow and Wisp swore they could make out Myrmidon, and further still, Changeling. A young man in a cerulean robe pushed through the crowd, his eyes locked on a pad of paper and a stylus.

"It is a pleasure to see you, Red Hand. Welcome once more to -- " He looked up from his pad. "Oh. You're not Red Hand." He turned his head -- incongruously, he bore a Bluetooth-style earpiece. "Boss? We may have a small problem..,"

Wisp looked around, her jaw slack. "Okay, I've seen some strange crap in the past few months but this... This takes it up to eleven. Any theory on just what in the hell is going on?" she asked her boyfriend.

As the man came up and spoke, Vicky's glance evolved to include a raised eyebrow as well after the mention of his father's 'super-name'. When he was done she tried for calm but her voice came out a tad heated, "Small problem? You brought the wrong people here and it's only a small problem?"

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Moving along the crowds Changeling had received word that the rules would be explained shortly but until then they were free to wander the immediate area. That is almost exactly what she did for the given value of wander. There were so many people here, most of which were in costume like herself, still she pushed to find a familiar face, after all in a place as big as Freedom she was sure she had met at least one other who could do well in a tournament such as this.

It was in this active search that her eyes traced the teleportation of a pair of new arrivals, but that was not what she focused on. The snow white hair caught her both being at her eye level in the crowd, and long enough not to be mixed as easily in the blur of brighter colors. She pushed through quietly and quickly and called out in a voice that was quieted to all others their.

"Morgan, Victoria, over here!"

She moved throught he crowd and in a fit of brilliance copied a technique she had see in games and had a bright green diamond shape float over her head to better identify herself from the crowds of people as she ran forward.

She dispelled the diamond once she was close enough and smiled behind her butterfly mask,

"I knew I would find someone, is this the first tournament you have attended?"

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Crow's sole reply was a "...bwuh?".

For a moment, reason warred with panic in his head as he ran through what he knew. First, one of his dad's trophies had started glowing. A big vase. A...Chinese-looking vase? Yeah, he had no idea, but judging by the area...second, he and Vicky were now here. And not in his home. And he had his full costume on, bandanna, emblem hoodie and all. How...he somewhat absently noted the arrival of Etain (in full costume herself, no less!), nodding at her politely as she walked up.

"How...wha'...okay, sorry, hold on, back up a sec. You were waiting for my dad?"

Then Etain's words hit him like a ton of bricks and he looked between her and the official somewhat nonplussed (although it was difficult to tell under the hood and bandanna).

"Uh...okay, sorry, but I'm completely lost here. Tournament?"

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"I apologize," the man said to Wisp. "This can be cleared up shortly." He turned to Crow. "The invitation was extended to Red Hand earlier, and he accepted. The conveyance must have caught you while he was out. You are in Tian, the home of the Celestial Bureaucracy. Guan Yu, god of martial brotherhood, has called for a tournament, like the one that Red Hand fought in and won years back. We can get you back to the world in an instant -- "

"Xiao!" Another administrator, this one in scarlet robes, dashed up to him. "Word of this one's presence has reached one of Guan Yu's honored guests. She requests the chance for the one in the longcoat to fight in his father's stead... if it is possible."

Xiao nodded, and turned back to Crow and Wisp. "Well... that shifts things a little. It is now entirely your choice -- you may return to the world and send Red Hand on his way, or you may fight in his stead."

---

Meanwhile, across the pavilion, Cannonade recognized Ironclad, standing out between a sumo wrestler and a woman made entirely of crystal. "Hey, 'Clad!" he called out. "I see you got the invitation, too. How's it hanging?"

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Mad Dog was resting, sitting on a bench near the edge of the courtyard. He didn't know anyone from the crowd, and leaned his head down. He was bored. Through his black hockey mask, he scanned the crowd, looking at least for someone around his age to hang out with. He spotted a guy about his age, clad in a red jacket and Trojan helmet. He seemed pretty cool, and Mad Dog made his way towards him. Practically wading through the motley crowd of heroes, he sought out the helmed man.

"Uh, hi. I'm Mad Dog. What's up?"

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The young Martel was impressed, Tian was beautiful.

An hour before the Martel Estate received a curious visitor, one that had bypassed the regular means of entry and was waiting patiently in Eve's bedroom while she returned from the kitchen, drink in hand. She didn't react with her first impulse, which was the hurl the hot cup of tea at the intruder, then rip his mind apart. Perhaps it had to do with his posture, it had been relaxed and non-threatening, more like her butler Renard is demeanor than a hostile invader. After her initial shock had passed she and her visitor had a brief conversation, a bag was packed containing clothing and sundries for a three day visit, and she stepped through a waiting portal.

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"I apologize," the man said to Wisp. "This can be cleared up shortly." He turned to Crow. "The invitation was extended to Red Hand earlier, and he accepted. The conveyance must have caught you while he was out. You are in Tian, the home of the Celestial Bureaucracy. Guan Yu, god of martial brotherhood, has called for a tournament, like the one that Red Hand fought in and won years back. We can get you back to the world in an instant -- "

"Xiao!" Another administrator, this one in scarlet robes, dashed up to him. "Word of this one's presence has reached one of Guan Yu's honored guests. She requests the chance for the one in the longcoat to fight in his father's stead... if it is possible."

Xiao nodded, and turned back to Crow and Wisp. "Well... that shifts things a little. It is now entirely your choice -- you may return to the world and send Red Hand on his way, or you may fight in his stead."

Vicky took a deep breath, calming down and noticing for the first time she was in costume herself. "Hey Etain. Wasn't expecting to run into anyone I knew here. I've done a few 'vanilla' tournaments as part of my basic martial arts training."

Turning back to the administrator she let out another breath. "Okay, so his father competed in and won the last one? Before I make my decision on staying or not, I would really like to know the rules of this event. I see somebody in power-armor so, I'm guessing weapons and powers are legal?"

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Crow held up both his hands between Wisp and...Xiao, wasn't it? Pronunciations, oy. He held up his hands in a halting gesture, rolling what the assistant had just told him.

"Ok, hold up just a sec. So you're telling me my dad, Red Hand, wielder of the Hound of Ulster's armaments, a superhero, competed here? Kicked ass? Won a trophy?"

He looked at the coat, then at Vicky. Then a really, really wide grin spread slowly underneath the bandanna. For a moment, Experience warred with Youthful Recklessness in his head. It was quite an entertaining battle. Youthful Recklessness won.

"Heck yeah! Yeah, I'll stick around, but only if Vi...Wisp can too."

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"I'm certain we can arrange that," said Xiao. He checked over his pad; at this angle, Crow could see that the writing kept shifting, as if updating instantaneously. "We may need to explain this to Red Hand later on, but we can always send him an invite for the next one. I believe we're just waiting on a few more participants to arrive."

---

Meanwhile...

Cannonade turned to see the man in the hockey mask extending a hand. He returned the gesture, making sure not to squeeze too hard. "Cannonade," he said. "Out of Freedom City. Gotta say, this is my first time at one of these things."

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Ironclad was used to having more of the sky to herself. Tian's airspace was crowded with figures; humanoids with massive wingspans, uniformed soldiers riding winged lions, a curling dragon or five, and a single burning wheel that had no visible means of support but hurt the young woman's eyes when she looked at it. Instead, she directed her attention downwards, scanning the huge crowd for a familiar face or two. She thought that she spotted a familiar Greek helmet, but it turned away and was lost. Scanning the crowd again, she spotted a white-haired woman that seemed... vaguely familiar.

Lacking anything better to do, Ironclad floated down and nodded to the white-haired woman. "Hello, there. I'm Ironclad, out of Freedom City. You're Eve Martel, aren't you?"

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The Martel heiress paused in her reflections on Tian's beauty as she felt a mind move toward her. Turning the telepath raised a niveous eyebrow at the green and gold armored figure that approached, and smiled at Ironclad's greeting. --The one and only,-- Eve said, a sense of amusement lacing her telepathic projection. --Well met, Ironclad. This place is beautiful, wouldn't you agree?--

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]The loud ringing of a gong washed over the pavilion, bringing the hubbub of disparate voices to a close. All eyes turned to the source of the noise, a raised platform at the head of the square. A wide-chested, keg-bellied Chinese man the size of a statue stood in the center of the platform. He was wearing robes of a deep green over green uniform pants and combat boots. Flanking him on all sides were various attendants; one stood at his right hand, a roguish looking man clad in a vagrant's assemblage of clothes. He held in his hand a thin iron staff, and those who paid close attention could see a monkey's tail swishing behind him.

"Greetings, honored guests of Heaven!", the man in green said. His voice rang like thunder across the pavilion. "I am delighted by your presence today. Some of you are veterans of the tournament, and let me say, I hope that your return is even better than the first visit. But many of you are new to the fields of Heaven, so allow me to explain.

"For those of you wondering who this overblown ass is, I am Guan Yu. I have spent millennia in my office on Tian watching down on the ways of warfare. From the fist, to the sword, to the gun, to spell and charm and thought and weapons stranger still. My office has overseen soldiers and mercenaries, policemen and criminals, defenders and strikers -- all bound by a code of martial honor, of respect upon the field of battle for one's foes. To honor and strengthen this code, I have called various fighters, skilled in all manner of discipline from both the world of the flesh and the planes beyond. The fighters shall be divided up into various tiers, based on experience and skill. The tournament is an elimination process, though those eliminated are allowed to stay and enjoy the splendor of Heaven for the rest of their stay.

"There shall be three iron rules for this tournament, backed by the authority of the Jade Emperor himself:

Rule One - Honor the truce. In this tournament, all fighting is non-lethal, and all standing arguments have been left at the gates. Some of you may have reason to loathe one another, but in the name of common courtesy, do not allow your ire to spill over here.

Rule Two - None shall be harmed outside the games. It may seem redundant to Rule One, but trust me, we have had one too many cases of, 'My hated foe just happened to trip over this crenelation and fall five stories.' Any harm against a competitor, accidental or... otherwise, shall be remedied with full swiftness by the agents of the Bureaucracy.

Rule Three - Honor all judgments. If a match is called, let it end. If a punishment is levied, obey it. This is an institution based on laws, and all here shall bow to the wisdom of Heaven. And if not... there shall be taxes levied."

Guan Yu clapped his hands, and it sounded like a thunderstorm. "Those are the rules. Those who win their tiers shall earn a token from the Celestial Bureaucracy, to be exchanged for a favor at any time. Those who lose, as mentioned before, are allowed to stay and partake in the splendor of the higher realm. If anyone has any questions, they may be addressed to my aides-de-camp. Welcome to Heaven, competitors, and the best of luck to you all!"

With that notion, the aides-de-camp cleared the stage, wandering into the crowd with tally boards, taking down the names of competitors. "Any further questions?" they asked the crowd, one by one.

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Changeling smiled at the inclusion of her friends, though she was a might bit worried about having to fight them at one point. Well she couldn't really hurt them with her powers, and from the description, it didn't seem like she would actually need to draw her blade. Than again, they said that they'd be seperated, maybe they would be in different groups, that would be good.

"Sounds like a fun time does it not? At least it will keep any particularly violent people from trying to take advantage of the tournament."

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Ironclad wasn't used to conversing telepathically -- psychics in general seemed a very closed lot, and the young woman had never actually encountered one before -- but she didn't let that put her off for long. "Yes, it's a very lovely place. Geometrically precise, even. Seem to have overdone the gilding though, in my opinion."

Just then, the gong sounded, drawing every head (which wasn't the same thing as every body) to the dias. She listened closely to Guan Yu's announcement, noting the three rules carefully. As the aides started moving through the crowd, she leaned in closer to Eve to whisper to the other girl. "Interesting. A free-for-all tournament without any deaths. Wonder how they intend to enforce the second one, though?"

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Fulcrum knew only a handful of places in existence where she could blend into the background. Thankfully, this new place, Tian, definitely belonged on the list. In the fifteen minutes she'd been in the square, she'd chatted with a giant that made her feel tiny, a woman in combat gear sporting a Mossad patch and a man-sized spider with a French accent. All of which she counted as absolutely Awesome!

No wonder she missed some of her acquaintances and local heroes! Which not meeting-and-greeting, the giantess looked more like a tourist, taking dozens of pictures of people, pagodas, attendants and even the exquisitely manicured plants. Oh yeah, taking a few readings with a small (by her standard) hand-held scanner. She only focused when Guan Tu himself welcomed the participants. She did manage to snap a picture of him before his exit...

After checking in with attendant, she scanned the crowds, and unbelievably, spotted a familiar face! Dressed in her jeans and t-shirt, shoulder bag and camera, she hovered over to psychic and Ironclad with a big grin on her face, "Sage! Good to see you. Isn't that place amazing?"

Offering a handshake to Ironclad, she said, "Pleasure to meet you. I'm Fulcrum. You look familiar. Are you from the Freedom City area?" She was pretty sure the answer would be yes, but best to be polite.

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