Last time, the party and their herd of yaks had nearly arrived at their destination of Po Keng when they came upon a litter of bloody cadavers. It looked to have been a battle, and among the fallen was none other than the very Orc to whom they were supposed to deliver the yaks. Furthermore, on that Orc they found a letter which raised some perplexing questions. It revealed the yaks were a gift for a prefect in Shen Bei, but how could they possibly intend to drive the yaks that far? The yaks would surely die along the way, and in any case it could hardly be done in time for the prefect’s birthday on the 19th of First Moon. And why was the promised price for the drive so suspiciously high? What was so special about these yaks? Finally, the letter gave a verse in Orcish, which no one could read, saying:
“Be assured the gift is indeed worthy. Should you doubt, remember these words: Ordos odo a vianga Viru / Hube hos ek usutu ulam / Jianga jiangar esu elam”
So it appeared the party members had their work cut out for them in Po Keng. They’d have to get to the bottom of this mystery.
On top of that, they had a mountain of loot from the cadavers to sell, some of which belonged to Imperial soldiers.
And last but not least, it was the eve of the New Year. Everyone awaited the oracle of the Grand Seer, which would prophecy the future of the Empire. This year was special, for it was expected that astronomical calculations on a body called the Void Star would finally reveal once and for all whether or not the apocalypse was at hand.
Wood Day, 31st of 12th Month, ZY1113
After taking as much loot as they could, they dragged the dead bodies to the side of the road and said a few appropriate words. Then they loaded into the wagon the body of the Orc that was dressed in silks and riding leathers—clearly wealthy if not nobility.
As they reached the outskirts of town, they saw what looked like fields lying fallow, along with the naked foundations of buildings, slowly being reclaimed by nature. Then, as they reached the town proper, they found attractive shops and inns on the right side of the Purple Road, opposite run-down shacks and sorry-looking stands on the left side. The town was divided into two apparently unequal portions.
At the center of town the Purple Road forked, forming a trio of paths: one leading on to Xing Xiang, another south to Shen Bei, and the third back to Kong Wan and the West. At the fork was an enormous tanaka tree, under which sat three antlered shaman women. People were lining up to receive their blessings. Each person made a small offering and in return received a smear of fawn’s blood on their forehead. Mo-tse immediately got in line to get such a blessing.
While in line, he learned that the blessing was a ward against a fearsome creature of the forest called the Black Beast. It had been marauding the deer herds vital to the town’s economy, and has been coming closer to the villages. No one knew exactly what the Black Beast was, but rumor had it that it was sent by the Lady of the Three Ways, who was the spirit protecting this part of the forest. She had been angered by the Orc newcomers and their bastardized Thauma-Virun religion. For centuries she had watched over the land and was in no mood to receive interloping deities.
After Mo-tse received his blessing of fawn’s blood, he wiped part of it on the brow of his brother Tse-dong, and as much as he could on the yaks as well.
By then, the party was eager to get down to business, but the priest Bayar begged them to make a stop by the Shrine of Thauma-Virun first. They did, and found an Orc acolyte drowning in his robes, preaching to any and all hearers of the grace of Viru: “He cares not whether you hail from the north or the south side of the road, nor whether you are Orc or Goblinoid, nor weather you are wealthy or poor. Viru saves all!”
With that, the acolyte turned to the approaching Bayar, and immediately welcomed him inside: “This way, sir!”
Upon entering the small, one-room shrine, three Goblinoid children sprung up and recited a hymn of Viru. The acolyte clapped and clapped.
But when Bayar stated his business, the acolyte gasped, “Wait… so you mean you are not here for my evaluation?”
With that, the acolyte sighed in relief, and bid the children to scatter. They held out their hands for payment, and the acolyte reluctantly handed over a few copper meng.
What happened next surprised more than just the acolyte. Bayar revealed a secret he had been keeping since he met the drover brothers. In truth, he had been sent on a special mission by his temple. He was to procure the yaks they were droving by any means necessary, and deliver them to the acolyte in Po Keng.
When the other party members heard this, they were outraged. Why had Bayar kept this a secret? Had he planned to betray them? Had they been played for fools?
“Why don’t you just shoot him?” said Kanya. Her deadpan voice echoed the thoughts of the others.
Fortunately for Bayar, no one turned to violence. Unfortunately for Bayar, they were not the slightest bit interested in handing the yaks over to the temple.
What was most perplexing of all was why the temple was so interested in the yaks. It added yet another layer of mystery to the herd.
“What were you to do with the yaks after receiving them?” Mo-tse asked the acolyte.
The acolyte replied, “It was the strangest thing. I was instructed by my temple superiors in Xing Xiang to take the yaks to a certain abandoned farmhouse in the hills and leave them locked up there, unattended. It was particularly odd because there was no grazing in the area.”
By then the party members had heard enough. They took their leave of the acolyte and moved on to other matters. Unfortunately, they hadn’t thought to ask the Orc acolyte if he could translate the Orcish verse in the letter. Thus they missed a clue that would haunt them later.
But onto more important business. First, they visited the local constable, an onerous Goblinoid woman buried in paper work. There they reported the deaths they had discovered on the road. They showed the body of the wealthy-looking Orc, wondering if he was a local noble. But the Constable knew him only as a visitor that had shown up about a week ago with a trio of Imperial riders. They were staying at the Three-Way Inn. As for the deaths, someone had to find out what had happened, so the Constable charged the party members with the task in exchange for clearing their names of any suspicion that they were actually the ones responsible.
Next on the agenda was unloading the loot and the yaks. The party thought the best bet would be to sell it all to the local noble family, the Alats. Unfortunately, they underestimated the haughty pride of the nobility, who were contemptuous of their attempts to peddle their wears. If not for the presence of brother Bayar, they might have been shooed away like flies. Still, they could make no sale. The only items that interested them were the government-issue armor and weapons of the soldiers, which they promptly confiscated as property of the Empire.
They were, however, interested in a different kind of service. Lord Alat had decided to capture the Black Beast alive, and was looking for teams to hunt it down. The pay was 50 shu per team, with a 200 shu bonus to the one that brought the beast in. The party accepted the job, and was told to return at dusk to make good on the mission.
Last but not least, Mo-tse handed over the letter from Lord Gansalahi.
That evening, the party gathered once again at the estate of the Alats to hunt down the Black Beast. They were given three nets and some torches to aid the job. Kanya, ever the herbalist, came up with the idea of making a narcotic to tranquilize the beast. She placed the drug inside a hank of venison meat, and also tipped Mo-tse’s crossbow bolts with it. Finally, Mo-tse smeared it on himself on the collar of the dog Wan-wan, just in case they were attacked by the beast. Then, the party set off along with three other teams to track down the creature.
It was already known where the Black Beast bedded down at night, so fires were lit around the area to flush it out of hiding. Then the teams spread out and hoped for the best. Kanya’s idea of luring the beast with a hank of meat paid off, for soon they heard rustling in the bushes. Next came snorting and squealing. Finally, out of the underbrush emerged an enormous boar, half again the size of a normal boar, with fur all sable black. The beast crept up to the meat, sniffed it, and began tearing into the flesh. Soon it began to appear woozy.
Just then, Kanya, who was waiting in the tree above, launched a net at the beast. Unfortunately it was not easy to cast the nets, and she missed. The beast squealed, realizing the threat, and went into a rage. It charged violently at any and all near it. The narcotic from the meat made it clumsy, but it was still pounding with adrenalin and very dangerous.
Then Tass released trained her crossbow on the marauding creature and let fly a bolt. Her aim was true, but a peculiar thing happened. The bolt sailed for the beast’s flank, only to stop short of its target, hover for a split-second, then splinter as if snapped by an unseen hand. The party gasped as they realized some magical or supernatural force enveloped the creature.
Mad attempts were made to take down the beast, but all for naught. It could not be harmed by ordinary weapons.
It was then that Kanya conceived a clever plan. She drew a dagger and cut her own wrist, catching the blood in a cup which had more of the narcotic in it. This drugged blood she scattered in a line in the snow, in a desperate attempt to induce the beast to consume more of the tranquilizer.
Her plot succeeded in getting the beast’s attention at least, for it mistook her for a wounded animal and concentrated its aggression against her. With a snort and a squeal, it charged violently. Apparently Kanya’s luck had run out, for the beast piled into her left leg, splintering the bones as easily as a toothpick. With a cry, she passed out from the pain.
Strangely, after touching Kanya, the beast suddenly seemed far more disoriented and affected by the narcotic. It was as if some power or force that had been invigorating it suddenly departed.
Just then, the party finally succeeded in netting the creature. Tass made the deciding throw, and then the others could more easily get theirs around the beast. Finally, the tranquilizer’s effects caught up with it and the beast tipped over into the snow.
Tse-dong leaped to the rescue of Kanya, using his healing magic to save what might otherwise have been a permanently lamed limb.
Victorious, the party returned to the Alats’ estate and collected the hefty reward of 250 iron shu. They were also given 12 mulberries to eat, in accordance with the custom of the New Year’s festival, for midnight had passed while they were on the hunt. The berries were said to bring luck in the coming twelve months.
They also heard the Grand Seer’s omen for the New Year. It was particularly arcane this year:
A drinking horn with three horse heads, shattered into a thousand pieces. The Void Star rises and sets neither in the east nor in the west. Great Atmah the World-serpent clenches his teeth in his tail and does not let go, but the goddess Wu-Yu’s dress is torn asunder by three hungry dogs.
Before the party went on its way, Mo-tse was summoned for an audience with the head of the Alats family. Upon returning, Mo-tse said it was nothing, just formalities. Then they were off.
The next day, the party decided they’d had enough of the yak business. They found a local buyer and managed to get 600 iron shu, which was a price better than average, though still far below that promised for the drive.
Then the party finally thought to get the Orcish verse from the letter translated by the acolyte at the temple. The party members mouth’s dropped as the section of the letter dropped a heavy clue:
“Be assured the gift is indeed worthy. Should you doubt, remember these words:
Ever the bold and clever Viru
Hid that night inside the beast’s belly,
Eclipsed like a secret treasure.”
Upon hearing these words, Mo-tse declared, “We have to get the yaks back.”
It seemed some kind of treasure was hidden inside the animals. No wonder they had commanded such a high price, and no wonder so many were interested in them. But what kind of treasure could it be, that would require such extreme lengths to ensure secrecy? And what did the Thauma-Virun temple want with it?