World of Wu-Yu

Chapter 18 The Battle of Kong Wan

After discovering the mercury mines of Lord Gansalahi, the adventurers debated what to do. Their friends Bayar and Magsa were still back in Kong Wan, but if they returned to that city they were as good as dead. Gansalahi would surely discovery they knew the secret location of his precious mercury mines. Even more importantly he would know that they knew his mines were no longer operating, which would ruin him in the face of his creditors. Finally, his favored performer, the acrobat Song-i, whom they were “renting” from Gansalahi, had run off. They had never intended to return her to Gansalahi, but just the same, if they returned empy-handed they would surely incur his full wrath. Without his mines and his star performer, he must be financially desperate. And a desperate man is the most unpredictable of all. He would have no reason to keep them alive anymore.

Finally, they decided to send just Tass, cloaked in disguise, to get Bayar and Magsa out of the city, and to deliver a few final messages.

Arriving in Kong Wan, Tass quickly dispatched her role. She sent off a message to her superiors in her secret organization, the Shi Ahki, informing them of the location of the mercury mines and their state. Next, she sent the Governor the copy of the Tathatan law-scriptures signed by Benari, along with a note explaining the incriminating story behind it. Then she looked for her friends.

Tass found Bayar in a startling state. His face was ruddy with wind-burn, and his left arm hung lifeless from his shoulder. Bayar explained his strange encounter with the Tengu Zohar high in the peaks of the mountains, and how he lost the use of his arm in his trials to achieve the Acolyte level of priesthood.

But there was one thing more he explained, something far more urgent.

“As the bird-like Tengu carried me over the mountains, I looked down and I saw something,” said Bayar. “It was an army, flying the banners of Bayanhongor. They were marching off-path, hiding between the mountain ridges so they could not be detected except from above. And they were heading toward Kong Wan.”

It appeared as though the war may have begun. An attack on Kong Wan was immanent.

Tass and Bayar sent one further message to the Governor informing him of this terrible news. They signed it in the name of Tse-dong.

Quickly they found Magsa.

“We have to get out of here,” they said. “War is upon us.”

But Magsa, hearing the news, had a better idea. She decided to stay and help Old Gramps and others in Kong Wan leave before the battle. Old Gramps and Magsa intended to flee to a town called Xo-Tsi outside Xing Xiang. If they ever needed them, they could find them there.

Tass and Bayar bid their friends farewell and good luck, then parted ways. Grabbing all their remaining possessions from the lodge, they headed back to the mercury mines.

Meanwhile, back at the mines, Kanya took one of the vials of mercury and returned to the monastery in hopes that this would speed the research on the plague being conducted by her aunt Santhip.

With the mercury in hand, Santhip ran some tests and confirmed her suspicions. The Black Pox was caused by Thauma’s Ashes, which was a compound of mercury, jade dust, and a substance called arcanum which was a residue left over by magical workings. Together these substances fused into a compound that was fairly innocuous in low dosages, but caused the lethal disease in high concentrations. Originating in the mercury mines in the mountains, Thauma’s Ashes contaminated the water supply, which was consumed by fish and animals. Those low on the food chain were unaffected, but predators higher up on the chain received more concentrated doses through their prey, and turned mad with disease.

When Tass and Bayar returned to the mines, Tse-dong and Mo-tse were waiting. In fact, they had made allies of the Gome mine workers. In exchange for letting the Gnomes follow them under their protection, the Gnomes provided them with the weapons and armor of their former Orc captors.

Upon hearing the news of the impending attack on Kong Wan, they debated their next course of action. It seemed best to avoid the war, and ride to Xing Xiang to begin a new life there.

But then they hatched a new plan. What about exploring the mercury mines further? They hadn’t investigated the strange portal into which the Gnomes had been making shipments of mercury. They didn’t know what dark force lay on the other side, but whatever it was it didn’t sound good. They resolved to destroy it before they left.

One of the Gnomes fearfully showed them the way through the dark tunnels. They passed down, down, down into the deepest part of the mines. There, they discovered a large stone-work pit, into the floor of which was carved a pentagram sigil representing the Five Elements. The Gnome explained that when they poured enough mercury into the pit to fill up the grooves of the sigil, there would be a flash of light and then the mercury would be gone.

Tass thought about the symbolism of the Five Elements. The five were: Earth, Wood, Water, Fire, and Metal.

“Wait a minute,” said Tass. “What if the mercury represents metal? It’s set to accept metal!”

“Ah,” said Mo-tse, seeing where she was going with the idea. “Then what if we put the wrong element in? What overcomes Metal?”

Quickly, they recited the lore of the Five Elements.

“Metal overcomes Wood, Wood overcomes Earth, Earth overcomes Water, Water overcomes Fire, and Fire overcomes… Metal!”

Gambling on their hypothesis, they poured barrels of oil into the pit until it filled up the grooves of the sigil, then cast in a flaming torch to ignite it.

The oil caught fire, and the sigil began to glow. Magical light sputtered and flared, spark flying. Then there was an enormous explosion.

When the smoke cleared, they peered down into the pit. The floor had completely disappeared. In its place was a shaft leading down into darkness.

Wasting no time, they got out their ropes and climbed down into the shaft. Below, they found a complex of stonework hallways. A gutter had mercury residue left in it. Tass followed it to find it disappear behind a wall. Apparently the gutter transported the mercury to somewhere in this underground complex.

Exploring deeper, what they found was beyond their wildest suspicions.

Two great double doors led into a vast chamber with all the pomp and grandeur of an Imperial city. Surrounding the entire city was a moat of gleaming mercury.

“Well, now we know where the mercury was going,” said Tass.

The city was filled with buildings just like could be found in a city: a smithy, a stables, a tavern, a millers, an armory, and so on. But the city had no people – at least, no live people. Instead, each building was filled with carefully crafted life-sized terra cotta figures representing residents appropriate to each building.

“Amazing,” said Bayar. “Who would build this?”

They explored the city until they reached what appeared to be a palace. It only had one genuine entrance, all others means of getting inside, including doors and windows, proved to be a facade.

Carefully Mo-tse opened the palace door. Inside thye found a foyer with a fountain of mercury. The mercury bubbled and sputtered, then began to rise into a humanoid form.

But they had no interest in communicating with whatever power was down here. They quickly shot back out the front door and closed it behind them.

Then they heard an enormous rumbling coming from streets of the city. Dust was kicked up, and the rumbling became rhythmic. It sounded like… marching.

With astonishment, Tass, Bayar, Tse-dong, and Mo-tse saw that the terra cotta figures of the city had become animated. All the soldiers marched toward the main avenues and joined up into formation.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” said Tass.

The soldiers formed legions and marched up the main avenue toward them. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a military charge. But the soldiers halted just before the palace. They placed their weapons at their side and stood at attention in perfect parade formation.

Tse-dong looked at Mo-tse with a crazy look in his eye. He had an idea, and Mo-tse knew what it was. He shrugged. It was worth a shot.

Tse-dong stepped forward, standing as regal and tall as he could manage. Then he called out as he had always wanted to do, in the commanding voice of a leader of empires.

“I am your emperor!” he shouted. “Army, salute!”

To his utter astonishment, all at once the terra cotta soldiers put their fists together in front of their chest in the Imperial salute of Wu-Yu.

Apparently, someone had built the city to re-create the Empire, and set its golem residents to respond to anyone emerging from the palace as their Emperor. Where the maker of the strange city was, or why it was left unguarded, they did not investigate. They were too overcome by the spectacle before them.

With a childish yelp of glee, Tse-dong realized he had what always yearned for – an Empire to command! One-thousand terra cotta soldiers stood ready for action.

But now, what should they do with it?

Gradually, a plan dawned on them.

“Do you think we could…?” said Tass.

Bayar nodded. “We could be heroes.”

“We could be warlords!” said Mo-tse.

“It’s decided,” declared Tse-dong. “We march on Kong Wan!”

None of them could have dreamed of what fortune would bring them that day. They had been about to flee Kong Wan, never to return. But now chance offered them a new opportunity. Bayanhongor’s army was about to capture Kong Wan, but they had a chance to intervene. With an army of terra cotta golems, they might have a chance of defeating Bayanhongor’s forces and saving the city.

Brazen in their new confidence, they marched the army up out of the underground city and onto the road to Kong Wan. The legion kicked up such a cloud of dust that it could be seen from miles away, a fearsome warning of what was on the way.

As they came within a few day’s range of Kong Wan, they heard the news that Bayanhongor’s force had beaten them to it. Worse, they had taken the city without firing a single arrow! The Governor had been prepared to defend the city against hopeless odds with his last man, and die in glory, but he was betrayed. Someone opened the gates to Bayanhongor’s forces, allowing them to march right in.

That traitor was none other than Gansalahi.

Apparently the lord, desperate to pay off his mounting debts in the wake of his failed mercury mines and lost acrobat performer, sought a desperate alliance. Secretly he conspired with Bayanhongor. On the eve of the army’s arrival, Gansalahi launched a coup that took the Governor prisoner, secured control of the city, and opened the gates. Kong Wan was now flying the banners of Prince Bayanhongor.

“This is horrible,” cried Tass. “Now that they have the city walls and ballistae on their side, they’ll have an enormous advantage. Even with an army of golems, we can’t defeat them.”

A thought flashed across Bayar’s mind.

“Unless…” he wondered aloud.

Suddenly, he remembered the crow’s beak talisman given him by Zohar, which could teleport him back to the Tengu’s cave. Zohar had said he’d had a vision of them working together one day in Kong Wan. And Zohar’s mission had been to find out the source of the “Black Snow”, or Thauma’s Ashes, which was poisoning the mountain waters. Since they knew that it was the mercury mines of Lord Gansalahi that was the origin of Thauma’s Ashes, the Tengu would have a reason to hate Gansalahi.

“I might be able to convince them to come to our aid!” cried Bayar.

The others nodded in agreement, and Bayar pulled out the magic crow’s beak.

He held it to his chest, closed his eyes, and thought of Zohar’s cave. And with that, he vanished into thin air.

“I hope he comes through,” muttered Tass.

“Otherwise this is going to be an awful short battle,” said Mo-tse.

Meanwhile, Tse-dong just sat dreaming of leading the charge at the head of his new army.


Atop the walls of Kong Wan, two guards wearing the colors of Prince Bayanhongor peered into the distance. A great cloud was rising over the Purple Road.

“What is it?” asked one of the guards. “Fog? Some kind of storm?”

The other shook his head. “It’s an army.”

The alarm gongs rang as soldiers scrambled to defend the walls.

Lord Gansalahi reached the parapet and looked on.

Advancing on the gates was a legion of what appeared to be clay soldiers. And at the head of the formation, carried on a sedan was none other than the pretentious Goblinoid with which he had so long toyed, the insufferable Lao Tse-dong.

The guards trembled, but Gansalahi maintained his composure.

“Their force is small,” he sneered. “The gates will hold.”

The golems pounded on the gates with untiring fists. Defenders of the walls rained arrows, burning oil, and boulders on them. The terra cotta chipped away, and many were destroyed. Prospects looked grim if they could not get through the gates.

Just then, another guard cried out.

“Sir!” he shouted. “There in the sky!”

Gansalahi spun around, and his eyes widened.

“What the…!” he shouted.

The sky turned black with a formation of soaring, lance-wielding bird-men, with Bayar carried by Zohar at the head of the flight of Tengu.

“No!” shouted Gansalahi, as the Tengu dove into the citadel.

Bayanhongor’s soldiers fired arrows that sliced through a few, but they could not resist the swooping charge. Soon, the soldiers panicked and ran to and fro in chaos.

Soon the Tengu reached the gate tower and opened the gates. The golems streamed in and began pounding through the quickly-scattering soldiers.

With the gate secured, Tse-dong, Mo-tse, Tass, and Bayar entered the city and immediately sought out their enemy. Taking a pair of golems with them, they headed for the Governor’s fortress on hunt. Their prey: Lord Gansalahi.

They found him high atop a catwalk between two towers, encased in formidable plate armor.

Bayar called to Zohar to fly in and attack him. He used his Thunder’s Voice spell to ensure he heard him anywhere in the city, but there was no response. He tried again, to no avail. He began to worry.

Unable to strike Gansalahi from the air, they were forced to deal with him themselves. The adventurers marched up one tower with one of the golems, and sent the other golem up the other tower.

When they reached Gansalahi, he taunted them, as arrogant as ever, but with a new hint of desperation in his voice.

“The brothers Lau!” called Gansalahi. “Petty Goblinoids! How could you ever hope to be the equal of true Orc nobility? How could you ever aspire to be anything but the insects you are? All this time I was just toying with you for my own amusement. But now the fun is over. It is your time to die!”

They fired their arrows at him, but the missiles simply bounced off him, almost as if they hadn’t even struck him at all.

Gansalahi laughed. Apparently he had some kind of magical defense that protected him against missiles.

“You can’t hurt me like that,” he taunted. “You’ll have to come out here on this narrow catwalk and fight me one at a time, hand-to-hand.”

It was true, the catwalk was too narrow to allow more than one combatant at a time. And any who lost their balance faced a deadly five-story plunge to the courtyard below.

Tse-dong advanced first, with the others behind. But Tass, remembering that this man, Lord Gansalahi, was the man who had her parents killed, boiled with rage.

She cried out and launched a daring – or perhaps foolish – maneuver: she charged and leaped clear over Tse-dong at her enemy.

She must have had the gods on her side that day, or maybe it was just pure adrenalin, but she leaped with perfect adroitness over both Tse-dong and his brother’s dog Wan-wan. She piled into Gansalahi, dagger in hand, ready to drive it into his throat.

But Gansalahi twisted and flung her off.

She might have plunged to her death if she hadn’t caught the catwalk with her hand at the last moment.

As Tse-dong and the others then engaged Gansalahi in hand-to-hand combat, she managed to pull herself up. Meanwhile, Bayar overcome Gansalahi’s magical defenses with a Demoralize spell, that caused the noble to lose his nerve.

Gansalahi turned and ran off the catwalk into the other tower and headed down the spiral staircase. The others chased after, but soon they heard Gansalahi shriek. He came barreling back up the stairs, followed by the golem they had sent up that tower earlier.

At that point it was a fight to the death inside the tower, and Gansalahi was handicapped by Bayar’s spell. Tass came in with a dagger strike that cut clear through his helmet and cheek to skewer his tongue. But he wasn’t felled yet.

Tse-dong used his Neutralize Magic spell to eliminate his defense against missiles. Then Mo-tse took aim with his crossbow, the very same crossbow he’d been given by Gansalahi on that day at the Empire when he was made to test his marksman’s skill for the lord’s amusement. Later, in order to keep the weapon and to prove his loyalty, the lord demanded he shoot his own brother Tse-dong in the leg. Now, Mo-tse gazed at the arrogant Gansalahi through the sets of that very crossbow, and loosed his bolt.

It struck him clean through the throat, a lethal blow, and Gansalahi collapsed to the tower floor.

Tass climbed onto his chest and began mutilating the lord until there was nothing left but a bloody mass of pulp.

At last, she had her revenge.

Bayanhongor’s army was routed, the city was regained, and Gansalahi was dead. But not all was well with the adventurers.

A Tengu flew in carrying a comrade, mortally wounded beyond healing. It was none other than Bayar’s friend, Zohar.

“Zohar, no!” cried Bayar.

“Do not fret for me,” said Zohar. “Learn to wield the power within you, for the good of all Wu-Yu.”

And with that, the Tengu mystic perished.


The next day, Princess Atas’ army, finally free of plague thanks to the research of Kanya’s aunt Santhip, arrived at the gates of Kong Wan.

What the princess found was a Kong Wan flying the banners neither of Bayanhonger nor herself, but a new banner.

It was the flag of the Brothers Lau.

Tse-dong, Mo-tse, Tass, and Bayar marched out to meet her at the head of their golem legion, of which some eighty-percent had survived the battle intact.

Princess Atas appeared before them, standing gracefully atop the back of a white steed. So it was true after all, the adventurers realized – her horsemanship was indeed as good as rumor claimed.

She leaped down from the horse, eyed them up carefully, and then signaled to parley.

Tse-dong and Mo-tse stepped forward and took the initiative. Mo-tse explained that they were warlords and had taken the city. But they wished no hostilities with the princess. They were willing to relinquish the city to her, in exchange for appropriate reward.

It was a bold move. Almost foolishly bold. But it seemed to put a subtle smile on the face of the princess.

When she spoke, it was with regal authority. She proclaimed that their extraordinary bravery and service was a credit to their honor. It recalled the daring ambition of her Orc ancestors on the steppes, the courage of the self-made man. So she offered them a deal. They must surrender the city to her, join their golem army with hers, and pledge their allegiance. If they did so, their courage would be richly rewarded. They would be granted the rank of nobility, which their deeds deserved, and granted lands accordingly.

The adventurers agreed, and swore allegiance to the princess.

With that, Princess Atas marched into Kong Wan and flew her banners there once again.

A great celebration was held. Bayar was raised to the noble rank of esquire. Tse-dong, Mo-tse, and Tass could not be given the same title, as it was reserved only for those of Orc blood, but were given the equally-honored title of esquire meritorious. Each of them received tracts of land in the mountains around the region of Kong Wan, which were estimated to yield incomes around three-hundred shu per month. The Governor also showered them with rewards: four racing stallions worth 1000 shu each.

Later, when agents were sent to revisit the mercury mines, it was discovered that the portal had closed. It turned up only a simple stone floor, with no more sigil. Apparently whatever power lurked down there had been debilitated by the fire but had regained its strength, and reacted. There was no more way to investigate where the golem army had come from, who created them, or why.

Meanwhile, Prince Bayanhongor was still out there. His forces at Kong Wan had been routed, but his main army was still advancing. The war had only just begun.

As for the adventurers, a new destiny lied ahead of them. As newly-created nobles, they had opportunities as yet undreamed of, but also great dangers ahead.

Atop the walls of Kong Wan together, the adventurers gazed out at the sunset in silence, contemplating the future.

Tass’ brow furrowed, deep in thought. She’d at last had her revenge, but it did not feel sweet as she’d expected. Thoughts turned to her mentor in sorcery which she’d left long ago, and the secret organization of the Shi Ahki.

Bayar was newly empowered with the divine gifts of an Acolyte, but also gazed soarly at his useless left arm, a sacrifice for his struggles.

Mo-tse shouldered the gleaming silver crossbow he’d won from Gansalahi, and wondered what life would be like as a Goblinoid among nobility. They’d been given the rank, but it was still an Orc’s world. There was no guarantee that they’d be accepted. The only thing certain was that the stakes had been raised.

Finally, Tse-dong wrapped his fingers together, with a grin stretching from ear to ear. Everything was falling into place. Step by step, his path was clear. One day… oh yes! One day, he would be emperor!

The sun sunk behind the horizon, and night fell upon Kong Wan.

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Chapter 17 Bayar's Initiation

Water Day, 14th of 4th Month, ZY1114

While having mid-morning breakfast at the Sky Door with his friends, Bayar witnessed a most strange event. The sky grew dim and then dark, as if night. No one else seemed to recognize the strange phenomenon; to them it was a perfectly bright sky. They went on plotting their next move against Gansalahi’s mercury mines as if nothing were amiss.

As the sky grew dark, Bayar also felt well up inside a feeling of overwhelming sadness and loss. The others suggested he may have eaten some bad meat or something, and perhaps he should stay home from the mission. Magsa offered to stay and take care of him.

Not feeling ill, but being unable to explain the strange vision and feelings, Bayar took their advice and retired to his room. He rested for the remainder of the day.

The next day, he found the town grown preternaturally cold, and time seemed as if it were standing still. The sky was still dark. It was as if some being or force had arrested the natural procession of the sun through the sky, creating a state of permanent night.

Meanwhile, news had arrived that all the Tathatans in the Ward had suddenly vanished. Some suspected powerful sorcery, and others suspected a plot by Prince Bayanhongor. But the Governor insisted they’d escaped by natural means with the help of inside agents, and those who’d aided and abetted their escape would be found and punished. A public trial would be held that afternoon to discover the guilty party.

Bayar then received a summons to the trial. He feared he would be accused, but obeyed the summons.

The trial was held outside amidst a crowd of local townsfolk. At the trial, it was the guards who had been on duty at the West Gate that night who stood accused. It turned out that Bayar was called in as an expert witness, since as a priest he was familiar with magic and could speak to the suspicions of sorcery, and as a person who’d traveled recently in the West he could speak to the suspicions of Prince Bayanhongor’s involvement.

Bayar was made to submit to the spell of Ordeal, standard procedure for court witnesses. He had to hold in his hand a metal sun medallion which would burn with intense magical heat if he spoke anything untrue.

The Governor probed Bayar about the Tathatans, sorcery, and Bayanhongor. As he did so, strange things began to happen.

First, snakes appeared writhing around Bayar’s arms and fingers as he sat on the witness stand. Bayar was alarmed but endeavored to keep calm since no one else seemed to see the snakes.

Next, the snakes worked their way around his legs and body.

Worse, an enormous serpent, monstrous in size, then reared its head over the crowd. To Bayar it appeared that this giant serpent was interrogating him. Bayar sweated and strained to control his fear.

Finally, one of the serpent’s coiling round his wrist bared its fangs and sunk them deep into his veins. Bayar cried out in pain, much to the astonishment of those watching him, who saw nothing amiss. His headed pounded as venom pulsed through his veins.

The Governor asked if Bayar was feeling alright, as he appeared quite pale. Bayar asked to be excused, and in a few moments the questioning was finished and he was allowed to leave the witness stand.

As he did so, he saw smoke rising up from behind the crowd, and flames lapping up from the buildings.

Amidst the crowd he glimpsed a strange woman, glowing unnaturally. She was a beautiful Orc maiden with flaxen black hair in coiled braids, leading a radiant white horse by the bridle. She disappeared in the crowd while heading toward the East gate.

The whole town now seemed ablaze in a conflagration. Bayar ran after her. He was last seen by the people of Kong Wan as running and crying madly through the streets toward the Eastern gate, swerving clumsily as if deeply ill.

Bayar made it outside the city and endeavored desperately to reach his holy site in the mountains, where he could pray to Thauma to discover what misfortune was befalling him. The venom was too powerful, however, and after a heroic effort, he collapsed in the snow. The last thing he remembered seeing was a strange, bird-like creature flying overhead as a silhouette in the sky.

When he came to, Bayar found himself in a rocky cave, near a sputtering fire with a pot over it smelling of meat. A blanket of black feathers was spread over him. The mouth of the cave appeared to be near, for dim starlight poured in from around a bend in the cave.

From the roof of the cave hung cords strung with dried herbs, skins, and bones. The cave walls were covered with strange glyphs – writing that looked old, very old.

Bayar, feeling completely recovered from the snake venom but deeply unnerved by his strange new surroundings, decided to explore the cave entrance. Peering round the bend, he could hardly believe his eyes.

Spread out before the mouth of the cave were the uppermost peaks of mountains – hundred of them, for as far as the eye could see. He appeared to be at the top of the world, somewhere atop the highest peaks of the Tianshu Mountains.

Suddenly, Bayar heard cat-like growling. A Siberian tiger appeared just beneath the mouth of the cave. It was thin and emaciated, its ribs visible from starvation. It roared and leaped at him with razor-sharp claws.

Bayar attempted to dodge but failed, and the tiger sliced into his left arm. Its claws ripped clean through, leaving only a bloody mess dangling from his shoulder.

The young Orc priest was now in dire jeopardy. He responded with his most powerful magic, a lightning strike that sizzled the tiger and left the beast smouldering.

Then something odd happened. Amidst the scent of burnt fur, there was a shimmer of magical light and the tiger transformed. It’s feline form changed into a tall humanoid figure, bird-like, covered in black feathers.

The creature raised its hand to signal a halt to the combat. Then it spoke.

“You are worthy, small one.”

It introduced itself as Zohar, a member of the race called the Tengu, who keep their secret home high in the peaks of the Tianshu Mountains. Zohar was a mystic of the sky god Tengri, and he had been charged by his people with the task of seeking out the source of the “Black Snow”, which Bayar surmised was Thauma’s Ashes. He had been flying over the region of Kong Wan when he spied Bayar collapsed in the snow. What caught his eye was that his body was melting the snow around him by the heat of his tapas, or mystical energy. Zohar knew some great spiritual power was loosed within him, so he brought him back to his mountain lair and nursed him back to health. He then appeared as a marauding tiger to test Bayar, to see if his courage was worthy of the spiritual task that lied ahead of him.

With a few chanted words, Zohar healed the wound on Bayar’s arm, though the damage was too thorough to restore functioning to the limb. It hung limp at Bayar’s side.

“What visions have you seen?” asked Zohar, almost as if he knew what Bayar had been going through.

Bayar explained his strange feelings and hallucinations, as if he were losing his mind.

Zohar nodded in recognition. He knew exactly what was happening.

“You are entering the myth,” he explained.

“What?” asked Bayar.

Zohar explained that great initiations lead the devotee through a myth of his or her god. Most traditions carefully channel this energy by the power of elaborate ritual. But Bayar, working outside tradition, had unleashed the myth without the order of any ritual structure.
Thus, his mind was literally descending into chaos, as it lost the ability to tell the difference between myth and reality.

It was then that Bayar recognized the motifs of his hallucinations – the darkness, the serpent, and the Orc maiden with the white horse – from the myth of the Victory of Viru Over the Serpent.

Now, at last, it was beginning to make sense. He was becoming initiated into the next level of priesthood, that of the Acolyte, and therefore merging with the myth of his god Thauma-Viru. But without a ritual structure, his mind had plunged into the abyss of that tale, turning his own world into the landscape of the mythic world.

“Can you help me?” asked Bayar.

Zohar nodded.

The Tengu mystic placed him under a trance, chanting and shaking a rattle around him. Then Bayar’s consciousness drifted off into a dream-like realm. There, he experienced a series of strange scenes where his courage, wisdom, and faith was tested. Finally, he emerged victorious and opened his eyes.

He knew intuitively that he had passed the test and was now an Acolyte of his god, Thauma-Viru. He was the first ever to achieve such a level outside the institution of the Thauma-Virun temple. He thanked the Tengu profusely for his aid.

Zohar nodded, then offered to return Bayar to Kong Wan. While Bayar was in trance, Zohar himself had experienced a vision. He saw himself and Bayar working together somehow in the near future, though he knew not how or for what reason. He gave Bayar a magical crow’s beak talisman that would instantly teleport him back to Zohar’s cave if he ever needed his help again. It was good for one use and one use only, and he could not also teleport home, so he warned Bayar to use it wisely.

Then Zohar stretched out his mighty black-feathered wings, grabbed Bayar in his arms, and took flight out of the cave.

The two soared down over the mountain peaks toward Kong Wan.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

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Chapter 16 The Mercury Mines

Just bare-bones notes, to be fleshed out later:

It was heard in the morning at breakfast that all the Tathatans in the Ward had suddenly vanished. Some suspected powerful sorcery, though the PCs knew better. They also heard tell that a procession of Sweepers, the religious cult that covered themselves head to toe in dark blue robes and swept the path before them as they walked, had been seen walking through the streets last night heading toward the Western gate. These “Sweepers”, the PCs suspected, were none other than disguised Tathatans.

Bayar was acting strange at breakfast at the Sky Door that morning. Though it was mid-morning, the sky outside appeared dark as night to him. No one else seemed to see it. He thought he might be ill and chose to stay home and rest up, and Magsa chose to stay and take care of him.

Tse-dong, coming back into town along the Purple Road, saw Benari fleeing East. The others, upon hearing this news, decided to got to Benari’s mansion and loot it.

Afterward, the PCs visited Lord Gansalahi at the Empire to finalize their deal to “rent” the acrobat Song-i for 60 shu per night and a key to their lodge. Song-i claimed to be able to lead them to the mercury mines. When Gansalahi first brought her to Kong Wan from her homeland in the Imperial Lowlands, they made a stop at the mines. She was blindfolded, but could remember all of the sounds she heard and the rough time intervals at which they made turns on the path. If the PCs helped her escape from Gansalahi’s control, she promised to lead them to the mines.

At the Empire, they discovered Gansalahi was being audited. His doorman Pagarasuna revealed that in the fuss about where the mercury mines were, everyone forgot to ask who was buying it all.

Before leaving the lodge, the PCs dug up their buried sorcery texts. Tass is now carrying them on her person.

On the way to the mercury mines, the PCs stopped at the Atmahan monastery and picked up Kanya to join their mission.

As Song-i led them into the mountain canyons, they heard strange singing and cries of help. Mo-tse had heard of creatures in these parts that could mimic human words. Soon, macaques with bristles along their spines appeared, apparently looking only for food. Mo-tse fed them.

They came upon a waterfall, frozen but thawing in the spring weather. Song-i recalled passing under the waterfall and through a long tunnel, but when they searched behind the waterfall they found only a shallow cave. Tass discovered this to be only an illusion. Tse-dong used his mystic eye spell to peer behind the illusion, and found a cave bear on the other side stricken with the Black Pox. The PCs readied their magic, but before they could do so, the bear smelled them, stumbled through the illusion and attacked. During the fight, a large chunk of ice from the waterfall broke off and struck Tse-dong as well as crushing Tass’ abdomen. Shortly after, Mo-tse used his levitation spell to animate a stone and push the cave bear near the edge of the waterfall, after which it slipped and plunged into the abyss below.

On the other end of the tunnel, they discovered a mining camp, but with no people and no guards. There were tracks in the snow, however, and smoke coming from the chimneys. Tse-dong’s mystic eye spell revealed a trap waiting for them – two Gnomes (it was extremely suprising to see Gnomes so far from the Plateau of Trulkor!) hiding above the tunnel exit waiting to release a pile of rubble on them when they came through. So, they waited inside.

While waiting, there was rumbling, an overpowering smell of rotten eggs, and a plume of black smoke which came out one of the tunnels, leaving behind black particles much like those of Thauma’s Ashes.

After that, some Gnomes wielding spears and wearing Imperial soldiers’ armor, clearly too big for them, entered the tunnel to see if the PCs had survived the eruption of black smoke. They were speaking Gnomish. The PCs fled from them back through the tunnel, but the Gnomes pursued and caught them. After some fighting, Mo-tse managed to stop the fray and parley with them.

It turned out they were two of the last fifteen mine workers left – all the guards and other workers had died of the Black Pox. They begged the PCs not to tell Gansalahi that they hadn’t made a mercury shipment in over a month. Gansalahi knows where their families are and has threatened to harm them if the workers misbehaved. Some were also worried about the one to whom they were delivering the mercury. They were shipping it not out but down, into a “doorway” – some magical portal deep in the mines. Out of the portal there periodically came a plume of noxious black smoke carrying particles that later fell again like black snow. This was apparently the origin of the mysterious meteorological phenomenon called Thauma’s Ashes which had befallen the Empire in the last few years.

Some said that behind the portal was a demon, or even a god, that received the mercury. They feared this being would grow angry without its offerings of mercury.

The workers then begged the PCs to help them find their families and protect them against Gansalahi, but the PCs said they couldn’t and that their families were likely already dead. They then went their separate ways. The workers allowed the PCs to take what little of the mined mercury remained, which was still quite valuable if the right buyer could be found, which totaled six vials worth roughly 200 shu each.

Meanwhile, during all this, Song-i the acrobat managed to slip away and run off with one of the PCs horses. Apparently she didn’t trust them, and when she saw an opportunity to escape, she took it. She was not heard from again.

The PCs now plan to head back in the direction of Kong Wan to finish up business there, but will likely soon head off to Xing Xiang to avoid Gansalahi’s wrath and procure more sorcery spells from Tass’ secret organization, the Shi Ahki.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

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A Dark Night

Tass:

I am a tiny raft afloat upon a storm-riddled ocean.
The water is filled with the most vile of monsters,
and I am tossed about till I am blind and half-crazed.

Every time I decide to accept the life that fate has dealt me,
my cards suddenly change as does the stakes, and I am lost again.

At one time I thought that if I achieved revenge, if I managed to kill
the ones responsible, the ghosts of my parents would finally rest in peace.
At least I might find peace in this world from their evil
which continues to plague me, as insult to injury even after my parents were murdered.

But no. That is not to be. I am lost again and this time these monsters will show no mercy.

Perhaps the fate that awaits me is the one of least resistance.
Perhaps I should simply accept that it is my lot to suffer greatly and then die.

By now Benari will have run to the Governor, explained that he was kidnapped and tortured by us and the Tathatons into revealing the Governor’s plans.

Tomorrow the Governor will have us arrested and tortured till we give him the evidence implicating his creature Benari.
He will move against the Tathatons as they make their escape, pleading the city was only defending itself.
What is left of our bodies will be dragged out of our filth-ridden cells and executed as traitors.

After all, Thama-Virun provides…..

(Tass blows out the candle and stares into the darkness)

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Chapter 15 The Spectacular

There was no way Tse-dong could dissuade Bayar and the others from helping the Tathatans escape from the Tathatan Ward, despite pleading that the Governor would be most displeased. So, the best he could do, Tse-dong reasoned, was take a trip to the countryside. That way at least he would have an alibi when the Governor inevitably brought the hammer down on them.

So Tse-dong wasn’t there when his brother Mo-tse finally returned from his home village of Nadera. Mo-tse had stayed an extra few days after their sister’s wedding in order to complete a dare that he foolishly accepted in a drunken stupor at the wedding reception. Tse-dong hadn’t specified exactly what the dare was, only that it involved animals and sexual favors — a joke? When Mo-tse met up with his friends at the Sky Door, they could see he was walking funny and it hurt when he sat. Perhaps judging it best not to ask, no one said a word.

It wasn’t long before they noticed an old Goblinoid in the corner intently staring at their new friend Magsa, the Tabaxi. It wasn’t strange that he was staring — everybody did that — but rather that he seemed to be studying her. Mo-tse went over and introduced himself as her owner, though in truth she was a free Tabaxi, and the old Goblinoid looked surprised.

“I must have been mistaken then,” the Goblinoid said. “For a while there I thought she was one of them, you know… the Nightstalkers.”

“Nightstalkers?” said Mo-tse, his curiosity perked.

The old Goblinoid explained that legends around Shen Bei told of a group of runaway Tabaxi banded together to wreak vengeance on their former owners. Slavers would be found dead in the jungle, with feline fur stuck to their wounds. These incidents, if there was any truth to them at all, were limited to the area around Shen Bei. But recently there had been reports of similar occurrences in the area of Kong Wan.

Meanwhile, as they talked, a commotion was brewing around the entrance to the Sky Door. People were asking about something called “The Spectactular.” Will they still hold it this year? Are they going to have the lottery? Is it really going to be the best yet, as the poster advertised?

This “Spectacular” was apparently an annual event held by the Sky Door. Since Mumuna had been taken away to the Tathatan Ward, everyone was wondering what would become of it. A poster outside the inn advertised the event:

The Sky Door Special Spring Sky Spectacular

Just then Tass did something quite unexpected. She snatched the poster from the wall and ran across the road to a wealthy-looking noble engaged in business with a textile merchant.

“He’s selling tickets! He’s got tickets!” she cried, pointing and waving to the textile merchant.

Everyone, including Tass’ friends, wondered what in the world she was doing. But she was so persuasive in her display that soon a large crowd gathered to find out about these “tickets.”

What Tass had intended, in fact, was to pin everyone’s attention on the merchant so that she could practice her pickpocketing skills on the wealthy noble. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as she’d hoped. Perhaps intimidated by the unexpectedly large crowd she’d managed to gather, she botched the pickpocketing. The noble shouted “Thief! Thief!” And Tass recoiled so fearfully that her disguise fell off, revealing to the whole crowd that she was not an Orc but an Elf, and not a boy but a girl. Guards were rushing in from every direction. It looked like Tass was done for.

Just then, Magsa resolved to help her new friend. She ran into the street and performed one of her skillfully erotic burlesque dances. In fact, she did so well, that soon every eye was drawn to her. Tass was able to slip away virtually unnoticed.


NOTE: From here on out, this will be just bare-bones notes until I find time to make it pretty.

Though Mumuna had left no notes about the Spectacular, and all they had to go on was the poster, the PCs felt they had to come through for their friend by keeping this tradition alive.

So, the Sky Door Spring Special Sky Spectacular event was held. Magsa wrote the Pub Quiz questions and came up with the bowl and chopsticks game. Bayar’s group won the quiz, and Old Gramps won the bowl and chopsticks game. Meanwhile, Mo-tse had convinced Lord Gansalahi to attend the “rustic” event, and Gansalahi won the Fashion Parade. Magsa danced well, and in the lottery Magsa won 5 pounds of mutton. Others won only the participation prize of a small packet of salt.

In more serious events, Benari, who had been captured earlier, was made to go to the Tathatan Ward through the tunnels, bound and gagged, and was shoved in a puddle of vomit left by Mo-tse from an earlier drinking contest. Benari was made to tell the Tathatan elders that the Governor’s captain of the guard was working against the Tathatans. The inciminating copy of the Tathatan Law-scriptures, signed by Benari, was shown as evidence, but not handed over (Tass still has the copy). The old Tathatan elder asked to have a private moment with Benari, so the PCs did not hear exactly what Benari confessed to him. They only heard a sudden scream, and then rushed into the room to find the old man had taken off the tip of Benari’s pinkie finger with a pair of hedge clippers. This apparently was some form of vengeance.

Returning Benari through the tunnels, Tass came very close to murdering him, but Bayar intervened and she checked her rage. As they were exiting the tunnel, Benari was made to go first, followed by Mo-tse. When Benari got out of the tunnel, he suddenly turned and released a magical flash of light that blinded Mo-tse. The next thing they knew he was dashing through the alleys far faster than any man of his enormous girth should be able to go. Perhaps both the light and the speed were effects of some strange talismans carried on his person. In any case, the PCs pursued but were unable to catch him. He got away, though they still have the incriminating evidence of the signed Law-scriptures.

Thanks to the PCs, the Tathatans were convinced that they needed to escape, and were now able to do so, and they made their plan for the following night.


UNDER CONSTRUCTION

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Chapter 14 The Long Way Round


The mithril dagger from Bara-xi

After taking leave to attend their sister’s wedding in their home village of Nadera, the Lau brothers found themselves in a quandary. On the one hand, it was imperative that they get back to Kong Wan to report to the Governor. On the other hand, Mo-tse had gotten terribly drunk during the reception and submitted to a foolish dare from an old childhood rival. The exact nature of the dare is lost to history, but some say it had something to do with questionable acts with animals. In any case, it would a few extra days to complete. Dare they make the Governor wait? Tse-dong was loathe to do so, but Mo-tse was even more loathe to back out of the dare. Mo-tse urged his brother to go on ahead. After much deliberation, Tse-dong finally consented. All the way to Kong Wan, he cursed himself for letting his foolhardy brother travel alone.

When Tse-dong got back to Kong Wan, he met up with Tass, Bayar, and Magsa just outside the Sky Door. There they saw soldiers rounding up Dwarves and putting them in the prison wagon to be taken to the Tathatan Ward. Pointing out Dwarves who were once Tathatans was an aged, rotund Dwarf—none other than the healer, Oolo Benari. As he passed by the Sky Door, he pointed to Mumuna and said, “There! He’s one. Once a Tathatan, always a Tathatan!”

Tass, Bayar, Magsa, and Tse-dong sprung to action to defend their friend, but Mumuna calmed them. He went willingly into the prison wagon, fearing repercussions for his family if he did not. He only asked the PCs to help Old Gramps. Meanwhile, Tass deftly pickpocketed the purses off two of the soldiers. In them she found eight iron shu and a copper key.

Afterward, the group went inside the Sky Door and discussed the unfortunate situation. Old Gramps, upon hearing Benari’s name, became very animate and led the PCs down into the cellar, where he opened an old chest filled with a number of surprising items that he tossed out carelessly. Among them were lockpicks, a garrotting cord, a dagger, a buckler, various disguises, a bracelet of black wooden beads carved with archaic writing, and a letter of commendation for heroism addressed to the Black Hand, Oolo Benari, and Mumuna, signed by the late emperor himself, Hunun Gol. Tass quietly pocketed each item as it came out. Finally, Old Gramps found what he was looking for. Blowing off the dust, he produced a copy of the Tathatan version of the Law-scriptures signed with the words “Property of Oolo Benari.” In his hands was evidence that Benari, the very man accusing so many of being Tathatans, was himself a former Tathatan.

Through a comedic guessing game, the group managed to work out from Old Gramps that the mysterious “Black Hand” referred to in the letter of commendation was none other than himself, apparently a pseudonym he went by in the glory days of his youth. Old Gramps gestured for Tass to return the letter and the bracelet. She handed over the letter, but when she went for the bracelet, she found it gone. It was already in the hand of Old Gramps, the Black Hand, with a grin spread across the old Goblinoid’s face. The other items he let Tass keep.

Although the evidence was shocking, the group was unsure how to use it to their best advantage. Bayar’s intention to aid the Tathatans was clear, but Tse-dong had trouble seeing “the angle” — that is, how it fit his ambitions toward political power. Tass and Magsa were caught between them. Unable to resolve their differences, the group tabled the matter for the moment.

Instead, Tse-dong reported to the Governor, who rewarded him for his effort with a tutor in oratory and rhetoric skills by the name of Ling-Jian. Apparently the Governor held intentions to groom Tse-dong for a more public role of some kind. Meanwhile, the Governor was not altogether pleased. He was concerned about reports of Bayar being seen in the Tathatan Ward in the company of a Tabaxi, and asked Tse-dong to confirm that Bayar’s purposes and those of the empire were still in alignment.

Still uncertain as to how to use the information about Benari to their advantage, the group changed their focus. Putting aside the Tathatan Ward goal for the moment, they turned to the black pox. Reasoning that they could become real heroes if they stopped the black pox from afflicting Princess Atas’ army, they went to the Atmahan monastery to visit Kanya and her sister Santhip, who were doing research on the disease.

At the monastery, Santhip revealed startling breakthroughs in her research. They learned two important pieces of information: first, that the black pox is not contagious; and second, that it’s contracted by eating predators high-up on the food chain. Apparently some kind of poison was being ingested by small creatures, who were then ingested by larger creatures, and so on up the food chain. The poison was negigible at the bottom of the chain, but it became increasingly concentrated as it rose up the food chain. Thus, predators at the top end up ingesting a heavy dose, enough to effect lethal disease. Santhip’s next order of business was to discover the identity of the poisonous substance. On her list of possibilities was mercury, and she would need a small quantity in order to test its properties.

Meanwhile, while at the monastery, the group also took time to study up on various things. In the process, Tass found a secret door to a small library room with books in the Gnomish language, including a book on sorcery that she took. While in the room, the temperature suddenly grew cold. Suspecting a draft, she lit a canlde to see if they flame wavered, but it did not. She checked around for a seam in the walls. Then she felt something like lips on the back of her neck, and heard a voice whisper “Pretty little thing.” The young girl darted out of the room and never went back).

They spent three days at the monastery, and it was a day’s ride to and from, so altogether they spent five days.

When they got back, they plotted to see if they could locate Lord Gansalahi’s hidden mercury mines. Knowing that the acrobat Song-i at The Empire knew something about them, they connived to get into the establishment to talk to her. As it was a high-class place to which those of their status they could only hope to be invited, they needed a way in. Magsa proposed to perform a burlesque dance at the evening’s party. The doorman of the Empire, upon hearing the proposal, was intrigued at the novelty of having an exotic Tabaxi perform. She and her friends were added to the evening’s guest list.

That evening, Magsa strutted her feline figure in a dazzling performance. In fact, she did so well that she received an expensive bottle of fine rice wine from Gansalahi, numerous flowers from the audience, and an expensive emerald-studded ring from a very short, bald Dwarf admirer who seemed to have a sincere crush on her.

Meanwhile, Tse-dong got to talk with Song-i, the acrobat, who was confident she could find her way back to the mercury mine, even though she had been blindfolded when she was taken there (her grandmother was blind and taught her how to use sound cues and counting to navigate without the aid of sight). Then Tse-dong talked business with Lord Gansalahi, bargaining to either rent Song-i for three days, at the cost of 60 shu per day plus a key to the PCs lodge, or else pay off Song-i’s debt entirely for around 8000 shu. No final deal was made as of yet. Tse-dong promised to get back to him on it.

Finally, the PCs contrived a plot to accomplish their goals. Bayar sent a letter to Jing-a requesting use of the tunnels again, but hasn’t heard back yet.

The plan:

1. Enter the Tathatan Ward via the tunnels and tell the elders that they have “proof” that the Governor has been working against the Tathatans, and they will return within a day with the man who will offer that proof.

2. Approach Benari, using the Tathatan law-scriptures book with his signature proving he was once a Tathatan as leverage to blackmail him into going to the Tathatan Ward to tell the Tathatans what he knows of the Governor’s acts against them (assuming he has such knowledge). Hopefully this will convince the elders to leave Kong Wan before something terrible happens to them.

3. While Benari is in the Tathatan Ward, plunder his home and/or house of healing for valuables.

4. After Benari does his part, break the deal. Withhold the book from Benari, even though he held up his end of the bargain. Instead of giving him the book, slay him in the name of justice for all the wrongs he’s done throughout his life.

5. Use the valuables to pay off the rest of Song-i the acrobat’s debt to Gansalahi, effectively purchasing her freedom.

6. Have Song-i lead the way to the mercury mine.

7. Go wild.

Important revelations from this session:

1. Benari was apparently at one time a Tathatan, as evidenced by an old copy of the Tathatan law-scriptures with a frontispiece on which is written “Property of Oolo Benari.”

2. Old Gramps was apparently involved in some kind of group with Mumuna and Benari. At that time, Old Gramps went by the name “The Black Hand.” They received a letter of commendation for heroism from the late emperor Hunun Gol. Old Gramps had some curious items in his chest, including a dagger, buckler, garotting cord, lockpicks, disguises, and a bracelet of black prayer beads with archaic writing on them. He let Tass take all these items, but kept the letter and the prayer beads. Old Gramps also demonstrated some pretty adept pickpocketing skills.

3. The black pox is not contagious. It is contracted by eating too much of a certain poisonous substance, as yet undetermined, which accumulates in predators at the top of the food chain, thus giving the eater a concentrated dose – enough to manifest serious illness.

4. There is no cure for the black pox as of yet. Santhip needs a small vial of mercury to determine if it is the poisonous substance that causes the illness (though mercury is by no means the only candidate for the poison).

5. Song-i the acrobat, who is held in Gansalahi’s debt as an indentured servant, has been to the mercury mine. She was blindfolded, but thinks she can find the place again. She had a blind grandmother that taught her ways to gauge distance and direction without the aid of sight.

6. The original lore on mercury is said to have come from the Gnomish tradition. Lore on this substance might be found within the pages of Gnomish tomes.

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Chapter 13 The Tathatan Ward

After getting out of Kanaxa, the Lau brothers decided to stay with their sister Tse-i for a few days, while Tass and Bayar pushed on to Kong Wan. Along the way, they encountered a frustrated-looking Tathatan woman shouting at soldiers, who refused to let her through the checkpoint. Giving up on them, she turned around to recognize Bayar, and he immediately recognized her as well.

“Sri Kathiri!” he said. She was the leader of one of the two great factions of the Tathatan religion, successor to Sri Mahani. He had met her but once, after the infamous riots of the Winter Solstice in Kong Wan (see Chapter 1 Broke and Hungry in Kong Wan). Their two religions were enemies, and Bayar had no idea how she would react.

Sri Kathiri’s expression went from anger, to thoughtfulness, to clever planning. She said, “When last we met I said we were enemies, but I hoped one day Thauma would bring us together to share peace. Today, I offer that peace to you. Anshana mata patanhir.”

And she bowed deeply. Then she invited him to join in her a drink at a roadside inn.

Bayar, surprised, agreed. After about an hour of sizing each other up, Kathiri finally made her purpose known. The situation for Tathatans in Kong Wan has been worsening, and she fears that something dreadful may happen. She has prepared a system of safe-houses to get Tathatans out, but due to Prince Bayanhongor’s new ban on the travel of Tathatans, she cannot get the scroll with the information into Kong Wan. She cautiously entreated Bayar to help her in this matter.

Bayar thought back to the letter in which his colleague in faith Jing-a wrote of a vision, a vision suggesting that to advance in their faith, they must help those to whom they would normally be opposed (see Chapter 9 The Epistles of Bayar and Jinga). Perhaps this was a challenge sent by Viru to test Bayar’s faith.

“I will aid you in this matter,” said Bayar.

Sri Kathiri handed over a scroll case.

“Give this to Rvati, one of the few I can trust to unite the Tathatans of Kong Wan in this matter.”

She was careful to mention that magic had been spoken over the seal, so that if it was broken by a non-Tathatan, she would immediately know.

Bayar and Tass then took their leave of the Tathatan leader, and made their way back to Kong Wan.

When they arrived, they soon found things changed. First, some violence had erupted when news of the Kanaxa sorcery scandal hit, resulting in the deaths of two Tathatans and injuries for several other citizens. Second, all Tathatans were now confined by Governor’s orders to a section of the city called the “Tathatan Ward.” Finally, some of the city’s youth had banded together for added defense into a group calling themselves “Viru’s Vanguard.”

It was not long before the group encountered these ambitious youth. As they neared the fountain, they saw a commotion up ahead. A gang of youth, not more than sixteen years old, wearing gold and purple sashes and carrying wooden cudgels, were harassing a stranger in a cloak with xenophobic slogans and cudgel blows. Tass (once again in her Orc boy disguise) and Bayar quickly joined the fray to break up the hostilities. Bayar used his Thunder’s Voice spell to chastise them, and the frightened youth quickly scattered.

Tass and Bayar found that the stranger was no common traveler. Beneath the cloak lied a sable-black feline face. This was one of the rare slave race called Tabaxi.

The Tabaxi thanked her rescuers and introduced herself as Magsa. Tass and Bayar asked where her master was, but she replied that she had none. She was a free slave, and showed them her deed of freedom. Examining it closely, Tass determined that it was authentic. Then they invited Magsa to stick close to them for her own safety.

Magsa explained the reason she came to Kong Wan was to find others of her kind. Tabaxi were rare in the Empire, and free Tabaxi still more rare. She had heard there was a Tabaxi in Kong Wan, employed at The Empire, a high-class inn patronized by Lord Gansalahi. But the exclusive inn would not even open its door to her.

Bayar quickly volunteered to give her an “in” with The Empire, though Tass cautioned her against trusting Gansalahi. With Bayar’s help, Magsa was able to speak with inn’s doorman, Pagarasuna, and learned that the rumor of a Tabaxi working there was false. Pagarasuna did, however, offer to employ Magsa.

“We’ve been trying to get a Tabaxi for some time,” he explained. “Unfortunately they keep dying en route from Shen Bei.”

Magsa summarily declined the offer, and the two went on their way.

Two other items of note that learned by listening to the talk of the town were that Princess Atas’ army was delayed, apparently due to an outbreak of some kind of disease, and that a new cult called the “Sweepers” had taken up residence in the town. They wear full-body garments with only a narrow slit for the eyes, and sweep the path before them as they walk.

Then they saw a prison wagon carrying Tathatan soldiers in the direction of the Tathatan Ward. Strangely, the soldiers still had their arms and armor even inside the prison wagon. A look of fear and suspicion was in their eyes.

With that, Tass, Bayar, and Magsa made their way to the Tathatan Ward to attempt to deliver Sri Kathiri’s message. At the gate, they noticed that the wooden palisade enclosing the ward was topped with spikes that angled outward, not inward. Smoke and the scent of burning flesh was in the air.

Speaking with the guards at the gate, they were unable to secure entry. Only Tathatans were allowed inside. They said they were looking for Rvati, and the guards replied that they’d found her.

“Smell that?” said one of the guards. “That’s her.”

Rvati was unfortunately one of the two killed in the violence the night that news of the Kanaxa sorcery scandal hit. So, the mission for Sri Kathiri seemed frustrated. They couldn’t get inside the ward, and furthermore the person they were looking for was no longer among the living.

But never the type to give up, and ever resourceful, the group found a way in. Bayar spoke with Jing-a of the Lepers, and secured access via their underground network of tunnels.

The newcomer Magsa, who was adept at stealth, led the way out of the tunnels and into the Ward. They found themselves in an alley, with patrols of Tathatan guards marching by in the streets.

Unlikely to get far by stealth, the group turned themselves in to the guards, and demanded to see the leaders of the community, for they had a message from Sri Kathiri. The guards were suspicious of their claims, but in any case it was the Council of Elders that needed to decide their fate anyway, so they escorted them to meeting of elders already in progress.

Tass, Bayar, and Magsa attempted to persuade the Tathatans to leave Kong Wan, as Sri Kathiri had planned. But they soon found that many Tathatans were not at all inclined to do so. It turned out that for months Governor Pong-chi had been dealing with their community personally, providing for their safety as public anti-Tathatan sentiment worsened. The Tathatan Ward, they insisted, was created not to confine them but to protect them.

An aged Tathatan with a long white beard spoke magic over the message and divined that it was authentic, coming from the hand of Sri Kathiri, but this was not enough to convince the council. Too many were of Sri Gunda’s faction and would not support Kathiri, the successor to the late Sri Mahani. Without concrete evidence that the Governor was working against the Tathatans, they would not leave Kong Wan.

Just then there was a commotion in the street. All rushed out to find that five soldiers – of the same group of soldiers seen earlier in the prison wagon – had gone rabid and were randomly attacking people in the street. Their disease was grimly apparent to Bayar and Tass, for they had seen it before, though up to this point only in animals. The soldiers’ eyes and tongues bore black splotches – the mark of the mysterious new illness they had dubbed the “black pox.”

Several Tathatan guards rushed in to detain the rabid men, but the superior training of the soldiers was more than their match. One by one, the guards were cut down by the cold steel of the diseased fighters.

Meanwhile, Tass and Bayar attempted to take the soldiers down without hurting them unduly. Magsa had the idea of using a clothesline rope to restrain them. She tied a rock around one end and tossed it to a guard on the opposite side of the fray. Pulling the rope taut, they managed to force the soldiers up against a wall. Then the others were able to disarm them and get further ropes around them. Before long, the soldiers’ threat was neutralized, and they were taken away to a makeshift hospital. The Ward was safe again, though the toll was high. Four of the guards lied slain, gone to meet their ancestors. And numerous sustained serious injuries.

The Council of Elders determined to pray for guidance and how to proceed. Meanwhile, a young Tathatan by the name of Puruma took Bayar, Tass, and Magsa aside and thanked them for their efforts.

“The elders are stubborn,” he said. “They believe the Governor is on their side, and do not realize they are cattle being led to the slaughter. If you can produce evidence that either the Governor or his right hand man, the Captain of the Guard, has acted against our community, you may change their minds. Please, for the sake of us all, find the proof we need.”

By that time dusk was coming on, and the group was tired from combat. They left the Tathatan Ward the way they came, and made for rest at the Sky Door.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

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Chapter 12 Ordeals of Conscience

It was a sorely-won victory. Though the group had succeeded at their mission, they had only narrowly avoided disaster. And the deeds, though done willingly, sat uneasily in their stomachs. They had framed the Tathatan Dwarf Mamputra, who would now surely be executed for sorcery. And they’d murdered citizen Dugo in cold blood. Tass, Mo-tse, Tse-dong, and Bayar plodded back toward Kong Wan in silence, distant and preoccupied.

Each of them, in their own way, called out to the powers that held sway over the world. Prayers in private moments passed their lips.

Late in the night, or rather early in the morning, Tass prayed to her deity, Viru:

It was an easy thing. As if I was snatching candy thrown by a child. My healer’s hand found his vein and I opened a deep jagged wound that gushed his life up and out onto the street.

My own cut into my scalp mixed my blood with his and I lied like a whore to any who would listen. Pointing at the defenseless man whose neck I had just opened, “Murderer!” I yelled, covered in blood. “Murderer!”

Part of me screamed to come to his aid as another part wished with all my heart that no one would be able to heal him in time. If he lived, the truth would come and I would be found out.

Even now, hours later, some of the blood still stains my hands. I wash them again.

When evil befalls evil men is that evil or good? If it’s by my hand, does the answer change? Since my parent’s death, at every turn of the moon the eyes in the mirror look different, the girl behind them was truly a sheltered thing before their passing. What kind of thing am I now?

I am growing up fast. Today I killed my first man and helped arrange for an innocent priest to be arrested for sorcery. A crime he will undoubtedly be put to death for.

I wonder what I will do tomorrow….

Meanwhile, Mo-tse, who had only escaped certain execution by the skin of his teeth, called out to the goddess Wu-Yu as “Yaj Yeeb”. Yaj Yeeb was actually the name of his religion, but Mo-tse, whether out of affection or ignorance, took the name for his very own goddess.

O Yaj Jeeb, it’s me, Mo Tse.

Sorry I haven’t prayed in a while. I don’t think there’s many Yaj Jeebers around here. I’ve been praying to that Viru guy a lot. But don’t worry, it’s only because Bayar seems to like him. I still like you too.

There’s a lot to tell you. Today was the best day! I got to sleep in jail for 12 straight hours and no one interrupted me. They gave me a meal and my brother acted like an idiot to get me out. Before that, I got manhandled by this giant orc chick with a wooden spoon as a weapon. Or maybe it was a paddle for a boat. I don’t know, it’s weird here in the city. BUT I did get to invade a sacred place, and eat like 10 pakoras. And we blamed this dumb priest for all the sorcery! Wow I bet he isn’t too happy. Hey if you see his god please don’t tell him it was me who did it. Just say it was Bayar. Or Tse Dong! No… they’ve been alright lately. Okay just say it was that guy that Tass killed outside the temple. He’s already in Hell so who cares right? Yeah just blame him.

I have some spoils to report. First off I still have my crossbow. I dedicate every shot to you. Secondly we got bones from the ruined city. Some are from a parent who died willingly and some are from a kid who was killed by his parents. He likes horses. I tried to sort them out with Tass so we know which are which. If you show me some more grimoire spells somewhere, I will put those bones to good work for you. Third I have Tse Dong’s lucky yak horn. I know it isn’t worth much but it sure pisses him off that he can’t find it. I will hold onto it until he gets so desperate he makes some offerings to try to find it again. Then I’ll leave it on his bed. It will be like a miracle, except real! No offense.

Okay anyway I should wrap this up. As you know it is my policy never to ask for something in a prayer. I don’t want to be selfish or needy. Just this one time however, as a special exception, and only because it is really important, I have to ask you a favour. I need you to make me richer than the Governor himself! I can’t tell you why yet. You just have to trust me. Also we are out of yaks. If you can send 20 head of yak my way I will praise your name. Also I don’t think the girls in this town are very clean. Can you introduce me to a nice goblin girl? But not too nice. Also I am a little worried about getting out of the city without being searched. Can you make sure the guards don’t search us? Also I miss Kanya. Can you tell her to meet us back at the villa? Also, I know last week I prayed for Tse Dong to get bed bugs, but he was pretty nice this week, can you reverse that? Besides if he gets bed bugs I will probably get them too. That was pretty short sighted of you! Ha! Oh well. It’s okay Yaj Jeeb, I understand. But I could really use a helmet to go with this rhino armour. Maybe if you can help me find a helmet then I will forget about the bed bug thing. ALSO the food here is terrible, can you help us get more feasts like that time at Gansalahee’s? Also I kind of feel we were ripped off on sister’s dowry because we were in a hurry, so if I can become a wealthy landowner, that would balance that out even steven.

Okay, you know I hate to ask for favours so I won’t ask for anything else. I don’t want to get extravagant. I am just your humble servant. And one day I will be the greatest thief in the world! I’ll dedicate all my spoils to you. They will never catch me because of all my sorcery. But first you need to get me MORE sorcery.

Thank you Yaj Jeeb…

P.S. When I become the greatest thief I will give you huge offerings and pour rice wine on golden statues of you every full moon!! Promise! OK gotta go.

Elsewhere and for different reasons, Mo-tse’s brother Tse-dong also uttered a prayer. He addressed it to the god of the Imperial cult, He Whose Avatar Is the Emperor:

Dear Viru,

Blessings be upon Your Holy Name, and the New Peace.

Continue to shower advantage and power down upon Your Most Unworthy Servant—my brother Mo-Tse

As for me, all I ask is that you let me to continue to shape and use these fools as my superior intellect was made to do.

You will permit me to use them and fashion them into my perfect pawns.

Because if you don’t..

I am coming for You.

Sincerely

Most High Future Emperor Lau Tse-Dong

Tse-dong finished with his prayer with a self-satisfied look on his face. One wonders whether a god of Empire would punish or praise such ambition.

At the same time, Bayar, the only one among them who was actually a priest of Viru, wrestled with his conscience. His sleep was restless the first night on the road back to Kong Wan. He lied awake, his thoughts flooded with his beloved deity. He left his bedroll and wandered a few strides away from camp. He collapsed to his knees under the weight of his actions.

How perfect was the irony that he sought the Sun-Prince in the darkest of night.

Your vibrance cuts through the darkness of this night and its radiance prevents my slumber. My conscience is a turmoil without compare this night. It is all too clear that my actions have not gone unnoticed. As soon as I come to know what it means to help those who plot against you, I am bid – ordered – to undertake the opposite.

Why must I be tested so?

My heart longs to be closer to yours, to be bathed in your warmth. Give me the courage to do what is right, and the insight to know the difference. Please, Savior, grant me wisdom.

The spring night answered only with chill winds and darkness. Bayar looked back at his sleeping compatriots. Tass tossed and turned, her hair tousled and no longer so innocent-looking. Meanwhile, Mo-tse coddled his crossbow, and Tse-dong smiled the smile of an emperor on his throne. How different they all were, and yet they all shared the blood on their hands.

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Chapter 11 The Convocation of Grain Mages, Part II

Last time, Tse-dong, Mo-tse, Tass, and Bayar had made it to Kanaxa, and Mo-tse infiltrated the Pavilion of Flowers and planted the sorcerous text incriminating the Tathatan Dwarf priest Mamputra, as per the Governor’s orders. Unfortunately, Mo-tse bumbled his escape through the chimney, and was captured by the guards.

The captain of the pavilion guards, an Orc woman who had finally landed a position of some importance and was eager to carry it through without incident, made a split-second decision. She ordered Mo-tse rushed out of the pavilion before anyone knew what had happened.

Meanwhile, outside the Pavilion, the others knew none of this. They were growing anxious, so Tse-dong used his Project Sight spell to see inside. He saw a crowd of priests shouting at the captain of the guard, but he could not see Mo-tse anywhere. What he did see, however, was a second intruder in the pavilion: one Citizen Dugo. And he saw that he had gotten in by slitting a guard’s throat.

What Dugo was doing there he did not know, but he and Tass and Bayar immediately took action. Tass ran in shouting “murderer! murderer!” Dugo ran out, chased by Tass, Tse-dong, and Bayar.

Tse-dong wasted no time in pulling out his crossbow. They’d had too much trouble with Dugo to let him escape. Tse-dong shot, and clipped Dugo in the leg. He went down, unconscious from the shock. Tass rushed in, and pretending to heal him, opened up his jugular so that he would bleed out in a matter of seconds.

By that time, the pavilion guards made it to the scene, saw the dying intruder, and attempted to cast a healing spell on him so that he could be interrogated. But Tse-dong, who wanted nothing of the kind to happen, surreptitiously intervened with his Neutralize Magic spell. The healing spell failed, and Dugo expired of blood loss.

What was Dugo doing there? Had he been sent by the Governor for some reason? Or was he pursuing his own plot of revenge? They would never know.

Meanwhile, Mo-tse was taken away and imprisoned for the night in a guard post. Tse-dong and the others found him, and in the morning Tse-dong made a plea for his brother’s release. Humbling himself in a way most uncharacteristic for him, he played the role of the dumb low-class Goblinoid in order to win his brother’s release. After much ado with some obviously money-grubbing guards looking for a bribe, he finally got Mo-tse out of prison.

By that time, the word had spread that the pavilion had been infiltrated by intruders, and the purity of the Convocation was thus broken. The entire city was shut down, with no one allowed in or out, and with all citizens encouraged to stay home and pray to the ancestors for forgiveness of this infraction against ritual purity.

Meanwhile, the sorcerous text was discovered inside the Tathatan priest Mamputra’s copy of the Dwarven Law-scriptures, and he was taken away for possession of illegal texts and suspicion of practicing sorcery. A scandal ensued, resulting in severe restrictions for Tathatans in the West. Prince Bayanhongor placed on a ban on their free travel, requiring them to stay within their respective cities and towns.

In the midst of all this controversy, the group laid low in an inn for several days until the city-wide lock-down was lifted, then made their exit. They are now traveling on the Purple Road back to Kong Wan.

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Chapter 10 The Convocation of Grain Mages, Part I

Tse-dong, Mo-tse, and Bayar had been summoned to the Governor’s presence. Though they obeyed, they knew they may full well be going to their doom. Citizen Dugo had just revealed to the people of Kong Wan evidence of a network of sorcerers spanning East and West, and possibly including Kong Wan itself. What deal had Dugo struck with the Governor, and what did he reveal privately to him? Did the Governor know that they themselves were secretly dabbling in sorcery? The punishment for sorcery was dismemberment, with the head placed on a pike. Was that the fate in store for them?

The group headed cautiously into the fortress, and was brought before the Governor. The shrewd politician, with his aquamarine robes and long, wispy mustache, folded his hands and spoke:

“I must thank you for your role in the public chats. By now you must understand the political situation. Kong Wan is in a highly vulnerable position, sitting as it does on the border between the realms of Prince Bayanhongor and Princess Atas, and guarding the pass between.”

The group quietly listened – no mention of their execution yet…

“A battle for the pass is virtually inevitable,” continued the Governor. “Therefore it was necessary to make a secret alliance with one or the other. A force of ten-thousand of Princess Atas’ troops are currently en route to provide for our defense. But the people would never have accepted such a one-sided occupation, for many of our trade interests lie in the West. Thus, it was necessary to show them the threat posed by Bayanhongor, in a way they could understand. And now, that goal is almost accomplished, but the final nail in the coffin remains. This brings me to the reason why I summoned you here. I have a mission for you.”

A sigh of relief came from the group. It seemed their day of doom was not yet upon them.

“As you know,” said the Governor, “it will soon be the Rustic New Year.”

The Rustic New Year was one of the largest celebrations of the Wu-Yun religion, and marked the beginning of the spring planting season. Teams of dragon dancers paraded through the streets to bring luck in the coming agricultural year.

“In addition to celebrations, the Rustic New Year means the annual Convocation of Grain Mages. Each year, the head priests and shamans of each community in a region meet to determine what enchantments will be used to counter the year’s challenges to a successful harvest. We have reliable information suggesting that a Tathatan priest will attend the Convocation at Kanaxa in the West. I want you to infiltrate this Convocation and plant incriminating evidence suggesting sorcery on the part of this Tathatan priest.”

Then the Governor looked them square in the eyes.

“I believe you have certain materials in your possession which may aid you in this endeavor?”

Their hearts leaped into their throats. The Governor seemed to know about their sorcerous texts.

“What materials would those be?” asked Mo-tse, feigning his best look of innocence.

Tse-dong cut in, “Perhaps we could dig up something to that effect.”

The Governor nodded. Then he explained that the target was a Dwarf priest named Mamputra. He was known to have made statements in sympathy with Sri Gunda, the Tathatan leader who advocated protest by any means necessary.

The Convocation would be held in Kanaxa, the administrative capital of the city-state of Bara-xi, which was about eleven days’ ride from Kong Wan. The actual site was a structure called the Pavilion of Flowers, inside of which no one was allowed except the specially purified. These included only the priests and shamans, of which there were usually about thirty, with one attendant each, and a cohort of about fifteen ritual guards. The only exception to this rule was the dragon dancers of the parade. Each team advanced just inside the Pavilion, presented an offering to the priests on behalf of their business or community, and then was quickly led out a side exit. No others were allowed inside the Pavilion.

Furthermore, everyone inside must wear black, the color of fertile soil, and no metal weapons were allowed inside. The guards instead used specially-designed wooden halberds.

The Governor gave them a diagram of the layout of the pavilion, then left the details of the plan up to their discretion. As always, he stressed that in the event of failure, their connection to the Governor was not to be revealed. He would rather not have to convict them of sorcery, but would if that’s what it came to.

Next, the Governor took Tse-dong aside and inquired after his health. Tse-dong, who had been taking unhealthy doses of medicinal concoctions to inspire the writing of his manifesto of world domination, blushed.

“We public figures have standards to uphold,” said the Governor.

Tse-dong pledged to take the advice into consideration.

Finally, the Governor addressed the peculiar alliance struck by Mo-tse with Lord Gansalahi. Although the Governor and Gansalahi supposedly worked hand-in-hand, it clearly did not sit well with the Governor.

“My grandfather had a saying,” he said. “No man can serve two masters.”

Nevertheless, the Governor permitted vassalage to continue for the time being if Mo-tse would spy on Gansalahi and report back. Mo-tse consented.

With that, the group was dismissed from the Governor’s presence, and struck out on their new mission.

Before leaving, Mo-tse went to tell his liege lord, Gansalahi, that he would be out of town for a few weeks. “Family business” was the motive he claimed. Gansalahi was suspicious, but consented on one condition: Mo-tse must bring back a bone of the dead from the ruins of Bara-xi.

Bara-xi, which had been destroyed thirty years back at the conclusion of the Conquest of the Empire by Hunun Gol and his Orcs, was once the holiest city in the Empire. Now it was a blackened ruin. It was considered a place of the restless dead, and travelers gave it a wide berth.

Mo-tse, quelling the superstitious fears instilled in him since childhood, accepted the mission and left.

The following day, Tse-dong, Mo-tse, Bayar, and Tass saddled up on the horses from the lodge and headed West along the Purple Road. With them, safely hidden, was a single page copied out of the Grimoire of Immortality, which they would use to frame their Tathatan target.

Tass cut a strange figure on the road. To avoid being recognized and thus foiling her faked illness, she disguised herself as Bayar’s servant—a young Orc boy. With bound breasts and boyish riding clothes, she bobbed along on horseback practicing the lowest tenor voice she could manage.

It was spring, and the snows were receding. Piles of dirty snow flanked either side, while the road itself was wet and muddy. Trees were still leafless, but green buds were emerging on the branches.

As the group passed out of Kong Wan and into the West, the region ruled by Prince Bayanhongor, they noticed a number of new developments. There were now wood-palisade checkpoints along the road. It looked like soldiers could make a stand there, and fall back to the next checkpoint if necessary. There were also new watchtowers rising above the hilltops, and wooden forts capable of holding a sizable garrison.

Tse-dong took careful notes of the fortifications as they passed through the region.

Fortuitously, their route happened to pass through the Lau brothers’ home village of Nadera. It had been a whole season since they’d seen their only surviving relative, their younger sister Tse-i.

Nadera was a small village in the hills known for only two things: its salt mine, and the preserved trail rations made with the salt. Travelers along the Purple Road often stopped in Nadera to stock up on provisions before heading across the mountains.

As they entered Nadera, they found the place swarming with soldiers. Then they saw a young Goblinoid girl with cute, round cheeks and tired eyes. It was their sister Tse-i.

“Tse-dong! Mo-tse! You’re back!” she exclaimed, giving them a big hug.

It turned out that Bayanhongor’s military had occupied the salt mine in order to double production of provisions for the troops. Each home in the village was called upon to house one or more soldiers. So Tse-i had been playing host to soldiers in her home for some time now. On top of that, to make ends meet, she had to take a second job waiting tables at the inn. That’s why she looked so tired. But she was happy to have her brothers back.

Tse-i inquired all about their yak drive, the riot in Kong Wan, and the crazy rumor that they were “heroes.”

“Heroes? Not my brothers,” she said. “Why, they would be the last to stick their necks out unless it was for power or profit!”

Then the matter turned to her fiance. She had hoped that the profit from the yak drive would be enough to pay her dowry, so she could finally get married. When Tse-dong explained that they were not able to collect the sum promised, she grew disheartened. But her brothers knew that she and her fiance were truly in love, so they negotiated a deal with his family. Since there were no other surviving members of their family apart from Tse-dong, Mo-tse, and Tse-i, and since the brothers had set their sights beyond the narrow confines of village life, they proposed that all the remaining family estate become the dowry. It wasn’t much – just a small house, a chicken coup, some tools and wagon parts, and precious little else – but it was something. And in terms of village life, it was not insignificant. Tse-i herself also brought valuable skills to the table, as her brothers had taught her to read. The family of the fiance was taken aback by the offer, but as they had grown fond of Tse-i over the last year, they consented. To seal the deal, the two families drank rice wine together as one.

The following day, the group pushed on along the Purple Road. On the eleventh day, they came to Bara-xi and Kanaxa. The two were actually sister cities, less than an hours’ ride apart. Originally, Bara-xi had been the holy city, and Kanaxa a mere town known only for crafting wheels and wagon tongues, and for housing the brothels and gambling houses that did not befit its holier sister city. But when Bara-xi was destroyed, all the administrative functions moved to Kanaxa. The former town grew far too rapidly into a small city. Moreover, while Bara-xi had been the holy city, Kanaxa became the city of vice. Its Entertainment District proliferated with taverns, gambling houses, and brothels beyond count.

Travelers advised the group to steer clear of Bara-xi and push on to Kanaxa, but they did the opposite. Traversing an overgrown road unused in thirty years, they entered the charred, blackened ruins of the once-holy city.

The ruins sent chills up their spines. They knew all too well the stories of what happened when the city finally fell to Hunun Gol’s horde of Orcs. Rather than surrender, vast numbers of the proud Dwarven residents committed bodhi-yama, or ritual suicide. When the Orcs entered the city, they found the place rotting with corpses. So chilling was the sight, and so foul the stench, that they withdrew immediately and burned the city to the ground. The blackened stones and charred pillars now bear eternal testament to that dolorous day.

Wasting no time, the group began searching for a well-to-do home to raid for bones, hoping to find some valuable loot as well. As they were searching, Mo-tse caught glimpse of a small humanoid figure passing inside the door to a walled stone villa. The place had clearly been a residence of a wealthy family, not unlike what they were looking for.

Immediately Tse-dong rubbed his hands together in eager anticipation of using the new sorcery spells he had learned. With exotic gestures and bizarre chants in the Gnomish language, he called upon one the Five Lesser Powers gleaned from the Grimoire of Immortality. The power he invoked was that which allowed him to send his faculty of sight ahead of him via a small, invisible and intangible receptor.

With a flicker of blue sparks, the spell was cast. Over Tse-dong’s normal field of vision was superimposed a second, that of the receptor as he sent it forward. Through this receptor, Tse-dong peered through the doorway to the villa. Inside was the overgrown remains of what was probably a garden with a fountain and pool, long-since dried up. Past the garden was the main residence, a two-story structure. No sign of life moved in the still garden ruins.

Mo-tse then climbed the wall and crept inside the garden, and Tse-dong set his receptor to follow him. Rather than enter through the front door, Mo-tse opted for a second-story window. Finding footholds in the crumbling stone walls, he scaled up to a window and passed into the residence. Inside was nothing but charred remains—it looked as though the place had already been looted of its treasures.

But as he crept down to the first floor, he saw something he never would have expected. Near an empty hearth sat a young Dwarf boy in clean, vibrant blue silk robes, gently rocking back and forth on a bronze rocking horse.

Near the boy were two charred skeletons, one significantly larger than the other and still clutching an ornate, peculiar-looking dagger.

“Mommy says the Orcs are coming,” said the boy. “Mommy says they’re going to make us ride horsies.”

“No, no,” said Mo-tse. “They’re going to let you ride horsies. And they’re right outside!”

“Really?” said the boy, and he rushed to a window to peer outside.

Seizing the opportunity, Mo-tse grabbed the skulls of the two skeletons.

Immediately, the boy’s aspect transformed. His eyes sunk back in his skull, his fingers became bony claws, he floated up into the air, and he exhaled a piercing scream, “EEIIIYAAAHH!!”

The boy swooped down on Mo-tse in an unholy attack. The razor-sharp claws slashed at Mo-tse but missed. Then he ran at breakneck speed, with a skull in each hand, back up to the second-story of the residence.

The boy came flying after, but Mo-tse jumped out the second story window and tumbled to safety. The boy stood at the window crying, apparently bound to the residence and unable to pursue.

At the same time, Tse-dong, Tass, and Bayar broke into the residence to steal more bones, and the boy immediately rushed back down and slashed at them. Luck was with them, though, for every one of the boy’s attacks missed its mark, and they escaped with pouches full of bones.

They charged out the front gate, and once again the boy was unable to pursue.

It was then that Bayar spoke up.

“Friends,” he said, “We cannot leave this pathetic boy like this.”

He knew from his religious studies that ghosts could be laid to rest. They were bound to undeath by some horrible trauma and unfulfilled desire, and only the resolution of this would allow rest.

So they brought in one of their riding horses, calming the natural fear of the animal, and let the boy ride it round the garden. The boy clapped his hands with glee, fading gradually with each step of the horse’s hooves. Finally, the boy disappeared entirely – passed on to the next life.

With that, Mo-tse wasted no time returning to the skeletons are grabbing the strange dagger. It was decorated with an elephant on its pommel, and the blade was an odd silvery-blue color.

Mo-tse’s eyes widened as he realized what he was looking at.

“Mithril!” he whispered.

It was a rare and precious metal, holy to Dwarves, and possessed of unparalleled hardness and resilience. Luck was with him—it was a fine treasure indeed.

Pocketing the dagger, Mo-tse rejoined the others, who all agreed on getting out of Bara-xi post haste.

In less than an hour, they came upon the city of Kanaxa, known as Bara-xi’s ugly sister. As they entered the city, they passed through sprawling shantytowns of shack-like houses piled up against each other, like cards in a card castle.

Cart-traffic was heavy, and the muddy streets were full of refuse left by the melting snows. The scent of deep-fried sweets was everywhere, and hawkers shouted at them to buy their goat’s milk and barley tea.

The residents were mostly Goblinoids dressed in dirt-laden dobis and frayed goat-wool long-shirts. They extended none of the nods or other pleasantries to which the group was accustomed from smaller towns. Instead, they looked past them like they were not even there, and were not shy about shoving ahead of them in the street.

There was one group that did look them in the eye, though—uncomfortably so. They were a group of youths with builds that were stockier, ears that were rounded, and jaws that showed clear five o’clock shadows. Though they were dressed like all the others, they did not fit the profile of Goblinoids at all.

As the group got closer to the city center, the shantytowns gave way to innumerable taverns, inns, gambling houses, and brothels. Now people in the street were mostly Dwarves, along with a hodgepodge of other races. Almost all of them seemed like out-of-towners: merchants, traders, caravan guards, civil servants, gamblers, entertainers, swords-for-hire, courtesans, and wealthy wastrels of every kind. Rickshaws carried travelers to and for for a copper meng.

A trio of elegantly-dressed courtesans passed by, wearing flashing tinsel headdresses and elaborate make up. But something appeared odd—they were exceptionally tall, with narrow hips, strong arms, and angular jaw-lines.

Finally, Tse-dong, Mo-tse, Tass, and Bayar reached their goal: the Pavilion of Flowers. It was a large, raised structure with a roof carved with intricate floral designs and the faces of spirits and deities. All the entrances and windows were closed, and guards in black carrying wooden halberds stood watch outside each door. Smoke rose from the chimney, and light peered through the seams of the closed windows.

Circling the pavilion at a distance of ten meters all around was a continuous trough filled with salt, posted with a sign saying “Pass not, lest the magic be spoiled.”

The group debated what to do. How exactly were they going to get inside and plant the incriminating evidence? And how were they going to ensure the evidence was found?

As they mulled it over, Bayar dismissed himself to a wooden enclosure set up as a makeshift toilet for the next day’s parade watchers.

The others thought nothing of it, until they heard strange sounds and the scent of magic coming from the public toilet. They heard painful groans that gradually became more like squawks.

“What the…?” Tse-dong opened the door to the toilet, and out flapped a magnificent black raven.

CAWW!! squawked Bayar as he flapped through the air. It was his first time using the new divine magic spell, which he had acquired on his retreat at the holy site in the mountains. It took a few moments to get the hang of flying. But as he got over the initial panic, he felt natural avian instincts take over. Reaching the pavilion, he flared and deftly alighted on the rooftop.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Tse-dong, Mo-tse, and Tass stared in qualified astonishment. They knew he had powerful magic at his disposal, but never knew he could do that.

But pride in his new-found power could not be allowed to overshadow the goals at hand. Bayar began searching around for a way into the Pavilian other than the chimney, and found several small openings under the eave of the roof—ventilation outlets just large enough for a raven to squeeze through.

Once inside, Bayar got a bird’s eye view of the place. It was just as the Governor’s diagram had shown: a large hall with long tables for debating and an elaborate altar to Wu-Yu. On either side of the hall were various rooms, and voices of vigorous debate could be heard coming from a den or library of some kind. Above the rooms were lofts where sleeping accommodations were set up. Bed pallets were laid out in pairs, with one normal pallet and another studded with knobs and sharp rocks—not comfortable-looking at all. Each pair of pallets also had a trunk and an altar.

Bayar swooped through the lofts to inspect the altars. All manner of religions were represented, but only one bore the distinctive Three Treasures symbol of the Tathatan religion. He knew it must be the altar of their target, Mamputra.

After all that, the duration of Bayar’s spell was about to expire, so he flew back to rejoin his friends, returning to Orc form in the shadows of a quiet alley.

“What did you see?” cried the others.

Bayar explained everything, but he added a further complication.

“I’m not sure I can go along with our mission here,” he said.

The others’ mouths dropped.

“What do you mean?”

The Orc initiate explained, “Great changes have been taking place in my spiritual path. It has become clear to me that to fulfill my new obligations to Viru, I must perform charity, even unto my enemies. So you see, I’m not sure I am comfortable targeting a Tathatan anymore.”

His brow furrowed as he contemplated the moral dilemma in which he now found himself.

But despite these reservations, the others were not willing to cancel the mission after coming so far. They begged Bayar to reconsider and fly back in with the incriminating evidence, but he explained that he could not even if he wanted to, as his spell could not be used again until he regained it through prayer at a holy site. So they devised a plan to have Mo-tse scale the wall of the pavilion and sneak in through the chimney, plant the sorcerous text inside Mamputra’s trunk, and finally escape the way he came.

They waited till the dead of night. Then, up the pavilion wall went Mo-tse. They hoped to go unseen in the dark, but a citizen wandered by and saw the Goblinoid plainly climbing the wall.

“What in Wu-Yu?!” cried the citizen.

It was at that moment that Tass rushed in with a diversion sure to grab and keep attention. She, in her Orc boy costume, came on to the citizen in the lewdest way.

“What in Thauma’s name are you doing?!!” railed the citizen, revulsed. Guards came rushing in to mediate the dispute, but not one of them looked up to see Mo-tse reach the roof and drop down the chimney of the pavilion. At that, Tass shouted profanities and ran off into the night. The guards, duty-bound to stay near the pavilion, let her go.

Mo-tse shimmied down the chimney with expert skill, and avoided the gray coals with a deft acrobatic flip into the hall. He landed silent as a cat. Altogether he was impressed with his own performance—if only the others could have seen it!

Snores could be heard coming from the lofts, but no one was out and about in the hall. Mo-tse quietly crept up the ladders to the lofts, and found Mamputra and his attendant sleeping on their pallets in front of the Tathatan altar, with the trunk at their feet.

The trunk was locked, but Mo-tse pulled out his set of picks and sprung the lock open. Inside, he found a copy of the ancient Dwarven Law-scriptures, a tome treasured especially by Tathatans.

Suddenly, footsteps echoed in the hall below. Mo-tse reasoned it was likely a guard making his rounds, so he quietly waited. The footsteps receded, and then all was silent again save for the snoring.

He stuffed the sorcerous text inside the pages of the tome, replaced it inside the trunk, closed the lid, and crept back down the ladder, all so quiet that not a soul stirred. He even made a pit-stop in the kitchen, where he filched a few fried fritters, called pakora.

All that was left was to shimmy back up the chimney, and Mo-tse would be free and clear. Unfortunately, it was precisely at that moment that Lady Luck failed him. Getting halfway up the chimney, he suddenly slipped and crashed down into the smoldering coals. He hurried back up but fell again, and then again.

Finally, Mo-tse sat at the bottom of the chimney, covered in gray soot, with a pakora in his mouth, hot coals burning a hole in the bottom of his clothes, and the wooden halberds of some fifteen guards poked in his face.

“Ahem,” said the leader of the guards. “Come out of there, would you?”

TO BE CONTINUED

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