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…