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.