World of Wu-Yu

Chapter 7 The Committee for Conscience

This time the party made it back to Kong Wan at last, only to discover some disturbing rumors going around. Within two days, they were wining and dining with some of the wealthiest and poorest denizens of the town. More of Tass’ background was revealed, and Tse-dong was painted in a most compromising position.

Earth Day, 2nd of 1st Month, ZY1114

It was early morning at an inn room in Po Keng, and all night had been spent exploring the treasure discovered inside the yaks. Tse-dong, Mo-tse, Tass, and Kanya hovered around what was found, when suddenly there was a knock at the door.

Quickly hiding the treasure, they answered the door. It was Bayar, back from his day alone. Strangely, he was wearing his priest’s robes inside out. When asked what happened, all Bayar would say is, “I don’t really know myself.”

Then Bayar asked what they found inside the yaks. His fellows played equally tight-lipped, and the tension in the room was so thick it could be cut with a dagger. But eventually trust won out, and the truth was revealed. Inside the yaks, they had found decorated bronze boxes carrying highly illegal material—sorcerous texts.

Bayar’s jaw dropped. Not only had they stumbled onto something that could get them killed for its mere possession, but his friends appeared eager to study the texts. Only a short time ago Bayar might have castigated his fellows for such heresy. But recent events had led him to question the moral foundations of his faith, and now his mind was more open to unconventional ideas. With trepidation, he looked over the illicit texts his friends had found.

The texts formed three chapters of an incomplete spellbook called the Grimoire of Immortality. There were four encoded copies of Book I, four of Book II, and two of Book X. Due to the nature of the code, two copies were not enough to completely decode Book X, leaving its translation imperfect.

Each of the books began as follows…

The Grimoire of Immortality, Book I

When the Dawa sat beneath the tree of illumination, she perceived life and death like pebbles at the bottom of a clear pond. Then she wrote the formula for everlasting life on a bamboo leaf. But the jealous gods sent a panda to consume the leaf, and the formula was lost. But those who follow the Way may yet achieve the goal. I, Dewa Dongzhan, undertake to rediscover everlasting life.

The gods say they hold the power, but the power is not in them but in the universe itself. Know the universe, and you shall know the power. For the universe behaves according to fixed laws, and those who know the laws know how to manipulate the laws, like a skilled lawyer. Know this, and even the gods cannot testify against you.

The Grimoire of Immortality, Book II

It is first of all necessary to learn rudimentary casting. The seeker undertakes to learn the Five Lesser Powers.

Begin with that by which earth and stone may be moved, for it is useful to have a means of excavating the cave in which you take your solitude.

After that, endeavor to open your third eye, so that you may perceive what is magical as easily as metal glinting in torchlight.

Next, discover the power to extinguish magic, lest you find consequences not to your liking.

Then you must learn to pluck out your eye and send it ahead of you, to spy out the tunnels of your hermit’s cave.

Finally, apprehend how to bond objects together, so that you may build high the wall against the outside world.

The Grimoire of Immortality, Book X

By now the seeker will have mastered the nine preparatory arts contained in the previous books: I) The Principles of Sorcery, II) The Five Lesser Powers, III) ... On One Toe, IV) The Three Resistences, V) The … Greater Powers, VI) Eating the Phoenix, VII) The Enchanting of Objects, VIII) Mummification Through Consumption of Mercury and Jade, and IX) ...

Now… prepared for lesser immortality… ...by interrupting digestion and respiration. ... superfluous. The seeker undertakes to practice the Three Abjurations.

Begin… fasting from grains, meats, ... all foodstuffs.

... water, wine, and all other liquids.

... diminish the breath… ceases entirely.

Altogether, it appeared there were eight spells contained in the texts in hand: the Five Lesser Powers and the Three Abjurations. Further spells lied in other chapters presumably awaiting discovery.

Bayar took it all in without a word. Meanwhile, his friends calculated how long it would take to learn the art of sorcery. By their best guess, it would take several months of study. And Po Keng was no place to do it. They needed to find some quiet, isolated place where they would not be disturbed or discovered. If they managed that, the power would be theirs to command.

After some debate, the party decided to head back to Kong Wan with the texts secreted away in their bags. Before they left, they covered their tracks using the copies of each scroll which Tass had spent all night making. They put the copies into the bronze boxes, made up a reason to inspect the yaks again, and used scalpels and healing magic to replace the boxes where they found them. Only a close inspection of the boxes and scrolls might reveal they were ever disturbed.

With that, they headed back to Kong Wan. The journey was mostly uneventful, apart from a tremor that woke them during the night. The mountains region had been hit by a minor earthquake. Meanwhile, the winter grew colder, and the stream they were following froze over. Finally, they heard that the late emperor’s funeral was coming up soon, and his three siblings were competing to offer the most magnificent funeral gift. Traditionally, the heir to the throne gave the most lavish offering. Therefore, whichever sibling gave the best gift might be perceived as the true heir.

Sun Day, 3rd of 1st Month, ZY1114

Uneventful.

Moon Day, 4th of 1st Month, ZY1114

Uneventful.

Fire Day, 5th of 1st Month, ZY1114

Uneventful.

Water Day, 6th of 1st Month, ZY1114

Uneventful.

Wood Day, 7th of 1st Month, ZY1114

Woken by tremor.

Metal Day, 8th of 1st Month, ZY1114

Uneventful.

Earth Day, 9th of 1st Month, ZY1114

Uneventful.

Sun Day, 10th of 1st Month, ZY1114

Uneventful.

Moon Day, 11th of 1st Month, ZY1114

On the last night of the journey, they were drinking in an inn and happened to overhear two Goblinoids talking:

“So what do you think about that Tse-dong? Do you think he’s genuine?”

The other replied in slurred speech: “I do. I believe in my heart that he’s an honest, good person! He’s a healer, and you have to respect that.”

“But Kong Wan is a trade town! What about our trade interests?” said the other.

“To the moon with trade interests!” barked his comrade. “Healing is what the people need. Health should be a right, not the privilege of the wealthy few!”

Tse-dong and the others quietly listened, but did not speak up. After that, conversation drifted to other topics. They heard that the late emperor’s funeral was coming up, and the three princely siblings were competing to give the most spectacular gift as burial goods.

Fire Day, 12th of 1st Month, ZY1114

The next morning, the party split up. Kanya and her aunt Santhip parted with the others, headed for the Atmahan monastery not a day’s travel from Kong Wan. Kanya hoped to learn something more about the black discoloration on her thigh, which Po Keng villagers considered the mark of the blessing of the Lady of the Three Ways, and which erupted in searing pain whenever Kanya neared an animal afflicted by the strange new disease plaguing the area. Santhip was charged with discovering the cause behind the disease, which the party had begun calling the Black Pox. Along the journey, Santhip had talked to many local folk and learned that the disease only affects predators, especially those high up on the food chain.

Just as they were parting ways, Mo-tse suddenly spoke up: “Um… maybe I should accompany the ladies, for their protection. That way I’d also know how to find the monastery. I’ll meet up with the rest of you in Kong Wan.”

Hidden motives seemed to be at work. Some of the party almost suspected Mo-tse had the hots for Santhip, but his brother Tse-dong knew it had more to do with avoiding Lord Gansalahi, who would surely want his exquisite crossbow back.

So Mo-tse, Kanya, and Santhip headed for the monastery, while Tse-dong, Bayar, and Tass made for Kong Wan. A disagreement over a “shortcut” ended up leading the latter group astray and adding much time to the trip. They did not make it to Kong Wan till very late, so late that dawn of the next day was nearing.

Water Day, 13th of 1st Month, ZY1114

Arriving at about five or six in the morning, the party pounded on the closed gates of the walled town of Kong Wan. They were greeted by a very sleepy gatekeeper. His eyes shot wide when he recognized Tse-dong.

“Tse-dong, sir! Welcome back. The Governor would like to speak with you at your earliest convenience.”

“Of course,” replied Tse-dong. The gatekeeper took their names and the amount of wealth they were carrying, in accordance with Kong Wan customs, but did not inspect their bags. They passed safely through the gates carrying the illegal texts.

Inside the town, they passed the whirlpool, now frozen over, and the monument to Tse-dong and Mo-tse (see Chapter 2 King for a Day). Then they caught sight of someone painting grafitti on a building wall. As soon as the renegade artist realized people were coming, he dashed off into the night.

Bayar sprinted after the offender, but lost him in the alleys. Meanwhile, Tse-dong and Tass gaped at the sight of what had been painted on the building wall:

The grafitti showed nothing less than Tse-dong himself taking the town of Kong Wan from behind. Surrounding this gross image were the yaks and his brother Mo-tse, and capping it was the title “The False Healer.” It was hardly a work of admiration. Who would do such a thing? Tse-dong had healed a few lucky souls in the crowd—was this the healing to which the picture referred? What about this could have so upset the artist?

As Bayar returned, the party spotted some kind of note lying in the street where the artist had been standing. Picking it up, they discovered it was an invitation.

The invitation read:

You are invited to a wine tasting tomorrow evening at the Local.

And on the back, in poor handwriting, was scrawled the words “slippery fountain.”

Perplexed but too tired to worry about it at the moment, the party headed to the Sky Door. The inn had a fresh coat of paint and the door was answered by Old Gramps, with his disturbing tick. Old Gramps was wearing a brand new green robe, and it seemed most of the foul odors that used to beset the inn were gone. Mumuna, the Dwarf who had helped the Lau brothers and Bayar save Sri Mahani on the night of the riot, came down and served the party breakfast. He also honored his pledge to give them free lodging whenever in Kong Wan, and set them up in a private room.

It was then that Mumuna apologized for the recent rumors flying about Tse-dong. When pressed further, Mumuna showed them a pamphlet that was circulating:

The pamphlet read:

Is Tse-dong a False Healer?

Fellow citizens of Kong Wan, how short is our memory? A foreigner appears and begins healing without charging the appropriate fees… Oh, what an attractive flower! But have we not seen this blossom before, not two years past? What happened then? A boy of noble house – cut down! A man of common house – slain by feigned competence! As for the rest, the gallows-master knows the tale! Let Tse-dong ply his seductive arts, but Kong Wan shall not be charmed! We know him for what he is: a Vorist.

“A ‘Vorist?’” remarked Tse-dong. “What in Wu-Yu is a ‘Vorist?’”

At that moment, Tass began to sob. She broke down in tears, crying, “They killed them! They killed them!”

It was several minutes before they could calm her down enough to explain. Her adoptive parents were Vor and Sumi, a pair of Gnome healers who came to Kong Wan two years ago. Despite being Gnomes, they won over the people of Kong Wan with their generous compassion as healers. Vor allowed patients to pay only what they could afford, rather than the full price for procedures. This angered a local healer named Benari, who agitated against the Gnomish couple. Then tragedy struck when Vor and Sumi’s horse-drawn carriage accidentally trampled a boy who ran out in front of it in the street. It happened to be the son of Lord Gansalahi himself. Between the vengeance of Gansalahi, and connivings of Benari, the Governor was forced to give a verdict of death to the couple. They were hanged, leaving young Tass alone in the world save for an uncle.

It seemed that Tse-dong’s healing of the crowd had incited fears that he would become another Vor. Thus, those who stood to lose were orchestrating a smear campaign.

Mumuna remarked that the common folk continued to adore their hero Tse-dong, although the trade and mercantile class had mostly fallen for the pernicious propaganda.

After that, the party caught up on some much needed sleep, then headed for the Governor’s fortress. Bayar and Tass made for the chapel, while Tse-dong reported straight to the Governor.

Governor Pong-chi welcomed Tse-dong back and apologized for the unfortunate graffiti and pamphlets. Enemies of the Governor were attacking him indirectly, through the hero he supported—namely, Tse-dong. Most of the commoners still supported the Governor and Tse-dong, though many of the mercantile class had fallen for the ugly propaganda.

Tse-dong replied, “A wise flower follows the sun, rather than devoting its attention to insects and weeds along side it on the ground.”

The Governor looked astonished and pleased. “I didn’t know you were a poet,” he said.

Tse-dong bowed.

Then the Governor explained the nature of the unfortunate graffiti. It was no doubt the work of an organization called the Committee for Conscience. They were a local organization of tradesmen and merchants who purported to guard against evils in Kong Wan, but in fact worked to secure their own trade interests. They met in secret, wearing theater masks to protect their identities. They were a thorn in the Governor’s side, but he did not wish to destroy them, as they would only resurface under unknown conditions. What the Governor really wanted was an agent on the inside to monitor their activities.

The Captain of the Guard, standing beside the Governor as his right-hand man, snapped to attention. “I’ll have my men get on it right away, sir.”

But the Governor stopped him. As much as he disliked the Committee, it was composed of powerful merchants and traders whose support would be needed when war comes in the spring. It would not be wise to risk alienating them. Therefore, government agents were a poor choice for the job. However, Tse-dong was perfect. He could believably act independently against the Committee, in order to clear his own name.

The Governor then offered Tse-dong a covert mission. They were to infiltrate a Committee meeting and, if possible, identify a member that could be pressured into spying for the Governor. If they accomplished this, he promised a 300 shu reward, plus the possibility of a monthly stipend to keep their services on retainer.

Tse-dong accepted, and theorized that the invitation might be a lead. The Captain of the Guard proposed that the words scrawled on the back, “slippery fountain”, might be a password.

With that, Tse-dong was dismissed, and he met up with Tass and Bayar at the Thauma-Virun chapel. They acquired masks for the wine tasting and showed up at the Local that evening.

The lights were off, and there were no signs of activity inside the Local. They knocked on the door and were told by the doorman that nothing was happening there, but a flash of the invitation changed the doorman’s demeanor. The password quickly got them inside.

Inside the local was an assortment of finely dressed merchants and tradesmen, their identities concealed by large theater masks.

Tass went on a tour of the winery, the grand finale of which was the cellar’s chamber of the “Wine Spirit.” According to legend, the great-grandmother of the current owner discovered a terrible spirit deep in the bowels of the earth below Kong Wan, plied it with bloody sacrifices, and gained its blessing. That is what gives the Local’s wines their unique zest. Each cask is exposed to the Wine Spirit for a night and a day before being shipped off for sale.

Then there was a tasting. Everyone sampled rice wines of various regional recipes, a thick, milky wine called amazake brewed from the leftovers of the wine-making process, and a rare wine made from taro imported from the Southern Islands. The samples were supposed to be spit out into a basin, but apparently one masker chose to do otherwise, for he soon grew quite drunk. He shouted and blundered violently into Tse-dong and a masker next to him. Both went down from the blow. Tse-dong was careful to keep his mask on his face, but the other’s slipped for a split second. Tse-dong recognized the face: it was none other than Lord Gansalahi’s servant, the doorman of the Empire, Pagarasuna.

After that, the Committee meeting was called to order. Two items were on the agenda: the Tse-dong campaign and the Gansalahi’s hidden mercury mine. A masker stood up and moved to discontinue the campaign against Tse-dong, as it was bringing down unnecessary heat from the Governor. But a second masker, this one obviously an aged, rotund Dwarf, stood up to defend the campaign. Tass recognized the masker as none other than the unscrupulous healer, Benari.

“My fellows, have we lost our nerve?” asked Benari. “I ask you: who keeps this town alive? Is it the petty nobles, or the bureaucratic minions of the government, or the common rabble? No! It is us. We, the merchants and tradesmen, run this town! Without us, the government cannot act, the people cannot eat, and the nobles cannot enjoy the luxuries to which they are accustomed. Therefore, let us not be so easily frightened. We must act to protect our trade interests. Even after only a few free-of-charge healings from Tse-dong, the people are already prattling of that naive doctrine espoused by the Gnome Vor not long ago. They say health is a right, not a privilege. Care of health should be affordable for all! And where would that leave us? Out in the cold! What would become of our trade with the human tribes, if not for our need of opiates? And what of our profitable exchange with Shen Bei, with all the exotic medicines that come in through its ports? The government would seize these trades, and we would be undone! We must make a show of force. I move to continue the campaign.”

Benari’s oratory proved persuasive, and the Committe voted to continue. Next, discussion moved on to Gansalahi’s mercury mine. He refused to divulge its location, and meanwhile he gluts on the profits from his monopoly on this rare metal. It was feared that soon his wealth would eclipse all other factors in his local politics, and it would no longer matter what the Committee or anyone else did. He would rule Kong Wan. Something had to be done. The floor was opened to suggestions.

It was suggested first of all that they might spread rumors of a new mine opening, to frighten away his investors. Second, an alternative proposal was to fabricate a scandal to embarrass Gansalahi in front of his relatives, the Alats. Finally, the masker which Tse-dong knew to be Pagarasuna stood up and made a suggestion. He said they could leak documents demonstrating that Gansalahi had falsified his annual earnings from the Empire to avoid taxes.

The matter about to be put to a vote, when the winery’s doorman whispered something in the ear of the head of the Committee. The head shouted, “What? You wait till now to tell me this! Lock the door!”

The head then stood up and addressed the Committee. “My fellows! It has become known that someone here lost their invitation after having scrawled the password on the back. That person is now present without his invitation, and yet we have collected all the invitations handed out. This leads us to believe there is an imposter among us. We will be conducting a special test of knowledge to discern who belongs here and who doesn’t.”

The crowd erupted with gasps. Soon Tse-dong, Bayar, and Tass were brought into a separate room to be questioned.

“We just have one simple question,” said their inquisitor. “What are the names of the four chairs of the Committee?”

The three sweated beneath their masks. How could they bluff their way out of this one? Then Tass gambled an answer.

“There aren’t four chairs!” she replied. She happened to know that there are almost never four of anything in governmental functions, because the word for “four” sounds like the word for “death”, and is therefore considered unlucky.

The inquisitor eyed her closely. “Quite right,” he said.

The three sighed in relief and made to head out the door.

“By the way,” the inquisitor said, “exactly how many chairs are there?”

Tass tried her luck again, trying a number that was considered lucky.

“Eight,” she said.

But her luck ran out.

“Arrest them,” said the inquisitor. The correct answer was three chairs: the Secretary, Treasurer, and Speaker. Their masks were removed, and their identities revealed before the entire Committee.

The maskers gasped as they saw Tse-dong himself had been present. Benari no doubt also took note of Tass.

“Kill them!” shouted one masker.

But another cried, “Wait! The people still love their hero. We mustn’t make a martyr of Tse-dong.”

Then the matter turned into a debate. The head of the committee (or rather, the Speaker), sighed at the inability of the committee to come to any quick conclusion. Until a decision could be made, Tse-dong, Tass, and Bayar were locked in the chamber of the Wine Spirit.

The chamber contained several casks of rice wine and a candle-lit altar to the Wine Spirit. Examining closely, they noticed a crack in the wall behind the altar. It seemed the recent tremor had damaged the wall. Wasting no time, they pushed aside the altar and went at the crack with the only weapons they had on their persons: daggers. In no time they managed to widen the crack enough to slip through.

On the other side was a natural tunnel. With candles stolen from the altar, the three carefully explored the cavern. It led to a frozen underground stream. In the ice, they found something strange: a rat skeleton lying in a puddle of liquid wreaking of alcohol.

The three followed the frozen stream down slippery slopes and drop-offs into a cavern of ice, and took some serious falls. Bayar broke an arm, and Tass an ankle. If not for Tse-dong’s healing magic, they would have been in considerable trouble.

The cavern of ice had many more strange rat skeletons, all lying in puddles of what seemed like alcohol.

Suddenly the squeaks of rats became audible from the tunnel, and soon a swarm of panicked rats poured out of the tunnel and made their way into various cracks and crevices in the cavern. Something had apparently given them a spook, but the source of the fright was nowhere to be seen.

Then a strong wreak of yeast washed into the cavern, and Tse-dong felt a wet, icy-hot tingling at the back of his neck. Tass and Bayar saw his eyes begin to flutter as if he was dreaming.

Meanwhile, Tse-dong felt something grip and pull at him. Before he knew it, he found himself floating in the cavern, his form ethereal and glowing. He could see his physical body beside him twitching, with Tass and Bayar trying to figure out what was wrong with him. Then Tse-dong saw there was another presence in the cavern. Floating out of the tunnel from which the rats had come was a large, yellow-ish mass. It looked unlike anything he’d seen before. The closest thing to which he might compare it was the look of milk diffusing into clear water.

The strange mass floated in eerie silence towards him. One eerie tendril attached to the nape of his neck, while others reached to envelop him. Tse-dong could feel it sapping his energy, the very energy he used to wield magic. He fought with all his effort against the thing, and managed to disrupt its form considerably. But eventually he fell to its attacks. It wrapped itself around him like a cocoon, and then dragged him back into his body.

Tass and Bayar saw Tse-dong awake from his strange, epileptic slumber. He was visibly weakened, and soon began calling for water. He was overcome with thirst.

They quickly moved out of the bizarre cavern through another tunnel. As they did so, Tse-dong started to appear first buzzed, then visibly drunk. To all appearances he looked as if he had consumed large quantities of wine.

The tunnel led a long ways through the earth, lit only by the tiny candles the group was carrying.

Tass felt her foot catch on something, and suddenly what seemed like a large number of pots and pans fell on them from above. It didn’t cause much harm, but it made a very loud clang, echoing through the tunnel. They inspected closer and found they had blundered into a trap with a standard tripwire. The tripwire caused the release of a bunch of dented and broken pots and pans. Clearly, they had stumbled upon someone’s underground home, someone with a fear of intruders.

Before long they heard the noise of several people up ahead, but it was too dark to see more than a few feet ahead of them. Then some kind of missile hit the cavern wall near them and shattered. They were apparently being attacked with ceramic pottery. Another pot sailed at them and exploded into sharp shards, then another.

The three grabbed sturdy frying pans for weapons and charged blindly into the darkness. Their attackers retreated but apparently regrouped, for soon they were assaulted again. This time the pots were filled with a burning hot liquid. Bayar got a chestful of searing liquid. It seemed much like hot kitchen grease. He and his fellows continued to charge through several bends in the tunnel as their attackers fell back. Ceramic shards set into the floor along a stretch of the tunnel mutilated their feet and slowed their advance, giving their attackers enough time to slam shut some kind of door.

By this time, Tse-dong was fall-down drunk. He shouted slurred curses as the others tried to silence him.

As they finally got up to the door, they saw it was a crudely-made gate, fashioned from broken wagon tongues and other refuse. The hinges were quite rusty, and with a little leverage, the three were able to pry the door off its hinges.

Inside they found further tunnels, but now they were lit by torches. This was clearly some kind of dwelling. The tunnels led in two directions: to the left and to the right.

They chose the right, and came to a bend. Bayar carefully peered around the bend as the others waited. What he saw astonished him. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen: a cavern lined with pinkish-blue luminescent mushrooms, pulsing with a hypnotic pattern. Set into the mushrooms were various Thauma-Virun idols. He became enchanted by the scene, and lost all will to do anything but stare in awe.

Tse-dong and Tass pulled him back and tried to break the spell. Tass took a dagger and nicked a sensitive part of his nose, hoping the pain would snap him out of it. With a yelp Bayar came to his senses and said, “Let’s not go that way!”

They went the other way and soon heard voices shouting to them:

“Stop! Don’t come any further! You have no business down here! Turn back!”

The group tried to say they were only trying to find a way out of the tunnels. The voices replied:

“We don’t believe you! Surface dwellers can’t be trusted! Throw down your weapons and lie on the floor!”

The three complied, and a number of nervous-looking people armed with sharpened wooden poles for spears appeared. They were all dressed in the bandages of lepers.

The lepers bound Tse-dong, Tass, and Bayar and brought them inside. The lepers refused to believe anything they said until Tass mentioned that she was the daughter of Vor, the Gnomish healer.

Gasps came from the lepers. The name seemed to carry weight with them. Then a very short woman with a staff came forward. She was clearly their leader. She declared that the mushroom colony would determine if they were telling the truth.

They were brought into the chamber that Bayar had glimpsed, and Tass and Tse-dong now saw the incredible display of pulsing, luminescent mushrooms. The lepers ceremonially harvested a few mushrooms, placed them in a bowl, and bade the three eat. They did so, and before long the pulse of the mushrooms appeared to swirl in a captivating pattern. An intense feeling of empathy washed over the three. They felt fear coming from the direction of the lepers, apprehension from each other, and serenity from the mushrooms. Gradually, the sense of fear from the lepers relaxed, and all of them enjoyed a powerful sense of shared communion.

Tse-dong passed out in bliss from the combined experience of the mushrooms and the strange drunkenness.

After the effects of the mushrooms wore off, the woman with the staff said, “The mushrooms have judged your intentions to be peaceful. They also tell me that your slumbering friend has been possessed a foreign entity. They will now expel the entity.”

Tse-dong was laid on a bed of mushrooms, and then the pulsing concentrated around him into an an intense brightness. Tse-dong’s body twitched and shivered again like he was dreaming violently. Suddenly a wave of strong yeast smell washed through the cavern was gone. Tse-dong was left slumbering peacefully.

After that, the woman with the staff explained everything. Her name was Jing-a, and she led this underground community. They called themselves the Lepers. Once they were beggars in Kong Wan. Many of them had terrible illnesses, but lacked money to pay for healing. Jing-a herself was in line to become a Thauma-Virun priest, but was shunned by her temple when she contracted her disease. Many others had similar stories. Without healing, they could do nothing but lie in the streets and beg for coin. A decade ago, the merchants and tradesmen decided they were an eyesore and a detriment to business, and got the “Sanitation Laws” passed. These laws stated that no serious illness was allowed to be displayed publicly; patients had to stay indoors. Since these unfortunate souls were homeless, they had no choice but to go underground. Then, when the Gnome Vor began healing at rates reduced for the needy, they thought their salvation had finally come. But the tragedy that saw Vor hanged proved to the Lepers that surface dwellers could not be trusted. Ever since, they have stayed below ground, save for brief midnight forays to collect scraps of food and useful refuse.

Jing-a and the Lepers welcomed Tass, daughter of Vor, and her companions. But they made them promise never to reveal their secret community to any surface dweller. Even more than persecution, they feared what would happen if the merchants discovered the mushroom colony. They would surely over-harvest it and destroy the only thing that gives them respite and hope. Indeed, the empathic effect of the emotions tightly bonded the community together, and gave them a sense of mutual compassion unrivaled by other communities.

Bayar asked Jing-a about her religion, and she explained that she still followed Viru’s path of salvation, and she led her community in this too. They believed that somehow the sun god’s light still shined on them, even down there in the darkness. They could not be part of the orthodox institution, and so were heretics, but they believed that somehow Viru still accepted them.

Then Bayar explained that he too had begun to question the Thauma-Virun institution, and was looking for a new way to practice his faith. He and Jing-a had long and in depth theological conversations. They found each other kindred spirits.

The three slept the night amongst the Lepers, and Tse-dong woke with worst hangover of his life. Jing-a explained that he had been possessed by the Wine Spirit. It feeds by gradually fermenting the body of its host into alcohol over a period of twenty-four hours. The water in Tse-dong’s body had actually begun to turn to wine. Had it not been for the help of the mushroom colony, he would have ended up like the rats: a mere skeleton in a puddle of alcohol.

Then, without further delay, the Lepers showed the group the way to the surface. They emerged in the Residential Ward, and made their way immediately to the Governor’s Fortress. The Governor was incredibly pleased to learn that Gansalahi’s servant Pagarasuna was a member of the Committee for Conscience, and even acting against his master. He could certainly be blackmailed into spying. The Governor handed the 300 shu promised, and further offered a monthly stipend of 100 shu to keep their services on retainer.

Tse-dong inquired if they might instead be granted temporary access to some isolated dwelling outside the town, just for a few months. What he had in mind, of course, was a place to hole up and study the sorcerous texts they had found inside the yaks in Po Keng. The Governor readily agreed, and promised a lodge in the mountains in lieu of the stipend.

With that, the three took their leave of the Governor. They had a little too much excitement for one night, and needed serious rest.

The last thing they heard on their way out of the fortress was what had happened with the late emperor’s funeral. He was interred in a grand tomb near the Abbey of the Black Tortoise, north of Xing Xiang. Extravagant burial goods accompanied him into the tomb. His three siblings, joint heirs to the empire, each competed to give the most magnificent gift and therefore appear as the true heir to the throne.

Prince Bayanhongor, whose domain is the West, gave a chariot made entirely of mithril.

Princess Atas, who controls the East, offered an incarnation of the goddess Wu-Yu in the form of a mighty boar called the Black Beast.

Prince Hovd, ruler of the South, including the Southern Islands, offered a coconut presented by nine Tabaxi virgins.

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BrandonDrowningInDice

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