Friday, September 6, 2019

Maztica: The Valley of Peace (Arrival)

On a quiet day, after traveling far from Nexal and when Atl was resting, Omechoka, Divemoye, Mociauh, and Zolin decided to experiment with the odd items they had discovered in the lair of the Rain Dragon. Omechoka had claimed a particularly beautiful object, a small vessel seemingly made of clear water, but in solid form. Because the vessel was clear, Omechoka could see its contents, a viscous liquid the color of the sky of midnight. Now seemed like a good time to open it. Omechoka removed the stopper and tipped out a drop. Immediately the bottle became slippery in his hands. It fell to the ground and shattered in a blinding flash. The ground seemed to dissolve beneath them and all screamed in alarm. When the travelers recovered their sight, they found that they had fallen upward. They were in the sky and the poor dry husk of Maztica lay below them. Far to the North they could see the smoke of Nexal. To the South they imagined they could see their homeland, where the sea encroached upon the land to turn it into swamp. But Zolin among the mountains almost directly beneath them a lush valley. As they got closer-- for they were slowly falling-- they pointed out to each other the lake found by mountain river, croplands, villages . . .

They landed in this green valley, choosing a forest clearing, now far upriver from one of the villages. They drank cool clean water from the stream and then walked toward the village. At first it seemed deserted. No one was working in the fields and all the houses were closed. They walked along the stream to a lake where they found boats and also fish kept in pens. They took many fish. Some they cooked and ate immediately. Others they smoked to eat later. Then they returned to exploring the village. They determined that there were people in the village, but that they were afraid to come out of their houses. Finally they found a house where the occupants acknowledged their presence. A man announced his willingness to fight while a woman chastised him for using violent words and begged the travelers to go away. Zolin insisted that they meant no harm and at last the travelers were welcomed into the house.

Zolin and Omechoka prepared a meal for their hosts (smoked fish) and learned about the strange place they had arrived. First, there was no fighting. Second, there was plenty of food. The village was known as Fat Shamba. There was another village that could be reached in one or two days journey. True Shamba, it was called. Would strangers be treated kindly there? Yes, they must be; it's True Shamba. Midnight, the man of the house, would take them there.

The next morning, Divemoye would not wake up. Sleep sickness. There was only one thing to do. Take him to the Cave of the Ancestors. Midnight would help carry him.

So the Travelers left Fat Shamba, following a narrow path along the lake and then walked along the river that flowed out of the lake. Midnight explained he didn't want to arrive at the Cave when it was dark. During the night, Midnight slept soundly (as did Divemoye!) but the others were kept awake by strange droning cries and then by a hard rain.

In the morning, Midnight explained that the Cave of the Ancestors was a place of healing and a place of rest. Some who entered would emerged fully healed. Others stayed for a long rest. He had made this trip to the Cave with dead or dying relatives, leaving them outside to be welcome by the Guardians. But he had never been inside. "So if we carry your friend inside, the Guardians might decide that we all need to stay for a long rest."

Zolin, Omechoka, and Mocaiauh were all ready to take any risk to help their friend. And Midnight wanted to accompany them.

To enter the cave, they waded through a pool of knee-deep, murky and stagnant water. They found themselves in a large cavern where they lit torches, and discussed where to go next. The cavern covered with small puddles and strewn with rocks and boulders. They followed a dry that led through a chamber full of roosting bats before tapering into a passage too narrow for even one person to squeeze through, even without the sleeping Divemoye.

Returning to their starting point, they looked more closely at a large boulder at the back of the chamber and determined that there was space behind it. Zolin climbed up and confirmed that there was a tunnel behind a boulder that they could easily walk through. And this tunnel was dimly lit.

The party hoisted Divemoye over the boulder and explored the tunnel, soon coming to a vertical shaft with a ladder going down. The light was from the bottom of the ladder. The party climbed down and found themselves in the middle of a tunnel. A trickle of water ran down the middle of it. On a shelf that ran alongside, there was a body, wrapped in cloth and next to it, a candle. Up the tunnel, there were more candles burning. Walking up the tunnel, the party found more dead bodies and skeletons, with the oldest remains in the highest reaches of the side tunnels. The water trickling through the tunnel had no effect on Divemoye.

So the party explored the tunnel in the other directions, lighting the way with their own torches. As they progressed, the water got deeper, finally flowing into a deep pool. Divemoye was plunged in the pool and woke up.

The party was ready to return. As Zolin climbed the ladder, a hand reached down to help her. Zolin recoiled and raised her torch. In its light, she could see bones through the hand's transparent flesh. Looking up at the hand's owner, she saw a figure wrapped in robes. Zolin dropped back the ladder and prepared to fight, taking Divemoye's Axe of Justice form its still groggy owner. When the figure reached the bottom of the owner, it reached out to embrace Zolin, but instead received a solid blow from the bronze blade of Divemoye's axe. The figure hissed and brandished a worn and battered maca. Midnight attacked the figure with his spear, striking it with such force in the middle of its body that the obsidian blade emerged on the other side and broke on the wall of the cave. But the figure barely acknowledge this, instead reaching out wrapping an arm around Midnight and pulling him closer. Zolin hit the figure a second time with the ax and Midnight wriggled free. The figure turned its full attention to Zolin, wildly swing the maca and knocking the axe out of her hand. As Zolin fumbled for another weapon, the figure advanced, and began to batter her with the maca. Midnight grabbed the axe and found the strength to attack the figure. Zolin pressed her shield against the deathly attacker, pinning against the side of the cave so that Midnight could smash its skull with the axe. The fearsome monster was still. Midnight reluctantly returned the axe. He agreed that yes, they had just killed one of the Guardians.

The party climbed the ladder and returned to the daylight.


Monday, September 2, 2019

Master of the Desert Nomads Part 6: Invitations

 Because Beatriss had brought several extra horses from the Happy Valley, those who had been rescued from the Salt Swamp were able to ride. Hyamsam led the way back to where he and the other overland travelers had parted company with Kalashar.  The caravan track was clearly marked and the larger party had no difficulty finding their way to the oasis. This was a muddy hole with a small pool at the bottom, ringed with a dozen date palms. Kalashar was overjoyed to see them. He called for a feast!

Everyone overindulged in food and several overindulged in drink.

Bo-Jong’s advisor Ryu provided the following account of the strange and tragic events that happened that night and the next day:

During the feast Bo-Jing went out to get fresh air and saw a guard talking to a winged monkey creature.

Bo-Jing ran back in and yelled to everyone about the strange sight he had seen. The guards laughed but Kalashar looked worried.

The mighty and fearless Bo Jing ran back outside the tent in time to see the winged monkey in the light of the full moon. Bo-Jing sprinted after the odd creature as it flew and hopped across the desert.
Bo-Jing spot the monster one last time as it disappeared in the ruins of a temple.
The next day, the trustworthy Bo-Jing and his humble advisor returned to the temple, along with BO-Jing’s friends Beatriss, Bayan, Tetsukichi, and Temur. They found a very old temple, half-buried in the sand. Bo-Jing led the others in battle against two statues made of amber, and then found the winged monkey waiting for them.  The monkey cowered and Bo-Jing was unsure of whether it was a worthy foe, but his dilemma was resolved when an evil magician with the head of a vulture suddenly appeared and transfixed the friends of Bo-Jing with his evil magic. When Bo-Jing leapt into battle against he vulture-wizard, the cowardly monkey attacked him from behind. Beatriss broke free of the spell and slayed the monkey. The vulture wizard retreated deeper into its lair. Bo Jing, Beatriss, and Temur followed it into its alchemical workshop where they found a magical mirror.  A man was standing inside the mirror and he addressed them by name. So surprised were they, that they lost sight of the vulture wizard.

The man wore elaborate black metal armor and a helmet that covered his face. He reached out of the mirror and handed them a letter. The letter stated that he was the Master of the Land Beyond the Great Pass and that one day soon, he would be their Master as well. He invited them to visit him, and when they accepted his invitation, reached out of the mirror to hand them a certificate granting them safe passage. Then the mirror clouded in the man disappeared.

In the vulture wizard’s workshop, they found letters in the Master’s handwriting. One letter directed the wizard to, “Bring Bo-Jing and the other agents of Zhou Deng here so that I may look at them.” A second letter stated “Tell Khel that the army of Fitar has been destroyed. I am grateful for his information and he may end his employment with Kalashar any way he sees fit. In one week he should meet the Eastern March at the reckoning point.”

When Bo-Jing and his friends returned to the oasis, they found that Kalashar and the other merchants had been killed, their goods scattered, and the well polluted. There was no sign of Khel and the guards.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Master of the Desert Nomads Part 5: Lost and Found

Meanwhile, Beatriss, Hyamsam, and Temur had little difficulty finding the Salt Swamp. After parting ways with Kalashar, they pointed their horses north and after a few hours saw the white flash on the desert before them, comparable to a mirage that stretched along the horizon. As they drew closer, they were nearly overcome by a brilliance in which the horizon virtually disappeared. Everyone used their cloaks to shield their eyes and those of their horses. Beatriss covered her own sensitive eyes and face completely.

Towards nightfall, the soft desert sand gave way to salt crystals that crackled loudly under their horses’ hooves. There was a pungent smell and unfamiliar birdcalls. Beatriss unwrapped her face and stared into the swamp, but saw nothing alive. They decided to camp and make plans in the morning. Ju-Mei refused to sleep and spent the night softly chanting and burning incense.

They woke early and in the morning light were happily surprised to find a long, flat-bottomed boat, painted a bright sky blue. Hyamsam elected to guard the horses on shore, along with the soldiers of Fitar. Beatriss, Temur, Ju-Mei, and Naron rowed the boat into the swamp.

Ju-Mai sat in the prow of the boat while the others paddled. This was the place of his nightmares. He urged his comrades to paddle and push forward, guiding them through a maze of strange trees and salt-encrusted mudflats with uncanny confidence. As night fell he did not waver, and continued chanting, until he suddenly interrupting himself, “There!”

Ahead of them they saw a flickering light. Soon they heard moans mixed with shouting, mixed with incoherent babbling.

Ju-Mei chanted in a low whispered and directed his companions to pilot the boat toward the light and the voices . . .

-------

For those in hut, the whispers from the darkness seemed to be drawing closer. In time, Bangqiu noted something moving through the water. Those who were fully coherent looked forward to a direct confrontation with whatever had been tormenting them. Al-Fitar loaded his crossbow. Tetsukichi stood on the dock with his sword. Bayan tried to rally the sohei and soldiers. Bangqiu strained his eyes against the darkness, seeking a target for a blast of magic missiles. The shape moving through the water glided into a patch of unobscured moonlight. It was a moved, filled with several people. One of them stood up. “Bangqiu! We found you!” It was Beatriss. At once, the whispers rose to a single loud chant of several voices. The people in the hut responded with a deep sigh and rushed toward their friends in the boat, some clambering down the ladder, others jumping down onto the dock or even into the shallow water. Bayan guided the catatonic soldier down the ladder. By the time he reached the boat, he was sobbing but fully alert. Ju-Mei, while continuing to chant, lit candles and hurled them into the hut and on the dock. Once everyone was safely on the boat, Naron and Temur turned it around and those who were able helped to push and paddle it away from the swamp. Ju-Mei ordered that no one should look back at the hut. “If you cannot move the boat forward, pray with me! If you cannot pray, close your eyes and sleep! If you cannot close your eyes, stare up into the sky!”

Amidst the darkness, there was no way to measure their progress. In time, morning broke and far ahead of them, through the screen of reeds and sickly trees, they saw solid land, and the figure of their friend Hyamsam waving and shouting encouragement.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Master of the Desert Nomads Part 4: The Salt Swamp

Tetsukichi, Bayan, Bo Jing, and Bangqiu continued their way up the river. The river became wider, and more shallow. They pushed their way forward, their poles sinking into the soft brown mud. The air was thick and still and the smell of salt burned in their nostrils. Whithered palms and dry reeds were covered with brownish white crystals. As the day progressed, a salty film settled on their eyelashes.

Everyone was hungry and thirsty. The water was teeming was pale, sluggish fish. Damai speared one. When he cut it open, worms burst out and he flung the gooey mass back into the water. The water of course was undrinkable.

The sunset and as the swamp darkened, the party noticed a light a head of them. They pushed their raft forward, sometimes slashing through reeds and even knocking down small rotten trees.

The light came from a wooden hut, raised on high stilts with a dock at the bottom. A ladder led up to a doorway, covered by a rough curtain, glowing with light from within the hut. The travelers tied their raft to the dock. Bayan volunteered to climb the ladder. Reaching the top, she called out. Receiving no reply, she drew her sword and entered. She found a small, bare room with one window looking out on the dark swamp. There was another room, its doorway curtained, and the source of the light seemed to be within this inner room. Pushing the curtain aside with her sword, she peered in and found another small empty room. She went back and called for the others to come up.

A cool breeze stirred the air outside and rain had begun to fall. Within minutes, the light wind and rain had turned into a fierce storm. The hut was cramped, but no one wanted to stay with the raft. Without bothering to set up a guard, everyone lay down and slept.

Bangqiu woke up hot and sweaty and began yelling at the others. Tetsukichi and Bayan woke up. It was hot and bright again, maybe close to midday. Everyone had experienced terrible dreams. And one of the soldiers would not wake up completely. He opened his eyes and rose and followed simple directions, but he wouldn’t speak and couldn’t be distracted from staring at nothing—or something that no one else could see.

Damai wanted to explore the hut. He found no end to the chain of small rooms with curtained doorways and became absorbed in looking for small differences between them, mapping the design of scratches in the floor.

Tetsukichi went outside. The raft was gone. And most of the remainder of their provisions.

Bangqiu announced that he could assume the form of a hippopotamus and ferry everyone to shore. But first he would take on the form of a bird and find the way to shore. The day was cloudy and didn’t thin out as Bangqiu rose higher. Flying at a lower level, several feet above the turgid water, he weaved through the vegetation toward the horizon. He saw some kind of structure ahead of him and flew faster. As he drew closer, he saw the already too-familiar shape of the hut.

Bayan led efforts to rebuild the raft, and began by tearing off the planks of the hut.

Everyone was nearly overcome by hunger, thirst, and fatigue and the day passed in slow misery. As the sun began to set, someone raised the question of whether it would be safe to sleep, nodding towards Nayan, the catatonic soldier who had spent the entire day standing at the window. A good question, but not one that anyone had the heart to answer.

Then they started hearing whispers out in the swamp . . .

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Master of the Desert Nomads Part 3: Ju-Mei's Fortuitous Nightmare

Meanwhile, back in the Happy Valley, Ju-Mei was troubled by strange visions; he convinced Beatriss that her friends were in danger and that she should go their aid. Tetsukichi’s protégé, Temur was glad for an opportunity to prove himself by coming to the aid of his master. And the always unpredictable Hyamsam agreed to accompany them.

Beatriss, Hyamsam, and Temur (leading a few soldiers from Fitar’s army who had remained in the Happy Valley) reached Pramayama to find that both their friends and the army had already departed. A few stragglers explained that Tetsukichi had traveled up river by boat while the army had ventured overland. Based on warning from Ju-Mei, Beatriss decided that they would take the overland route. All were mounted, with at least one spare horse, and they made good time, following the tracks of the army of Fitar.

After about a week of travel, the party spotted a large encampment. Beatriss and Temur discussed whether this would be soldiers from the army of Fitar, enemy soldiers, or someone else. Hyamsam volunteered to investigate while the others found places to hide on a rocky ridge. He became invisible and approached the encampment, making a beeline for the largest and most elaborate tent. Spotting a pair of guards just outside the entrance of the tent and hearing voices inside, Hyamsam found a place outside where he could listen to the conversation. To his happy surprise, they were speaking Findi, his own native tongue. They were two men, a merchant named a Kalashar and his assistant, discussing what sounded like a familiar debate—whether the way ahead of them was becoming too dangerous. As other merchants had been frightened off by stories of attacks by savage bandits and monsters—or simply never returned, the money available to those still willing to travel the “Dark Northern Mountain Way” seemed too good to pass up. Anyway, it would never do to back out on this contract with an army. Nevertheless, this time would be the last time for sure.

Hyamsam returned to share the news. Merchants sounded harmless enough, but which army were they supplying? Beatriss and Temur had found a small cave to spend the night. Better sleep on it rather than make a rash decision unnecessarily.

But then the party heard the sound of hoofbeats from the other side of the ridge. A large group of horsemen were gathering and seemed to be planning an attack on the merchant caravan. Hyamsam demanded that his friends assist him in protecting the merchants; Beatriss and Temur agreed that it was the only honorable course of action. They led their horses quietly down the ridge and then rode quickly toward the merchant camp. When challenged by a guard, Beatriss answered that she has a warning for Kalashar, that the camp was in danger. The guards asked the party to dismount and then led them into the camp.

Kalashar was surprised at the news but had little time to question it. They all felt the ground shake with the sound of pounding hoofbeats. Kalashar called for his guards and their captain, Khel, who sent his men to four defensive positions. Beatriss and Hyamsam joined the guards in front of Kalashar’s tent. Temur, plus Fitar’s soldiers took a position with a group of archers at the front of the caravan.

The attackers proved to be bandits—brutal in their tactics, but most intent in making off with camels and cargo. With a magic blast of steam, Hyamsam broke the charge of the fiercest bandits who had attacked Kalshar’s tent directly. Beatriss and her henchmen dispatched the others of this charge. At the front of the column, bandits from behind rocks and guards from behind a wagon, exchanged missile fire. Temur broke the impasse, leading a group of Fitar’s soldiers in a swift flank attack on the surprised archers. When the heroes of the Happy Valley turned their attention to the other parts of the battle, they found the caravan guards in a bad way, overwhelmed by sheer numbers. But when the bandits saw the magician and the warrior woman coming, they took what they could and fled. Beatriss decided that they should not pursue them, but instead stay and help the wounded. Roughly a third of the caravan guards, plus several drovers had been killed in the battle. Nevertheless, Kalshar thanked the strangers for their help, fully realizing that he too would have been killed if it weren’t their surprise assistance.

The party traveled with Kalashar for several days. He cautioned them against exploring the Salt Swamp, advising them that few who ventured within ever returned. “Centuries ago, a terrible witch lived there. She made men mad and devoured their minds. Nothing good lives there now.”

These warning echoed the dreams that troubled Ju-Mei and reinforced the party’s commitment to rescue their friends. The day came when it was time for the party to part ways with Kalshar. He indicated the way he was headed, pointing out rough mountains to the west and a dark spot before them that he said was an oasis. “We will rest there for a few days. If any mortals can venture into the Salt Swamp and return, it would be the ones who stand before me now. May we meet again.”

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Master of the Desert Nomads Part 2: On the Asanda


Over the next several days, the raft continued its way up river. One day, they met a group of soldiers who confessed that they had deserted from Fitar’s army. With encouragement from Bo Jing, they agreed to redeem their army and join the party. During the day, they saw deserted and destroyed villages and one day encounter two rafts filled with refugees making their way downriver. During the nights, the party saw many strange sights including fire-breathing dogs.

One day, sailing up the river, the party found themselves in the midst of an army camp, with about 20 horsemen on one side of the river and 30-40 infantry on the other. They were spotted almost immediately and soldiers from one side of the river challenged those on the other to a contest of target practice. But before anyone from either side could score any points, Bo Jing put the contest to an end. With two quick shots from his own bow, two of the cavalrymen were shot dead. Most of the others fled for cover in the underbrush. The infantry archers on the right bank were more disciplined, but their aim was poor. Most everyone on board the raft took cover and rowed harder while the leading warriors took well-aimed shots at their enemies. Tetsukichi instructed Mustapha to use his best illusions; moments later a second, larger raft appeared behind the first. The enemy captain orders the archers to train their arrows on this second raft while he and his bodyguards charged out onto a sandbar and intercept the first raft. Bayan and Tetsukichi were glad to join in melee combat against these over-confident foes, cutting them down as they tried to reach the raft. The sohei and the reformed deserters did their part, slaying those infantry soldiers who escaped the flashing blades of Tetsukichi and Bayan. Bo Jing challenged the cavalry Captain to enter the water if he dared.

At this moment, two enormous tigers came charging out of the infantry camp and flung themselves onto the two rafts. One of these rafts proved to be a product of Mustapha’s illusion and so one tiger found himself splashing foolishly in the middle of the river. The other, however, landed in the middle of the real raft, testing the courage of the inexperienced soldiers. But this beast was the challenge that Bo Jing had been waiting for. He leapt into combat, putting himself at risk of the flashing claws and powerful fangs of the feast and then finding the right moment to strike with his katana of fire. The beast howled in pain and the other soldiers chose this moment to strike with their own swords. But for nought! The brilliant orange and black coat deflected their blades better than any armor. Only the gift of Saradin could harm the unnatural beast. Bo Jing ordered the soldier and sohei to protect Mustapha and to assist the other leaders in fighting their human enemies while he fought the tiger. The blow of a single claw sent him sprawling to the deck. The tiger pounced and clamped his jaws around Bo Jing’s forearm, the strong fangs barely repelled by the the steel of the warrior’s armor. And now the second tiger proved to be very comfortable in the water; it swam after the first raft and with one motion, climbed on board. Al-Fitar, fighting side by side, turned back in time to see the brave young noble in peril. Clutching the hammer passed down to him from generations of honorable warriors he threw himself into battle against the two beasts. With one blow, he stunned the first tiger. Bo Jing wrenched his arm free of its jaws and found his feet. Al-Fitar struck the second tiger, knocking it off the raft. Bo Jing stepped backwards and let the first tiger come to him; he struck at the moment when the tiger pounced, slitting its throat open wide. As the tiger fell dead and slid into the water, its body changed to that of a man. The second tiger was not deterred by the fate of its brother, but jumped back onto the raft, as hungry for battle as for the flesh of the men it would consume if victorious. But now the odds were against it. As Bo Jing had struggled to fight two tigers, now the tiger struggled to fight two powerful men. Convinced of unnatural wickedness, they would not let it escape, but fought the second tiger until it too was dead and had resumed its human form.

During the course of this battle with the weretigers, Tetsukichi and Bayan, assisted by man brave soldiers and sohei fought and killed many of the enemy including the cavalry captain. While many of the heroes suffered grievous wounds, none were killed. They rested for the remainder of the day, allowing the light wind to catch their sail and take them further up the river.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Master of the Desert Nomads Part 1: Tetsukichi's Choice


After a few years of quiet, repose, and fatherhood in the Happy Valley, Tetsukichi received word tales of his valor had spread far and wide. He had taken on a seemingly thankless mission to seek out Governor Kawabi and succeeded where others had failed, opening up trade routes between the Empire and such far-flung settlements as Quitokai and Pasar. He had defended his adopted clan the Sansars from the threat of Sakatha, the undead lizard king. And through it all, he had shown himself a loyal friend to Al-Fitar, treating the foreign hireling as a brother, sharing equally in danger, glory, and treasure.

An imperial representative was on the way, requesting that Tetsukichi return the jade sword that he had received from the Emperor when he located the lost city of Tempat Larang. This was not an insult, but a coded invitation for Tetsukichi to come to Khanbaliq, deliver the sword personally, and so demonstrate that he could be trusted with the Emperor’s full confidence and welcomed at court.

The elders of the Sansar clan advised against this. The Emperor was plotting against them and knew that Tetsukichi was their brightest hope for the future. He should simply relinquish the sword. His help was needed in the Valley of the Five Fires. If he succeeded in driving the bandit marauders out of the sacred valley, the Sansar clan might join this group of ancient and honored clans—with Tetsukichi named its Khan.

Finally, Al-Fitar had a request. Or two. A group of three dozen ragtag soldiers, men from his father’s kingdom, far to the west had arrived in the Happy Valley. Strange marauders from the mountains threatened the realm of Fitar. Al-Fitar begged Tetsukichi to return with him to the West and help defend his family. Barring that, he begged Tetsukichi to release him from his service so that he might join his father’s army.

When the imperial envoys arrived, Tetsukichi relinquished the jade sword and departed with Al-Fitar. He was accompanied by Bangqiu and Bayan, and by various hirelings.

After a fortnight of hard riding, they reached Pramayama, a once squalid and benighted village on the banks of a muddy river, now reduced to an even lower state by the mysterious marauders. A part of Fitar’s army was using the village as a base and they welcomed the volunteers, especially the renowned Tetsukichi. (For reasons unknown, Al-Fitar kept his own identity a secret.) After a few days in the village, Tetsukichi met a bedraggled man, pursued by a shadowy, hissing, monster. After Tetsukichi slew the monster, the man thanked him with the gift of a map. The map indicates a Temple of Death that most be destroyed—by Tetsukichi as the new owner of the map.

The local commander is interested in the map and Tetsukichi’s encounter with the monster. This seems to confirm a plan that he’d already been considering. It’s time to go to meet the main army. The quickest way is by water, the Asanda River. But there’s only one poor raft in Pramayama and there aren’t resources available to build enough to accommodate the local forces, plus their mounts and supplies. So, the main force will go overland while Tetsukichi and his friends are to travel up the Asada River to the salt swamp and find the main army near there. Give them the message that more are coming.

The Commander set out the next day. Bo Jing found the raft in need of repairs and so the departure of Tetsukichi & co. was delayed until the afternoon. As the repairs were nearing completion, Bayan noticed a large creature circling in the sky above them. Bangqiu, assuming the form of a falcon, flew into the sky for a better look. The creature was some sort of two-legged flying reptile (a wyvern, Bo Jing would explain, based on this description). And there was a man riding on its back. Bangqiu blasted the man with a bouquet of magic missiles. He fell to earth and the wyvern flew away. On the body of the man, Bangqiu found a claimed a skull amulet. He tried it on for a moment and then put it in his pocket.

The raft sailed upriver day and night under Bo Jing’s watchful eye. The second night on the river, the raft struck a sandbar, and three giant crabs scuttled onto the raft. Bayan, Tetsukichi, and Bo Jing killed them and drove off an opportunistic crocodile. Knowing that they well spend the next several weeks eating hardtack, the party decides to live up to its name and have a crab feast. (“Watch the shirt-tails flapping in the wind!”) Their fire attracted visitors, a mysterious pair of adventurers, one a woman, who wore her face completely covered and spoke with a strange accent similar to Beatriss’s. When Bayan questioned her about this, the woman acknowledge that yes, she was from Cynadecia. Although she carried a sword herself, she claimed not to know Beatriss or any of the members of the warrior women’s society. Soon it emerged that this pair was part of a larger group of adventurers, who were invited to join the feast. Their leader was a slow-moving priest whom Al-Fitar identified to Bayan as a “demon worshipper” based on his vestments. The priest mourned the fact that he didn’t have his spices with him so that he could demonstrate the right way to prepare crab. He made strange remarks about the party’s “innocence” in the face of the dangers that lay waiting for them upriver and suggested he might accompany them “for the right price.” His followers took turns remembering the fine dishes he had prepared for them. Tetsukichi and co. listened politely and encouraged their guests to take some food and be on their way.