Monday, June 1, 2020

The Caves of Inharmonious Discord Part 1

A couple months later, a few farmers from Rowche visited Gunjar and Ginjo to ask for more help.  The village priest had led a procession to the abandoned temple with plans to reconsecrate it, and found it had been burnt to the ground.  All evidence-- including tracks, graffiti, and a couple pig-nosed humanoid bodies-- suggested that bakemono were responsible.  In the weeks that followed, bakemono had begun raiding the village, mainly to steal rice and livestock, but gleefully killing any villagers who tried to stop them.  Two of the farmers, at great risk to their own lives, Howzaa and Li Po, had followed the bakemono tracks to a slot canyon riddled with caves, perhaps once the refuge of a band of monks, but now thoroughly corrupted by the forces of disharmony, discord, and yes, chaos.

Gunjar and Ginjo recrutied a few of the monks from the Monastery of the Two-Fold Path and set out to destroy this wickedness at its source!

Gunjar and Ginjo noted a cavern entrance on the floor of the southern side of the canyon and entered there. Not far within, they encountered a half dozen of the blue-green, pointy eared bakemono that they’d fought at the temple above Rowche Valley. The heroes had the advantage in every way—numbers, tactics, and individual prowess. The bakemono were killed and the heroes pressed on. They reached a cramped chamber, pathetically styled as a throne room, where a slightly larger bakemono bloodthirstily ordered his underlings to attack. Gunjar uttered a blistering sermon condemning them for their wicked ways and the bakemono were struck dead.

The heroes pressed on, climbed a flight of stairs and and explored other caverns, other rooms.  They encountered larger, better armed bakemono, but thanks to Ginjo's courage and leadership, they continued to triumph in every battle, suffering only minor injuries, which were well-tended by the wise and capable Gunjar.  In the course of their adventures, the heroes came upon more proof of the bakemono's wickedness-- several  human prisoners. These included a wealthy silk merchant, his wife, and two of his guards.  The  merchant begged to be escorted back to Pasar.  The heroes agreed.  Ginjo received a generous reward from the Silk Guild.  The guards, named Shek and Sheng, were outfitted with armor and weapons and directed to accompany the heroes in any future assaults against the denziens of the Caves.  Shek and Sheng, having witness the prowess of Ginjo and Gunjar first hand were proud to join them.

In addition, Sentra and Sukh agreed to join the plans for future sorties against the bakemono.  Gwinch provided 5 more sohei.  All told, the expedition force included a dozen farmers, sohei, and caravaners, plus the four leaders.  They made a shared camp, but decided that they would split into two forces, with one group staying to guard camp while the other made a run against the Cave.  This would ensure that wounded adventurers would have a safe camp to return to.

Sentra and Sukh led the next raid, together with a few sohei and farmers.  They first ventured toward a small tunnel, half-obscured by trees at the base of the northern side of the cavern.  As they drew closer, they were ambused by a half-dozen small, but vicious bakemono.  They dropped from the trees and stabbed Sid the sohei with their spears.  He was rescued by his companions, who chased the strange little bakemono-- whom some compared to rats, others to dogs, and others to lizards-- back into the underbrush.  Sheng was barely breathing.  Sentra was able to stablize him, but insisted that they return him to the relative safety of camp.

This was done and Sukh and Sentra returned to the caves, this time following a path up the northern wall of canyon and entering a wide cavern mouth, its entry way well-lit by the afternoon sun.  The sun's rays fell on the grisly site of about 50 skulls and severed heads, lined up in a series of niches.  Some were human, most were pointy-earred bakemono.  From the corner of his eye, Sentra noted a pig-nosed head that seemed to move.  He blinked and it was gone.  Closer inspection found a hole at the back of an empty niche.  Sentra threw his torch threw the hole and saw another hallway running parallel to the one they were in, behind the row of heads.  They had been seen!  Sentra and Sukh made some quick deductions and charged down the entry corridor, seeking a way to get to the watcher's hallway!  They didn't find him, but they found a group of four pig-headed bakemono.  The fight was quick.  The bakemono were killed and the heroes pressed on, reaching the lair of a bloated, bright red bakemono, with huge tusks sprouting from his procine face.  He was surrounded by bodyguards and what appeareed to be female bakemono.  The sohei and farmers squared off against the bodyguards while Sukh challenged the chief.  The chief was a powerful, but reckless warrior.  Sukh dodged and deflected a flurry of blows until the chief exhausted himself, whereupon Sukh swiftly dispatched him.  The death of the chief shocked the other bakemono; in their panic, they were swiftly dispatched.  The heroes of Pasar looted the chief's lair and then made their way out of his cave and returned to their camp.

Early the next morning, two groups compared notes and maps and Gunjar and Ginjob set out for the caves with a group of retainers.  They ventured into another cavern that was inhabited by pig-nosed bakemono.  Gunjar called on divine assitance in transfixing a large group of bakemono.  He would not allow Ginjob or any of the others to kill them, insisting that he was devoted to forgiveness and peace.  He would fight to save his life, but would one not harm a helpless prisoner.  When they encountered the chief of this group of bakemono, the combat was lethal.  Ginjob killed the chief and claimed his magical axe, and the heroes made their way out and returned to camp.

The next day, Sentra was too tired to leave camp and so Gunjar and Ginjob decided they would lead another sortie.  This time, rather than charge into new caves, they decided to make another visit to the pointy-eared bakemono who had been holding Sheng and Shek prisoner.  They surprised a group of about a dozen small blue and green bakemono, armed with crude spears and killed several of them.  The survivors threw down their spears and begged for mercy.  Gunjar ordered them to leave the caves and forswear their wicked behavior. Venturing once more into the upper caverns where they'd rescued Sheng and Shek.  They met larger, fiercer bakemono, with the same large pointed ears and colored deeper purple greens and purples.  These bakemono despite their individual prowess, were not numerous and were overwhelmed by sheer numbers.  The heroes located an extensive armory.  Farmers and sohei helped themselves to fine suits of mail, shields, and swords and bows.  The noted light from the outside and discovered an exit.  From higher up on the southern wall of the cavern, they were able to note several additional cavern entrances, on the northern side of the canyon and in its west end. It was late in the day.  Everyone in the party was tired and some were wounded.  While scanning for a way back down to the canyon floor, Ginjo noticed a large hairy creature armed with a huge club and surrounded by about a dozen bakemono.  They were communicating with it excitedly, exhorting it to enter their cave.  These were the same bakemono that Gunjar had agreed to spare.

When the hairy creature did enter the caverns by the lower exit, Gunjar and Ginjo made their  escape.  They followed a path that led both deeper into the canyon and higher up the cliff wall until they located a large and well-worked cavern entrance. Could this be a place to rest? No. Despite the impressive exterior, there was something unnerving about the place.  They heard a faint piping  from  within and a felt a chill draft that carried a foul odor.  Gunjar and Ginjo decided that it would be safest to return to camp.


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Rowche Rumble

Pasar has been quiet.  By the time the investigators returned to the Black Flower hideout in the Blue Water Wine Hall, it was found to be deserted.  While there was clear evidence of their recent presence, none of it implicated specific individuals, none of it elucidated a motive to the murder, and none of it suggested what activities they might pursue next.

Ginjo: "Black flower is not openly in the city and we met the farmers because we started a drug store."

The "drug" Ginjob referred to is "Rowche," a mild stimulant, popular among Pasari originals and in throughout the area.  The best Rowche was grown in the Rowche Valley, about half a day's journey from Pasar.

Ginjo: "The farmers asked us to get their jade leaf statue back from the bakemono. And we agreed to help them so the Rowche would keep coming so we could sell it."

According to the farmers, the bakemono were wicked creatures that had long harassed them, and stealing their livestock.  The farmers had long tolerated this behavior, but recently the bakemono had made a larger raid, and stolen the jade leaf statue which, the farmers believed, brought the blessings of warm rains and gentle sunshine to their valley.  A large group had stolen it and were now encamped in the abandoned temple on the ridge above the village.

In fact, Ginjo agreed to help the farmers, but his friend Sukh refused.  Making inquiries, he met Gunjar, a wandering shaman from the steppes.  Gunjar had little interest in Rowche, but he was outraged at the desecration of the temple.

So, Ginjo and Gunjar traveled to the village and Rowche.  They were quietly celebrated.  Early the next morning, Ginjo and Gunjar, together with seven farmers, made their way up the mist-shrouded ridge.  By noon, they reached the top of the ridge and were passing through a forest.  The mists had cleared, and the peaked roof of the dlipadated temple was visible above the treetops.  

As the heroes reached the edge of the forest, they heard noise and in the clearing beyond saw about a dozen creatures, all vaguely humanoid, none remotely human.  Some were horned, others were winged, many, but not all had tails.  Their ears and noses were generally large and pointed.  Their skin colors were blue and green and purple.  Two were blind-folded and beating each other senseless with sticks while the others cheered them on.

Gunjar asked that the largest of these creatures be transfixed; his prayer was granted.  Ginjo led the farmers into battle and the remaining bakemono were killed.  The heroes bound the transfixed bakemono and carried them into the forests.



Inside the temple, there were more bakemono.  Again, the heroes surprised them, and killed many.  But there were so many of them, and the undisciplined farmers, armed with short spears, suffered the most.  Three were killed and others ran away.  The bakemono were also undisciplined and pursued the fleeing farmers while the survivors accompanied Gunjar and Ginjo up to the top floor.  These bakemono were larger, better armed and fully prepared for an attack.  Or so they thought.  Gunjar issued a blistering sermon, condemning the bakemono for their violent ways, and most were struck dead by his words, so true in their harshness.  Ginjo killed the leader inone-on-one combar and the farmers reclaimed their jade leaf. There was a subdued celebration.  Only two of the seven farmers returned with minor wounds.  These were Howzaa who had fled the large battle in the lower floor of the temple, but nevertheless managed to kill a pursuing bakemono and claim his bakemono.  The other was Liu Po who stayed close to Ginjo when the battle was fiercest.  In that day he learned to fight with courage.


Thursday, October 10, 2019

Pasar on the Brink

As Gwinch has re-established the Two-Fold Path in Pasar, he also found time to identify and train an apprentice, one Adidas. Although the young man had first enquired about joining the ranks of the sohei, his talent as a healer and independent personality, soon proved that he less warrior than priest, and that he would follow a path far beyond the walls of monastery.

The Festival of Luc is a busy time in Pasar. Long celebrated by the Pasari Originals, the three days of parades, dancing and feasting have undeniable appeal for the merchants and other newcomers who have turned the backwater village into a thriving market town. But, in the eyes of the Pasari Originals, these foreigners do little to understand the deep mystery under the spectacles. And consequently, a Festival of Peace becomes an occasion for violence.

In this case, deadly violence. While Gwinch and his sohei were lending their support to the Elders of Pasar in maintaining order among drunken revelers, Adidas, together with his friends Dank Sum, Genjob, and Sukh, stumbled upon a murder victim.

It started with a noodle owner complained about demons in her cellar. The heroes checked it out and found—rats. In chasing the rats they came upon a series of tunnels, connecting other taverns and abandoned buildings. Most of these tunnels were several years old, dating to the time when the Black Flowers were first coming to power. A freshly-dug tunnel led to the cellar of Bahati one of the most prominent merchants in the Silk Merchants guild. Adidas, Dank-Sum, Genjob, and Sukh didn’t realize where they were until they were standing over the body of Bahati’s daughter Binti.

Bahati was shocked, outraged, and despondent. Most of Pasar echoed his angry grief. The on-going celebration of the Pasari Original was received by other members of the Silk Guild as a deliberate mockery and most foreigners agreed it was heartlessly insulting. Phang, one of the Elders of Pasar was caught going to a secret meeting at an encampment of the Imperial Army. This was unexpected, as the Elders were very public in their defiance in the war-mongering Emperors to the North and East, but ultimately it only made them look foolish

Over the ensuing weeks, the unrest increased. The Pasar Youth stayed with the palisade of Old Pasar and Gwinch’s monks took a more active role in maintaining basic order.

Until one day, 20 Imperial soldiers entered the city on horseback. They seemed to appear from nowhere, in the middle of a busy square. Someone threw a stone and knocked a rider off his horse. The other soldiers drew their swords and the killing started.

Sukh, Adidas, and Sentra Amangang, a young Pasari priest, were there. There was something odd about the man who’d thrown the rock, a giddy smile behind the mask of rage. Unwilling to commit themselves to either side in the melee, they chased the rock thrower, first into an abandoned house and then into a tunnel. Sentra caught him and knocked him to the ground. The rabble-rouser showed regret for his part in starting a riot and eagerly shared information about his involvement while begging to be allowed to go free. It was the Black Flowers who had hired, him, paying him several weeks wages, just to throw a big rock. He didn’t know why. “They don’t want you to ask question.”

He knew the tavern where the remnants of the Black Flowers met, “almost every day.” He was done with the Black Flowers and he wasn’t looking for a new job. “I just want to get out of Pasar and go back to my own village.”

They let him go and decided to check out the Blue Water Wine Hall, the alleged hideout of the Black Flowers. On the way, they were waylaid by archers. Although the three investigators were unarmed, in keeping with the laws of Pasar, they charged the archers and gave chase when the assassins fled. Although they lost their quarry, they found what seemed to be a secret entrance to the Blue Water Wine Hall. They ventured inside and were attacked by an enormous swordsman. Adidas floored the giant with a well-aimed punch. But rather than explore further, Adidas suggested they should return to the monastery and make a report to Gwinch.

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 . . .