Sunday, October 24, 2021

Defending the Lands of the Five Fires 05 (First Khazu-Kala and then Banua)

Bo-Jing, Bangqiu, and Salt decided they would go to Khazu Kala. Expecting a difficult battle, Bo-Jing ordered that they make a comfortable camp and rest for a couple days, giving their wounds a chance to heal. And so, by the time they reached Khazu Kala, the battle was all but over. A single wizened creature, wielding a rusty wicked sword, stood surrounded by a dozen Nergui warriors—and also dozens of corpses. Bo-Jing and Ses-Hami arrived by air and Bo-Jing attacked the strange fiend with a flying leap. With his fiery sword, Bo-Jing dispatched his foe and won the admiration of the Nergui. Gansukh was dead and his name had the taste of ashes. His duplicity had brought his own death, the deaths of his loyal bodyguards, the deaths of the people who depended on him. With little argument, the survivors of the attack, both the warriors and the people, agreed they would join Bo-Jing. Yes, even in rejoining the Bolad horde in Banua.

It took three days to arrive within sight of Banua and the arrival was not a cause for celebration, but another serving of hardship. For the proud city of the steppe was surrounded by an army of beastmen, dragons, and monsters. Bo-Jing himself cursed bitterly at how the pettiness of Gansukh had brought such horror among the people he had agreed to protect. But Nar-Nuteng would not allow her friend the luxury of despair. She directed his gaze from his foes to the people who had trusted him. With courage and faith, he could bring these people into Banua. Reuniting the people of Bolad and Nergui did not guarantee their survival but preserved their hopes for another day.

Bangqiu became invisible and rose into the air, surveying the enemy camps, and determined the safest route to the city. Bo Jing received the information and led the way. The warriors of Nergui rode in two files with the people and their animals between them. They rode with their swords in the air, shouting a battle cry and in this way represented themselves as attackers of Banua rather than its allies. The beastmen cheered their passage. Bangqiu, invisible, flew into the city and alerted the defenders to the ruse. When the gatges were opened, Salt and Bangqiu blasted the band of beastmen who tried to join the people of Nergui. The unarmed people passed into the city. Bo-Jing and the warriors stayed to defend their entry, warding off more attacking beastmen. Only when the innocents had entered the city did the warriors follow. Bo-Jing entered last of all and the gates were closed.

Defending the Lands of the Five Fires 04 (The truth about Batzorig's sister)

 Npi-Nhut and the other khimoris thanked Bo-Jing for his assistance.  They promised to keep watch over the valley and alert him to any more incursions. And, as a further sign of appreciation, Ses-Hami would accompany him as he made his way to Khazu Kala.  Bo-Jing was especially grateful for the khimori’s assistance as a scout and promised his father to not expose him to unnecessary danger.

The company made their way out of the valley, Ses-Hami sometimes scouting ahead when they reached likely ambush points.  They reached the watch fire of the Nergui horde and were given a cold welcome.  The soldiers shrugged off Salt’s questions about the beastmen and rather than share their ger, sent the guests to the firewood. 

The company, still including the eight men from the Worm Clan, departed early the next morning and not far from the edge of the valley, heard the sounds of battle.  Drawing closer, they found a Nergui encampment under attack by beastmen.  Bangqiu broke the beastmen’s charge with a wall of fire then levitated above them to blast them with a cloud of steam.  Salt cast her magic missiles and the few stragglers were cut down by Bo-Jing and his men.

The families thanked the company for their timely help and, recognizing Bo-Jing’s status as the local baghatur, expressed their loyalty to him and the Emperor.  They prepared a meal and, with the mildest reluctance, expressed their dissatisfaction with Gansukh, explaining that they were avoiding Khaza Kala until something changed. But over the course of the meal, listening to the tales of the Worm Clan, they were convinced that Bo-Jing was that change.  The intruders that Gansukh had welcomed into his ger were a graver danger than they had feared and any hope of security lay in supporting Bo-Jing in rallying resistance to invading armies of the mysterious “Master.”  There were 3 skilled archers among the group, and a retired officer from Gansukh’s army.  Their first duty was to their families but they all pledged to fight for Bo-Jing.

Late in the day, Ses-Hami alerted Bo-Jing to another encampment under attack.  Again, Bo-Jing and Bangqiu led an overwhelming counterattack and were ably assisted by several warriors from the encampment.  One of these warriors proved to be Batzorig, formerly Gansukh’s right-hand man and brother to Gansukh’s Khatun.  Salt warned Batzorig that his sister was in special danger, that the beastmen has been looking for her among the Worm Clan.

Batzorig’s battle-scarred face turned soft and his lip quivered.  He nodded. And after hearing what Salt had to say, he shared his own story.  He had overheard Gansukh negotiating with a sinister stranger.  At first Batzorig thought it was just another black shaman trying to get her necklace.  But listening more closely, Batzorig realized the stranger wanted Naransetseng herself.  As the people of Khazu Kala lost confidence in their khan and made secret plans to flee to the lands of the Bolad Horde, Batzorig had convinced his sister to join them.  Batzorig himself remained and pretended ignorance.  This proved easier than expected as Gansukh was also doing his best to avoid his wife.  Only when the stranger arrived with a group of terrifying half-man bestial monsters did Gansukh demand that Batzorig present his sister.  Batzorig stalled for several hours, and then reported that she had gone to visit her mother’s grave, three days west of the city.  Gansukh was furious.  And terrified.  Batzorig promised that he would go and find Naransetseng nd the stranger promised that he would return.  This was four days ago.  He had stayed close to Khazu Kala. In case Gansukh needed him.

Why?  Because Gansukh was his khan.

Batzorig wanted Salt, Bo-Jing, and Bang-qiu to know that his sister was not a witch.  She was the daughter of the King of the East.  When he was a boy, his father and uncles went away to trade and to fight in the imperial army.  His mother was alone for several years and her own brother died.  There was no one to protect her until they were visited by a handsome man in fine green clothes who played a fiddle.  He helped Batzorig’s mother buy goats for a good price and stayed with her.  After a time, Naransetseng was born.  Soon before Batzorig’s father returned, the man went away, leaving Naransetseng with a necklace.  She was a beautiful baby and she learned that her father was the squat ugly man who had gone away to the war.  And he was.  He loved her very much.  Maybe more than he loved Batzorig.

“But I think that the stranger knows her true history.  That’s why he wants her.”

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Defending the Lands of the Five Fires 03 (Not the coin they were looking for)

Over the next few days, the party was joined by the remnants of the khimori herd, Npi-Nhut, Ses-Hami, and only three others. And they were attacked by the lion-eagle creatures. They creatures were fearless and seemingly driven by hunger. They attacked the party’s extra horses, swiftly killing two of them to carry them off. But Salt also reacted swiftly. Bo-Jing had given her a magic wand and she used it to throw an explosive fall of fire after the lion-eagles as they escaped. Those who weren’t killed were forced to land. Bo-Jing and his men galloped after them fought them with arrows and swords. The brave warriors were grappled by the monster’s huge talons and slashed by their claws, but they fought on, defending each other and killing the monsters.  The khimori expressed their gratitude and praised the party for their success in killing the monsters that they had come close to believing were insurmountable. Ses-Hami examined the bodies, and told Bo-Jing that he believed there were six more to be faced, including one who was invisible except when he was in combat.  Bo-Jing assured Ses-Hami that he and the company would stay in the valley until the threat of the eagle-lions was completely eliminated. 

Bangqiu suggested that while ranging over the northern end of the valley, they should search for the Northern Coin. Bo-Jing agreed. Following the information that Erke had provided and based on their own experiences in the Valley, they found the enormous horse statue and reason ed that it must be a representation of the King of the North. Bangqiu ascended to the top of the statue. Following its line of sight, he spotted a high cliff to the north, thoroughly pock-marked with caves. From this vantage point, he also saw activity outside the cave, living figures that, by their movements were possibly human or animal, but probably something in-between.  The company decided to rest and approach the cliffs the next day.

While resting, they kept a close eye on the figures on the cliff. The next day, the company approached the cliffs and spent most of the day climbing up it. At the top, they encounter a group of beastmen, obviously agitated and anxious to attack, but held in check by a man in robes, the mysterious Erke whom they’d met in the course of their travels from Khanbaliq. Erke greeted them as old friends, apologizing that he had left Banua without them. “I didn’t know when you would return. And, as you can see, I found some other partners for my expedition!” Erke detailed how, with the help of the beastmen, he had found several tunnels, one of which he was sure was the hiding place of the Northern Coin. “Unfortunately, these are the breeding grounds of the crimson death worm, watch your step or your last breath will be a cry of agonizing pain!”  The men from the Clan of Worm tapped their crimson shield and laughed to each other.

Erke explained that while exploring the tunnels, most of the beastmen had already been killed. “Those fellows almost never watch their step . . .” Salt found it very uncomfortable being so close to living beastmen. Their musky odor was nearly overpowering and they stared at her with bloodshot eyes and with saliva dripping from their fangs, and whimpered like dogs when Erke shouted at them in a harsh, metallic tongue. The marks on their body glowed faintly and the beastmen scratched at the marks until they oozed blood and pus.  Erke identified the tunnels he had explored and the ones he still wanted to investigate. “If we send the beastmen along first, they will draw the worms out and your men can shoot them with arrows—the worms—before they get close enough to surprise us with electric shock . . . and if all the beastmen die, then we can avoid the problem of how to pay them . . . speaking of payment, you should know I’m working the Emperor. He expects to receive the Coin but we will all be well rewarded.”

Bangqiu and Salt expressed their extreme displeasure at this suggestion. Salt didn’t believe Erke and Bangqiu didn’t care. “We don’t work for the Emperor. If we find the coin, I want it.” Erke tried to argue, but in doing so, lost control of the beastmen. He pulled a potion from his robes; as his body sublimated into a blue-green cloud, Salt blasted him with a ball of fire from her wand. The cloud evaporated and two beastmen were incinerated. The other beastmen attacked. Meanwhile a screech from the sky announced another assault from the lions-eagles. The khimori took to the skies, while the lion-eagles attacked the party’s horses. Bo-Jing and his soldiers greatly outnumbered the beastmen, who fought with a death-wish, clawing and biting their opponents as they were cut down by swords and spears. The lion-eagles killed four horses before being driven off by Salt and Bangqiu’s magical attacks, losing one of their own in the process. The party watched their flight but did not seek to prolong the battle. 

Instead they set-up a camp and a number of watchers, knowing an attack could come from the air, the ground, or from within the caves. After a day of rest, Bo-Jing and Salt decided they would explore the tunnel. The men of the worm clan refused to follow them, explaining that the death worm was their totem animal. “We must warn you that if you value your life, you should not invade its home. It lies quietly, avoiding unnecessary strife, but if molested, it will defend itself with all lethal force, a mouth full of needles and poison, and with lightning expelled from its body.”

Despite this warning, the Worm Clan promised Bo-Jing that their own taboo against disturbing the worms would not make enemies of those who did. “If the Worm decides not to kill you, why should we?”  Bo-Jing promised he would do his best to avoid fighting the worm but believed the coin would help defeat the Master’s armies. Bangqiu decided that he too would remain outside, both to protect the horses and to, just in case, watch the members of the Worm Clan. 

Bo-Jing and his men, along with Ryu and Salt, explored the tunnels of the crimson death worms. The warning was very helpful. The worms were most dangerous when accidentally stepped on. Gan-Yul received a nasty bite that pierced his boot; his leg swelled up painfully, but he survived. By sweeping the area ahead of them with a long pole, the party located and drove away killed dozens of the worms. The worms did indeed expel lightning at enemies who drew too close, but Bo-Jing’s soldiers learned to pelt the worms with rocks from a safe distance. But the most effective way to deal with the worms was Ryu’s snake staff. In the form of a large python, it slithered through the tunnels, driving out the worms underfoot, to constrict and devour them. The hungry snake braved the shocks and seemed nearly impervious to poison. And when the snake did become so covered in worm bites, that it began to spasm, Ryu commanded it to return to staff form. By this time, the party had located and excavated the worm’s nest, a pile of rubble that covered and older tunnel that had been worked by human hands.

The party had to cross a chasm but found themselves at last in a small chamber in which a bronze coffer rested on top of a stone pedestal. The coffer, though small enough to fit in Bo-Jing’s hand, was so heavy that he could not lift it and only by summoning all his strength could he knock it off the pedestal. Something metal clattered inside. Bo-Jing rummaged through his belongings and found a bottle of what smelled like vinegar that he’d discovered in the dungeons beneath the monastery in Khanbaliq. When he unstopped it, the smell was overwhelming but while his men heaved and wretched, Bo-Jing gulped it down, swallowing the liquid with a mighty below. With another great shout, he seized pounded the coffer with his fist until it began to buckle and crack, and then with a final groan, tore the lid away. The coin—if that’s what it was—didn’t look like the others. Bo-Jing nursed his bloodied hand and Ryu held a torch over a disk of dull metal, maybe pewter depicting four doves flying in a circle. Ryu picked it up and turned it over—both sides were the same. No writing or symbols. Ryu gave Bo-Jing the coin, who clenched it in his fist. When he had held the other coins, he had received a sense of their powers. With this one, he felt nothing. Besides the coin, there was a scrap of paper, with writing in several languages. Ryu deciphered enough to explain its general message: “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.”

Outside the cave, Npi-Nhut approached Bo-Jing with a suggestion. He appreciated that Bo-Jing was an honorable man with conflicting duties. Npi-Nhut knew the lion-eagles would return when they were rested, healed, and hungry. He trusted that Bo-Jing and his friends would fight them off. But how many more horses would be killed in the process? And how many of Bo-Jing’s own kind would be victims of these invading marauders? For the khimoris, flying with a person on their back was dangerous. In the air they were faster and more maneuverable than the lion-eagles or any other predators, but these advantages would be lost if the khimoris had to restrict their maneuvers to avoid throwing off their riders. But Npi-Nhut would make an exception. He and his family would each carry one rider across the valley and drop them into the aerie of the lion-eagles. With the benefit of a surprise attack, Bo-Jing and four of his most valiant companions would not doubt be victorious. Bo-Jing agreed to the plan. Ryu agreed to join him. Among his henchmen, he chose his cousins Gan-wei and Yi-Ren. The dilemma of choosing between Zhang and Ganyul to be left behind, was resolved by Salt, who volunteered to be the fifth. Npi-Nhut was very pleased by this suggestion, having noticed the sorceress’s uncanny instinct for the right time to strike in battle.  And so, after some quick lessons in riding in the air and without a saddle, the group set off.

They flew by moonlight so as to avoid being sighted by the beastmen on the ground who might warn the lion-eagles of their approach. The air was cold and thin. Salt rode with her face pressed into Npi-Nhut’s mane. Bo- Jing, riding behind Npi-Nhut on Ses-Hami, did his best to maintain his customary proud seat, though his legs ached with the pressure of holding on. After several hours, Npi-Nhut ordered a rest. They landed and the khimoris allowed saddle ropes to be tied loosely around their bellies to give something more for the riders to hold onto.  As dawn was breaking, the kihimoris and their riders reached the southwest corner of the valley.

Npi- Nhut circled higher, the signal that they had reached their target. The khimoris circled and then Npi- Nhut led them into a slow dive toward a large shelf far above the tree line and half-sheltered by slanting overhang. Two of the lion-eagles were visible, lazily gnawing on bones, on the edge of the shelf. As Npi-Nhut neared the shelf, he veered away from it, distracting the lion-eagles as the other four khimoris briefly touched their hooves down to drop off their riders. Bo-Jing had sprung off before Ses-Hami touched down, landing on the back of one of the lion-eagles and cutting off one of its wings. Gan-wei and Yi-Ren landed on either side of the other lion-eagle and Ryu landed at a safe distance and threw down his snake staff. Npi-Nhut stayed some distance from the shelf, not allowing Salt to land. The maimed lion-eagle screeched in pain and two more emerged from the cave at the back of the shelf. As Bo-Jing rushed to meet them, he was knocked to his feet by the invisible lion-eagle. It held him down in its talons and slashed at his face with its beak. Salt blasted it with a trio of energy bolts. Bo-Jing sprang to his feet and attacked the invisible foe, tracking it by its talon marks on the rocks and by the rush of wind as thrust at him with its slashing beak. Again and again, Bo-Jing’s blade found the neck and chest of his foe. Together, Gan-Wei and Yi-Ren flanked and killed one lion-eagle, but were hard pressed when forced to fight one by themselves. They were both battered and cut by talons, wings, and the sharp beaks of the lion-eagles. Ryu’s snake caught of one of the lion-eagles, and slithered up to its wing, hampering its movement so badly that Gan-Wei was able to gain the upper hand, slashing and stabbing at the monsters back while avoiding its beak and talons. Ryu himself assisted Yi-Ren, first healing one of his most grievous wounds, then joining in battle with his heavy staff. Salt sent another volley of magic missiles, and soon the invisible lion-eagle was the only one still alive. With a final slash at Bo-Jing face, the invisible lion-eagle took to the air. Salt showered it with magical cloud, bathing it in cool violet light—suddenly an easy target for the arrows of Bo-Jing, Gan-Wei and Yi-Ren. But the lion-eagle was fast; after being hit with two arrows, it dove toward the ground, falling out of bowshot. Ses-Hami gave chase, following it all the way to the ground. When he landed, the bloodied lion-eagle sprang on Ses-Hami with its talons, tearing his back. The khimori struggled to regain the air, shaking the eagle-lion off his back, then dived on the monster, pounding its head with his hooves. By the time Npi-Nhut and the other khimoris reached the ground, the last of their tormentors was dead.  Meanwhile, up in the lion-eagles’ lair, among the bones, Bo-Jing found a fine sword and awarded it to Gan-Wei.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Defending the Lands of the Five Fires 02 (Into the Valley)

The party returned to Banua and shared news of their success. Ganbaatar was thoroughly pleased, and announced a small feast in their honor. The celebration was muted, however, by the growing evidence that their recent triumph, despite the symbolic importance, was so small practical importance compared to the challenge ahead of them. The population of Banua had noticeably increased in the couple weeks that Bo-Jing and his company had been gone. The most obvious newcomers were members of the Bolad horde who returned to the seat of their khan as was their right. But more and more of the newcomers were refugees from the Nergui horde. They were not soldiers, but families and widows. Ganbaatar refereed to them as his “long-lost people returned,” and setting a tone of generous triumph. But anxiety was growing. Clearly, Gansukh could not defend his people as well as Ganbaatar, but would “better than Gansukh” prove to be good enough?

Bo-Jing discussed the matter with Ryu and came to the one obvious conclusion. As the Emperor’s baghatur, he was not a Bolad partisan. His duty, accepted as a charge from the Emperor, was not only to collect taxes, but to defend the people. He would go to Khazu Kala, make peace with Gansukh if possible and, regardless of whether he succeeded in this, find a way to bring help to the people. If he could not organize a defense himself, he would gather information to make a compelling report to the Emperor.

The mysterious Salt had also found her way to Banua. Bo-Jing suspected that Bangqiu had found some way to contact her through the dreamworld, but regardless, he agreed that he would be glad to have the advice of another magician when confronting the armies of the “Master.” Nar-Nuteng, however, decided that she would remain in Banua.

En route to the lands of the Nergui, Bo-Jing encountered a khimori, a blue-black flying horse, who introduced himself as the son of the khimori whom Bo-Jing had met in the Valley of the Five Fires. The young khimori, who was called Ses-Hami, told Bo-Jing that the Valley had been invaded by evil creatures who defiled the cradle of humanity with wanton bloodshed, fighting each other, killing animals, and setting the grass on fire. At first, the khimori had avoided these dangers by taking flight when necessary. But more recently, the land-bound monsters had been joined by flying abominations, flying lions with the heads and razor-sharp beaks of giant eagles. These monsters had pursued the khimori, and killed several of their number. Without assistance, the entire herd would soon be eliminated. Bo-Jing promised immediately to help, then spent a sleepless night agonizing over how his promise might cost human lives. By morning, he concluded that assisting the khimori might also benefit the people of Khazu Kala; if nothing else, he learn something about the monsters that were causing so much havoc in the area.

On their way into the Valley, the party passed through the Bolad fire camp and found it completely destroyed, with all the firewatchers dead. Venturing into the Valley itself, the party encountered a group of haggard soldiers with crimson shields. These men expressed their joy and relief in meeting other natural people, explaining that they were of the Clan of the Worm and that their lands had been overrun by beastmen. These savage murders attacked without reason or purpose except to find someone they called the “deaf witch” and the “queen with no name.” Circumstances had become so dire, that these men of the Worm Clan had entered the Valley of the Five Fires, with the plan of crossing it and warning their treaty-partners and to plan for common defense. Bo-Jing thanked the men of the Worm Clan and agreed that all people should unite against the alien threat. He believed that the “deaf witch” being sought by the beastmen was Naransetseng, the wife of Gansukh, khan of the Nergui Horde. He would accompany the men to warn the Nergui why they were being target by the beastmen. But first, he had made a promise to the khimori. The men of the Worm Clan asked to travel with Bo-Jing, seeing that he was a true baghatur of courage and honor. Bo-Jing welcomed their help gladly. Continuing on their way, the group encountered several of the beastmen that the men of the Worm Clan had described. These men were tattoed with strange symbols and seemed to be in the midst of a painful transformation from man into beast, having developed claws and fangs. They were fearsome opponents, but Bangqiu and Salt blasted them with a cloud of scalding steam and other magic attachs; those who survived were swiftly cut down by Bo-Jing and his men. The men of the Worm Clan pledged their gratitude at having been accepted into such valiant company.

Ses-Hami approached Bo-Jing and asked to share with him some information that he had previously kept to himself. His father, Npi-Nhut, had been captured by the beastmen. The beastmen had asked him to deliver Bo-Ing to them in exchange for the life of his father. Ses-Hami had seen that Bo-Jing was not only valiant, but honorable, and he realized his father would rather die than be part of any transaction that might endanger such a good man. Ses-Hami knew where the beastmen and other monsters were lying in wait hoping to ambush Bo-Jing, on the main path leading into the Valley. But he also knew another way, through the forest on a path even higher than the ambush point. He proposed that they attack the monsters and rescue his father.

Bo-Jing agreed to the plan. Ses-Hami led the group through the forest, to the top of a steep grassy slope overlooking the path into the valley. Indeed there was a group of beastmen plus three trolls, watching the path below. They had prepared an assortment of rubble, held in place by a pile of logs and ropes, and poised to be cast down onto the path below. Npi-Nhut was chained to a rock, guarded by three enormous wolves. Bangqiu ascended into the air and threw a ring of fire down on the would-be ambushers. The ring expanded, holding them in place. The Worm Clan rained arrows down on the entrapped beastmen. Bo-Jing ordered his men to fire their arrows at the wolves charging up the hill, while stepping forward with his sword ready to meet the attack. Salt added her own magic missiles to the volley of arrows. Only one wolf reached Bo-Jing and he was killed by a single blow from the baghatur’s sword. Those beastmen who tried to escape their prison and were not consumed by the flames were overwhelmed by Bo-Jing and his men when they reached the top of the hill. Soon the evil monsters were dead and the company of heroes emerged victorious and unscathed. Npi-Nhut was freed and he confirmed his son’s sad tale. He would gather the rest of the herd and, with Bo-Jing’s permission, travel with the brave heroes as they continued their campaign of justice throughout the Valley.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Defending the Lands of the Five Fires 01 (Cleansing the Shrine of Sum Sakhius)

The party return to their house in the city and enjoyed long baths for finalizing their plans to return to the Bo-Jing’s post in the lands of the Valley of the Five Fires. Bo-Jing announced that they would leave the next day, hoping that an early departure would avoid any more audiences with the Emperor. Bangqiu sent a thought message to Kafka in the Happy Valley, telling him that the monastery in Khanbaliq was suitable for reconsecration and habitation by genuine monks, although there were some problems in the way of an ant infestation and sewage system irregularities that would need to be addressed at some point.

The company set out the next afternoon. As they traveled north, Bo-Jing and Bangqiu found that increasingly their reputations preceded them. When there was no inn available, there was a snug house, and when there was no house, there was an encampment around a roaring fire, the smell of roasting meat and a crowd of smiling faces. Mainly they wanted to hear about the coin that Bo-Jing and Ganbaatar had given to the Emperor. Where did they find it, what were it’s powers, what would the Emperor do with it, would there be marriages to Imperial daughters? Some knew of the feud with Gansukh and the Nergui horde. Some had heard rumors of Bangqiu’s powers. And always there were one or two young men hoping to spar with the bright-eyed warrior maiden.

Bangqiu and Bo-Jing wanted to find another coin. And along the road, they found someone who wanted to help them, a mystic named Erke who told them he visited the Valley of the Five Fires in the dreamworld and heard rumors of the where the Northern Coin could be found. “The horse of Khagan Harad still looks for his master.” Bo-Jing invited Erke to travel with them.

As the party traveled further north, the welcomes were as warm as ever, but with an undercurrent of desperation. They were hearing strange stories about men taking on the minds of beasts, becoming maddened by the basest instincts. There were a few jokes about the barbaric ways of the Nergui horde, but most understood this was something more. Instead of tall tales, these people wanted to hear that yes Bo-Jing and Bangqiu did lead a battle against wolves, giants, and flying monsters. And yes, when the time came, they would do it again.

When the party reached Banua, they were ready to put aside thoughts about the coin. Ganbaatar was “so thankful that you decided to leave the good life in the capital and return to little old Banua.”

Based on stories of what was happening in the lands of the Nergui horde, Ganbaatar had forbidden his people from traveling in the lands west of Banua. And yet, the Master’s armies, the beastmen were likely on their way. He was especially concerned to hear stories that the shrine of Sum Sukhis had been defiled. Northeast of Banua, Ganbaatar considered this the true jewel of his lands. “A holy place for all people. No matter your faith, any one who visited there with an open heart would come away with peace and joy. Until now.”

Pilgrims had gone and not returned. Others had given up their pilgrimage, finding themselves more and more uneasy as they came in view of the stupa that marked the holy place.

Bo-Jing, Bangqiu, and Nar-Nuteng were glad to go. Erke would not. Instead, he would stay and wait for them in Banua.

The travel to the shrine took several days and while the people they met were welcoming as they got closer there were fewer and fewer people. They met a hermit who told them the strange history of the shrine, that it was built with a pool on the ground floor, an upper story, and a lower floor that was closed off to everyone, in expression of the constant necessity to resist evil. And now the shrine had been overrun by monsters, blue and purple oni who attacked pilgrims and defiled the shrine.

On the day when they finally reached the shrine, they met a pair of 10-fotot tall blue-skinned monsters, trying to knock down a tree in which an eagle was nesting. Bangqiu and Ryu used their magic to transix the monsters. They fell to the ground in a stiff slumber. The eagle flew down from the trees to peck out the monster’s eyes and feed it to her chicks. In examining the monsters bodies, Bo-Jing noticed several large, pus-filled sores and bloody boils. Ryu could talk to the eagle who explained that the monsters lived in the “quiet stone house” and had “taken the silence away” with fighting and screaming.

The party entered the shrine and found the pool as described by the hermit and a staircase leading down. At the bottom of the staircase, they found a pair of oni standing guard outside a door, their backs facing the party. Bangqiu spoke to them in his most commanding voice and in their own language, explaining that he had come from the Master and wanted a full report. The oni promised that they were doing the Master’s bidding, and guarding the place but there was something in the underground that was making everyone sick. Everyone wanted to leave but the chief said no. Bangqiu expressed the necessity of speaking to the chief at once.

The oni agreed and let the party back upstairs and to the upper floor. The other oni they met were glad to meet visitors. Using both his sword and the power of the Eastern Coin, Bo-Jing was able to convince them that he was a powerful ally. Some were violent, but not in a sustained, cohesive, or even fully serious way, and not necessarily directed at “the little folk.” On a lark and perhaps to impress the visitors, two of the onis decided to throw a third over the balcony and into the pool below. All of them were covered with the same sores that plagued the onis that had been harassing the eagles.

When they reached the chief’s quarters, they found him less cowed and more hostile, and suddenly found themselves surrounded by a dozen monsters who had already shown their capacity for easy violence. Thinking fast, Bo-Jing called on the power of the Eastern Coin and with a sharp word, the chief was struck to the ground motionless. The onis hesitated and then one sprang for the chief’s yak-skin cloak, proclaiming himself “the new chief.” He was challenged by one of the other oni and in the midst of the melee, Bangqiu made the cloak disappear.

The onis didn’t notice immediately, but when they did, they began to cry out in outrage once again threatening the visitors with violence and doing their best to deliver on their threats.

An invisible Bangqiu, stepped outside the a window and called from there, “the cloak of the chief is outside. The first one outside will claim it as the new chief.” To prove his point, the invisible Bangqiu dropped the cloak. Those oni standing near the window saw it fall to the ground. After testing they were too big to jump out the window, the oni, pushed their ways to the stairs or over the balcony. As soon as they got outside, the still invisible Bangqiu, made the cloak disappear again, only to carry it and drop it further away from the shrine.

As the rest of the party made their way out of the shrine, they met a pair of onis that had been so stricken with sores that they were barely recognizable as oni any more. Their skin had been stretched and discolored a pale violet and most of their teeth had fallen out of their mouths. And they attacked with fearless rage, seemingly relieved to be cut down by the blades of Bo-Jing and his comrades.

The party looked at each other and nodded grimly. Bo-Jing led the way back down to the door that the oni had been guarding. In their absence it had been smashed open. In the space below, they met and killed more of the diseased oni. They also found a boulder of black stone, nearly as large as the shrine itself and pulsating with a sickly purple light. Immediately, their skin began to itch and their minds were clouded with evil thoughts.

Continuing to explore, they found two rooms with writing carved on the wall. They felt peaceful here, especially when they touched the wall. They could not read it, but Bo-Jing recognized seeing something like it in the books that Bangqiu carried with him.

The party exited the shrine and camped, waiting for Bangqiu’s return. When he did return, they told him about the writing and he agreed to enter the shrine and examine it. They re-entered the shrine and indeed Bangqiu could read the writing. When he read it, their minds felt completely at peace. Returning to the room with black-purple boulder, they found it had been shielded by another gentle yellow light and that they could stand next to it without ill effect. All the same, Bangqiu announced that a wooden door and promises were insufficient to keep the shrine safe. He covered the entrance to the undercroft with a seamless wall of stone.

Slave Pits of the Undercity 03 (Finale)

While in the Happy Valley, Nar-Nuteng had trained rigorously with Beatriss; in sparring contests with Bo-Jing’s retinue, the bright-eyed girl proved she could hold her own with any of them. Bo-Jing never openly acknowledged her prowess, but his insults desisted. And when she announced that she would return with him to free the slaves, he made no objection.

Salt, meanwhile, had disappeared. She had accompanied Bo-Jing and the others to the Happy Valley but refused to enter Beatriss’s fortress. Villagers claimed to see her from time to time and Bangqiu seemed to know where she was. Truthfully, no one seemed to care and soon it was time to return to Khanbaliq.

Bo-Jing, Nar-Nuteng, and Bangqiu made the now familiar journey back to the capital. Rumors of an invasion from the western deserts circulated in the taverns and Bo-Jing and Bangqiu were often recognized as that baghatur and that sorcerer who had deflected the Master’s advance. Good food, welcoming company, and soft beds made the short trip feel way too short.

Back in Khanbaliq, the hospitality was less hospitable. Bo-Jing was invited to tea with one of the Emperor’s high-ranking ministers. In this meeting, Bo-Jing learned that the Emperor was surprised that Bo-Jing had tarried so long in Khanbaliq. Bo-Jing bumbled through a few excuses and then promised to make preparation and leave the day after tomorrow.

Bo-Jing, Bangqiu, and Nar-Nuteng agreed that they had one more day to drive the slavers out of the Monastery and free the captives within.

They party made this approach by the main gate, fully prepared to meet another ragtag group of monks and their fire-breathing machine. The courtyard was empty, the machine still in the same ruinous state that Bangqiu had put it in during the last assault. Bangqiu made himself invisible and using his magic boots, rose up over the gate to land in the courtyard. The doors to each of the winch rooms were closed and barred—from the outside. Listening at one of the doors, Bangqiu heard scratching and slavering, but smelled something far worse than rabid dogs. He knocked the bar off the door and then rose into the air. A half-dozen ghouls rushed out with wild eyes and bloody teeth. They smelled Bangqiu but couldn’t find him and clawed furiously at the air.

When Bangqiu did appear, he was only a few feet above their heads. They rushed towards him and—into a thick cloud of scalding steam that delivered their second death.

Bangqiu entered the winch room and raised the first gate to allow his friends into the gatehouse. Then he opened the second winch door and blasted its two undead occupants with a barrage of hot green bolts of light. He opened the second gate and the rest of the party entered the courtyard.

Bo-Jing led the way to the temple room in which they had fought the priestess, and warned Bangqiu and Nar-Nuteng that the priestess had been killed by the sudden descent of an enormous sword held aloft by a thirty-foot statue while trying to escape through a trapdoor at the statue’s feet. The sword was once more poised aloft, and no one wanted to open the door. Bo-Jing persuaded Ryu to eat one of the lotus pods to enter the dreamworld so that he could pass through the trapdoor without opening it. After passing through the door, returned from the world and deliberately triggered the trap door from the safety of the other side. With silent cheers, the party lit torches and went below.

The party found themselves in the narrow, fulsome tunnels of the antpeople. Wanting no quarrel of double-sword-wielding creatures whose carapaces were like steel, and whose voracious larvae lurked in huge pools of offal, the party sought and found the path of least resistance—by avoiding the sound of clicking and clanging and the smell of rotting compost, the party passed through the antpeople’s lair and into the relatively homey tunnels of the Khanbaliq sewer system. The tunnels were well-made with wide iron walkways alongside an easy-running course of garbage, waste, and storm runoff.

By accident or evil design, the iron walkway was insecure in some places and the bold Bo-Jing was dropped unceremoniously into the sewage canal. There was a circular current here and Bo-Jing found himself pulled swiftly toward the bottom. The fast-thinking Nar-Nuteng through him one end of the a rope. Bangqiu seized the other end and with the help of his magic boots, ran up the arched ceiling to hover above the canal and help Bo-Jing pull himself out of the sewage. The party continued, Bo-Jing still leading the way, but tapping the floor ahead of him with a half barge pole.

The party group found their way to the cells where the slaves had been held captive, and found that they were now occupied by a several monks, who murmured softly to each other while sharing a bowl of rice perched on a stool. One of them saw the party’s approach and caught his breath. The others turned to stare in terror, not moving until the rice bowl slid off the stool onto the floor. None of them reached for his spear or hatchet. At last one of them spoke, “You have come to kill us too?”

Bo-Jing had learned from talking to the rescued slaves, that many of the monks had come from the same southern villages. These monks were thin, one of them emaciated, shivering in his thread-bare scrap of saffron cloth. It was clear to Bo-Jing that if a lucrative slaving operation was running through the monastery, these men were seeing none of the profit. He asked them why they were there. Their answer, in Southern-accented Zhou, with references to soldiers, burning rice paddies, and promises of getting educated in the North, became completely unintelligible when Ryu asked them to name the basic precepts of the two-fold path.

Ryu shook his head and looked at Bo-Jing. “You understand the way of the two-fold path better than these men.”

Bo-Jing asked the men if they wanted to leave the monastery with him. After receiving his reassurance that he did not wish to torture or eat them and his promise that if that was his plan he would just kill them now, the monks agreed to show Bo-Jing a way out.

But it wasn’t time to go out. There was something else down there that Bo-Jing needed to deal with. The monks didn’t know if there were more slaves but there could be soon. There were two bosses and after the priestess boss disappeared, there was one boss, a disgusting man with several pet weasels.

The party wandered the sewers until they met another group of sewer-dwellers. Well-fed and well-clothed Northerners, these men did not even pretend to be monks. “This is just our home.” They were led by a sinister look shaman and maintained a fortified stretch of tunnel on both sides of the sewage canal, with no obvious way of crossing between them.

They knew the weasel man and where to find him. If the party was looking to buy slaves, they could take a message. The party waited and played dice on one side of the tunnel while runners from the other side went to find weasel man. During this time, Bangqiu found a way to cross the sewer undetected and eavesdrop on the men on the far side of the tunnel. The men expressed mild curiosity about the visitors, but said nothing that betrayed a hidden agenda beyond selling slaves. When the runners return, the conversation changed. Weasel man did not want to meet the visitors. These were the robbers who had killed all the monks and stolen so many slaves. Instead, the runners, explained, weasel-man wanted them to find out where the robbers lived so he could report them.

When the runners shared their message with Bo-Jing and Nar-Nuteng, the warriors didn’t need magical powers to know something was up. Bangqiu, invisible in the darkness of the shaman’s cave, promised him new powers if he could help him meet the weasel man.

The shaman liked the sound of this offer. The other men were confused, but when the shaman ordered boards to be placed across the canal so the rest of the party could cross over. After a brief and amicable farewell, the party were on their way, led by the shaman who school his staff and rattled his bone jewelry as he led “the voice” and “the voice’s companions” through a series of passage, at last bringing them to the circular room where Bo-Jing and Nar-Nuteng had once before encountered weasel-man.

Weasel-man wasn’t there, but the weasels were, three of them, large as wolves. Bo_Jing called on the power of the Coin of the East and the weasels, fell to the floor and curled into tight balls. Nar-Nuteng heard the sound of human footsteps running out of the room. They followed the sound back into the antpeople’s tunnel, but soon lost the trail. The monk-refugees were afraid and asked to return to their cells. Bo-Jing told them they could if they found their own way back. They decided to stay with him.

The party decided to return to the circular room, hoping to lay in wait for the weasel-man. While rummaging through his belongings, they found a store of decent food, a sack of tael coins, and business records. A group of monks arrived, unarmed, but well-fed. They greeted the visitors and promised that their master did want to meet them. But he was in the city.

Bangqiu was skeptical and tapped one of the monks on the forehead, ordering him to tell the truth. The man began blabbering. His master was hiding in the stone shed. The other monks gasped and began to run. Bangqiu and the others chased them, through the antpeople tunnels to the surface, then through a garden toward a small shed built next to the monastery wall. Bangqiu became invisible and reached the shed first. The small room was cramped with tools, cooking pots, and sleeping mats. There was an exit, a stout door built into the monastery wall. The shed appeared empty, but Bangqiu sensed the sweaty, weaselly breath of another person. Bangqiu positioned himself in front of postern door. When the monks reached the shed, they cried out to the empty room that Li-Ho had told the robbers he was there. An invisible man reached for the door and collided with the invisible Bangqiu. The two men grappled and wrestled. The other man stabbed Bangqiu with a knife and Bangqiu retaliated with a blast of magic missiles.

Both men became visible and stared at each other. Weasel-man was pudgy and round with a flat nose and large eyes. But the smell. Weasel-man retreated while commanding the monks to attack. As they grabbed tools and charged, Bo-Jing arrived. He killed the Weasel-man with one slash of his sword and ordered the monks to leave his friend alone. They joyfully threw down their weapons. “We are free!”

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Slavepits of the Undercity 02

 After finding the rescued captives in the Happy Valley, Bo-Jing and his crew, along with Bangqiu returned to Khanbaliq.  Nar-Nuteng had elected to stay behind in the Happy Valley and train with Beatriss.  Although Bo-Jing had sometimes denigrated the girl's prowess in battle, he admitted that her unique way of looking at things was often useful and enhanced his own decision-making.  Finding his men too obliging and Bangqiu too selfish, Bo-Jing was glad to meet Salt, a plucky team-player with a mind of her own plus nascent magical abilities. 

The party set out early in the morning and encountered a group of imperial guards.  The guards recognized Bo-Jing's status as a baghatur and seemed embarassed when it become apparent that they were going to the same place.  While Bo-Jing and his friends were seeking to infiltrate the monastery, the imperial guards had been charged with-- guarding it. Reaching the monastery, Bo-Jing learned that their previous entry point was no longer an option.  The stables had been reduced to rubble, with broken boards, large stones, and garbage blocking the passage that had once allowed access to the lower level.  This was the point the guards were expected to patrol.  With feigned naivete they suggested that if Bo-Jing had business with the monks inside, he should present himself at the front gate.  Their solemn duty was to remain "right here directly in front of the ruined stables no matter what might be happening somewhere else such as at the front gate-- way over there on the other side of the monastery from where we couldn't possibly be expected to see or hear anything anyway."

Following the guards directions, the party found the entrance, a roofless gatehouse with two portcullises and a courtyard beyond.  The monks in the courtyard seemed welcoming, pausing in their work of lading a cart to greet the visitors, but soon showed their duplicitous nature.  The monks opened the outer portcullis and, once the party had entered dropped it closed without opening the inner portcullis.  When Bo-Jing drew his sword and threatened him, they turned the heavy cart toward him and blasted him with a stream of boiling oil.  Bo-Jing sustained little in the way of burns but his armor was damaged and all of his men sustained minor injuries from the splash.  More seriously, it seemed likely the monks had the means to cause more mayhem from behind the near-complete safety of the portcullis.

Bangqiu stepped forward and blasted the monks with hot steam.  As they ran away from their machine, he used his magic to become invisible and levitate over the inner gate.  Bangqiu found the winch room and raised the gate and allowed his comrades inside.  Then he assumed bird form and flew away.

The monks, with their poor weapons and threadbare robes showed little appetite for combat without the protection of a gate between them and Bo Jing's sword.  They fled to their ramshackle dormitory and Bo Jing led a charge toward the temple.  In the gloomy, cobwebbed sanctuary, dominated by a huge statue of a man with a sword raised above his head, they found the head priestess and her minions.  She hexed Bo Jing and his man-- Ganyul and Ganwei were transfixed, while Bo-Jing shook off the paralyzing magic and responded with a curse of his own.  Clenching the Eastern Coin in his palm, he castigated the deceptive priestess as she rose her hands to cast another spell; she froze as if his on the head, blinked and wandered away in a stupor.

And so the battle was on.  A dozen captives, in chains, turned on their captors who were cut down by Bo Jing and his men.  Ryu tended to Ganyul and Ganwei.  Salt watched from the shadows until a monk in black robes slinked up behind Bo Jing with a wicked dagger.  A bolt of blue energy from Salt struck the man in the back of the head.  He cried out in shock; Bo Jing spun on his heel and cut him down.

The panicked priestess stumbled toward the statue and bent over to open a trapdoor.  As she raised it, the statue's sword swung down and killed her.

The captives cheered.  Bo-Jing found the key to unfasten their chains and together with his friends, led the newly-freed people out of the monastery.

Like the others, they were mainly from the "Southern Empire" of Zhou Song.  They would not be safe in Khanbaliq and could not make the long trip home unaccompanied.  Most had lost their families in the war and were grateful to start a new life in the Happy Valley.