Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Taxman Part 10: Southern Coin

In Banua, Bojing, Beatriss, and Nar Nuteng parted ways with the sorcerers and resumed their search for the coins.  They made their way once more to the southern cave, guarded by the stone warriors.  Beatriss, Bo-Jing and Ryu fought three of the warriors and then Ryu swallowed a lotus pod to go into the dream world in hopes of accessing the secret chamber at the back of the hall.  He was able to converse wit the stone statute who friendly and chatty but refused to step aside to allow access to the chamber. "I don't know you and I cannot allow you inside unless you know me."

Bo-Jing and Nar-Nuteng reasoned that the word they'd found in the yeti cave was the fox's name, but the fox didn't seem any better to read it than they were.  There seemed nothing to do but go back to Banua and find someone who could read the old script.  But on the way there, they encountered a wild fox and with a few scraps of meet and the power of the Eastern Coin, were able to befriend the fox, speak to him, and learn about his indigenous belief system. Most notably, the great ancestor of all foxes was named √ľneg.  

And indeed the fox in the Southern cave responded well to that name and happily stepped aside, allowing them into a small dark room where they found the Southern Coin, most notable for its red tint.  Bo-Jing gripped the coin and knew that it would make him an even more powerful warrior.  But he also remembered his honor and his promise to Ganbaatar.  "We will present this coin to the Emperor together."

The party returned to Banua to announce their success.  Ganbaatar was pleased and praised Bo-Jing for his honor.  "Your Emperor will be most pleased will us and with you in particular.  Let us go to Khanbaliq at once."

Within days, Ganbaatar had organized a caravan and they began the trek to the capital. Along the way they stopped in Blue City and received a reminder of the dangers of displeasing the city.  Among the bodies of the criminals hanging from the walls, they recognized the same governor who had warned Bo-Jing against doing anything to cheat the Emperor.  The sign hanging around his neck proclaimed, "In cheating the people, I cheated the Emperor."

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Taxman Part 9: Meeting the Rivals

 Back in Banua, Ganbaatar had good news for Bo Jing.  The people of the Bolad horde, having heard that the Imperial Agent had drivn off the bandits and killed the yetis that were attacking the fire camp, were paying their taxes with minimal grumbling.  Ganbaater asked Bo Jing about his success in searching for the lost coins.  Bo Jing was clumsily evasive but Ganbaatar didn't press the matter.

Bo Jing and his companions spent a few weeks in Banua, waiting out a blizzard and a cold snap, and then decided to go to Kuzhu Kala so that  they could return Narantsetseg's necklace. On the way there, they found the remains of several large campfires.  By investigating one of these sites, they found a discarded brass badge of a distinctive design.  Beatrsiss and Bo-Jing both recognized it as part of the uniform of the armies of the "Master" whom they had fought in the Sind desert.  The next evening as they were seeking a suitable place to make their own campsite, they heard the noise of a large gathering and as they cautiously approached heard snatches of songs in the voices of the bestial bakemono, possibly amasssed in large numbers.  They circumvented the sounds of the enemy camp and rode onward through the dark, Beatriss leading the way.

After another dya of travel, the party reached Kuzhu Kala and found a place to stay in one of the yurts outside the walls. Soon, they learned that Gansukh was entertaining a pair of mysterious visitors, foreign sorcerers whose descriptions made them instantly recognizable as Bangqiu and Hyamsam.  Rumors hinted that Gansukh had hired them to find something and that he was very disappointed with the news of their progress.

Beatriss and Bo-Jing decided that  even if their friends had become their rivals, they were friends first and might need assistance.  They entered the town just as the gates were closing and went to the yurt of Gansukh.  A cataclysm of emotions erupted over the Khan's face as Bo-Jing came into his presence, holding the Khanum's favorite necklace.  Caught in the midst of a red-faced red directed at Hyamsam and Bangqiu, GanSukh looked ready to draw his sword when he heard Bo Jing's greeting-- until he caught sight of his necklace.  The color drained from his face and he smiled weakly.  "Oh, where did you find that?"

Gansukh was saved from further embarrassment by his wife's excitement at seeing her necklace.  Gansukh sent her and the other women away as his soldiers crowded in.  Bo-Jing and Beatriss learned, as they expected that Bangqiu and Hyamsam had found a coin and that they were refusing to turn it over to Ganuskh in exchange for the reward he was offering of several thousand tael.  A long argument ensued in which Bo-Jing revealed that he too had a coin. Beatriss told Gansukh about the threat posed by the Master and offered her services in fighting off his advance.  Bangqiu nodded, avowing that he too would help protect the lands of his host but would not relinquish the coin. With nothing else to offer, Gansukh became threatening.  The coin rightfully belonged to him and he would take it by any means required.  If the sorcerers refused his gifts of wealth and prestige that was no matter.  Beatriss and Bangqiu agreed that they were ready to fight if necessary, but that Bangqiu should first try his charm magic.  Because it was clear that Gansukh had become an enemy.

Bangqiu sat down and stared at his hands as if considering Gansukh's offer.   Then he looked up without standing and said, "I think you are a good friend and have made an interesting offer.  I only wish to think about it over night.  Let us retire with our friends outside the walls so that we can see the wisdom of your offer."

To everyone's surprise, Gansukh agreed.  He ordered his soldiers to make way for the visitors to leave his tent and gave the order for the gates to be opened.  Once outside, the reunited friends rode into the cold night, headed towards Banua.

Friends?  And still rivals.  Bangqiu told Hyamsam and Bo-Jing that they should both give him their coins, that he was the most powerful member of the party and that he was the best suited to unlocked the combined power of holding all four coins.

Friday, March 5, 2021

The Taxman Part 8

Nar-Nuteng and Bo-Jing's men surveyed the scene-- scores of animated skeletons and a group of men on horseback. Reasoning that while the hollow-headed skeletons were a horror, the minds of evil men were the true danger, the heroes launched a volley of arrows at the men on horseback who reacted by raising their shields and spurring the horses behind the ranks of undead that were closing in around the entrances to the cavern hall.

As Bo-Jing reached the tunnel, Gan-Wei pointed out to his master the enemies on horseback. Bo-Jing, clutching the magical coin in his pocket cursed the men with their evil; immediately they broke out into an argument with each other and within moments, blades were drawn.  Beatriss joined the archers and Ryu called for divine wrath on the undead horde; a dozen skeletons exploded in a flash of blinding light just as they reached the entrance to the hall. As Ryu strode toward the entrance to meet the undead horde with his holy symbol. the necro-shaman from outside Khuzu Kala appeared from nowhere and launched an exploding ball of fire into the hall.  Ryu was knocked off his feet and his robes were badly singed, but as the shaman raised his wand, decrying "self-righteous fools who stand in the way of progress," intervened.  Squeezing the Coin of the East into his palm, Bo-Jing cursed the shaman with a word of rebuke that made him drop his wand and wander away in a stupefied daze.

Ryu regained his feet and resumed destroying skeletons, clearing a way for Bo-Jing to reach the skeletons.  Beatriss and the other warriors, meanwhile, cut down the few skeletons that reached the cave.  Some of the men on horseback continued to fight each other while others galloped away.

Soon Bo-Jing reached the befuddled shaman and cut him down without mercy.  When the shaman's body fell to the ground, the skeleton fell into disarray, come continuing to attack, while others retreated, some attacking each others, while other's attacked shadows.  Most of those who pressed the attack were obliterated by Ryu while the stragglers were obliterated by Bo-Jing and Beatriss.  When the dust cleared, Bo-Jing claimed the shaman's ring and reveled in its power-- he was invisible!

Beatrriss noticed that the shaman was once again wearing Narantsetseg’s necklace and encouraged Gan Wei to take it.  "You should return it to her."

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Taxman Part 7

Bo-Jing, Beatriss, Nar-Nuteng and their followers and companions returned to the Valley of the Five Fires by way of the Bolad fire camp.  The fire-watchers asked to see the yeti cave and see for themselves that the yeti were in fact dead.  The party agreed to this request.  In addition to yeti corpses, they also encountered a group of warriors inside the cave.  Although evidence suggested they were members of the Nergui horde, they denied this, claiming instead that they were wanderers looking for a place to camp.  Beatriss order the unknown warriors to leave the cave and they did, muttering curses under their breath.  The party didn't tarry long in the cave, casually the many runes and symbols before escorting the fire-watchers back to their camp.

It was a two-day trip back to the Crystal Cave.  Along the way, they developed their plan for taking the coin.  Ryu explained that with assistance of some honey-scented dried poppy pods, he would be able to enter the dream world or ethereal plane and take the coin. Also on the way to the crystal cave, they encountered Gan Yul.  He explained to them that  Gansukh had sent groups of warriors into the Valley to look for them.  Rather than argue, Gan Yul had silently resolved that in forcing him to break an oath, Gan Sukh had broken his allegiance to the Nergui Horde.  And thus he was free to enter the Valley and would join Bo-Jing's squad again.  "If you'll have me.  Otherwise, I will seek the coins for myself."  Bo-Jing grateful accepted Gan Yul as his noken.

The party reached the cave and by use of potions brewed for them in Banua, Beatriss and Ryu were able to enter the cave.  Ryu entered the dream world and smashed the statue in order to claim the coin. It was pure gold but reflected a green tint.  Ryu delivered the coin to Bo-Jing whom, apprising the new powers conveyed to him by the coin, immediately began to equivocate over the arrangement he had made with Ganbaatar.  "He just wants it because he's power hungry."  Ryu shook his head slowly and stared at ground.

The party made their way north, toward Banua, but with no stated purpose.  As they approached the Bolad fire, they decided to visit the yeti cave once more.  This time, Bo-Jing used the last gaseous form potion to slip through the crack in the wall and discovered a hidden chamber, carved with of the entire valley.  A cave was precisely delineated at the southern end, marked with a  series of symbols:

Rather than return to Banua, the party decided to venture to the south end of the valley and find the cave identified on the map.  Concealed by magic, the entrances, a total of four straight tunnels, would have been impossible to find without the map and the drawing of the cave.  They walked into a tunnel that led to a hall covered with gleaming white stones.  Three columns of stone warriors filled the hall.  As Beatriss and Bo-Jing stepped into the hall, two of the statues cave to life.  The two brave warriors warned their companions to stay out of the hall, for fear of causing additional statues to come to life.

The stone warriors were 20-feet tall and wielded stone swords.  Bo-Jing used his sword to break the statues sword and then level it.  Beatriss meanwhile, stayed low and smashed the statues legs.  The two of them moved to the back of the hall.  There was a bas-relief statue of an even larger warrior with a fox sleeping under his legs.

Bo-Jing and Beatriss puzzled over what to do about this problem.  They invited Ryu into the hall, assisting him in destroying the statue that came to life and attacked the monk as soon as he crossed the threshold.  And then they asked him to ingest one of the honey poppy pods.  He did, and when he entered the dream world, he saw that he could see there was a hidden room beyond the fox, but we couldn't enter it.  As he explained it to to Bo-Jing and Beatriss, the fox had stood up and continued to block his path.

While debating what to do next, Nar Nuteng, from the tunnels outside the hall, raised the alarm.  "Skeletons!  We're being attacked by skeletons!"

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Taxman's Rivals

In Khuzu Kala, Gansukh’s henchman Batzorig made quiet inquiries among the shamans, foreigner sorcerers, and wanderer, seeking adventurers for a special quest. Among those who answered the call was Bangqiu and Hyamsam, magicians from the far south who, since arriving in the lands of the Five Fires had developed reputations for eccentric behavior and awesome powers.

As soon as he appeared before Gansukh, Hyamsam proclaimed that the Emperor had sent him North to search for the magic orbs. There was a significant language barrier. The translator asked Hyamsam several times what he meant by an orb and received a different answer each time.

The next day, Hyamsam returned to the tent of Gansukh, this time accompanied by Bangqiu. Hyamsam had prepared for himself a special draught that allowed him to understand the language of his hosts, even while he continued to pretend ignorance. Listening to their side conversations, he learned they were looking for coins. He and Bangiqu explained that in their language orbs and coins were the same thing. The continued misunderstanding allowed all parties to believe they had come to an agreement. Gansukh explained that an Imperial agent and his well-armed warriors along with a pale-skinned woman warrior, was searching the valley for magical treasure, having entered the holy ground under the pretext of burying their fallen comrades. If the foreign magicians could discover what they had found or where they were searching, Gansukh would be very glad to receive the information. Bangqiu and Hyamsam were introduced to several local shaman who would accompany them into the Valley of the Five Fires and to the burial mound where they might pick up the trail of Bo-Jing and Beatriss.

The sorcerers spent a night at the Nergui fire, where they repaid thinly-veiled insinuations about their masculinity with insouciant displays of their magical powers-- and then retired early. The next day they descended into the valley and across the plains. The next day they found the burial mound and a pair of wolves pawing at the fresh graves. Hyamsam assisted the wolves in exhuming the bodies and stripped one of his burial armor, leaving the corpse for the wolves. And when the wolves slinked off, each dragging a warrior’s leg, Hyamsam followed at a safe distance. When the wolves reached a cave, Hyamsam announced his intention to follow them. When a shaman produced a glowing rock to use as a light source, Hyamsam took rock and told the shaman to wait outside. Reaching the mouth of the cave, Hyamsam, found the wolves crouched just inside, gnawing on warrior femurs and looking territorial. Even more territorial were the 12-foot tall men dressed in animal skins. Hyamsam blasted the group with a cloud of hot steam. The wolves were killed, but the giants melted into wall, ony to appear a few second later. By this time, however, Hyamsam had made himself invisible and the shaman was retreating to rejoin the rest of the party. The giants gave chase and Hyamsam used this opportunity to venture into the cave. Following a trickle of water, he ventured deep into the cave until he found himself on the shore of a large pool of warm, swirling water.

Outside the cave, the shamans and outlaws repelled the giants; the giants to their cave.

Back inside the cave, Hyamsam stripped down and dove into the pool. The glowing rock provide great visibility under water and he found that the gentle whirpool was created by a natural drain in the middle of the pool Re-surfacing for a moment to take a great gulp of air, Hyamsam dove back under and into the drain, following the submerged tunnel for a some distance. Though half-afraid of running out of air, Hyamsam kept pushing until he reached the end of the tunnel, and re-surfaced in a small cave. There was a coin there, pure gold and with a white tint. He took the coin and immediately sensed a number of new powers, among them the ability to see in the dark.

Hyamssam swam back through the underwater tunnel and then out of the cave. He kept the glowing rock in his pocket and brought it out when he met the giants; by throwing it into a distant corner, he distracted them long enough to run outside. That night, after dinner, while the others were settling into sleep, Hyamsam told Bangqiu about the coin.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Taxman Part 6

 After a meal and a rest, Bo-Jing investigated the area, looking for signs of what had happened to the fire-watchers.  He found blood and other signs of a struggle with large and fearsome beasts.  And in the icy snow outside the fire camp, he found large tracks and sings of bodies being dragged.  Deducing that the Bolad fire-watchers had been victims of a yeti attack, he rallied his troops and explored the area following the tracks to a well-worn path that led higher into the mountains.  The party found a cave of dried flowers and nearby a cave inhabited by three yetis.  Beatriss, Bo-Jing, and Naron faced off agains the terrible foes, and supported by Ryu and Bo-Jing's retinue, emerged bruised and battered but victorious.  They explored the rest of the caverns and found runes carved into almost every wall.  By creating a careful map and listening to the wind, they deduced that there was a hidden chamber situated between the flower cave and the yeti's cave, reachable only by a crack in the stone mere inches wide.  They concluded that this was another reason to go back to Banua-- to seek out a place to purchase more of the gaseous form potions that Beatriss had used to enter the crystal cave.

Back in Banua, Ganbaatar was interested to meet Bo-Jing and hear about his rumored success in dealing with the bandits. He smiled to hear about his brother and especially how quickly Gansukh had turned on Bo-Jing.  "That's my brother, he thinks everyone lives to please him and anyone who doesn't becomes his enemy."  He was also grateful to hear that Bo-Jing had hunted down and killed the yetis who had plagued the Bolad fires.  "I will send out new fire-watchers tomorrow."

And then he asked about the coins.  "That's why you spent so much time in the Valley of the Five Fires, right?"

Bo-Jing admitted that he hoped to learn the secrets of becoming invisible or taking on the form of an animal.  Ganbaatar reminded him that the coins were ancestral treasures of his people, but acknowledged that his brother was probably looking for them too "And maybe others, worse than him."  Ganbataar offered to take on the task of collecting taxes in Banua with the understanding that Bo-Jing would continue to look for a coin and-- if he found one-- he and Ganbaatar would present it to the emperor as a gift.  "I'm sure he will reward you and in this way, we will keep the coins away from my brother.

Bo-Jing and Beatriss spent a few weeks in Banua.  Ganbaatar supplied an office and sleeping chambers within the palace and convinced Bo-Jing to hire a scribe to handle the task of accounting for taxes collected and the expenses of Bo-Jing and his staff.  Finally, Beatriss accepted an offer of service from a teena-aged girl named Nar Nuteng who wanted to learn how to wear armor and fight with a sword.  seeing that the girl was already a skilled archer and hunter, Beatriss was glad to accept her as her sister-in-arms.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Taxman Part 5

Bo-Jing and Beatriss found the heroes' burial mound and Ryu presided over the funeral of the warriors killed by the necromancer. The ceremony was disrupted by wolves from a nearby cave, but Bo-Jing chased the animals away before they could scavenge the bodies.

Bo-Jing and Beatriss spent the next week exploring the Valley and various small caves.  They encountered fearsome monsters including yetis and giants that seemed to step at-will between the waking and the dream world and meld into walls.  Most notably they located a cave with a crystal door, accessible only by a small hole.  By drinking a magic potion, Beatriss was able to become a cloud of fog and slip through the hole.  Inside the cave, she found one of the coins, embedded in the chest of a crystal statue.  But like the strange giants, the entire statue resided in the dream world and could not be touched or wakened.

Running out of food and ideas, Beatriss and Bo-Jing left the valley. Opting to avoid Gansukh, they sought out the fire camp of Ganbaatar's Bolad horde.  They found the camp, at the northeast corner of the valley, but the camp was deserted and the fire was out.  Uneasy, but also very hungry, the party found the stores of firewood and rice.  After restarting the fire, they cooked themselves a large meal.