Making Myth

The fugitives head south
Secrets are not this party's forte

Riechstag was not well.

Ever since that elf had vomited on him, he had been feeling sickly. Unfortunately, nausea and general ill feeling w were symptoms both of plague and of being spewed on, so Odate was unable to give any conclusive diagnosis. He had called upon Qodesh to remove the disease from his compatriot, and had not felt any rebuke or failure from his god, so despite the goblin’s continuing discomfort the party had little choice but to move on.

Their next stop was Ho Lee, the village of the gods. They couldn’t risk all going in at once, for fear that they might be recognised as a group; and they couldn’t risk Reich going in at all in case he was really sick and contagious. But the best way to rid themselves of the myconid death stink was a proper bath, and they all wanted a bath. So they split into two groups – male and female – and headed into the little village separately: ladies first, of course.

Ashana and Sage made their way tentatively into the village, but need not have been concerned: the one bustling street of temples was almost completely deserted. Gone was the bustle of clerics and acolytes; gone the street preachers; gone the callers and the criers and the masses looking for blessing or wisdom of healing or help. Some noise of activity rose from the tavern in the centre of the village, but there was little evidence of much else. They had heard that the temples in Ken Ta Ral had been given to magical practitioners, but they saw no wizards here. Ho Lee had become a large, empty village, seeing only the needs of any travellers and traders moving between the ogre and goblin capitals and a small local farming population.

They headed to where they knew there would be baths and assumed would probably be empty – the temple of Qodesh. They were half-right anyway: the temple of Qodesh certainly had baths, but it was not empty. An entrepreneurial goblin had set up shop selling baths to passers-by. They weren’t expecting to have to pay, and their funds were extremely limited, but they were also desperate for a bath, so they paid the man and made use of the facilities.

There were only individual bathing cells – Qodesh catered for people’s privacy in the way a public bathhouse normally would not – but this suited the paladin down to the ground. The water was cold but fresh – underground springs seemed to feed the baths, which then flowed over into ditches which drained the water away – and the proprietor had supplied each bather with a towel and a piece of soap root, which were certainly not elements of a normal Qodeshi ritual bath. Still, the soap root helped to wash away the weeks of grime, sweat, sand and blood which had accumulated over weeks, and while it was hardly a rich perfume, at least it stank of clean.

Ashana thought to pay a little extra for another stick of soap root, even after assuming that the kender probably already helped herself, both to take back to Reich as well as to cover the cost of whatever Sage took, and after that they were on their way. Well, almost. Ashana could not leave the village without quickly discovering what had happened to the temple of Sophia – after all, if the temple of Qodesh had become a bathhouse, what had become of the Sophite temple?

Passing by the steps out front was already somewhat disconcerting: torn pages of paper floated out the door on a gentle breeze. Upon sticking her head through the entrance, the paladin saw that it had been mostly cleaned out. A handful of locals were seated against walls, reading whatever had fallen into their hands it seemed, but one particularly enthusiastic spirit was chasing loose leaves of parchment and papyrus, collecting them and after brief inspection was then arranging them in a leather bag at his hip. Here Ashana thought she might have found a kindred spirit, and asked the goblin what he was doing. That is how she received her horrifying answer: “I’m collecting the best and most comfortable pieces of paper for use in the latrines within the temple of Tiyriya. Come along if you want a comfortable and informative crap! Good rates!” His work apparently done for the moment, he tipped out the door. Aghast, Ashana wordlessly followed, and along with Sage returned to the others.

With the soap root and a stream of heaven-sent water, Riechstag was able to have himself a cleansing shower, before Hunter and Odate made their way into town for a bath. On their way in, the two stopped at some of the hovels that stood outside the village proper, hoping to catch sight of the kobold monk, Mkenda, whom they had met last time they were in Ho Lee, and who had helped them find Hunter’s sister. The grizzled kobold greeted them with all the requisite gruffness that seemed common to Qodeshi worshippers, but still asked after Cassi, and was glad enough to receive Hunter’s report that not only had they found her, but she was free of the slave life and was headed up the pilgrim’s path (though Hunter may have left out the small detail that she was heading up there to become a bard rather than a monk). Odate then sought the wisdom of the monk, who had so harshly criticised him when last they met, about the evil and cursed dagger of Tu’eva that he sought to destroy. Mkenda was shocked that the ogre cleric had taken so long to destroy so evil an object, and when Odate explained that the only way was to seek out giant bee royal jelly, and that these bees only live in Vahassa, the kobold’s response was snappy: you could have just bought some at a major city.

Odate was somewhat taken aback at this suggestion. While he wasn’t sure that the kobold was right, the truth was Odate had never once even considered just searching the merchant bazaars for some giant bee royal jelly. His mind had automatically jumped ahead to travelling to Vahassa and hunting down the bees himself. This was a lesson in wisdom for the ogre, and from the mouth of the same kobold no less: you don’t have to do everything yourself.

Still, now that he knew there was a chance that this substance existed somewhere in Manxiga, he was not going to let any stone remain unturned. He thought that there could even be two places the jelly might have once resided here in Ho Lee: the temple of Hesed, due to the jellies apparent healing properties; and the temple of Ra’a, because they like expensive things. They went first to the Hesedi temple – not only would it be more likely to have something left in it (he could only imagine the Ra’a temple had been thoroughly looted), but it was also likely to be decidedly less creepy.

The Hesed temple was far quieter than it had been in times past. But it too was not empty. Apparently, an ogre had come from the capital to set up a small hospital in the now disused building, to service the needs of the local area. There were a few sickly people about, mostly goblins, some suffering farming injuries, others with coughs and pains, and others merely old and looking for some peace. The ogre greeted Odate cordially, and after ascertaining that neither he not Hunter needed any medical attention, he talked about the supplies he had: some bandages, some roots and leaves, some clean water – and whilst he had some honey, it certainly wasn’t made by giant Vahassan bees.

And that’s when Odate decided he would be helpful; he warned the ogre clinician that there was a plague outbreak in Terrkan, and that it was entirely possible that sick people might be making it this way, heading for Ken Ta Ral. And the ogre just stared at him for a while. Finally, when this news had sunk in, the ogre asked cautiously, “How… do… you… know?” And it was suddenly very clear to Odate and Hunter that the Qodeshi had made a mistake. The clinician insisted that they should not leave the temple so as to control their possible infection, and despite all protestations he ogre-handled them into one of the quarantine cells kept in the temple for just such a purpose. Odate knew he didn’t have time for this: he called on the power of Qodesh, and with a single word – “enter” – commanded the ogre to walk into the cell in their place. It wasn’t until Hunter swung it shut that the ogre realised what had happened, and began to shout out for help. As they ran from the temple, down the street and out of the village, it seemed apparent they wouldn’t be searching the Ra’an temple after all.

Their next stop was going to have to be Ken Ta Ral, but they were loathe to travel the roads during the day, and taking the causeways was going to take longer – and with Reichstag possibly still sick, that might be too long. Unfortunately, their plan of travelling the roads at night didn’t turn out for the best, as Reich couldn’t seem to keep himself awake for the night travel. Moreover, despite his illness, he was still a mage, and he was damned if he was going to give up sleep and be prevented from being useful to the party with his magic. So they made their way to the causeways, and got some rest.

Ashana was on watch when the tawdry group of teenagers approached them. There were five in all – two humans, two bugbears, and a goblin who was pretty tall for his age, with pointy ears and a pointy nose, who seemed to be the leader of the ragtag bunch. Two of them had proper fighting daggers, while the rest were armed with simple clubs or cooking knives, which they wore proudly and arrogantly displayed on their belts. There was more than a little bravado in their swagger, and the machismo of the lead goblin was obvious as he strode up to Ashana and informed her, “You’ve got to pay a toll. These are our causeways.” Ashana had seen it all before – during her combat training there were always a few boys who felt they needed to pick on the girls to show how manly they were, and these were no exception. She tried rattling her sword at them, but these teenagers were as inexperienced as they were insolent, and they were sure that the mix of them outnumbering her, combined with them being male, was enough to fix the fight – ignore the fact that she was an armed, armoured and trained warrior, with four fellows (all of whom were asleep, sure, but who were also armed and dangerous).

There’s no need to record the absolute pansting that those boys received at the hands of the party, except to say that one of them literally ended up with no pants; Hunter took all of their daggers; and their goblin leader, Pointy, was unfortunate enough to attract the ire of Insight, Ashana’s newly named giant eagle companion. When the eagle swooped from the sky and grabbed him, all they heard were screams, followed by a sudden silence – and they were sure that he’d been gutted and devoured by the beast. But no, it was more that the goblin adolescent had simply passed out from fear, and then been dropped into a rice paddy a few metres away. Insight still did plan to eat him, but Ashana warned him off that course, and so he instead flew off in a huff and found someone’s goat to destroy and devour. After receiving some healing from the paladin, Pointy limped away quickly after his miscreant friends.

The rest of the trip to Ken Ta Ral was blissfully uneventful, and after two more days of ordinary travel Reich realised that he was actually feeling much better. That didn’t mean he had been healed, but it might – or it could mean that the disease he had was going through a quiet patch. It was probably best to check that out, and there was no doubt some ogre in Ken Ta Ral who could confirm that, even if there were no other clerics in the city. One thing that would certainly be hazardous for their health, however, was if someone were to recognise them as fugitives from Terrkan justice, so they planned to split up and enter the town in smaller groups. After all, a couple of humans travelling together was not remarkable, nor was an ogre and a goblin – and kender were just expected to come and go ad nauseum, as the elves would say. Plus, given the loss of the shields of both divine servants in the party, they suddenly looked very non-descript. The most obvious person now was Reich, in his bright blue mage robes. And while it was surely the case that he was not the only goblin blue dragon disciple in the world, they were still rare enough that if anyone was looking for a goblin blue mage he would be a ringer. Which is why Hunter and Ashana entered the town first, and purchased some simple second-hand clothing for Reichstag to wear during his foray into city life. When they had the clothes, Ashana went back out to deliver it to Reich, and Odate came in, whilst Hunter went to meet up with Soshiki and discuss whether there were any under-the-table jobs that a blue mage might get that would not attract the attention of the myconids.

Once Ashana and Reich had met up again on the opposite side of the gates, they thought of going searching for Odate, but couldn’t decide where he might have gotten to. So instead, knowing only one other trained ogre medic in Ken Ta Ral – the irrepressible Towajina of the southern gate – they headed to the southern side of the city to find her rooms. They were about to step inside when they heard some voices coming from within, and quite heated at that. The conversation was in Ogrish, so neither the paladin nor the goblin could quite pick up what was going on, but there was definitely a level of insistence coming from Nurse Jina, and a gruffness and even a bit of shoutiness coming in reply from some male ogre. Deciding this was none of their business, they waited outside politely for the better part of 20 minutes. They waited, in fact, until their patience was starting to wear just a little thin, but also because after that amount of time they were starting to wonder if it was in fact Odate’s voice that they were hearing from inside involved in that argument. Upon entering the rooms they found that the individual patient checking rooms were separated by heavy leather curtains, but the voices were much clearer in the central waiting room, and so Reichstag introduced himself most politely and apologetically, and pulled the curtain aside.

What they fould was a sight to behold. There was Odate, clearly cornered and berated, trapped by Nurse Jina in a far more compromising position than either would have given him credit for. He was clearly uncomfortable – although whether it was with the position or the discovery was unclear – and while Jina’s intentions were vague but pointing in one direction, Odate’s sudden cry in common was quite different, “Oh, thank Qodesh! Get her back!”

As the mood was mellowed by the addition of two extra people, explanations were made: apparently Odate had come and explained their situation to Jina as a fellow healer, only to discover that she was prepared to use this information to blackmail Odate into providing romantic companionship. She had been quite suggestive on this score, and whilst not forceful, had nonetheless been wearing down Odate’s mighty resolve to the point where he admitted that he did not trust himself to remain alone with her much longer. Apparently, the cavalry had arrived just in time. Now they needed to work out how to defuse this blackmail situation, and keep the information of theri escape from Terrkan a secret.

Sage, meanwhile, was having a wonderful time. Sure, she had been resoundingly rejected from entry into the noble quarter, where the market may well have had, among other things, the royal jelly of Vahassan giant bees. But when she had left that behind in favour of what she could only describe as the knick-knack markets (seriously, a place where they sell glass beads, baubles, shells AND shiny things?), it took her all of about zero seconds to find some other kender, sit down, and start sharing with them all about her adventures – their trip to the swamp mountains, their killing of a myconid, their saving of people who were turned to stone, their arrest in Terrkan, their escape from arrest, the spreading of terrible disease in Terrkan, their killing of the elf in the bamboo forest (so sad), and their trip to Ken Ta Ral.

Sage didn’t even think twice about sharing such news. After all, stories are the same as objects – they belong to everyone.

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Ode to Folium Ambulante
A life tragically cut short

Folium’s life flashed before her eyes.

She and her brother Bellum had been the first born to their tribe after creation, so their early life had been one of doting and ease. When other children had come after them, life did change, but not badly – the two siblings were like an elder brother and sister to those who came after, providing leadership and camaraderie to those who came after. Days consisted of harvesting folium scribum (the leaf the elves used to practice their gift and after which Folium was named); nights of camp-fire stories, poems and rhymes.

When humans first arrived in human lands, Bellum was insatiably curious, spending days at a time with them, learning their language, their customs, and about the larger world. Folium was hesitant, but was eventually won over by the story of human exploration through the salty desert and into new lands, so that later, when the offer to learn survival skills from one of the humans came, she could not refuse.

Eventually many of the humans moved on – their pace of life was always so frantic – while the siblings grew and grew. Folium and Bellum heard the news of ogres and goblins harvesting the trees of their jungle home, and it seemed like the right time to do what they had always dreamed: follow in the footsteps of the heroes of their childhood. They would leave the safety of the jungle and travel out into the world to learn what they would need to help defend their people. Folium had already picked up a few things from the stories they were told – how to find water in the desert, how to follow paths and discover food, and prevent yourself from becoming food for another – but Bellum dreamed of learning the gift of music in the far north of the distant mesa steppes. It seemed the perfect adventure, and could only strengthen them in their goal of protecting their homeland.

Two years flashed by, a haze of scrubby bushes and dirt, wide open spaces where the sky spread out forever, and not a single real tree for miles. There was the hauntingly beautiful hum of the rock people, who taught Bellum not only metre and melody, but the power of the chaotic nature of creation. At least that’s what Bellum always told Folium: she just heard the rocks singing. Turn one day it was time to leave, and the two siblings followed the pilgrim’s path south, back towards the flood plains, and green and rice and rain.

They stayed off the roads – all elves knew to do that – and found themselves back in the jungle. That was where they met Custodeum and Acuunt. That was where they saw the horrors of destruction. That was where they joined the fight for their land in earnest. Custodeum was the leader – apparently he was the younger son of a fire caste leader – but it was always Acuunt who did the thinking.

That meant they always took big risks. Acuunt’s tribe had been one that was wiped out two or three years earlier – a short time for a long-lived race – and so she regularly pursued drastic plans over rational ones. In another life, Acuunt might have been called someone with big dreams; in this one, they were instead big nightmares. And while this attitude made their little band an inspiring story for poetry and song amongst the younger elves, it also meant the four of them were quickly captured by some mercenaries in their second skirmish on the front lines.

A blur followed: everything from when they were handed over to the myconid slave trader was a haze of foggy memories of discomfort and despair, hunger and thirst and emptiness, rain and sweat and darkness. That could so easily be the end.

But her next clear memory was not the end, and it was not darkness. There was light, and fire, a brilliant gleam off shining armour – salvation. Also the smell of fried mushrooms and a giant eagle, and an unlikely group of saviours who would lead the four elves deeper into wilderness, and up onto a mountain of stones where chickens turned people to stone. There was the bland taste of gruel, the feeling of sand in her hair and her clothes, and a kind of familial camaraderie seldom felt between different races but so easily fostered by shared food and water and fire and tiredness and time.

She remembered the lovely young human who gave them eating knives and copper coins, and leaving early in the morning to head home. Only they weren’t going home – the moment they were out of sight of the first village they had seen in a month or more, Acuunt had a plan. So they wound up sneaking into the goblin capital city, Terrkan, with plans to assassinate the Khan himself and strike a fierce blow against the oppressors. What they found instead was that same group of people who had shown them such love being marched off to suffer the same sordid fate from which they had saved others: fungal slavery.

She felt her stomach turn – or was that the sword? – at the thought of letting these good people be carted off to an unknown fate. Custodeum agreed (we owed them our lives), and so did Acuunt (they could join our fight for freedom). Bellum was just happy to be helping. So they collected what weapons they could carry from the contraband room and went to save their friends.

It was the finest battle they had ever fought. It was as though wisdom guided their blows and righteousness their feet. Custodeum killed two ogres single-handedly! And every blow Folium struck with that curiously thin dagger seemed to weaken their foes terribly. And it felt good to see them suffer. That human, Hunter, called out for a weapon and she didn’t hesitate to throw her the dagger. Hunter reminded her a lot of Acuunt sometimes, and never so much in that moment.

Her memory seemed to be slowing down as it caught up. Suddenly, Bellum had copped a face full of spew from an ogre, the kender was shouting something about plague, the paladin was healing one of the ogres, and they were running. A brief stop to swap around possession of the equipment – Folium lost track of the dagger; running would have been so much easier with it – and then they were sprinting out the northern gate. Had it just been elves they would have easily outpaced their pursuers, but now they had short people on their side, and it was threatening to lose them the chase. Odate, the big ogre of Qodesh, called forth a large, shadowy dragon-type thing which guarded their path behind them and seemed to paralyse some of the guards, but it was eventually a bamboo forest that hid the group from sight. It wasn’t jungle, but it s close enough to bring Folium some peace, and all of them some quiet.

But the quiet didn’t last. Planning turned to arguing, arguing turned to bickering, bickering turned to silence and silence to distrust. It all started with Acuunt – of course it was Acuunt – noting how strong the dagger had been against the ogres and how powerful it might be in striking against the ogre and goblin state. Odate was as blunt as his hammer: the dagger was evil, and must be destroyed. And then Acuunt backed down just a little too quickly. She had always been faster with her fingers than her mouth. And then suspicion reigned, and its king was Odate. The dagger was gone, he claimed, and he wanted to know who had it. Custodeum spoke for us all, but with the tongue of Acuunt: “We do not have it.”

Back and forth they went, with the ogre highlighting the danger of the knife, cursed by Tu’eva herself – “We do not have it” – it had slaughtered whole villages – “We do not have it” – it was his duty as a cleric of holiness to destroy it – “We do not have it” – and every time the tension increased, but every time Custodeum remained as unyielding as an oak.?

The cleric prayed to his god, and then said that he had been told that Acuunt had the dagger and must return it. “We do not have it.” And so the ogre called on Qodesh’s power to “bind the thief” and everything suddenly exploded. Custodeum seemed overwhelmed with rage at the sight of his friend Acuunt being frozen and searched by the big, meaty hands of an ogre, and he plucked the sword from the paladin’s scabbard as though it were low-hanging fruit. Folium didn’t know what was going on; there was suddenly so much noise and anger and threatening and all she wanted was to go back to the quietness of the forest. So she ran; she ducked in between the bamboo and disappeared. But then she heard the sound of her brother being sick – and the resultant cry of outrage and disgust from the goblin – and she knew she had to return.

It all happened so fast. She saw Custodeum and Bellum clutching their eyes – Custodeum’s head was bleeding too – and she saw them crowding around Acuunt, many hands grabbing at her simple clothes. But then the dagger appeared, and at once Folium’s heart both sank and leapt as though tearing itself in two. It sank because it was true: Acuunt had stolen the evil dagger. But when Hunter dropped the thin-bladed knife on the ground like a hot coal her heart raced: she could grab it. She could feel it again in her grasp, feel its power, its comforting warmth that was a little like a fever, and so reminiscent of the jungle. She wanted to go home so much.

And before she knew it, she was breaking cover and running for the dagger. Before she knew it, she felt its sticky, clammy grip in her palm. And before she knew it, she felt a sudden shock through her belly, and her legs stopped working. And the ground rushed up to meet her.

Before she knew it, she was dead; and the dagger fell from her limp fingers.

Later, Acuunt fled. Later, the party who had given these elves freedom left. And later, Hunter came back to apologise for what had happened. When he arrived, Bellum was singing this song over his sister’s shallow grave:

Farewell, farewell dear sister
the trees will mourn for you
And the leaves
Farewell, farewell
In the moonlight fall to cover your grave.

We fought the good fight
Stood against the jungle’s blight
Those ogres and goblins that plunder
Our homelands to harvest wood
Disrespecting our statehood
So their own nation we sought to sunder.
We faced them so bravely
Right up to the last
The odds against us were humongous.
Just the four of us were caught, and bought,
And thrown in the cart of a fungus.

And the ones that we thought were our heroes
Saved us from our fate, only to become our foes…

Farewell, farewell dear sister
the trees will mourn for you
And the leaves
Farewell, farewell
In the moonlight fall to cover your grave.

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The wrong side of the law
Soap would have been their friend before they went to gaol

The next morning was a time for goodbyes. The human slaves were splitting up: some heading back to their homes, some heading for Chan Ma Rai in the hope of making a new life overseas, and one heading north on the pilgrim’s road. The party were headed for Terrkan, where they could check up on Reichstag’s wife – which seemed worthwhile after that snake priestess had specifically mentioned her – and could then make their way down the roads to Mae Lin, hopefully working out a way to turn people from stone back into flesh in the way. The elven slaves left early, and together as a group. Their plan was to travel quickly and quietly, return to the jungle as fast as they could, and rejoin the fight to save their homeland.

Even though the elves left early, they ensured the night before they thanked the party for saving them and leading them safely back to civilisation. And everyone was thankful to Therese, who was likewise grateful to the party for their support of her work. When all the goodbyes and thank yous had been said, and enough supplies scraped together to get them where they were headed, the road once again beckoned. Or at least the causeways did – there was no road between Pa Direh and Terrkan back then.

Days passed, and it reminded the party of their early time together: long days of walking, meals amongst the rice paddies, rain after lunch. It was quiet, relatively safe, and also just a little boring. So when they saw an ogre clad in a red cloak approaching them perhaps a day out of Terrkan, they were friendly in their greeting, which was replied to with much warmth. Of course, warmth is only to be expected from a red dragon disciple: though the cloak was red, the ogre’s skin was blue, marking her out as a practitioner. She introduced herself as Pātotaimu – at least, that’s how she introduced herself to Odate.

It had been a while since the ogre cleric had fraternised with members of the opposite sex, but it seemed as though his self-inflicted curse remained with him. Not only was Pātotaimu extremely friendly towards him, but he couldn’t help but feel the need to squeeze as much charm and charisma as he could out of his gruff personage. She seemed to respond favourably, and the two actually shared a tea ceremony together. There was also some typical road-talk – she was able to pass on the news that several of the temples in Ken Ta Ral had been handed over to various schools of magic. Whatever was happening in the ogre kingdom, it was certainly happening efficiently. Of course, that’s what happens when you’ve enslaved the race with administration as their gift.

After sharing some tea and a few significant glances, Pātotaimu bid them farewell, and mentioned that she would hope to see Odate again, welcoming him to visit the lands of the fiery mountains some time. Odate certainly didn’t reject the possibility – after all, who knew where the road would take them – and the party continued for another day, before reaching the west gate of Terrkan. At the sight of the city-sized town, Insight – a name that Ashana had finally given her eagle – shook his head, and took to the clouds. Who knew where he would be going. Ashana frowned, but trusted that the eagle probably just didn’t like built-up areas, and would return to them when they were back on the road.

They were greeted, as always, by an administrator who wanted to know their business for visiting the town, but when Reichstag gave his answer – he wanted to see his wife, Salang – there was an extended period of waiting at the gates for some unnamed reason. It seemed that the gate administrators were waiting for something, which actually turned out to be someone. When a sedan chair finally arrived after not quite an hour’s wait, the curtain was briefly pulled aside to reveal Jiltu, Reich’s husband-in-law, who gave a brief nod, and then bid his bearers to return him home. With that nod, the administrator broke the news to Reichstag: his wife was no longer in Terrkan. She had renounced her position, and moved to Coratka for reasons that he could not disclose (and he couldn’t disclose why he couldn’t disclose them, for reasons he could not disclose).

With that said and done, the only reason to remain in Terrkan was to stock up on supplies for the next leg of the trip, and get a room for the night. Those being entirely acceptable reasons, they were assigned a government guide, who led them first to the officially sanctioned market, where they could do their officially santioned shopping. While Hunter, Odate and Ashana went to the food market, Sage and Reich stopped in on the mud brick emporium. Sage wanted to give her friend Utpressnig a hug – which she did, around his ankle, and he was mightily glad to see her. His wounds had healed somewhat, but it seemed as though his instant return to work had left him with a permanent limp. Still, he was in fairly high spirits, and he and the kender spent a few moments sharing stories.

Reichstag, in the meantime, cornered the brick merchant Roye, who was somewhat less keen to see the blue mage. But Reichstag was in a fairly mercantile mood – he was simply after the information Roye had offered him before, and was now prepared to perform a number of Item spells to assist him with the movement of large mud bricks, as had originally been suggested. But Roye was a little more circumspect this time around. Perhaps it was because the deal was coming to him instead of from him. In any case, he wasn’t prepared to take the bargain, giving the reason that he didn’t have any shipments that required that service at the moment. So Reichstag upped the ante a little – he had that wand which could perform the spell without the need for a mage, and while he couldn’t guarantee how many uses it had, he was sure it would cover the value of the information. Roye’s eyes widened a little – that was a significant sum of in-kind being offered – and so he agreed. While the two both took hold of the wand, Roye named names – it was Jitu who wanted Reichstag dead.

The mage sighed. Of course it was. But now at least he knew. What was he going to do about it? For now, rejoin his companions. Sage wanted to buy a hat, so said she’d meet them at the food market, and Reich headed over to the others. They were dealing with a myconid – Hunter had flat out refused to be part of that, and so was standing off to one side, trying to look inconspicuous – who seemed to be providing a remarkably slow service. However, the food looked more than suitable, its quality unmatched, and the words that were floating into their minds were a steady rambling about needing to know details about the trip and those making it in order to provide the best possible service. They complied, telling that they were a ragtag band of different races and needs, headed to Ken Ta Ral and so needing at least a week’s worth of food.

Once they noticed their official guide was gone, it was too late. Half a dozen ogre guards moved their burly frames into the market, and surrounded the group. They were told they were being charged with murder, and asked to come quietly to the holding cells of the central administrative complex. Hunter tried to pass himself off as a bystander, but the disguise he was able to throw together didn’t cut it. They were marched off with a burly armed escort – all except Sage, who had been busy buying herself a wonderful chevalier with an ostrich feather. She was super keen to show it off to the rest of the group, and so followed them to see where they were going.

While the rest of the party were in a holding cell having their charge explained to them by one of the goblin prosecutors (they were charged with murder; the evidence was the testimony of the myconid trader; they would be found guilty in the morning during the Khan’s court; yes, they could run a case if they wanted, but no, it wouldn’t make any difference; yes, they could plead self-defence, but no, their case was pretty slim without witnesses not involved in the murdering; and the punishment would be slavery to the myconids) and Ashana was wondering whether a stint of slavery was Sophia’s way of teaching her some new form of wisdom, Sage was checking a map that she had of the complex – because yes, she actually found something useful in her pockets – and was then climbing into a third storey office window.

Fighting an extreme urge to look around in there for interesting things – the urge was quelled a little with how thoroughly boring large stacks of paperwork are when you can’t read – she then made her way to what she assumed on the map were little rooms, and so probably cells. Gods knew Sage had seen the inside of enough gaol cells to be able to recognise one on a map. Sure enough, a few minutes after the goblin prosecutor had somehow failed to instil in the group an utter despair about their position, Sage turned up and asked them where their stuff was. They didn’t know – it had all been taken by the ogres. She provided a set of lockpicks to Hunter, but Hunter’s skills with locks was never really high on his agenda, and this was a pretty sturdy lock made to keep thieves (and probably kender) in. So Sage went looking for a solution.

That solution presented itself in the presence of a nearby ogre guard who seemed to actually have the keys. But then it hit Sage – even if she did get them out, where would they go? What would they do? How would they get back to their ox cart, which they had left in the marketplace? Where was all their stuff? While she was thinking about all of this, a polite cough came from behind and above her. It was the guard. He asked in heavily accented common what she was doing, and because she was in such deep thought about her plans she just casually answered, “Oh, I’m trying to work out how to break my friends out of the cells.”

So it was that a few minutes later, Sage joined the rest of her friends behind bars. It wasn’t until she realised that when they had taken all her pouches, they had also taken Barry the rat too, that she started to cry.

Escape seemed hopeless; perhaps not even attractive to some of the more upright members of the group. Options seemed limited. Slavery was not attractive. But then, the party saw something that made them at the very least think that something was going to change…

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A little hospitality goes a long way
Why does it always have to be snakes?

Everything was settled. The party had set a path to get back to civilisation – Hunter had surmised that the dwarf rogue’s traps were probably directional, so they could take the safe path between the plateau and the wilderness without a high chance of anyone getting injured. Reich had organised a schedule for himself that included a daily treatment of the stone statues with his Item spell, turning them into pieces of parchment, allowing for ease of their conveyance. Odate had Qodesh’s blessing to keep them all alive on the blandest gruel known to sentient life. It was all go.

And the trip went almost uneventfully, which for a ten day hike through the wilderness is not something that can easily be said. That said, there were one or two hiccups. Like when Reich was curious to know what happened if you burned something that had been transformed into paper by the Item spell. He had a spare, and thought he could use it on a stick of Bamboo and see what happened. Unfortunately, he had so many pieces of itemed parchment on his person that he got just a little bit mixed up, and accidentally may have set fire to the parchment containing the image of Diakopti. The minotaur warrior had up until recently been working as a mercenary for the ogre sage Kensaku, had changed jobs to work in the recently flourishing statue industry, before ending his short-lived career as a piece of kindling. Never fear though; Reich wouldn’t want the rest of the party to worry their little consciences about that, so he deftly hid it by including in his iteming regime the preservation of one of the cockatrice corpses. This should be of some value when they get back to society, surely. Failing that, it probably tasted like chicken.

It was probably this little upset that explained why the goblin so regularly got the sweats and started shifting his eyes when Hunter started complaining about the fact that they were saving these mercenaries from their well-deserved fate. He felt that they could all benefit from an introduction to the exciting and fulfilling career of kindling. Thankfully, after his recent accident, Reich had taken much greater pains to ensure that the papers were all properly filed, and had also hidden them away from where Hunter’s prying fingers might accidentally happen upon them and mistakenly assume they were fire fuel.

There were a few other exciting happenings on the trip – at one point Sage saw a tiger in a stand of bamboo; Ashana named her eagle Insight; that same day Insight returned to the camp with a warthog (but conscientiously guarded it from any party member as he slowly and methodically tore it to shreds and gobbled it down all by himself); and Hunter came across one of the traps that the dwarf had set for them, which fired a probably poisoned dart harmlessly ahead of them.

But one night as the party were sleeping and Hunter was on watch, wondering how he might convince his fellow goody-goody-two-shoes to alter their views in the fire-making department, he heard some movement that didn’t sound much at all like a human, or a kender, or a goblin, or an ogre, or an elf, a donkey or an ox, or a giant eagle. Okay, so there were a lot of things the movement could have been. But Hunter was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. It sounded slithery. Whatever it was, Hunter was certain of one thing – he couldn’t see jack all, and that couldn’t continue. Reaching into his pocket for a pile of small stones he kept just for such an occasion, Hunter flung them at his sleeping companions, figuring it would wake them up.

And sure enough it worked – he quickly heard the grumbling mutters of the rest of the party being woken long before their own shifts on picket duty. After a few moments of harsh whispering about how deadly danger to the party trumps the need for a good night’s sleep – even if you are Reichstag – the wizard tossed a small ball of hazy yellow light over the camp, which bathed the campsite in a dull orange glow, as though the sun were setting now instead of several hours before. Only the light from the mage’s spell was different to normal: the little sphere usually cast out light in a perfect circle; but now, there were fingers of darkness that seemed to probe and claw at the light, as though seeking to tear at it and bring it to an end. But for now, the light held fast, and in its glow the party could see a snake – a huge snake, easily standing eight feet tall – that held a shield in one hand, and an incredibly intricate and painful-looking harpoon type weapon covered in fish hooks in the other. The snake’s eyes were partially lidded at the sudden existence of light, and the shield glinted with the word ’Tu’eva’ splashed on its metallic surface in a dark, ichory liquid that it was probably best not to speculate about.

It was a yuan-ti – the race of snakepeople that had been gifted with metallurgy, and who lived in tunnels under the fiery mountains. With a hiss, the snake delivered its message, its words curled by its unmistakable accent. “The Queen of Misery has called me to you. I am sent through this wilderness to the mountains beyond, where I might commit some heinous acts of evil” – it paused for a moment, almost relishing in the disapproving looks it received from the party – “but when I saw the embers of the campfire, though I was under instruction not to tarry, my Lady spoke to me, urging me to attend upon you.” As she spoke – at least, they thought it was a she, as her voice was slightly higher pitched – her body curled about on itself, so that she might present her words to all around her. “But fear not: though I could likely kill you all as easily as snapping a twig, the Dark Queen does not want you dead. She wants you miserable. She wants you to suffer. She wants you to know that I am going to bring upon the world such torment that”-

Hunter interrupted, “Will you get on with it, handbag? We need sleep, and you’re giving me a hankering for a new belt and a pair of shoes.” The yuan-ti was hardly perturbed. She tossed her head and gave a smile that showed off her impressive fangs. “Such big words for a race of prey. I will look forward to eating one of your sisters soon.” “I only have one sister,” came Hunter’s snarky reply, and the yuan-ti simply grinned a little more, before turning its attention to Reichstag. “Congratulations are in order, I’m told. But it is such a shame. Such a shame.” And then she returned to her circular writhing, which was almost hypnotic as the light flickered off her scales and bravely fought off the intrusion of the fingers of darkness that continued to assault it.

“I will leave you be. I will not disobey my Queen No, not tonight, fun thought it might be. But…” she paused, her forked tongue flicking from her mouth, “it has been some time, yes? Since you have been back to civilised lands?” The grin returned, sharp and rather unnerving, as it was turned upon Ashana and Odate. “You’ll be most surprised at what’s happened. Queen Dimeh has made some rather interesting changes in policy.” She brooked no questions, and with little more than a mocking bow, slid herself westwards towards the mountains. As she left, the light became a touch brighter, its battle against the darkness won. Then Reich snapped it out with a click of his fingers, and they were all plunged into sudden darkness. “Gotta sleep. Need magic. Talk in morning.”

The next morning, the sun rose much as it had done every other day. The rest of the journey was empty of much excitement, although there was a mixture of relief and regret when, about a day or two out of Pa Direh, the ground became wet, rice paddies appeared, and it started raining in the afternoon, as if right on schedule. They had clearly returned to civilised Manxiga. As they neared the sleepy little village that was the only stop on the pilgrim’s road to the Singing Mountains, a woman came out to meet the group. It seemed as though she was expecting them, though that was impossible, since no-one knew they were coming. Nevertheless, she welcomed the group, especially the slaves, told them she had food ready in her home, and invited them all to join her. It was a welcome that could not be ignored, and so everyone filed gratefully into her small two-room shelter, where a bubbling pot of rice with ginger made such an amazing change from the dull gruel of the past ten days that some of the slaves actually had tears in their eyes.

The human woman’s name was Therese. She was only young herself – certainly no older than 25 – and it seemed that she lived quite simply. As she was handing out little pouches to the slaves – which seemed to contain some copper coins, an eating knife, and usually some other curious things like a hairbrush or a sling – she told them all her story. She had been in a slave caravan run by the myconids, who had been taking a group of slaves south-west from here towards the Fiery Mountains, apparently to be traded to the yuan-ti. But when they neared the desert plateau, the myconid was attacked by a massive beast she could only describe as a landshark. The slaves managed to free themselves from their caged cart, but had no way of knowing where to go in order to reach civilisation again. They thought they were doomed. But a young woman…

“Cass,” Hunter interrupted, and finished the story for her. They knew the story – it was that of Hunter’s sister. Amazing. Apparently this woman had been one of the slaves who had been freed, and pointed back towards Pa Direh by Cass on the plateau. She explained that the other slaves had gone their own ways – back home, or to start new lives – but she had resolved to remain here, just in case anyone else had the good fortune to return back to this village. She had constructed a tiny home, barely enough for herself, and she had a small rice plot that she worked. She also took donations from those who were on pilgrimage to become monks, who discarded their worldly possessions as they left, or certainly upon their return. That’s why she had so many little pouches, and enough coppers to give these returned slaves a startup pack.

The party were so enamoured with this little ministry that they gave her as many coppers as they could scrape together – hundreds in all – as well as a few gold pieces to allow her to expand her home. They also donated Emergency Breakfast, which she was thankful for, even if she didn’t quite know what she would do with a pack mule. She was overwhelmed with their generosity, and overjoyed at the thought of being able to help more people who came along.

As the afternoon turned to evening, they asked her for any information she might have about the cities – they’d been away some time, but were also keen to know if anything the Tu’evan had said was true. She furrowed her brow, especially when looking between the paladin and the cleric, but she nodded. Apparently the news must have been right behind them all the way on their travels, for only a few days after they left Coratka, a riot had broken out at the eastern gate, caused by a group of traders who said they were being discriminated against whilst religious folk got a tax-free run of the gates. The trade families of the humans put down the riot, but they did then wonder at why religion got a free pass, and both the mercantile rulers of Coratka and Queen Dimeh of the ogre kingdom passed a law requiring all religious institutions to pay taxes just as any other business would.

The temples had mixed reactions, anything from uncaring (Carna and Qodesh had little dealing with cities after all) to resignation (Ra’a could hardly argue against greed, and probably also saw it as an opportunity to extend its influence, whilst the Hesedis just accepted it as their lot) to frustration – but although most of the other temples had some sort of negative reaction, they respected the authority of the ruling elites.

Which made it all the more surprising when about a month later, Queen Dimeh apparently nationalised all temples within the ogre kingdom, taking them over as administrative headquarters, and ordering the removal of all religious effects from her kingdoms. This caused a huge furore: not only among the temples themselves, who had suddenly lost great wealth and position within cities and towns, but also amongst the many faithful goblins and ogres who worshipped at these temples. Good and evil gods alike were thrown out on their ears, and buildings turned to government use of one kind or another. Tensions were therefore rising rapidly in the ogre kingdom, and though the human cities had not yet followed suit, there was speculation that at least some human leaders were watching and waiting to see what happened next.

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Adventure on the rocks
PSA: don't get stoned

Soncho was an annoying mix of impatient and exhausted. The night and morning long run that they had all done to catch up with the slave caravan that had captured Sage, coupled with the adrenaline of the stand-off with Kensaku and his mooks, left everyone in the party ragged. Everyone except the ex-slaves, of course. Now that they’d had some of Qodesh’s nourishing gruel and life-giving water, they were feeling much more invigorated. And because they weren’t really able to expend that energy walking back to their homelands and out of this wilderness, they spent it instead pestering the party, especially Soncho, about what they were going to do next.

There were ten slaves. Six of them were elves who had been captured somewhere in the battles over the eastern jungle (which they insisted on calling the Elven jungle), and so they had various stages of combat experience and were eager to catch up with Kensaku and take out some of their frustration on the ogre nation via him and his mercenaries. The other four were humans who had nothing in common besides the fact that they all had a slightly elvish look about them via wispy blond hair or fine, bony features. One was a carpenter, another a candlemaker – both had fallen on hard times. Another was a beggar off the street who swore he’d been press-ganged, and still another was a convict sold into slavery as punishment. They just wanted to get back to civilisation. They all shared that eventual desire in fact, and were united by that one thing: none of them really wanted to be where they were.

And yet they were stuck there. Without an escort, they were highly likely to die on the way back. Even if they could dodge past the more dangerous things in the wild – land sharks, ankhegs, tigers and rice kracken (Hunter was still of the opinion that these were not a danger to the average person) – they would starve, because not a one of them had any survival skills. They’d be lucky to find enough water. Even Soncho’s own party were rather perilously low on supplies, and the whole group were fairly reliant on Odate and his heavenly provisions from Qodesh. Well, everyone except Ashana’s new eagle companion, who had no desire to eat gruel and was thankfully perfectly capable of finding its own prey – although watching it eat a juvenile tiger was more than a little disturbing.

And as it turned out, not even all of Soncho’s group were completely in agreement about what they should do next. While none of the party were against continuing, Odate did make a pretty compelling argument: perhaps it would be better to give up now, turn back, and head home. It might even be that by sacrificing his claim to the discovery of whatever race created art, Soncho could gain more insight into the nebulous gift of sacrifice that Cass had been exposed to on the desert plateau. It was a compelling argument. People were compelled. Even Soncho seemed to consider it carefully. But then as the sun set in the west, highlighting the craggy rocks of the mountains that lay not more than a couple of days’ walk from where they were, he shook his head. He couldn’t give up, not now. But he also knew that Kensaku was well over a day ahead of them now, and there was not a great chance that he would beat the ogre sage to the plateau. So he made a compromise with Odate and the rest of the party, and with the ex-slaves. He wanted to make it to the mountains. That was his goal, after all. He never really wanted to go onto the plateau, not since he heard about the origins of the stone pig in Terrkan. He had always wanted to explore the mountains themselves more thoroughly. So if the party escorted him to the mountains, and everyone – including the ex-slaves – spent a full day searching the mountainside for evidence of the artistic gift and found nothing after a day, he would consider that they had concluded their mission competently, and they could turn back and return him to Mae Lin.

A new day dawned, another few mouthfuls of bland, nourishing gruel were eaten, and the party set off towards the mountains. As they had been doing, they continued in that sweet spot between the falling sand of the plateau and the lusher soil of the wilderness, following the makeshift path that avoided both the annoyance of sand in one’s face and the chance of being attacked from underground by some sort of deadly monster thanks to the rockiness of the ground. It was even pleasant travel for a few hours. At one stage, the path narrowed a little and a copse of bamboo jutted into the path, but it was scarcely big enough to hold an ambush by Kensaku’s party, so they passed it confidently – and set off a lashing trap set by bending back a large branch of bamboo, studded with sharpened sticks. If flung forward, biting into Sage’s shoulder, and the little kender cried out with pain, and fell back onto her haunches. Everyone was suddenly on edge – was this an ambush after all? But after a few minutes, it was clear that the mercenaries weren’t around, or if they were had missed their chance of surprise, and this was just a trap left behind to discourage their continued travel.

It wasn’t a big wound, but one of the wooden teeth had dug deep, and within a minutre or so she was feeling nauseous and looking very pale. Hunter looked over the branch – very clearly a trap, probably made by that dwarf who was with Kensaku, and the prongs were likely coated with some sort of poison, but he didn’t know what type. Sage started to fade, talking in an even more rapid voice as she lapsed into unconsciousness. Odate shook his head – he could cure her ills, but poison was beyond his capabilities. If she couldn’t overcome the toxins herself, there was very little he could do besides identify the poison – it was some sort of snake venom – and extend her life a few hours. So they sat and waited. Ashana and Odate prayed. Hunter wet a cloth and put it on Sage’s forehead. Reich had a few spell components that could break a fever, and gave them to her. And they waited.

Hours passed, but eventually the kender awoke, wondering what all the fuss was, and desperate for a drink. Apparently her body had been able to overcome the poison – though at considerable cost to her energy levels – and Odate was confident she would make a full recovery, especially if aided by Qodesh’s touch. But that left them with another quandary: it was clear that if they kept following the easy path, they would run the risk of stumbling over traps and causing more injuries. And while Sage was a robust enough ranger to shake off such a wound, one of the slaves would have easily succumbed. As would have Reichstag. Searching the ground ahead of them was a possibility – Hunter was reasonably confident in his skills – and even Odate and Ashana could ask their gods to reveal the whereabouts of traps to them for a time, but all this would extend their travel time by days. Morale was already frayed. They also knew they couldn’t go on in the wilderness proper, as a group this size might scare off some smaller predators, but attract others that were either larger or more cunning, or both. That was not an attractive proposition. But neither was turning back.

So they elected their other option: walking through the sandy rain falling from the plateau. Though it would slow them down and make the trip considerably less comfortable, it was far less likely that the dwarf would have placed any traps in there. At first they tried to have Hunter still check for any evidence of traps, the regularly falling sheets of sand that stung the eyes, chafed the legs, and got into absolutely everything, made it next to pointless. Thankfully, it was also far less likely that even if the dwarf had set traps he would have been capable of guessing where in the sand they are likely to pass. So while their travel time was miserable, slow and annoying, it was not deadly.

Two days passed. By day they pushed through the sandy wind, and at night they would return to the wilderness to empty their shoes, pockets, hair, pants and bags of sand before realising they also needed to beat and out of their food pans, camping mats and ears. Then they would sleep. Or at least try. It was on the third day that grass and sand gave way to rock underfoot, and even the barefoot ex-slaves were rejoicing. They began to beat a path to the north, knowing that their enemies had likely gone south to try and ascend to the plateau, and also knowing that there would be less sand that way. They made camp at the base of the mountains, and discussed the plan for the next day: leaving the pack mule and cart ox behind, everyone would climb into the lower reaches of the mountainside, where they would then fan out and search for any evidence of intelligent life, and especially of any kind of art. This required a little bit of explanation to the slaves, who had absolutely no concept of art at all, but eventually they fell somewhere between “things that look like things but that aren’t those things” and “you’ll know it when you see it”.

The next morning came, and with it a little bit of excitement and even expectation. After all, not only were they searching for something new and special, but they had also finally reached their destination, and everyone knew that tomorrow they would be heading back home. Even Soncho showed a little relief, as well as a small hope that he would have something to show for this long and difficult trip. Climbing into the mountains, the group of them began to spread out – far enough to cover ground, but not so far that they couldn’t easily reach one another in case of trouble.

Of course the kender found something. It started off being a bit of stone that was a funny shape – it was all wavy and different from the stone around it. Then she found more bits and pieces that were similar – wavy and smooth and wonderfully strange. It was just as she discovered what looked like a carving of a stone foot that she heard Soncho calling for help. People moved from their positions on the mountain face to make their way closer, and Sage was beaten only by an elven ex-slave who had also been close by. There was Soncho, surrounded by some stone statues.

Soncho had not just called out in surprise though, he had really wanted aid, and it took a moment for Sage to realise why: these weren’t just statues. Soncho was standing face to face with a life-sized statue of his ogre nemesis, Kensaku; hands thrown out in front of him, mouth twisted in a fearful cry. As more of the group started to arrive, they all began to recognise that these statues were of the mercenaries too. They were perfect replicas, faithful down to the last detail. It wasn’t until the first ex-slave to arrive spoke that anyone noticed a problem.

He said simply, “Oh, look, a chicken.”

Sure enough, next to a large leather bag that looked as though it had fallen from the minotaur statue’s shoulders, was a very strange looking bird. It was big for a chicken, but when it poked its head out from the leather knapsack, where it had apparently found some hard rations to peck at, it had the distinctive cockerel crest and pointed beak. What separated it from its egg-laying cousins was its leathery, bat-like wings with little hooks at the elbow, and a long, lizard-like tail with a tuft of feathers only at its tip. As it saw the elf, it began bobbing its head up and down, and making a low, burbling clucking sound, much like a mother hen might if she were protecting her chicks. The elf stuck out his hand in an attempt to mollify the angry bird, but it seemed to be naturally aggressive, because it suddenly crowed and flapped at him, pecking him in the hand.

And then he turned to stone. Not all at once, either – that would have been alarming, but not nearly as terrifying as watching the grey rockiness spread across his hand, ranging up his arm, freezing his movement as it went along. He screamed in terrible pain as the stone crept along his skin, spreading out of his shoulder and rushing down his leg to the ground. “Help me! Help me!” he cried vainly, before the stone stopped his throat, and within the space of a minute he had transformed into a pitiful, frightening statue. Soncho couldn’t even gasp, he was so scared: he was standing right beside the beast, and worse yet another one had emerged from amongst the circle of silent monuments to their awful power.

But then one of the ex-slaves did more than gasp – he screamed in utter fright and terror at what he had just witnessed, and the chicken-monsters instantly turned their attention to the noise. Odate called out to Qodesh in prayer, a slight desperation even in his voice at the horrible demise he had witnessed. Sage was already trying to string her bow in order to engage the devil-hens from a distance, but when Soncho saw that other people were in danger, he ripped his travelling cloak off his shoulders and started waving it at the creatures. He was still afraid – his voice was breaking as he shouted to everyone to run away – but he was still doing it. He even managed to cover one of the creatures with his cloak, which caused it to pause for a few moments in the typical stupor of a bird with its eyes masked. But then he had to whip the cloak back to protect himself from the other bird, freeing the first from its simple-minded paralysis.

The ex-slaves did not tarry; they turned tail and fled down the mountain screaming and crying and running as fast as they could. But again, their sudden movement brought the attention of one of the creatures, and as it turned to pursue, flapping its wings like a territorial rooster, and it was only Ashana’s quick feet and large shield that stood in the monster’s way. It sqwarked angrily at her and pecked savagely, but she kept it at bay, though her sword couldn’t seem to find its mark (she wasn’t trained in paladin to poultry combat). Reich drew forth his magical power and send a flaming arrow towards the chook, and the searing flames impacted beside it, giving it a shock and a moment of fear. A regular, non-flaming arrow loosed from the kender’s bow soon after, and stuck into the other creature’s wing, making it stumble. It seemed as though things were going their way.

But then as Hunter sought to follow up with his sling, his footing slipped on a pile of shale, and the stone went wide, striking Soncho right in the back of the head. The sage was stunned; he stumbled about a little, as though drunk. He had to stop and shake his head, as though trying to clear it, and he just kept calling out, “Run, run! Get out of here!” Then, as he reached down to grab his robe – his only weapon against the enemy – the death-chicken craned its neck and pecked him on the back of the hand. He immediately withdrew his hand in shock and pain, but it was too late – the creep of the stone was inexorable, and with his last faltering movements, he spun around and shouted, “Go!” before the stone overtook him and he was trapped in place.

But they did not go. Another flame arrow from Reich’s fingers this time engulfed the beast in flames, and it sqwaurked and crowed and cried as it burned. The other was impaled by a second arrow, before Ashana’s eagle swept down and grabbed it in its powerful claws, efficiently snapping its neck before beginning to feast on the remains. The battle was won… but Soncho was lost.

Or was he? Neither Odate nor Reich had any hope of turning their employer back from stone to flesh, but they both figured that something must be possible. If only they had a way of transporting him in the meantime… the cart! No, it was too far away, and no-one could transport a full-sized statue made of stone down to where it could safely be brought. Then the goblin snapped his fingers – there was a spell he could research that might hold the key to their dilemma. It allowed him to turn objects into little figurines, one-twelfth their normal size, and even into paper if he wished. It would last about a day, and could certainly be used to change the sage into something more portable for their return trip. It would require him to do some more study, but he felt he could master the spell in a day or two.

But then Odate and Ashana both raised the question that everyone was secretly thinking in their heads: what about Kensaku and his mercenaries? They had clearly suffered a similar fate, and although they were jerks (especially that dwarf – Sage’s shoulder still stung) this seemed like a fate worse than death. If they had the capacity to bring one statue back to civilisation, did they have the capacity to bring the rest? The answer, of course, was yes – but at a cost of time. Reich would need to memorize the spell a number of times, and that would take effort. But with the ox cart, he should be able to keep his studies up on the move as they returned eastward to the roads. So it seemed like yes, they would be saving not only Soncho and their unlucky ex-slave, but also their enemies. Sage spent the next couple of days exploring the mountains, hoping against hope to find something as interesting as the tiger carving. Alas, it was not to be, but she did discover something of interest: cart tracks, barely noticeable, headed up into the mountains.

They went back down the mountain to the base camp, where the ox cart and Emergency Breakfast were waiting, along with a gaggle of very upset ex-slaves, who got even more upset at learning of the plan to save not only the ogre but his minions too, and that doing so would mean an even longer trip through the wilderness. But at the end of the day, what choice did they have but to stick with the party, their food and their protection? It looked as though everyone would be learning about sacrifice now. At least they wouldn’t have to go back into the mountains with those cockatrices – that’s what the elves had named them, and when elves named something, for some reason it usually stuck.

And in the excitement of everything Reich had nearly forgotten – but the weight of the stone tablet in one of his pouches reminded him that they were hardly leaving the mountains empty-handed.

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I don't like mushrooms
Or perhaps they just don't like me

Sage was missing.

After the eagle (still as yet unnamed) had eaten all their meat rations, the kender had offered to head out into the wilderness and hunt them up some game. Being a ranger, that was a reasonable enough propositon, and although the kender had never had to do it before since they were usually within a couple of days of a built-up area, it was good to know that someone with survival skills was on the case. Besides, even if Sage couldn’t find any meat, it wasn’t the end of the world. Odate could pray up some nourishing gruel. This was more about morale than it was nutrition.

But the sun had gone down, and Sage hadn’t come back. Then a couple of hours had passed into the night, and Sage still hadn’t come back. Something was wrong. Sage wouldn’t normally disappear for this length of time. Yes, she might get distracted by things she thought were pretty and cool, but she was as likely to run back to camp and tell them all about it as anything. And there were ankhegs and tigers and stuff out there. So just to be sure, the party sent Hunter and Odate to track the kender down, while Ashana and Reichstag stayed with Soncho back at the camp.

It wasn’t long before Hunter and Odate got their answer. Sage had clearly gone out hunting, but couldn’t find any game. Hunter thought this unsurprising – there was a large bird of prey in the camp that was likely keeping away vermin and anything that felt threatened by its presence. They followed the footsteps, and eventually found them crossing with the wheels of a cart, the hooves of an ox, and the round, suctiony tracks of a myconid. This made absolutely no sense – why would there be a slave caravan out in the middle of the wilderness like this? No-one lived out here! Why would the myconids be trafficking slaves to the swamp mountains? And yet the tracks didn’t lie.

They did, however, grow colder with every passing moment. The two headed back to camp and let the rest of the party know what had happened, and pressed on them the urgency of action. The cart would move at about their pace, given the goblin, and that meant they would never catch it if they didn’t pick up the pace. Perhaps if they marched all night they could catch up the caravan and clear up this mess.

However, that was without taking into account the cripplingly slow hopping of the massive eagle with the equally massive paralysed wing. Odate had told them that by his estimation the wing should be fine by morning, but they needed to get moving now. Moreover, the eagle was asleep, and seemed very reticent to be disturbed. It was really enjoying its little kip, and it was well into the night now, when such a bird would normally sleep. But Ashana was loathe to leave it behind, and they didn’t have a good way of communicating with it, especially without waking it. It wasn’t like the eagle could read a note. So Ashana reached down to her belt, took her eating knife, and raised it to her head. With one smooth stroke, she cut her long, black hair from her hand, and left it in the direction they would go. Surely the eagle could figure that out, and with its newly working wing, could come after them.

And so they ran into the night, pulling Breakfast with them. It quickly became apparent that if they kept up this pace, Reichstag was going to be exactly useless when they arrived, so they ended up loading him into the packmule and distributing the rest of its gear between the other party members. It was a long slog, and hard. It was dark. They were tired. But Sage was relying on them, and they would not leave anyone behind. Even Soncho was prepared to take up this marathon effort – which for the humans at least was not as huge an effort, since they were only moving at half their normal pace anyhow. But as the hours rolled on and sleep was deprived them, everyone began to suffer. Reich’s eyes were bleary. Ashana’s legs faltered at least once – unsurprising given the weight of her armour. Odate flagged, and his face grew long with the wearying trek. But Hunter was the one that suffered most. He vomited more than once at the exertion, and more than once they had to ask if he wanted to stay behind and catch them up. But each time he shook his head, stood up again, and kept going. For Sage.

When the sun finally rose, everyone felt that twist in their stomach that told them they were going to pay for the lack of sleep, and soon. But they were also rewarded with a vision of the caravan on the edge of the horizon. It was still miles away – it must have been moving slowly all night – but they could make it. They had to. So they kept on pushing. When they got within identifiable range of the cart, they began to fall apart. Soncho was huffing and puffing and clutching his chest – he wasn’t an old man, but he was also not an athletic one. Ashana and Hunter pushed themselves, and very nearly came up empty. Odate went forward more slowly, but grimly, quietly determined. And Reich, who hadn’t walked all night thanks to Breakfast, was able to put in a good effort to make the trip. They arrived at the cart in dribs and drabs, and given what happened next, it would be fair to say that their memory of things was more than a little blurry for them afterwards.

There were some definities though: Sage was in the caravan; the myconid claimed Sage had sold herself into slavery, and that Sage was not for sale; the myconid attacked them, and they killed it. Hunter would probably remember more – apparently he had been immune to the crazy spores of the mushroom man – but he was also nearly catanonic from sleeplessness afterwards, and that did its own damage. What they clearly knew was that the bird had come and saved them, swooping the myconid and distracting it; and that there were charred bits of it all over the place, so Reich had probably ended up magicking it to death.

They then must have freed the kender from the slave cart, because they had later ended up with about ten other freed slaves as well – about half were elves, and the other half pretty elvish-looking humans. They had likewise been under some sort of fiendish spell or spore from the myconid slave trader to keep them passive, which had thankfully not worked on the whole of the party, or else they would most likely have shared Sage’s unknown future fate.

So things were fuzzy around the myconid. But there was a lot more clarity around when Kensaku and his crew arrived. Apparently, they had seen the combat going on some ways away, and so approached to see what was going on. What they found was Soncho Aretz and his companions: the very person Kensaku was competing against to find the new gift first. Now, normally the party would have ponied up and stood their ground. These mercenaries were pretty dirty, after all. But after a lot of posturing and some snarky comments each way, two things were clear. One, no-one really wanted to fight. On the party’s side, they were exhausted and weak, and also marginally outnumbered (sure, they had a bunch of slaves, but they were unarmed, half-naked and also weak). But on Kensaku’s side, while he had a good number of mercenaries, the party had a very angry looking large eagle, and he probably just couldn’t be sure that a rogue arrow or a peck from that beak might not just find him and end his wandering sage career before it truly began. That wasn’t a risk he was prepared to take unless he was sure he could get his mercenaries to kill all these people without suffering in return.

Two, Kensaku had pretty excellent blackmail material. These people had just killed a myconid. If word of that got out, they would never be able to buy anything in a city again. Certainly not from another myconid, but probably not even from anyone who traded with myconids either. They were the master traders, and few could afford to be on their bad side. With that tasty little tidbit of information on his lips, Kensaku could simply turn his back and walk away, telling them not to bother following. Perhaps going home in failure was better than trying. No-one in the party was really sure they wanted myconids as enemies. Enemies was the one thing that they had in spades.

Oh, that and freed slaves. They had a whole bunch of them. Not a lot of food to feed them with, or stuff to give them, but the newly freed elves and humans were certainly there, with absolutely no idea how to get home.

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Bow before the king of birds
The eagle had landed

An eagle. A very, very large eagle. From the looks of it, there was definitely something wrong. It was curled up on the ground in a roosting pose, its legs tucked under itself, and it was keeping its head mostly under its wing, but that certainly hadn’t stopped it from snapping when the vultures – or the kender – got too close. It was dusty and a bit dirty, but otherwise seemed unharmed. So what could be wrong with it?

Even though the kender had tried once already to calm the bird, without success, she approached it again. But this time, she had a slightly different aim: her attempt now was to distract it. So she did a little dance in front of its head, and talked to it and just generally acted the kender – distraction comes pretty naturally – while Ashana slipped up behind the bird. She had her hand outstretched, and prayed silently that Sophia would take whatever healing this bird needed to close its wounds, and then softly laid her hand on the bird’s tail feathers. Nothing happened, besides the bird quickly realising it had someone behind it and giving a bedraggled yet still fearsome shriek. Fortunately, Ashana was well out of the way before the beak could come a-pecking, and was left instead pondering what it meant of Sophia would not answer her prayers for the bird’s healing. Was this the wisest course? Was there something she was missing?

Odate’s healing skills weren’t really up to the task. He knew about humanoids, but he couldn’t quite tell what was wrong with big bird here. One thing he could say – from this perspective, at least, there was no obvious wound to the bird that was causing it distress. Sage was sure that it was a snare – after all, back in Vahassa humans would set snares all the time to catch birds and other creatures. Perhaps its legs were fastened to the ground – hence it not moving. Of course, its legs were well under its body, hidden by the feathers, so the only way of seeing for sure would be to sneak underneath and check. The kender didn’t admit it, but the thought of snuggling up with a large, feathery bird was also kind of neat. What wasn’t so neat was that as she quietly padded up beside the bird, she took full account of its eagle eyes, but not so much of its very astute hearing. It whipped around almost soundlessly and snatched her in its beak, giving her a shake before letting her loose. Sage gasped with the pain of the bite and managed to back herself away over the ground on her hands and behind, eyes wide, and a large cut across her chest.

Odate looked grimly to the sky, and said a quiet prayer in Ogryn. Then he started addressing the eagle in a stable but solid tone: “We come in peace. We can help you.” There was some sqwarking and shrieking by the eagle, which helped everyone imagine how truly terrifying it must be when an eagle comes bearing down on a rabbit. Odate stood fast though, and responded again in common. “We can make you well. But you must let us come closer.” There was another sqwark, and with that, Odate put down his shield and his hammer, and then fell to his knees. “Is this better?” Sqwark shriek. Then with a nod, Odate turned to Sage and said, “Keep the bird calm,” and on his knees he approached the eagle. Somehow it seemed befitting: a cleric of holiness approaching the king of the sky on his knees.

As the ogre moved closer on his knees, Sage began talking soothingly to the eagle, right in its field of vision. Thankfully, the kender was very forgiving of the large creature, and did not hold the wound on her chest against it – it was, after all, just mostly scared. When Odate reached the eagle, it soon became clear to Odate that there was something wrong with the right wing itself – the eagle couldn’t move it. Lifting it up didn’t seem to cause the eagle any pain though – probably because it was paralysed. There was a long, thin wiggly thing attached right up under the wing, almost in the underarm – probably one of the tentacles of that carrion grub. There was also a bite mark just on the drumstick of the bird’s leg. The bite wasn’t very big, but it seemed to have suppurated. This was not just a wound – it was a disease.

Looking back over his shoulder, Odate called out – but in as quiet a voice as he could muster, “Ashana, there is a disease. You must deal with this.” Ashana likewise removed her shield and her sword, got down on hands and knees, and slowly approached. Two people approaching had not been the deal with the eagle, but thankfully Sage was able to keep it calm, and Ashana’s crawling approach less threatening. Hunter stood back, arms folded, and just laughed quietly to himself, while Reich muttered something about how he was short and harmless looking before it was cool.

Ashana looked over the wound, agreed it was at the very least infected, but thought that if the disease was coming at least in part from the severed tentacle, then there was little that could be done before removing it. She tried to grab it, but the tentacle was slimy and seemed to just slip off of the metal from her gauntlet. Even tanned leather couldn’t really get a firm grip. However, the tentacle certainly was sticky against the flesh of the beast. Odate, using one hand to keep the wing raised, bit the fingers of his other hand’s glove and pulled it off. Then, with the free hand, he took a firm grasp of the tentacle. Almost instantly it seemed to bite into his flesh, and he winced. It felt cold. It felt like it had infected his arm with pins and needles. But he could still move his arm, and he tugged at the tentacle, trying to get it off – without success. It was probably a mix of his stance and the fact that his arm was weakened by the tentacle’s poison, but he just couldn’t get it to budge. Thankfully, the eagle was also paralysed, so couldn’t really feel the tugging and so was not discomforted by the whole thing.

Ashana frowned. Then she said a quiet prayer to Sophia, cracked her knuckles, grabbed Odate by the waist, set her shoulder into his pelvis, and bodily pushed him backwards. He fell down onto his rear with a start, and his hand came tearing free from the eagle – and along with it the tentacle. Not giving it even a moment, the paladin’s boot came down hard on the tentacle, right next to Odate’s hand, and she grabbed the ogre’s wrist and yanked it away. She then kicked the tentacle away from them both. It went rolling in the sand, and the moment it fell still, Reich pointed a finger down and torched it in magical flame. That was that done. Then she returned to the eagle’s side, placed her hand right over the wound, in the way that only someone fearless of disease could, and called on her goddess to purify and cleanse the beautiful creature of its ailment. Almost immediately the eagle seemed to respond, as though energy and verve had returned to its blood, and the kender couldn’t help but give it a quick hug around the neck – this time far too quickly for it to respond.

Ashana extended a hand to the ogre to help him back to his feet, and asked him to translate for the bird. She started with something quite flowery and wise, but Odate soon had to explain t oher that, while he could talk and the eagle could respond, it was still just an eagle, with a brain to match. So she rethought her words: “Your health is returned to you by Sophia. She is my… the one in charge of me. She gives me the strength to help you.” The eagle nodded and squarked back, and Odate translated, “What should I do now?” The paladin again took a couple of tries, but ended up saying, “If you think about it, and want to join me in doing what Sophia wants, then you can.” The bird took nearly a full second to think, before bobbing its head deferentially. At almost that moment, Odate’s power to speak to the beast was done, and they were left pondering just what this would mean for them.

What it meant was that they now had a new party member. The bird still couldn’t fly – Odate surmised that the paralysis could last anywhere from a few hours to overnight – but hopped along slowly behind them, almost like a puppy behind the paladin. Poor Emergency Breakfast was beside himself, suddenly travelling with this large apex predator – it wasn’t helped that every now and again the eagle looked over with interest at the pack mule – so Sage also had to spend a good amount of time calming it down to get it to move forward.

When darkness was just starting to touch the eastern sky, Hunter called out: he had found something. There was a campfire that had been broken. Sage looked it over, and found it had probably been abandoned only hours before, perhaps a third of a day, and was even able to tell that there was a minotaur, an ogre, two humanoids and two demihumans. Quite a large and mixed group indeed. Reich sucked his teeth: that sounded like the group that was with the ogre sage, Kensaku, who was out here to find a new gift before Soncho could. Soncho was keen to continue on into the dark, and was now especially upset that the eagle had cost them time, but everyone convinced him that things would be faster tomorrow, and that there was no point travelling through the night. They should just make use of the camp, eat dinner, and get up early in the morning.

With that, Odate cracked open the rations from Emergency Breakfast’s saddlebags. They still had meat, and so he laid it out and getting it ready for dinner. He turned to put some rice into a pot, and then when he turned back, he was just in time to see the eagle’s beak raised to the air, gulping down the meat. All the meat. All of everyone’s meat in one meal. Oh.

Ashana put her hand on the eagle’s neck and gave it a pat, which it warily accepted. “Aww, you must have been hungry!” she said with a proud and gentle voice. The pride and gentility seemed to meet with little positive reception outside of the kender, who just thought it was amazing to be travelling with an actual factual giant eagle, and was probably secretly hoping to get a ride some day. Some day being tomorrow.

But for now, everyone was a bit irritable, so she offered to go and do some hunting, catch some game, and give them some meat to eat. Unfortunately, having an apex predator about seemed to scare away all of the game – she couldn’t find a single bunny or even a mouse. Still, on and on she trekked, following game trails and finding a small water hole nearby – nothing. Oh well, it would just be rice tonight.

As she headed back towards the party, it was truly dark. Fortunately, she could see the small fire, and knew what direction to head in. Unfortunately, she didn’t quite make it that far. There was a shadow in between her and the fire. A cart shaped shadow. That was just too intriguing, and she had to walk up closer and investigate. Lo and behold, it was a cart just like the cart that Cass had said she’d been on. She couldn’t see great, but she could just make out a few humanoids in the back, who all looked very passive. Then looming out of the dark came another shape – this one looked like a giant mushroom. She was amazed – it must have been another slave caravan. What luck! She opened her mouth to shout out to her friends, “Look, another slave caravan!” but just as she did so, she felt a shower of spores fall across her tongue.

It wasn’t like the thinky spores that the myconids usually used to communicate. This was different. It was kind of drowsy. It was very peaceful. It just made her… passive… so that when the mushroom man picked her up and put her in the cart, she didn’t resist, didn’t cry out, didn’t even care. It was okay. Everything was okay.

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It's funny who you meet on the road...
Also, cats are distracting

“Reichstag!”

The voice came from behind them: loud, booming, and utterly brimming with confidence. As they turned and looked up from their lunch – and up, and up – they saw the source of the voice. It was a minotaur, probably average in height for its kind, wearing a simple mousy tunic, and with a large, black sword at its belt. The sword was straight and double-edged in the minotaur fashion, and had no scabbard. It seemed to be simply thrust into the belt of the tall man. His horns were faintly yellowed as though from exposure to the elements, but the tips still managed to gleam in the muted light of the cloudy afternoon; as did his teeth when he smiled that bovine smile which suggested absolutely no hint of friendship whatsoever.

“I am Anayetopoftka, kensai of the sword school, and I have come to end your life. Stand and face me!” The sheer bombast of his voice was impressive, as was its volume. Reichstag blinked. He had just eaten his second rice ball, and his mind was still very much focused on the story Hunter’s sister Cass had been telling of her escape from the plateau. His earlier paranioa had dissipated, but now he was feeling a whole new wave of paranoia wash over him. He started off by making arguments: “Why me? Surely there is another that could be a better match to your size and skill.” But the minotaur shook its large head, “Nay. Gods have decreed you should fall, and I seek their blessing. You are the mage of whom the bards sing: the one who’s magic hands are dangerous in a fight! I am sure you will be a worthy opponent before I kill you.”

The goblin inwardly cursed that damn bard. “And if I reject the duel?” That only made the minotaur grin all the wider, “Then I shall leave. I shall return to Terrkan, and make my way to Chan Ma Rai, or perhaps Coratka. And at every city and town and village I will make it known that blue dragon mages are…” he paused for effect, “Wussies!” It seemed a silly threat, but Reich nodded soberly. Reichstag did not live and die by honour, as many who followed various codes did. He knew had the challenge been offered to Ashana, she’d have been dutybound to accept it. Odate would likely also have needed to act honourably. Reichstag was a good man, but he drew the line at throwing away his life for the sake of some quaint system of notions. And he knew the blue dragons likewise did not hold much stock in honour. But they did value their prestige highly. This challenge to their standing was unacceptable, and he had to stand up to it. Having said that, he also didn’t want to die. He began wracking his brain for a solution to this quite curly problem. His eyes briefly scanned over to Hunter, who gave him a nod that said everything. Hunter was also of the opinion that honour was overrated, and would gladly stab this cow in the ass the moment his back was turned. But Reich shook his head briefly. He’d rather take another course if possible.

In the meantime, the other members of his party kept the kensai busy. Well, the kender did. Sage had never seen a minotaur before, and had not knowingly ever met a kensai either. Certainly not long enough to ask them questions. And so Sage began pouring them out like a firehose: what’s it like being a minotaur? What’s a kensai? How is that different to being a fighter? Why did you choose just a sword? Do you practice much? Why do you want to fight a duel? What’s a duel? Why don’t you fight triels instead? If you were to fight a triel, would you have to take turns? Would it be different to fighting a tree? Anayet answered these questions with an increasing level of barely contained frustration. He drew the line at “Can I touch your sword?” but did get drawn into answering at least several of the web of questions that were brought forward in rapid succession.

And it was one of those answers that gave Ashana an idea. While Sage peppered the minotaur with questions around the topic of “How do you buy shoes for those hoofs?” the paladin stated, “In Fiiel, the code of duelling states that the one who accepts a challenge may determine the weapons by which the duel is fought.” And at this, Reichstag saw his opportunity. He needed to defend the reputation of his dragons… but that didn’t mean he needed to play by the kensai’s rules. Minotaurs are, after all, from Fiiel – though not the lovely green plains, but the far colder and more forbidding Winter Pines area. “Will you abide by the Fiiel code of duelling?” he asked, both hopeful and a little more confident than earlier. The minotaur sighed, clearly disappointed. “If I must. But I would really rather we just fight normally. And I must insist the battle be to the death. The gods want you dead, and I will not receive their blessing otherwise.”

To this Odate now spoke up, “To which gods do you refer? And why would a kensai, famed for seeking to perfect their own skill to its limit, seek the assistance of the gods in doing so?” Anayet gave a snort, “Tu’eva and Ba’ya both seek his demise. And who said the blessings I sought have anything to do with my skill at arms? I am a kensai, but that does not mean I lack other… urges.” At that he gave the Qodeshi cleric a wink that instantly made Odate wish he could bathe in holy water.

Reichstag finally stood to his feet. “I will accept your duel. We will fight to the death. But your size and brawn mean that a physical contest would scarely be right or fair. Therefore, our weapons will be our wits alone.” The minotaur rolled his eyes. “Really? Are you sure you don’t want to just have me stab you?” Reichstag was sure. “Fine, fine, wits. And how, oh great and clever wizard, will this deadly battle of wits take place? I assume you do not mean a magical duel. That would be most unsporting.”

Reich hadn’t actually thought of quite how. He held up a finger, pausing for a moment. Two moments. Ten moments. Moments started bleeding from time like a wound, and when the kensai started to tilt his head questioningly, Cass decided to speak up and finish her story. This caused everyone to turn back away from the minotaur, much to his chagrin, and pay attention. After all, they didn’t want to miss out on the rest of the tale.

Cass was standing atop the desert plateau, watching her fellow slaves make their way to freedom and back to civilisation. She waved, and she watched, and then she turned to see what the rest of her life held for her. The answer was precious little. The desert was not just sand – that was an easy assumption to make, given the regular fall of sand over the edge – but in fact had a sparse covering of shrubs and plants that seemed mostly to clump around the edge of the plateau – probably where the most rainfall was. She looked at one of the plants close to her, and as she approached it, its flowers opened – brilliant blood red petals – and she reached down to pick them. There she sat, flowers in hand, when a shadow seemed to pass by her vision. Looking up, she saw a bird, but a bird unlike she had ever seen before. For one, it was enormous – easily 20 feet tall from tail to beak. Its feathers were a gorgeous gradient from yellow at its wingtips, through orange to red at its shoulders and finally a brilliant blue on its chest. It looked at her, and introduced itself to her as Phoenix in a chirping, squarking voice, before asking what she was doing on the plateau.

Now, any human who grew up in a city is well aware that sentient races take all shapes and sizes, and when you’ve had a mushroom squirt its speech into you via spores you have a fair bit of resilience. So whilst she was surprised, she was hardly alarmed, and decided to answer truthfully: she had climbed up there to lead her friends to safety, and now she was stuck, and didn’t know what she was going to do. The bird looked down at her over its golden beak, its eyes sharp but understanding. It said to her, “That is quite a sacrifice you’ve made.” Cass hadn’t really thought about it that way, but gave a shrug and a nod, “Yes, I suppose it was.” The bird nodded again in that head-bopping way that birds have, which made Cass unsure if it was agreeing or simply doing its pigeon act. But then it replied, “That pleases me. Let me help you get down.”

With that, the bird spread its wings. The colours on its feathers began to shimmer and sway, blending together almost as if the colours themselves were alive. Then the colour started bleeding off the feathers, rising up like a heatwave, and Cass felt like she could actually feel the heat. It was as though the bird were aflame, as if it were growing larger and larger – and yet not the bird itself, but the fire that was growing from it. As the fire grew and grew, the phoenix became the blue pilot light at the centre of the flame, and the waves of heat seemed to stretch up into the sky – and yet there was not a gasp of smoke from the bird (although some of the bushes nearby did catch alight, and they certainly smoked). Cass stood staring in awe, until suddenly the bird just seemed to explode, a wave of force escaping from the centre of the huge bonfire with such strength that it knocked Cass off her feet, off the cliff, and sent her hurtling towards the ground.

Yet even on her way down, Cass knew that she wouldn’t be harmed. She wasn’t sure how, but she knew that the phoenix was noble, and good, and that this was somehow meaningful, even if she couldn’t quite work out why or how. As she approached the ground, she felt peace, and as it turned out rightly so: the wave of energy that had pushed her off the cliff seemed to rebound off the ground, and became a cushion for her as she neared the earth, so that she could safely touch her feet to the ground with no more force than if she had alighted from a carriage. She was back on the plains, and the words and actions of the phoenix still puzzled her. But she could now go home, and for that she was thankful.

Hunter just had to interrupt at this point. “The flowers were probably poppies,” he said with rank disbelief. “You ate them because you were hungry, or thirsty, or just desperate, and then you tripped out, and then…” obviously he still couldn’t explain how she safely got back down, but he tried anyway, “You climbed down. Or something.” He shook his head, though, clearly not accepting the story. The others chimed in their own two copper pieces: Sage definitely believed it, because she’d seen lots of amazing things and thought it sounded great. Ashana and Odate also believed it, considering that it had a ring of truth, despite being unlikely.

Even Reichstag was expressing his opinion on the matter when Ayaet the minotaur bellowed, “Are we duelling or not?” and Reich nodded with a start, and took two cups, filling them with water, and turning to hide his placement of the poison. When he turned back, he hesitated, and Odate said some words to him in Goblin. “I hope you aren’t loaning the goblin your wisdom, cleric,” said the kensai, to which Odate shook his head, “I simply told him that regardless of what happens, he should know that he can trust me.” With that, Reich nodded, placed the cups down, side by side, before his foe.

Ayaet barely hesitated. He reached out, grabbed the drink that came to his hand first, and lifted it to his lips. Reich swallowed as he watched – and nearly choked when lightning shot down from the clouds and struck the cup, shattering it into pieces and vaporising the liquid within. Everyone gasped as they felt the thunderclap of the strike, with the exception of the kensai, who stood motionless for a moment, before slowly drawing the jet black sword from his belt and thrusting it into the soft ground in front of him blade first. As soon as he let go of the hilt, he changed: one moment there was a minotaur, and the next a human standing in a blue robe. Before anyone could comment, lightning struck again, this time hitting the hilt of the sword; but instead of dissipating, it continued to crackle and spark, licking up and down the blade as energy poured down out of the heavens. Then, with a roar that seemed to split the sky, down from the clouds, circling the bolt of lightning, came a dragon on the wing.

Its scales were a brilliant azure, shimmering like precious stones as the light of the electricity reflected off them. Its head was the size of a small shed, and its mouth could have easily fit a human inside with one bite. The long neck snaked down to a muscled torso, and a flicking tail seemed to help guide its gliding form down towards the ground with grace. It landed with scarcely a sound, before its wings creaked back behind it. This was Xminr, Scourge of the Student, Tester of Apprentices, Gatekeeper of Blue Magic. Nobly he sat, exalted above them in his enormous form, neck arched like a swan to look down on them. Reichstag and the human mage knew the drill: they prostrated themselves instantly upon the dragon’s landing. The others hesitated a moment, and a single word came from that deadly mouth, ridged with wicked teeth. “Kneel.”

With that word came a wave of awe-inspiring fear that was barely shy of forcing everyone to plant their faces into the dirt. All knelt, and willingly after a fashion: after all, there were not many things on this planet with the bearing of naked power that surrounded a dragon, and respect was certainly due. All bent the knee… except Sage. Sage was frozen, but not with terror. As her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates, she said slowly, “This… is… AWESOME!” and then the questions started pouring out, but even the kender’s quick tongue couldn’t keep up with the brain, and the words just came out in a mashed stumble of mumbles. Xminr’s head craned towards the little ranger, and its eyes narrowed. Lightning began to crackle in its throat; but the human mage, whose name Reich would later share with the party was Seeker, spoke a few quiet words in the dragon language, and from then on the great beast simply ignored the kender.

When it spoke, it was as though thunder were rumbling and roaring from its mouth, “Reichstag, you have successfully completed your test. However, your trepidation at deciding to defend the reputation of your dragon is noted. From this moment on, you will be known as Reichstag the Slow.” The dragon took a moment to snort in rebuke, and the wind that came forth blew back peoples’ hair and had a distinct scent of petrichor. “For your choice of using your mind and other objects to obtain your victory, rather than physical prowess and mastery of magic directly, you will be hereby considered as an Enchanter of the Blue Dragon Disciples. The test is complete!”

With that, Seeker rose and handed Reichstag a leather bag and a scroll. With that, he mounted the shoulder of the mighty dragon, and the two of them disappeared upwards into the sky. Within moments, the clouds had covered them, and they were gone. Everyone got up slowly, except for Sage, who was staring up into the sky and pointing and saying over and over again, “Did you see that? Did you SEE that? Did you see THAT?” Reich patted her on the shoulder, and said with a smile, “See Sage, I told you if you hung around with me you’d see a dragon.” Sage just hugged him with joy in reply.

Once the dragon fear had subsided in everyone’s stomachs, it was Cass who spoke first. She told Hunter that while she was so very glad to see him, and so thankful that he had come all this way to help her, she felt that she must go her own way, take the Pilgrim’s Path, and go to the Singing Mountains to study and become a bard. She felt that she needed to tell the story of the phoenix who had saved her life with his own, and that was the best way she could think how. Hunter just nodded, putting his arm around her shoulder, and saying, “I believe you now.”

For two more days they travelled together, the party heading north, seemingly unwilling to part ways with Hunter’s sister. After all, they had been looking for her for months now, and yet they were saying goodbye so quickly. But Soncho came to the wilderness looking for a new gift from a new race, and his best evidence for such was the information about the stone pig that had come from the swamp mountains to the west. So they all gave her a fond farewell, pooled a share of each of their rations and a handful of coins, and gave her what equipment they could. Hunter gave her his last fighting dagger, leaving him only with his throwing knife to spare, and the rich tablecloth he had purloined from Reich’s wedding feast. She accepted both gratefully, and then with a wave, and a mutual wishing of luck between them, she headed north, while the rest of the party started west.

It was two days later that Soncho stopped with a start: “Wait, your sister said she met a talking bird. A new race. With a new gift.” He stared around at them all, “Why did we let her leave!?” Everyone just stared at him dumbly for a moment – they weren’t sages after all, with the exception of Sage – and he let out a low, long groan before walking over to the donkey to get a parchment and a pen. “I’m just going to have to write down everything I can remember about what she said about the phoenix. Maybe that will give me a clue. But I suppose we’ll have to keep heading west now.”

Five days the party spent trekking through the northern plains. They were quite different from the rest of the Manxigan flood plains: out here there were no settlements, nor was there a resident damp to the ground. Grass overtook the ground, rather than rice. It had even gone three days without raining now. They had passed large stands of bamboo, and they had even seen a herd of elephants – although Sage had gotten just a little too close to a baby one, and had received a bull charge from one of the big males, so that the party had to give them all a wide berth. This led them towards a large burrowed hole in the ground, which seemed to cause the ranger to go into conniptions, sure as she was that it was a hole for giant ants. She led the party a good distance from it, giving them a lecture on how dangerous and deadly and awful such large insects were, right up until the ankheg attacked.

As ankhegs go, this was an averagely brutish specimen, but thankfully not full grown. About 10 feet and two legs sprouted suddenly from the ground, and a sickly green chitinous body topped with a large, bug-eyed head with chomping mandibles spat a searing stream of acid towards the ogre. Odate held up his shield to protect himself, but thankfully the spit went wide, leaving a scorch mark in the grass. The kender flung herself towards the creature with weapons drawn, striking at it with a mix of fervour and skill. Odate called on Qodesh to bless them as they defended themselves and to prevent them being lunch. Ashana likewise drew up her shield and attacked, but the chitinous armour of the ankheg was alarmingly strong, and it bent over to clamp her firmly in its mandibles. Hunter had thrown his last knife, but it had gone wide and landed behind the thing.

Then Reichstag started slinging fire arrows.

It was quite a sight. They’d never seen Reich use anything other than lightning – and rightly so, him being a blue mage and all. But nor had they seen him wield the kind of power that a real wizard has access to. Reich had been studying the scroll he was given, and this was the first spell he had used from it. Arrows formed from flame darted from his fingers, striking into the body of the ankheg and causing it to squeal – though whether from pain or due to the heat making its ichor boil and whistle out from between its chitin plates they weren’t sure. Two rounds of those, and the creature was soon retreating back into its burrow, and the party were able to breathe, and look on their mage with a newfound respect.

On the sixth day, they saw some vultures circling to the south. Given the ground might be a bit firmer nearer the plateau, they thought it would be a fine idea to scout out what the vultures were interested in, and moreover to travel closer to the harder ground. As they approached the massive walls of the plateau, they saw that a group of vultures had already landed on one corpse: a large, bulbous mass of goo that had once been some sort of sickening looking grub creature with tentacles around its maw. It was three or four feet in length, it gave off a smell of rot and death, it had savage tears along its body, and watching the vultures tear into its jiggly flesh was not at all pleasing, so they quickly moved on to where the circling vultures still flew, a little further to the west. As they moved, Odate told them what he knew about the creature. They had the name of carrion crawler among the clerics of Qodesh who oversaw graveyards and mortuaries. Apparently the grubs sought out the taste of dead flesh, but rarely got as large as the one they had seen. Which was clearly a good omen.

As they approached where the vultures were circling, they saw the large birds getting lower and lower. Soon they saw what they had an eye out for – a large body, perhaps the size of a horse, but feathery, and seemingly still. But when the vultures began to descend, up shot a large, sharp beak, out came a shrill, piercing shriek, and with a few snaps the vultures were flapping and cawing and returning to their holding pattern. It was a giant eagle, and it was still alive. At least, for now.

View
Hard decisions
with unexpected results

Hunter followed the directions Reich had given him to find Salang’s office. At the time the mage hadn’t really understood why Hunter would want to talk to his wife, but he trusted him enough to know that it would all end up above board eventually. The human was pretty relentless when it came to finding his sister, but was unlikely to other people’s burn relationship bridges in the process. Not of the party at least. Not when he’d promised Hesed to be faithful to them on pain of returned infection of Ebola, surely.

As it turned out though, Hunter’s motivation was (almost) thoroughly altruistic: he spent most of his time chatting to the goblin legal adviser about the assassination attempts on Reichstag, and seeking to win her over to their cause of investigating their provenance. Sure, telling her that it might have been organised by an outside source who was trying to bring disrepute on Salang, or perhaps on her first husband, Jiltu, may have been more about convincing her it was in her self-interest more than it being highly probable, but hey, it got her moving, and that’s what counts.

By the time Hunter and Salang had reached Jiltu’s (smaller) office, the two had finished quite a good conversation about some of the issues that had arisen between her and Reich in their newfound matrimony, which Hunter carefully filed away for future reference. When they arrived at Jiltu’s office, Salang was very tactful, introducing Hunter without mentioning his connection to Reich, but Hunter was quick to clear up the relationship. This honesty didn’t exactly freshen the meeting, with a hint of ice entering Jiltu’s voice when he learned of the connection. Things got yet more complicated when Hunter dropped the certain ogre name of a certain goblin crime boss in Ken Ta Ral who had told Hunter to meet with the goblin trade secretary. Salang, ever culturally artful, clicked her tongue, mentioned she had surely not heard that, and also that she had to step out of the room for just a moment.

The name of Sochiki did have the desired effect on Jiltu though, and he said he would get one of his lackeys to dig up the paperwork for slave caravans from the past few weeks and have it sent to Hunter to peruse. He made it clear though: this was to repay a debt to Sochiki. That was good enough for Hunter. He mentioned his theory about assassination attempts on Reichstag possibly being attacks on Jiltu’s character, but Jiltu seemed strangely sure this was not the case.

Hunter returned to his friends at the Dodgy Pig, and it was surprisingly soon after that a runner came from the wall road with a pile of paperwork – entirely in Goblin, of course. Hunter enlisted the help of both Odate and Reich to sort through the files – his own grasp of goblin writing was only enough to tell him that the papers were about slave trade traffic, and that it covered the last couple of months. He could tell, however, that this paperwork was legitimate and not forged or adulterated.

Odate found the more obvious piece of relevant information, which it seemed had been left atop the pile to be easily found: Cassiopeia was listed as leaving through the west gate on a myconid slave caravan headed south-west towards something called the Yuan-Ti Northern Passage. Some questioning of the other visitors in the inn gave the info that this was apparently a tunnel that connected the yuan-ti underlands to the fields north of the fiery mountains. Why this tunnel existed was a mystery – perhaps they grew food out there – but in any case, it was well known that the yuan-ti had quite a thirst for slave labour.

It was Reich, with his goblin mind attuned to administration, who found the more esoteric and slightly less straightforward information, given that it was conspicuous by its absence: there were no records of Cassiopeia entering Terrkan at all. It was as if she had either been enslaved in the town, or had been brought in more than two months previously. As interesting and mysterious as this was, however, it didn’t have any immediate impact on finding Cass. What that would require, it seemed, was travelling southwest below the desert plateau and towards the fiery mountains.

But for Soncho, resident sage and their employer, that would take them on exactly the wrong side of the plateau. He knew that there was a group of mercenaries, headed by the ogre sage Kensaku, who were headed to the plateau ahead of him, and his professional reputation, not to mention his personal curiosity, drove him to discover a new gift ahead of this lout who had stolen his idea (after he had announced it so blithely in public in front of a symposium of other philosophers). He also had the lead of the stone pig carving to go on – which the proprietor of the Dodgy Pig had told them he found in the Swamp Mountains – and he was desperate to follow this up. But ahead of all those concerns was that of surviving the trip: he did not want to get a few days into the wilderness only to find that his escort had decided to follow up a lead of Hunter’s sister’s whereabouts, and left him alone and defenceless to be picked off by bandits or eaten by a rice kraken or giant praying mantis.

Ashana and Hunter shook their heads at the same time. That would never happen. This party might have an important lead on Hunter’s sister, but they had made a promise to Soncho to take him where he sought to go, and they would stick to that promise. Hunter himself knew that even if he did split from the party to go it alone, he would be vastly outside of his element in the wilderness, and would do little good for his sister if he got himself killed. This decision may have felt like he was dying, but it was the only thing he could do – he would have to travel on with the group, hope they could find what Soncho was looking for as quick as they could, and then he get back onto tracking his sister’s whereabouts. In any case, the caravan was already 20 days ahead of them, and it wasn’t like slaves probably went much further than the yuan-ti lands.

The next morning, when they packed the mule (Sage had named it “Emergency Breakfast”) and left out the west gate, the tone of the group was considerably muted. They passed through the gate with little fanfare, only aware that a goblin stood there ever-vigilantly taking down information about their whereabouts for the records. The road from the west gate quickly seemed to sink into the endless rice paddies, and so the group made their steady way picking between which causeway they would take, as none of them pointed directly where they wanted to go. Thankfully, at least Hunter could navigate, and kept them pointed more or less in the way they wanted to go (although Soncho probably didn’t need to ask every hour if he was sure it was the right way), and after two days of walking they could finally see the vast, pastel yellows and browns of the desert plateau rising up from the western horizon.

Another day passed, and the party had seen no sentient being besides each other. But Sage was able to tell them that they should be soon crossing the Pilgrim’s Path – a little road that went north into the Mesa Steppes, and wound its way all the way up into the Singing Mountains, home of the gift of music, and a place where both bards and monks went to learn their lifestyles. As the day passed, and the sun crossed over the sky’s zenith, they did in fact see the little road pointing more or less straight north, and there was actually a lone figure making its way northward. From that distance, it looked like a humanoid of some kind, but they were unlikely to cross paths with the traveller – by the time they had crossed the Path, the traveller was likely to be several hundred metres closer to their goal.

It was Sage who first noticed that the silhouette of the traveller had rather suddenly disappeared, and when she commented on it, Hunter agreed – that person had fallen from view far too quickly. Reichstag stopped at once, and gave an almost paranoid warning about poisoned caltrops – since regular caltrops probably wouldn’t kill him fast enough – but a quick survey of the ground showed nothing in terms of traps or obstacles. But the traveller was still missing. In her seemingly bottomless kender curiosity, Sage rushed forward to find out what had happened, bringing Emergency Breakfast along with her as fast as a pack-bearing beast could be cajoled to move. Everyone else figured they had better keep pace, since who knew what lay ahead.

The hand that suddenly crashed through the still water of the rice paddy beside the road seemed to claw fervently at the air, and was joined almost instantly by a tentacle that slipped onto the causeway and grabbed the kender by the waist. “Rice kraken!” Sage cried, with what would later be described as entirely too much glee. Hunter shook his head in disbelief as more tentacles sprung from the water and began to strike at the party. This was not a real thing!

But it was real enough. As Odate called on the power of Qodesh to keep them from being defeated, tentacles shot out and grabbed anything they could find – the mage’s arms were pinned, Odate’s leg was caught, and one of Hunter’s arms seized. Reichstag didn’t really put up with this kind of bad touching, and shot an arc of electricity through the suckery appendage, bringing the beast up out of the mire, water dripping down its domed head, its eyes shot through with anger. Apparently it had been just about to eat the short-haired human traveller that it had earlier grabbed. Actually, she looked kind of familiar…

Hunter’s heart stopped. It was her. It was Cass. His sister was here, almost within reach; almost drowning; almost eaten by this monstrosity. He lost it, and tried to clambour up the viny tentacle, but couldn’t get a purchase and slid upside down, clinging beneath it as it rose. The one grasping Sage dragged her under the water, and it was only quick thinking with her hoopak that stopped her from succumbing to the kraken’s beaky mouth. Ashana, who by some fluke had been the only one not entangled in a tentacle, strode towards her goblin friend and let the power of Qodesh guide her strike, slashing easily through the limb. His arms now free, Reichstag grabbed the thrashing tentacle and jabbed two fingers into its severed wound, before letting fly a concentrated burst of lightning, forcing the energy straight into the beast’s heart. There was a crackle and a shudder, and a faint smell of camalari, before the beast lay still. The tentacles loosened, but didn’t actually release, and the limp body of Hunter’s sister went splashing back into the rice paddy.

“No!” screamed Hunter, finding his feet and literally skipping over the arm of the beastly octopus to make his way to his sister. Odate stepped down into the paddy to render some first aid, but his weight saw him instantly stuck in the mud – a reason goblins plant rice and ogres don’t, he thought grimly. He was left with calling out instructions to Hunter, but nothing he did seemed capable of bringing her back to consciousness. Her heart was beating but her face was starting to turn blue. Things were getting grim, and dire, and fast.

Odate knew of only one thing he could get Hunter to do: put his mouth over the girl’s and suck the water out of her lungs as hard as he could. He knew the consequences – it would draw the water out of Cass’s lungs, but into her brothers – and he also knew that Hunter wouldn’t think twice before doing it, even if he were warned. Hunter put his lips over his sister’s and drew in deep, and the water gushed forth, spilling into his lungs and sending him into a coughing fit. But then there was the sound of a second coughing, lighter and weaker – she was still alive.

Having gotten both of them to shore, they were turned on their side to let the water drain out more slowly, and then Soncho gave them both blankets from the supplies. Odate then started to build a fire, and commented that now was probably a good time for lunch. When they had sat down around the fire – probably bigger than it needed to be for a noonday meal – and each had introduced themselves to her, and Hunter had a little time to come to terms with this most impossible of chances, Cass began to tell her story.

There had been a boy, a young man by the name of Michi had started making overtures to the girl, and like a fool she had accepted them. He whispered sweet nothings, told her he’d take her away from the life of poverty and make her rich and happy. All she needed to do was come with him to the eastern jungles: there is wealth to be had there, he said! And there was – but for him, not for Cass. As soon as they had reached Saketome, the bastard Michi had sold her into slavery, to a gnome there called Lendle at the tavern called the Sprech Einfach. Hunter couldn’t help but interrupt at this point, and it was all he could do to stop himself from carving that name into his hand as a reminder of the debt of pain he owed this man.

Cass shushed him quietly and continued her tale. Ordinarily, it seemed, his female slaves would work for him at a brothel called the Chained Rose, but for some reason a myconid bought her, and she ended up on a slave caravan headed back to Ken Ta Ral. But much to her despair, instead of turning south to go to Chan Ma Rai – myconid slave caravans were less common there – she learned the road would take her north, away from home. It was there she left the inflammatory message in graffiti, expecting that long after it had been cleaned up it would remain in the minds of the local gangs.

Onward the caravan travelled, and although they moved throughout the day, they would apparently camp outside the view of settlements until it was night before entering. It was in Ho Lee that Cass had been able to get the attention of a kobold, who gave her a dagger, and to whom she gave her hair, hoping it might mark her passage for her brother to follow.

When she got to Terrkan, she was swapped between caravans, and then discovered that they were to head to the yuan-ti underlands. It was said by some of the slaves that the snake people had a hunger for slaves – that this was how they fed their nation. Cass was fearful at the prospect. But others shunned this idea, figuring that they probably just needed slaves to help work all the metal they made under the mountains. Fortunately for Cass, she would never find out. For just a couple of days after coming to the walls of the desert plateau, there was a sudden lurching under the ground, and a massive set of teeth emerged from the earth and swallowed the myconid slave master near whole. The rest of the beast’s body turned the slave caravan onto its side, but left them otherwise unharmed… and completely trapped in the cage.

Thankfully, Cass had kept the knife the kobold had given her secreted on her person, and they were able to use it to pry a bar away and get out of the slave cage. This just left them, 17 in all, standing at the foot of the 300 foot high cliffs of the desert plateau, watching a steady mist of sand rain down from high above. None of them knew where they were. None of them knew where to go. They had little idea what direction they had come from. They were thoroughly lost.

The only thing they could possibly do was to get someone to try and climb the impossibly high walls of the plateau and see if they could see a village or a settlement somewhere that the others could get to. Cass was the second to volunteer, after the first had made it less than halfway, and then fallen to a grisly end. Thankfully for her, she had learned a bit of climbing craft from her brother. She thought she could just climb till she found an overhang or something where she could afford to look back out onto the flood plains, but the ever-falling mist of sand made that impossible.

It was a miracle when she made it to the top. And what’s more, as the afternoon light began to die away, she could see a soft pillar of smoke dissipating into the sky – the mark of a settlement. She yelled, and she pointed, and she saw her fellow ex-slaves making their way in the right direction. Another miracle. They should be safe there. But she was alone.

She turned and looked at the dying light of the sun setting over the desert. It was actually kind of beautiful, in a bleak, final sort of way. It wasn’t all sand – there were sparse little bushes and plants about, especially nearer the edges where the rains of the flood plain probably still fell. She remembered picking some little red flowers, and she sat on the edge of the cliff, looking down, not knowing how she would get down.

And that was the question that was on the lips of the rest of the party. How had she gotten down? She opened her mouth to answer, when she stopped and looked up at a different voice to her own. “Reichstag!” it said in a bellow, coming from behind them all.

View
To catch an assassin
Or to at least get ready for travel

The sun began to peak in the sky. A deep rumbling tone could be heard, which may have been distant thunder, but contained a telltale gurgle that indicated it was really the giant’s enormous belly. When that started a chorus of harmonies sung in the chord of hungry, the whole party were reminded that it was nearly lunchtime, and they had not eaten since breakfast and their recent combative exhertion. Reichstag had “cured” the kender of her sight problem (he insisted on the word, much to the chagrin of both Odate, who felt that healing indicating a more divine or at least ogrish skill, and Sage herself, who simply blamed him for the problem in the first place).

Odate had called upon Qodesh to heal those who had taken wounds in the fight against the giant (Qodesh blesses those who stand up in defence of the right, and that certainly includes self-defence). But before he extended some healing to the giant, he took a moment of pause to consider the theological implications. After all, this giant had attacked him and his friends. He could have easily killed Reich if they hadn’t intervened. He had killed Ashana’s horse, and she was quite upset. What was the holy thing to do? Then he remembered the words of the kobold back in Ho Lee: holiness is more than a mere separation from the world. It is an introduction into the world of ideas that are foreign to it, and one of those no doubt was forgiveness. This giant had clearly been coerced into doing what it did, and though that did not cleanse its hands in the eyes of Qodesh, it did at least mean that its apology and sorrow could be taken at face value. Extending a hand, he placed it on the raw and bleeding wound on the giant’s leg, and felt Qodesh’s power flow through him, mending some of the damage done, and providing some returned energy to his form. The Holy One clearly smiled on Odate today.

The party made their way back towards the northern gate of Terrkan, and were waved through by the ogre guards posted there. It was much to the surprise of the constabulary that they were returning with the giant, not only alive but seemingly in better form than it had been. This caused some significant looks, especially at Odate, but no words were said, and they were allowed on their way. Which way that was exactly, they quickly realised they did not know. Cities were not extremely familiar to any of them, and Terrkan least of all – this was all their first visit, even Sage – so they spent some time working out how to get back to the market they had left. The narrow roads and low-hanging arches were problematic for Odate, who took umbrage at the fact that the goblins here had specifically built against code which would allow free and easy egress for an averagely sized ogre. Poor Utpressning the giant had even more difficulty, having to get down on his knees to get beneath some of the overhanging construction. But unlike the ogre, he did it as a true slave, without a second thought for the idea that it could be any different.

Eventually they found themselves in a market, but it was quickly apparent to them from the bustle, the busyness, the noise and the dirt – not to mention the prices – that this was not the official market their guide had taken them to. No, this was the Terrkan 지역 주민 시장 (jiyeog jumin sijang) – the market for local residents only. It had all the hallmarks of a busy city market (but of course it was only a town), filled almost entirely with goblins, the few representatives of other races almost entirely vendors. There was a yuan-ti selling metal goods, a dwarven stonesmith, one myconid in the trade of slaves and another selling livestock, and of course a large warehousing and sales area for construction goods, especially mud brick. Utpressning told the party that this was where his master would be found – Noye Soyuja, who had told him to murder the mage – and so they made their way towards that part of the marketplace. Somewhere along the way, though, they lost Sage – unsurprising, really, as Sage both (a) saw many more interesting things than boring bricks, and (b) saw another kender. They headed off to a spice bazaar, where the goblin vendor used a mixture of pleading and strikes with a small stick to stop the kender from sticking their fingers into every single plate of spices and blends, and to hopefully prevent them from upending one of the plates and costing him a year’s earnings.

When the rest of the party came to the warehouse, Utpressning bid them farewell. This was, after all, his home, and he knew that if he did not return to work, he would get punished. Before the large boy left though, Odate shared with him some wise words of his god – there is more to life than possessions; there is a need to stand apart from the rest by helping others. The giant seemed to nod at this: it matched up with how the party had helped him, and so with some consideration, he repeated back the word “Qodesh”, before pointing them to the management shack where they would find Noye, and then ducking into the warehouse and helping to move a palette of bricks.

They stopped for a moment at the door, mostly at the behest of Reichstag. He spoke some quiet words to his two more upstanding companions, explaining that it might be best that they remain outside and watch the door while he goes in to talk with this goblin himself. Odate frowned, but nodded: he had seen Reichstag in action many times now, and he trusted the goblin mage to do what was right, and said as much. Ashana considered this and also nodded. Reich might bend some rules at times, but he was a good friend and a good man. He might do what needed to be done, but he wouldn’t overstep the bounds. Hunter said nothing; simply shrugged and followed Reichstag in. He knew what was going on: this was going to be a standover, plain and simple. He’d played the game before, and figured that Reich could use someone a couple of feet taller and who knew how to smile in a way that conferred absolutely no offer of friendship. Plus he had few qualms about cutting off an ear if it came to it, though he kept that part to himself.

The goblin and the human entered the management shack, and there found a reasonably well-to-do looking goblin going over some paperwork and giving orders to what seemed to be some sort of junior administrator. At seeing the blue robes, the goblin blanched noticeably – so this was probably Noye – but was able to quickly enough turn his surprise into a look of welcome and fairly well-feigned ignorance. He invited the two to look at his wares, asked them their business and assured them he could help them whatever it was they were looking for. And he did it in Goblin, hoping to at least gain some sort of small advantage. When Reichstag told him fairly bluntly that he was looking for the man who told a giant to murder him, it seemed that Noye had taken the time to compose himself rather well. He said he knew nothing of the sort, and that it was to the detriment of any man to trust the words of a slave. Probably just looking to get his master in trouble for giving him one too many beatings, and hoping to play off the mage’s good conscience.

Reichstag, unsurprisingly, was not convinced by this, and he made a nuanced – but not too nuanced – threat involving messing up the goblin’s hair via lightning starting from his feet. Sparks may have flown – and when sparks fly in the presence of a blue mage, you know they were literal sparks. But the construction manager remained nonplussed. After all, he said, he had nothing to tell – and even if he did, hypothetically speaking, what possible gain was there for him? Certainly might be killed, but if he were to give up the name of some potential person who hypothetically told him to get his giant to hurt someone – and then he proceeded to describe his situation by means of a very roundabout story.

Imagine, if you will, that there was a man with a rabid dog. Now, most of the time the man keeps the dog on a leash, and it does no harm. But now imagine that a goat was walking through the man’s garden. And imagine if a priest told the man to let the dog off the leash. Priests are powerful people, and what is the life of one goat, in comparison with the wrath of the gods on the poor dog owner’s family?

Reichstag responded in no uncertain terms: this goat has horns. “Ah yes,” responded Noye, “But a goat is not a god.” But then something seemed to twinkle in the eye of the businessgoblin, and he raised a finger in a moment of pause. He had heard of a mage – a blue mage, he thought – who was able to turn objects into pieces of paper, that could then be turned back into objects at a later time. He heard that such a mage was doing a brisk trade in this skill in Coratka working for the dwarven stonemasons. Noye wondered aloud if perhaps there was another blue mage who was able to perform a similar feat. It could certainly increase the volume of a delivery, and that would save a considerable amount. It would also mean that Noye might be able to win some lucrative bids for building contracts in Ken Ta Ral. It would be a very lucrative thing indeed for a construction manager, and might even be enough for him to provide in return some information that was valuable. Nudge nudge. Wink wink.

Reichstag shook his head, and realised soberly that he did not have a stomach for these kinds of games. He wasn’t going to hurt this man, and he certainly wasn’t going to hurt the man’s family. He also wasn’t going to lie about being able to perform feats of magic he could not do, and he already wasn’t happy with the debts of gold that hung above his head. Seeing that this whole situation was as likely as not to cause him more trouble rather than less, he waved it away and walked out the door. Hunter was momentarily aghast – were they really leaving without putting any real leverage on this little turd? Apparently so. Hunter said a well-placed word or two about what a well-placed dagger or two could do quite apart from any fancy magic, and followed his friend out.

No sooner had they come out the door, finding Odate and Ashana standing watch, that Noye had followed them out, giving the mannerisms of the typically obsequious while unhelpful merchant. Ashana said to him that no harm had better come to the giant or his family – and that Sophia would know – but as the party walked off, the goblin started to get almost violently abusive, yelling and swearing in their wake. It was all clearly an act, especially when he started kicking dust in their direction: he probably just didn’t want anyone to think that he had given them any kind of help whatsoever.

They scouted around the market looking for Sage, and found her with another kender, both of whom had sticks of vanilla up their noses as they ferried about a rather large and angry looking fruit, which the party could smell well before they could see. They were told it was called durian, and apparently it tasted way better than it smelled – but then, week old gruel probably tasted better than this fruit smelled. The other kender soon took its leave – and with it, probably took all sorts of other things – and the party went and paid the nearest fruit vendor for a durian, figuring that ther world would sort out the rest. They bought all the supplies they figured they would need, including a packmule to replace the carrying capacity of the gone-but-not-forgotten Sense, and paid for it out of Hunter’s seemingly endless supply of coin, assuring him that since it was for the mission, Soncho was surely going to reimburse him.

They sought some directions for the Dodgy Pig, and started on their way, all squinting their eyes as Sage cracked open the durian and began to eat the brown pasty goo that was inside, which had the piquant bouquet usually reserved for bloated corpses, but she assured them tasted a lot more like caramelised onions. It was also far easier to deal with if you had vanilla up your nose, she assured them. By the time they had reached the pub, the kender was wearing half a durian as a very spiky hat, and the smell was as bad as ever. She was banned from entering the tavern until the smell was gone, and so quickly scoffed the other half, felt rather poorly for it, and washed out both halves of the fruit’s shell so that she could keep them as a helmet and a secondary helmet.

The others entered the tavern, with Reichstag sending a messenger to the central administrative complex telling his wife Salang that he would like to meet her at her convenience tonight. Once lunch had been dispensed with, Salang appeared, having taken the wall road, and she and Reich adjourned to his room to speak in private. Well, it would have been more private if they had known that Sage was actually lying under Reich’s bed. Reichstag told his wife what had happened – that there had been numerous attempts on his life, and that he had a lead but it seemed to go nowhere – and she seemed shocked that he had taken so few active steps to try and figure out what was going on, and how to stop it. His life was in danger – didn’t he want to find out who and why? She didn’t even seem to care that the main suspects were her other husband or her brother. She suggested he get the help of the temple of the Avenger, Ba’ya, but Reichstag shook his head. He felt he was already in debt to Hesed for saving his life from the plague, and he didn’t feel like getting further into the debt of any gods. Reichstag tried to tell her that he’d successfully fought off the assassination attempts so far, and he was convinced he could continue to do so. At which point a voice came from under the bed arguing, “WHO fought off the assassins?” And Reich quickly booted the nosy kender from the room.

Salang seemed disappointed, but still took him out to dinner, since he was leaving the next day after all, and she didn’t know when she’d next see him. Or if she’d see him again.

It was around then that the rest of the party realised that Hunter had also disappeared, no doubt on his own errands. But so long as he knew they were leaving the next morning, they figured he would return in time. After all, Hunter was probably the most comfortable in a Manxigan city (ahem, town), and was sure to be able to look after himself.

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