From Iron Springs a rich tapestry of terrain stretches out towards the sunset: vast and trackless forests, stinking marshes, windswept plains, rugged hills and towering mountains where the workshops of the old Zhang witch-alchemists may still stand. These Wastes are wild, untamed, dangerous, and haunted by beasts and spirits and yet stranger things.
Iron Springs’ extreme remoteness and the wild and untamed nature of The Wastes have contributed to its reputation as a place of last resort, somewhere that only the greedy, the foolish, or the desperate would try and make a life. Those who chafe at the yoke of Imperial authority find the distance from any real governance appealing, while scholars and seekers after the weird and macabre find it a valuable source of information and research subjects.
The Wastes beyond Iron Springs are the stuff of many a legend, promising all those things that are best in life: wealth beyond measure, endless opportunity, danger to be faced, glory to be won, secrets and wonders to behold and uncover, and a means to transform your life. Tame the Wastes, the buzz in the teahouse goes, and the Emperor has promised that a noble title will be yours along with deeds to whatever you manage to wrest from the trackless wilderness.
- Mei-Xiu, a human Monk. Given away as a child to a warlord, one of the Rén catfolk. She was raised as an assassin, and now wanders the Wastes to challenge the strong.
- Ming-Hua, a Wizard. One of the Guàn birdfolk, from the Tribe of the Ibis. She tired of reading about the arcane in dusty libraries, and now wanders the Wastes to study the weird.
- Shi, a Fighter. One of the Rén catfolk from the Tribe of the Leopard. He was a criminal back in the civilised world, and now wanders the Wastes to encounter the strange.
- Sun Thuy, a Rogue. One of the Rén catfolk from the Tribe of the Fox. She was heir to a noble family back in her homeland, and now wanders the Wastes to protect the weak.
- Xiang Wang, a Druid. One of the Guàn birdfolk, from the Tribe of the Heron. They were a roamer and a vagabond already, and now wander the Wastes to seek the path.
The group gather around a table in the corner of Iron Spring's second teahouse, a worn and comfortable establishment with some rougher edges run by an ex-adventurer called Broken Spear. Some nights before, sat around this very table, they had clumsily spilled a teapot and watched as the near-boiling water raised decades of grime to reveal a crude map of the Wastes carved into the wood, an unknowing gift from some past adventurer.
Pooling the rumours they have recently heard around town, the group are tempted momentarily by tales of the legendary internal-alchemist Xianbal but decide instead to pursue whispers of a tomb out on the Āoxiàn Plains. Cunningly hidden by its architects and lost for centuries, the tomb is said to hold a forgotten hero from days long past and the enchanted sword that he bore.
Gathering their resources and failing to convince the captain of the town guard to give them any advice other than "don't get killed", the group set off from the town due north-north-west.
Day One: Travelling at a slow pace (this being their first venture out into the Wastes) the group move through the foothills around Iron Springs, making good time and reaching the river that divides the foothills from the flatlands beyond by early evening. Making camp in a sheltered crack in the last of the hills, they settle in for the night with Ming-Hua's owl familiar keeping watch.
Ming-Hua is woken by her familiar some time around midnight. She douses the fire, wakes the group, and they all watch in horrified fascination as six shrouded figures come into sight following the river and settle down by the river. Familiars are used to investigate and reveal that the creatures are horse-spirits robed and veiled in human-hair cloth, and the group decide not to engage. The horse-spirits unpack miniature looms and settle in to work for a long hour with an eerie clicking and clacking of shuttle and bobbin before slowly moving on. The party return to sleep.
Day Two: While crossing the river, Mei-Xiu's elegant slippers cause her to badly twist her ankle on a loose rock and she goes under for a moment. Weighed down by her water-logged silk robes, she is rescued by Xiang Wang and the rest of the group. Shi is able to fashion a splint with his healer's kit, and the group resumes their journey.
The group move out onto vast flat grasslands, dry and broken only by spikes of wispy flat-seed, and continue their careful progress. Come nightfall, they find an area where the grass has been trodden down by the wild horses native to the Āoxiàn Plains that means they are safe from ambush and make camp. Despite the chill of early winter they cannot risk a fire, knowing that it would be seen for miles around.
Day Three: Xiang Wang and Shi, who suffered worse from the fireless sleep, wake the next morning little rested and feeling miserable. The group pick up their pace as they head off again, the landscape changing around them as dry grassland gives way to lusher floodlands fed by streams and rivers from the north-east.
By nightfall they are fully into greener grassier country, but fail to find a natural camp-site. They are forced to make do, and after the troubles of the night before decide to light a small discreet campfire. The night is even harsher than the last, however, and it is only through the hardier members of the group sacrificing cloaks and blankets that hypothermia is warded off.
Day Four: Turning from their north-north-west heading to go due west, the group push themselves for a gruelling twelve-hour march and by nightfall reach the heartland of the Āoxiàn Plains proper. Having learned their lesson, they make camp by one of the larger streams that run through the area and feed the lush grasses and light a proper campfire.
Around halfway through the night they are woken again by Ming-Hua's familiar with a report of eight dark shapes moving towards them from the river. Most of the group huddle around the fire defensively, as Mei-Xiu slips away into the darkness to prepare a flanking maneuver. Archery from Shi and bolts of magefire from Ming-Hua manage to bring down one of the creatures as they advance, while Mei-Xiu spots three of them detaching from the main group to deal with her.
As the creatures close into the firelight their nature is revealed: filthy mud-smeared rat-demons, wielding stolen farming tools and broken pieces of metal wrapped and adapted into wicked blades. The battle with the rat-demons is hard fought, and Ming-Hua is knocked unconscious as one slips through her guard after shooting a blazing cone of magefire.
But through a combination of archery, martial prowess, devastating blows from surprise by Sun Thuy, clever spellwork, and cooperation the rat-demons are overcome, and Xiang Wang is able to revive Ming-Hua. The bodies of the foul creatures slough away into sticky black mud and rotten reeds as the group return to sleep and the owl-familiar resumes its watch.
And as the group slumber around their fire, a gleam of the waxing crescent moon glints off exposed white stonework on the far side of the river, not too far away...