Monday, 22 August 2016

All Things Under Heaven, Session #2

Our Setting: Iron Springs is a moderately-sized town at the north-western frontier of civilized Tianxia, looking out over a region that many call only The Wastes. The town is built on the broad banks of the Lièkǒu River, the only lifeline that it has back to the Imperial world of bureaucracy and well-tended order, and is supported by terrace-farms cut into the surrounding hill country. It is home to around a thousand souls, making it the largest inhabited center in the surrounding lands.

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. 

Our Cast:
  • 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 Session

Day Five: The group settle back into sleep after their early-morning encounter with the rat-demons, sleeping in to try to make up for being woken in the middle of the night. Shi and Sun Thuy, the Rén catfolk, slumber through the morning into mid-afternoon in the pale winter sunshine, while Xiang Wang, Ming-Hua, and Mei-Xiu wake mid-morning and go out to examine the corpses of their foes. 

They find that the degradation of the night before has only continued: all that is left is sticky black marsh-mud, rotten reeds, and green gnarled wood arranged in rough semblances of skeletons. Ming-Hua performs a ritual to allow her to visualise the flow of chi and identifies a fading dark brown-black energy that clings to the rat-demons as aligned to swampy marshy places and animals, but concludes that the creatures were spirits animating matter rather than actual living beings. She also identifies 'clots' of crimson energy flecked with gold running through the residue, a well-recorded sign of demonic corruption. 

Stranger yet, she spots wisps of the decaying auras being carried in an unseen breeze over the river to the north-west towards a low long hill. She shares these findings with her companions, and then with the Rén catfolk when they finally stir from their naps. The group press onwards, carefully crossing the river and following the direction the chi was going until they arrive at the hill not too long after sunset.

Sun Thuy's keen eyes catch the gleam of firelight off an exposed piece of elegant white stonework, and drawing on her knowledge of the architecture of the Nine Kingdoms period (when the Tomb of the Nameless Hero was built) she locates the entrance. Some digging later and the broad stone-lined tunnel that leads down to the door is revealed.

Meanwhile Ming-Hua climbs to the top of the hill and repeats her ritual, confirming that wisps of chi are indeed flowing inside the tomb and also spotting a slow 'downhill' drift in the currents of chi all around into some nadir or well off the south. 

The party make camp, taking advantage of the tunnel's shelter to light a merry fire and spend a warm and relatively comfortable night. Nothing disturbs their slumber.

Day Six: The group awake in the middle hours of the morning, and Shi and Sun Thuy manage to batter down the slab of stone that sealed the tunnel and obtain entrance. Lighting torches and travelling for a minute or so, they come across a rectangular chamber with starkly-painted terracotta vases in one corners and a number of small chests in another. 

On the wall opposite the entrance a great mural is painted. It depicts a battle outside a burning city, with a despairing weeping figure in the foreground on their knees with the sigil of the city on their robes. The group split up to investigate the room, tentative observation of the vases and chests beginning and Xiang Wang beginning to perform a ritual to see into the spirit world as Mei-Xiu and Ming-Hua go over to examine the mural. 

Mei-Xiu realises the central figure is sculpted to stand out slightly from the wall as its eyes snap open and the terracotta guardian emerges from the wall. It fells Mei-Xiu in a single blow and proceeds to occupy the entire group's attention before it closes a hand around Sun Thuy's face. She sees the room fall away and finds herself back in her home, liege-lord to her people, watching helplessly as her protection fails them and everything they have and love is destroyed.

Ming-Hua realises what the creature is: a breed of sentinel construct popular during the Nine Kingdoms period. Its kin were usually featureless, however, and she puzzles for a moment over the identity it has been sculpted and painted with before she and Mei-Xiu - recovering from the vision - realise the answer. 

It is Failure, a reference to the five Deadly Fates (Suffering, Death, Failure, Shame, and Insignificance) that gave their namesake to demon-lords who toyed with the lives of warriors. It was customary for great warriors in the time of the tomb's making to have monuments built to those of the Fates they had conquered, and in the case of the Nameless Hero the monuments had been turned into guardians to protect against grave-robbers for millennia to come. 

 The group consider retreat as Sun Thuy drags the unconscious Mei-Xiu to safety and the monk is revived by magically-wholesome healing fruit by Xiang Wang. But Mei-Xiu seeks to challenge the strong, and charges back in to engage with Failure before it seizes her and inflicts a vision where she is forced to watch, helpless and hopeless, as her warlord-mentor is slain and tortured. 

The reminder of her very real failure drives Mei-Xiu to rage, stripping away her grace and technique as she hammers into Failure with brutal savage strikes in a style learned from the warlord. The group rally around her and keep the creature distracted and off-balance while Ming-Hua provides ranged support with a crackling arc of electric energy. 

Two lasts blows and a shout of defiance from Mei-Xiu shatter Failure's leg and remove its head, at which point the entire mural crumbles and is destroyed. 

The terracotta guardian is no more, and the group waste no time searching the chests for anything of value (a single uncut fist-sized gem) and packing up the small vases to take with them, before making camp in the chamber and warding the entrance that leads further into the tomb to warn them of any approaching danger. And then, they sleep...

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