Monday, 5 September 2016

All Things Under Heaven, Session #4

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 (School of Evocation). 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. 
  • Sun Thuy, a Rogue (Swashbuckler). 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 (Circle of the Five Elements). 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 Ten: The group set off not too long after sunrise, travelling hard and pushing to make it back to Iron Springs without spending another night in the wilds. Around mid-morning they spot a dire horse drinking from a natural spring around a quarter-mile away and are sorely tempted to investigate. Some subtle signs that something is amiss and their desire for a soft bed and a hot meal win out, however, and so they travel on.

They push themselves nearly to the breaking point, marching onwards into the evening and past the point of exhaustion before making it back to the safety of town. Re-entering Iron Springs and finding their way to Broken Spear's teahouse, they collapse onto some old bedrolls in an empty corner of the common-room only an hour or two short of midnight and sleep like the dead.

In Town: The group spend the morning trying to find buyers for various objects they acquired and determine how much they earned. A fist-sized piece of chalcedony is sold to the town apothecary, who also identifies a mysterious powder found in the Tomb of the Nameless Hero as 'leech dust': a powder that cleans wounds and draws out poison. A bolt of exquisite black silk is sold to the town tailor for barely half of what it might have fetched in the Imperial Capital, earning his friendship.

The town broker, who controls the trade of goods back up the river to civilisation, pays upfront for a set of vases he is confident will fetch a good price and provides an advance on a finely-made wooden fan.

The group pay Broken Spear in advance for the night's accommodation and re-outfit themselves. Mei-Xiu trades in her fan for a spear, while Sun acquires a quarterstaff. Xiang confronts the captain of the town guard, Bitter Plum, over her failure to warn the group about the demons on the Āoxiàn Plains.

An argument ensues, during which Xiang learns that the area may hold a gateway to the Eight Hells but burns diplomatic bridges with the town guard. Ming-Hua connects this with the slow drift of chi into a nearby hollow she observed at the Tomb of the Nameless Hero.

The group consider where to go over a hot meal at Broken Spear's teahouse, contemplating a return to the tomb before deciding to go and help the farmers to the north-east with the rat-demon attacks and thefts.

Day One: The group set out slowly to the north-east through the farmland around Iron Springs, searching for a leader in the farming community who could tell them more about the situation. They are directed to the wizened Auntie Ma, whose stilt-raised farmhouse they find around sunset.

Auntie Ma thoroughly charms the group, shares some anecdotes about her past romantic exploits with members of the Ren catfolk and her possible adventuring career, and passes on what little information she has about the rat-demons before giving the group hospitality for the evening.

Day Two: The group pause on the edge of the hilly farmland, Xiang taking advantage of the elevation to perform a ritual to see into the spirit world and examine what lies immediately ahead. They detect several extraordinarily powerful presences in the Nírón Fens: a fading Celestial-feeling presence aligned with birds in the far north of the Fens; an enormous beast swimming through Lake Bōdòng along with a chi-misted island; and a stark brilliant presence gleaming from the mountains beyond the lake that takes notice of them and stares back.

The day's travel then takes the group down out of the hills, between the broad river that passes through Iron Springs and the smaller stream they crossed to the north between hills and plains. Between the two water-courses runs a stretch of flooded coniferous forest, where the group make good progress through the day before making a comfortable camp by lashing a platform of lodge to several forked trees just above the waterline.

Day Three: The group continue to press on, moving slowly and with eyes peeled due to their uncertainty where the rat-demons make their lair. Around mid-afternoon they come to a point where the river widens into a pool and encounter a handful of enormous crabs, each body the size of a prone human torso. The crustaceans are rapidly disposed of, though Xiang does take several nasty bruises to the shins and knees from the crabs' wicked claws.

Pressing on a little longer carrying the meat of the largest crab, the group make another camp above the waterline and enjoy a delicious cooked meal before slowly drifting off to sleep amidst the buzzing of midges and croaking of distant frogs.

Day Four: The group set off again, growing wary as the conifers grow fewer and more gnarled and the landscape gives way from flooded forest to muddy, dreary swampland. They continue to travel slowly and cautiously, looking out for any sign of danger, but find sage passage as they move into the edge of the Nírón Fens.

They find a half-subsided hummock of earth that rises above the water but offers some shelter from prying eyes to spend the night, setting up a magical ward to alert them of intruders and appointing Ming-Hua's owl familiar to watch over them as they sleep.

Day Five: On waking, Ming-Hua and Xiang combine their magical knowledge and rituals of revelation to detect that the soil nearby was saturated with gold-flecked 'clots' of crimson chi, suggesting that the rat-demons lair must be nearby. Ming-Hua also perceived the same awesome blinding presence shining from the mountains beyond Lake Bōdòng that Xiang had encountered days before, and like Xiang before her was perceived in turn.

Hearing that the rat-demons must be nearby, Sun and Mei-Xiu seek the highest ground of the hummock and spot a broad squat hillock bare miles away to the north-east, with a yawning black pit in the side where the earth seems to have collapsed inwards and into which a dark shape furtively scurries...

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