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 (Way of the Tiger's Soul). 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.
- Shi, a Fighter (Champion). 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 (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.
Last Time: 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...
Day Five: Shi arrives, having stayed an extra night at Auntie Ma's to try and capture and interrogate any rat-demons that might come raiding, just as the group make preparations to enter the rat-demon lair. The group sets out stealthily for the hillock, making good time and reaching it around an hour and a half later.
Stepping up into the area of churned-up mud and clay outside the pit-mouth and entering the tunnel, Sun and Ming-Hua puncture their feet on the refuse (broken bones, shell pieces, shards of metal) scattered through the mud. The filthy chi in the soil means that supernaturally-fueled infection sets in, and one of the doses of leech dust is used to clean Ming-Hua's more serious wound.
Ming-Hua and Sun are bandaged up by Shi and the group move on, deeper into the warren of tunnels beneath the hillock. Mei-Xiu steps wrong into a muddy hollow where a rat-demon sleeps, the creature waking and stabbing at her leg with a vicious blade. It lets out a warning shriek, awakening two more rat-demons from hollows in the walls, and battle is joined.
The rat-demons swarm forward, Mei-Xiu taking the brunt of the attack, but fail to do any real harm before being cut down. The last, however, gets off a loud scream that rings out through the tunnels, and summons another five of the creatures who crowd around the front-line: Mei-Xiu and Sun.
From the rear, Xiang grows a carpet of roots and vines that binds the creatures in place and leaves them unable to evade a roaring wave of flame from Ming-Hua. Shi fires arrow after arrow with precise accuracy while Mei-Xiu and Sun contend with restraint by sticky clay-like mud that bursts off each rat-demon corpse.
The group whittle down the enemy numbers to one last rat-demon, that scurries up a side-tunnel and out of sight.
Pressing on just far enough to see that the main tunnel leads to an open chamber with a thick central pool of mud where the creatures slept, the group set a magical alarm across the main tunnel and pursue the lone surviving rat-demon up the side-tunnel. They discover a tiny cramped chamber, inexplicably empty until Ming-Hua spots a narrow crawl-space high in the wall that leads away.
Mei-Xiu's tiger-cub familiar is sent to investigate, and finds a large chamber where more rat-demons relax and wallow and the stolen barrels and sacks of the farmers' food have been piled into a crude chair for a particularly well-fed rat-demon. The rat-demons spot the familiar and though they hurl crude knives fail to dispose of the spy.
The group take an hour's rest, catching their breath and chewing some salt-fish to regain strength. As they are already preparing to press onwards they overhear a scrabbling from the crawl-space, and arrange themselves to ambush the unwary would-be attacker within.
They are the ambushed, however, as five rat-demons burst from the muddy floor in front of Shi (guarding the entrance to the cramped chamber) and begin wreaking havoc. The too-small room dissolves into chaos and panic: Shi is swarmed and brought down with a punctured lung, Ming-Hua's fire-spells prove highly effective except against the sneering well-fed leader of the rat-demons, and Xiang collapses the crawl-space on top of the sole rat-demon within before Mei-Xiu disposes of it.
The combat ends as suddenly as it begun, leaving the group in poor shape. Ming-Hua has become re-infected through her open wounds and Sun's condition continues, while Shi's copious wounds and his near-immersion in the filthy mud has the infection running rampant through his system. The blood-poisoning forces haste on the group as they search the warren, retrieving a pair of gems, a pair of bamboo-culm vials, and the stolen supplies of the farmers before retreating to the flat top of the hillock.
There, Xiang's magic cures the two less serious cases (Ming-Hua and Shun) while the leech dust draws the toxins from Shi's blood. Concerned about their visibility on the hilltop, the group make their way back to the subsided hummock where they spent the night. Xiang's earth-moving magic and Mei-Xiu's skill at camouflage create a secure hidden camp and the group settle in for the afternoon and evening.
Ming-Hua tries and fails to identify the liquids in the bamboo-culm vials, while Sun unlocks the secrets of the magically-blank book she stole from her parents before leaving home. It spells out the secrets and significance of items left nearby, and after some experimentation it reveals that one vial contains a potion of rapid hyper-accelerated healing and the other a potion that will turn the drinker, body and chi alike, into an immaterial gaseous form.
Shi sharpens his weapons and does maintenance on his gear, while Xiang projects their chi into the spirit-world and mourns with their allies the death of a panther-spirit they had summoned who was torn apart by the rat-demons. Mei-Xiu keeps a lonesome watch for danger but spots nothing, and a proper watch-order is established as night falls and the group collapse into well-earned sleep.
The group move on, watching with gladness as the muddy, dreary swampland gives way once more to flooded forest. They journey at speed now, pushing themselves to make good time back to civilization, but around mid-afternoon as the sun begins to set and the temperature falls the heat of their legs in the water attracts a swarm of voracious lampreys.
Shi and Mei-Xiu extract themselves to higher dry ground, while Ming-Hua and Xiang take the brunt of the lampreys' hunger. Mei-Xiu returns, putting herself in danger's way to protect her allies and friends. As Shi attempt to thin the numbers in the water through archery a stray arrow very nearly hits the already-bleeding Xiang, but is snatched from the air by Mei-Xiu in an unprecedented display of skill.
The swarms thin out enough that they are no longer a threat and the group move to dry land, leaving the cover of the flooded forest for the exposed flat plains on the far side of the river. A few hours later night falls fully, and they make camp in a hollow in the river-bank made by Xiang with their earth-moving magic.
Day Seven: The next day begins early, the group quickly making it to where the flooded forest ended and the hills rose upwards towards Iron Springs on the far side of the river. Crossing the water, they press onward and around midday reach Auntie Ma's stilt-raised farmhouse.
Auntie Ma greets them, treats the lamprey wounds on their legs, and then summons her extended family and the neighbors for a celebratory feast. Ming-Hua, Xiang, and Mei-Xiu all in their own way impress the children, while Sun continues to charm Auntie Ma and Shi slips into an early doze. The feast drags on long into the evening as the group return the stolen food to the community and Xiang tells the fire-shaping assisted tale of their vanquishing of the rat-demons.
The household-shrine to Kwan Yin, goddess of compassion and community, is brought down from Auntie Ma's house and an offering is made along with prayers for a good harvest, for future safety, and for the good fortune and happiness of the group.