The scene was a terrible one, and was about to get worse. We stood before what appeared to be the flayed body of a three-meter-tall creature, alien and foul in its appearance, its exposed musculature glistening in the dim light of the cavern. Two small bushes grew strange gray tubers that would no doubt prove a tempting meal to the hungry populace of the besieged Timbertown, and I had just found a bag holding its own grim harvest: ork fingers, no doubt from murdered High Plains tribesmen. I had just opened the bag to examine its grisly contents (which also included boots and a blowgun of High Plains tribal make) when Dirk himself stormed through the door.
Lokan, still filled with violent rage toward the dwarf, had been standing on the ground floor, and when he saw the object of his hatred, he quickly loosed an arrow, dealing only a glancing blow before speeding toward the ladder down to the cellar. In his singular focus, however, his normally sure feet failed him, and he fell down to the cellar, groaning out a warning to the rest of us, who (with the exception of Gen) had been oblivious to this development. The warning was soon matched by noises outside the cellar door, as Dirk’s cronies attempted to enter through the lower level. The cries of Dirk’s poor wife Rhanda as she was beaten cut through my battle focus, and I uttered a silent prayer to Bisojah that she and her sons would endure and thrive once this corruption was cleansed.
At this point, it became clear that, cornered in this cellar as we were, the battle would not be an easy one. Dirk and two of his men descended the ladder and quickly attacked Lokan, rage in their eyes, taking him out of the fight. Another group of three burst in through the cellar, setting upon Tala, Dave and myself. Though their arms were primitive (merely boards with nails through them) they were brutally effective. I managed to weather a rain of blows without incurring serious damage, while Tala and Dave fell victim to some particularly vicious attacks, Dave falling in battle briefly. Gen worked behind the scenes, a picture of quiet efficiency, causing blindness to descend over the eyes of Dirk and others of his party. We quickly learned that upon landing a serious blow on any one of these men, they would begin shrieking in rage and redoubling their attacks, even attacking with their fists if they were disarmed in combat.
Even more chilling in the midst of this pitched battle, we were able to infer what had happened on the upper level of Dirk’s house, as Rhanda had gone quiet and the pitter-patter of tiny feet down the ladder led to another pair of assailants – her children. Seized with the same rage as Dirk and his men, they threw themselves into battle and clawed and bit at us as we tried to hold off the enraged adults. Finally, after Dirk and four of his men fell, the other two regained their senses somewhat, or perhaps let their fear overtake their rage, and began running away, Dirk’s children close behind.
Unfortunately for them, the commotion we had made in our fight had roused the town guard, with Charyssa leading a handful of guards and militiamen in subduing the would-be escapees. She demanded an explanation, which I provided in detail, and the macabre situation in the cellar only confirmed our tale. Huaztli was brought in to provide healing and confirm our tale, and as we were all recuperating from the battle we discussed options for cleansing the Horror’s corruption from the area, with me suggesting Habya, the Naizhan warchief. Huaztli found the option risky, but did admit it was the best available at the time. When Rhanda had recovered from her shock and the assault enough, she also added that Dirk and his friends had once spent a lot of time in a grove to the northeast of Timbertown, and gave us rough directions.
At this time, Charyssa returned with news from the Mayor, who had given permission for us to try and end the siege and cleanse the area of the Horror’s influence as soon as possible. Charyssa also noted that another caravan had come to camp, and we deduced that Enlightened Materials was hot on our heels. We quickly returned to the High plains warcamp and approached the Warchiefs, giving them an explanation of the situation, with the bag full of fingers and personal effects as proof. Habya then spoke up for the first time in a raspy voice, asking about the dead Horror, and to see the site of the corruption. I swore a personal blood promise to see to his protection, adding to the promises already sworn between the rest of my group and the Naizhan and Keresan, and we quickly returned to Timbertown.
Despite some tension between the villagers and orks, we arrived at Dirk’s home and Habya inspected the area, communing with the spirits for guidance. He was in a trance for some time, and just as we felt it might be prudent to check up on him, he snapped out of it. He told us of a tale he had learned of his tribe’s deeds during the Scourge, that of defeating a Horror known as The Growing One. The Naizhan and Keresan tribes had ridden together to defeat this Horror, which possessed a particularly insidious method of gaining strength. The Growing One existed in a seemingly welcoming desert field, growing these strange gray tubers and inviting weary wanderers to partake of the bounty. Hapless travelers mistook the Horror for a Passion, and happily ate of its ‘fruit,’ known as “Growing One Meat,” which drove them mad with rage, even as it grew the being’s power. The two High Plains tribes came together to defeat the Horror and its tainted followers, and won after a bloody battle. They then eliminated its influence, which required three tasks: destroying the physical body, destroying all instances of the tubers, and cleansing the corrupted astral space around it all. Habya and Huaztli offered to organized efforts to clear Dirk’s home (and Timbertown in general). In the meantime, we would return to the High Plains camp and organize a night raid on this grove in order to wipe out any lingering corruption.
Before leaving, we stopped to talk to Yuska, who let us know more of the history of the gloves and bracers we had procured. The Vicegrips had been crafted with kernels of True Earth from deep within the Shale Mounds, while the Balance Bonds utilized True Water from where the East and West Braid met. At camp, we gave some basic direction to our merchant Tukko as far as trade, and then rode out for the grove with an organized group of Naizhan and Keresan braves, finding some more of the corrupted plants and three gigantic, vicious wolves. Afted dispatching the beasts and destroying the plants, we found many fresh graves, exhuming the bodies of fingerless braves. We returned these to the Warchiefs, who honored their blood oaths and lifted the siege.
After getting what little rest we could, the Warchiefs summoned us for one last time, to honor us for the service rendered to them with the items we had recovered from the cave under Dirk’s home. First were the fur-lined boots once owned by Warchief Isan of the Keresan, known as Shadowstride Boots, which helped their owner travel unseen. Second was a poisonous blowgun known as “Marker” that used blood magic, and helped hunt and defeat quarry known to the hunter, once used by a Naizhan Warchief.
Finally, before setting out, we spoke to Lahalla Lisk about the Ahtenko bounty for Hiarc Bonesetter, and she provided a wealth of troubling information. Hiarc was a prominent businessman in Alnadotzli, one of the wealthiest people in that village of 500 or so. Due to the nature of his slaving business, the town was more accepting of the practice of slavery than most others. He was known to travel often to buy slaves or criminals from other communities, and kept copious notes on them (though most had little documentation of their identity beyond that from another slaveowner). He was a local celebrity and business magnate in Alnadotzli, and as such it would be very difficult to end his operation.
To many, slavery was a viable option if they were in a hopeless situation, and with a blood promise of decent treatment from their would-be owner, one that had a reasonable chance of avoiding abuse of the enslaved. However, there was suspicion that Hiarc had been kidnapping individuals from Timbertown and bringing them into slavery, and forcing anyone into slavery was more commonly considered unsavory, if not downright evil.
We set out for Alnadotzli, traveling alongside the Enlightened Materials caravan, and I brought up the Ahtenko bounty to the members of the other trading company. They looked at me askance, for in their previous travels through Alnadotzli it was apparent that Hiarc was an established, well-connected individual with a large operation and plenty of security, not to mention his popular support. I may not have convinced them to ally with us in claiming the bounty, but I do think I may have somewhat mended their impression of me after all of the chaos in Ahtenko during the Bazaar.
When we finally arrived in Alnadotzli, we headed to the Submerge, a large inn with a partially flooded stone basement meant to cater to visiting t’skrang merchants. We obtained rooms for our entire party, shook off the dust of the road, and returned to the common area to speak with the innkeepers and get some more information on the town and its inhabitants.
As I saw it, we had three main leads we had to uncover in town, in addition to gaining general information on its personages and markets: finding a lead on a boat to hire out and take us on the next leg of our journey, finding more information on river hydras and which t’skrang families might offer us a good sum for helping defend against them, and, of course, more information on Hiarc and any news that might help us get an edge in our potential bounty.
Tala struck up a conversation with the elf innkeeper, and learned a wealth of information on river travel. The wet season was only just picking up, and once it was in full force sometime in the next few weeks, boats from the Indechu and Shinumetu families would be making the trip up the river and stopping by Alnadotzli, offering caravans an opportunity to rent space. The Shinumetu family was heavily involved in the practice of elemental magic, and were building a canal to connect the major waterways of Nemahay. As such, they were always on the lookout for reagents. Additionally, the most direct route to Kintani led right through the Shinumetu capital. The Indechu ruled a town called Phibium far downriver, near the ocean, and were far more militaristic, with trade links to the Maricaash and business deals with Hiarc Bonesetter. It quickly became clear that the Shinumetu would be a safer choice for river travel.
Once the t’skrang families had been brought up, I joined the conversation, managing to impress the innkeeper enough to keep a long conversation going. I first asked about the river hydra, which she described as almost a ball of heads, akin to a large, deadly starfish. The hydras attacked often on the Shinumetu leg of the river, and if a head were to get damaged, it would split and two would grow back in time. Generally, the only safe way to kill a river hydra was by targeting its spindly body, which was heavily armored, but very susceptible to magical attacks.
Finally, I asked about our potentially bounty, Hiarc Bonesetter. The innkeeper mentioned that he came into Submerge about twice a week for dinner, sometimes combining this meal with a business meeting. A couple of weeks ago, another caravan from Ahtenko, doubtless the Great Adventure, met and spoke with him, before setting out to the north, impatient to avoid river travel. Roughly a month ago, Hiarc had come back from a foraging trip to the north with a few dozen slaves. These were kept in a large warehouse near the docks, and his operation was gearing up to offload these slaves when the river travel picked up. Bonesetter also met with mayor Oren Alna once every couple of months, but the innkeeper did not know when this next meeting would be.
We paid a visit to Mayor Oren to get more information on the local situation. She sat us down to tea, and spoke of Sen Anoranfeh, the Great Adventure’s patron, warmly – the two went back a long way, apparently. Oren’s cousin Perel ran Alnadotzli’s guard, and did not seem to be beset by any thorny problems. However, after some conversation, Oren let slip that she felt Perel might not be the most trustworthy captain of the guard. If we could investigate her and prove one way or the other whether or not she had the village’s best interests at heart, the Mayor would be much obliged. She noted that Perel may have connections to Kintani, and if she could be talked into any deals that would not benefit the village, Oren would consider this fair proof of her duplicity.
I will admit, dear brother, that what followed was not my finest hour. Hours spent at my craft, trying to see the very patterns of the unique items we have encountered over time, may have taken their toll on my ability to negotiate. Or maybe it’s the adventure we seem to chase at every stop, rather than the prolonged negotiations I was expecting. The result has been humbling, as we approached the captain of the guard, Perel, and tried to feel out her stances. I stumbled over my words in an impressive display of incompetence, the sudden realization of the precarious situation we found ourselves hitting me all at once, and I fear I did not make a particularly good impression. However, I do believe we managed to suss out that Perel was not a fan of Hiarc Bonesetter.
And here we come to the crux of the uncertainty that had been gnawing at me, and finally showed itself in full force at the guard headquarters. In Ahtenko, we worked to secure the best possible start for our caravan company. In Tseni, we helped keep the precious stone supply in the control of its own villagers, and not forces with shadowy connections abroad (connections, I should mention, that pointed to this town and possibly Hiarc Bonesetter himself). In Timbertown, we brokered a peace thanks to what ended up being a misunderstanding borne out of the interference of an otherworldly creature. All of these were, in their own ways, very clear-cut situations.
But here, in Alnadotzli, we found ourselves interlopers in a stable community with plenty of secrets we could barely guess at. To Ahtenko and Timbertown, Hiarc was a villain whose slaving operations endangered their citizens. To our caravan’s patron, Alnadotzli was a potential partner, worth building stronger relations with. To Lokan, whose connections I suspect run closer to Kintani than we think, this could be a trade rival, though I could only guess at his own patron’s goals. And from other information we received, Kintani and its interests were suspect allies at best, and we were to look out for any tricks of their own. On top of all of this, Alnadotzli itself had its own rhythm of life worked out, and if we took any brash actions, we would be destabilizing it and potentially upending the lives of its citizens – but if they looked so kindly upon coerced slavery, would it be better to shake things up? Indeed, we found ourselves in a very complex web, and we could weave our own threads into it, or be the blade that hacked the complex edifice apart.