Making of a Realm

All the King's Quests
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4713, Summer

When I was a child and I heard the tales told by my Grandfather, I don't think I truly had a good grasp on what it means to be a leader. In my mind, the Emperor did very much whatever the Emperor felt like doing, or sat on his chair, telling people what to do and basking in the glow of having an entire nation at his beck and call. I always supposed the Emperor did… well, nothing. Unless he felt like doing something, that is, but he didn't really have a commitment, or obligations, or anything to get him out of bed in the morning. If the Emperor felt like, he would rise at dawn and spend his day doing whatever he wanted. If the Emperor felt like, he would rise at noon, have a light meal, and nap until dinnertime, then have a sumptuous meal, surround himself with geishas and be entertained well into the night. 

Today, my elder brother is Baron, and my perception of what it means to lead has changed considerably. Takeshi rises every day with the Sun, spends one hour performing his rituals before Shizuru, and then if he has issues to attend to, he rouses the rest of us to follow, or if not, he spends his day at the forge, or at Town Hall, working, and going through numbers, and generally keeps busy until late, when he rejoins us for dinner. 

Today, as always, Takeshi got out of bed well ahead of us, performed his rituals, and roused the lot of us to head out and do one thing: solve problems. 

Now that the Howl of the North is gone, and Thig Tannersen is chained to a wall in his parents' house until he's a man, we're left with a few choice issues to address, some exploring to attend, and a Council at the end of the month. After some quick planning we suppose we have to be back, at the worst, within sixteen days. 

Foremostly, we headed to Scottsdale with two objectives. The first, to see how our kobold friends are handling the inflow of human activity, and on that account, all seems well. The kobolds are not exactly grabbing hoes and helping the human folk farm, but the human folk aren't grabbing for the torches and pitchforks either. We even saw a local fisherman waving at a passing kobold patrol as if greeting the neighbors, and the kobolds grunted a "Good morning" back at him. So I suppose things are going well in this front. Our second objective was to visit the fisherman who brought about the issue of a giant snapper turtle to Svetlana's attention.

He was an older gentleman with rough hands that spoke of a lifetime of reeling in the day's catch, and who (like most fishermen I've met in the Greenbelt) says a four letter word for every other three. I've realized it's the way fishermen speak, plain and simple, but I can't help but feel slightly disconcerted at the roll of senseless profanities. Basically, when Takeshi enquired about the giant turtle, the gentleman told him about "that f…ing pool" down by the Tuskwater, that he "f…ing discovered" and that gave him the "best f…ing fish ever to f…ing swim in the f…ing Tuskwater". He had been doing his fishing there for over "a f…ing year" only one day, not long ago, he cast his "f…ing line" only to have it "f…ing snapped like a lady's underthings". Then he saw "that f…ing critter" lunge out of the "f…ing water" and trying to snap his "f…ing nuts off". He tried, for weeks, to get that "Old f…ing Crackjaw", as he calls it, to "f… off", but the creature overcame every trap he set, and even snapped his "motherf…ing cane in twain!", as he told it. Which is a real shame because "the f…ing catch on that f…ing pool is f…ing sweet". By now I had very much turned purple, but Takeshi, without skipping a beat, promised we would look into it, and drive the creature off if we could. 

He then teased me saying it's just words, and that he's heard me curse at my enemies as well in the recent past. Well, maybe. But not that often, lightly or vehemently. 

With the fisherman's account heard, we headed back to uncharted territory, on our way to find the… "f…ing pool" the gentleman referred. 

We found some good places for farmland, rolling, soft hills and tall wheat. Perhaps it's not the prime farmland we have around Oleg's Trading Post, but it will do nicely to build farms closer to Fumidai. One of our concerns presently is the difficulty of placing farms about here. The terrain is too rough to allow it. 

Continuing ever southward, we saw very much more of the same, and other than a quick encounter with a shambling mound one night, our journey was uneventful. (sidenote: which was a strike of luck, as much as I hate these plants – we know of an alchemist who wants to buy some. Or was it a herbalist…?) It was on the fourth day, as we went up and down these rolling hills, that we noticed what looked like a great fissure opening within one of them, as if the earth had cracked open to reveal what secrets it kept inside. The last time we went into a fissure in a hill we quite literally struck gold. Naturally, we weren't about to pass up on this one.

However, as we approached and I peered into the darkness inside, I instantly realized we should be dealing with something completely different. I could see stone tiles covering the floor a few feet in. So of course, before we entered the unknown, I bid my brothers wait a while, and cast a spell that would allow me to see inside without actually going in. I warned my brothers that I would not be able to detect the presence of creatures, monsters or animals inside, only see the surroundings. But it's a spell that costs me very little concentration, and perhaps would give us a clue of what lay within before we entered. 

I could see a large chamber, not dug into the earth like a cave, but more like a hallway in a building, with tiles covering the floor and murals depicting rural life in every wall. I could also see evidence of bats, in the form of an ungodly amount of guano spread all around the chamber floor. With this warning in mind, we took a step forward… and sure enough, a huge swarm of bats came flying right at us! Takeshi managed to dash aside and away, but Nagata got the brunt of them flying about him, landing and biting. I reached into my bag for a wand of burning hands. (sidenote: I've taken Lady Tiressia's warning to heart, and decided to look a little more into wands. I've had this one since last year, though I can't rightly recall where I got it.) The fire spray got some of the bats and drove away others; Oksana then summoned her angry cloud, and lightning rained upon them next. Finally, they dispersed, leaving Nagata mostly unharmed.  

I entered the chamber my vision had shown, while behind me Oksana took care to light up a torch – otherwise, nobody else would be able to see a thing. Once she stepped inside, the murals truly came to life. Perhaps a little faded, but done with great skill. While I marvelled at them, however, Takeshi was more concerned with the masonry itself. He told us the construction was likely thousands of years old, and that it has survived for us to see it is a testament to the skills of the stonemason. Nagata chirped in that if the construction was so old and still here, perhaps so were traps, and began looking about for signs of them. 

Other than the corridor which we'd come in from there was another one, venturing deeper inside the hill. Once we were sure the room was cleared, and with our trapfinder taking point, we ventured further. It led us to a new chamber with exits leading to three more corridors. Between each exit, a dreadful visage of some sort of angry-looking creature was carved, mouths open as if shouting a vile threat at newcomers. On the floor, at the exact center, lay the old skeleton of some other, unfortunate visitor. Takeshi stretched his head in to have a better look at the faces, while Oksana, behind him, lifted the torch to give him some light. He quickly recognized them as diabolical reproductions of the four winds, likely of shamanic tradition. From that, he could tell us that certainly this place predates the construction of what we today call Fort Ameno. I activated a detect magic spell, and immediately before my eyes a tiny spec in the skeleton's finger lit up, and I pointed it out to my brothers. Nagata examined the floor, and once he had deemed the place free of traps, he stepped aside to let Takeshi through. 

We all walked into the chamber after him, of course, and just as we had gotten to the skeleton, it was as if the whole chamber sighed. We heard a great heave of air escaping the walls, and immediately looked at the diabolical faces on the walls, to see black tentacles pouring out of them and reaching for us! Oksana and Takeshi were caught immediately offguard and gripped. They seemed to sag and numb down in their grasp, as if drained of energy! Before we could come to their aid, the tentacles retreated once more within the faces, leaving Bear and Oksana exhausted on the floor. 

Before anything else happened, Nagata picked Bear up (sidenote: or rather, helped him up… the lot of us combined couldn't carry Bear in his heavy armor!) and I helped Oksana walk, and we retreated back to the entrance. No way we would explore any further with two members of the group all battered up. They seemed weary yet unharmed, and we simply decided to camp right there and wait for the next morning. 

Come dawn, we prepared to go into the breach once more. Two torches were lit, and we approached the chamber with the four faces carefully. I remember Takeshi asking Nagata how he missed that, and Nagata knocking himself on the head, saying he searched the floor and not the walls – his bad. We halted at the entrance, not overly willing to waltz into the chamber to be grabbed by tentacles again. We recalled that Nagata managed to stand closer to the walls and away from the center of the chamber, however, without triggering the trap – so we probably could hug the walls and go around towards the corridors. Before anything, however, there was the issue of the magical spec on the skeleton's finger. I managed to pull it closer with mage hand, and as it came closer, I could see it was a ring. 

I couldn't tell whatever it did, but Oksana could: a ring of sustenance. After a week of continuous use it allows the wearer to sleep for only two hours a day and be as fresh and fit as if he had gotten a full night's slumber. It also prevents fatigue from physical exertion, and allows one to go longer without food or water. Takeshi at once called dibs on it. According to him, this will be of great use to us in general, and to him in particular. Not only can he cover my watch as well as Oksana's, allowing us to keep shorter resting time, but it will allow him a 22 hour workday back home! He even joked that this comes in handy because since the founding of Fumidai he's often felt there aren't enough hours in the day to handle all the work! 

As if he didn't work too much as it is…

With that out of the way, we all hugged the wall and made our way, sneaking past the faces towards the corridor to our left. After a short corridor we came upon a new chamber with no further exits. Here, murals with depictions of hunting scenes and battle graced every wall, and beneath slabs of stone slept the remains of so many entombed warriors… who broke through said slabs and the dust covering them even as we walked inside! Out of nowhere, six animated skeletons had crawled out of their resting places and came charging at us! 

Oksana grabbed for one of her wands and pointed it at two of the skeletons, firing two yellow-green projectiles at the first two who sprung from the ground. One dismantled right away. Takeshi struck at the other one and stepped back to wait for the rest, and Nagata took the wakizashi to one more. Then, as boneheads began coming closer, Takeshi picked away at their skulls one by one with the tip of the naginata. It ended so quickly I didn't even have time to play a chord – Nagata took down one more with a flick of the wakizashi. And since the last one was still twitching, I took a mighty swing of my mace and finished it – much to Takeshi's astonishment, who commented he had never seen me hit a single target successfully. He elaborated into how I should start training with Monkey and him from now on. Nice try, brother Bear. I hope you meant it sarcastically because otherwise cover up, your naivete is showing.

We rummaged through the bones, finding nothing we could use. Without any other exits, we turned back, again hugging the walls of the central chamber to pass unhurt to the corridor across from this one. 

Here we found a twin chamber, with murals alive with hunters and warriors – and six more animated skeletons coming to life as we entered. The first few that tried to charge in our direction had an unfortunate accident with a naginata. Those who avoided the naginata had an unfortunate accident with a pair of wakizashi. 

Again finding nothing we could use within, we made our way (or rather, slid our way against the walls) to the final corridor from the central chamber. At the end of it there was a third one, but instead of murals gracing the walls, there were weapons – dozens of them, mounted about as if in display. As the light of the torch touched the far wall, we saw movement – another of the raised dead, this one not a skeleton but closer to a zombie or ghoul, wobbling in our direction with a broken spear in hand. 

Takeshi braced to wait for him, even as Oksana chanted the summoning spell for her thundercloud, and I began playing. Lightning rained upon the creature as it approached, and just as it came within Takeshi's reach, he took a swing at it. It seemed not to feel it, and kept moving to grab at Bear. And once it did, I saw Takeshi pale considerably, and every vein in his neck light up like so many dancing lights! 

It was an ugly blow, and Nagata, of course, was ready to go in and help – he tumbled past the creature, but must have miscalculated his angle of approach, since he managed to cut himself with the edge of one of the wakizashi on his way; still, he got a hit on the thing. Takeshi took the chance to step back and call the blessings of Shizuru over the edge of his blade, making it glow with celestial light. He then stabbed through the creature, rendering it once again, and permanently, dead.  

Oksana retrieved the spear from the (now actually dead) body and confirmed that it was broken, yet it also had some kind of powerful enchantment she couldn't immediately identify. She took it, vowing to study it later. 

On our way out from this strange tomb we left an edict by the entrance, forbidding anyone from going inside for safety reasons by order of Baron Ameno Takeshi. (sidenote: yes. I realize how ineffective a protection it is. If I was interested in going in a cave and there was a sign forbidding me to do so by royal edict, I'd probably ignore it too. But considering the size of the fissure, it was highly unlikely we would be able to hide or bar it, and perhaps the next people who mosey along by are more like Takeshi, and less like me…) Bear still looked pretty bushed by the time we camped, and took a few days to recover from the undead's groping.

*

For the following three days after leaving the cave we kept on exploring – mostly hills here, low hills that while pleasant and pretty, are still a bother to ascend and descend. Up and downhill, then up and down again. On the fourth day, to my dismay, the terrain became steeper, and climbing and descending them became harder. 

The only thing really good about the hills is the possibility to camp on high ground. We can always see well ahead what might be coming to get us. A good thing too – because on the fifth dawn after the tomb I was awakened by angry growling nearby. I rose my head to see a couple of creatures running uphill in the direction of our camp. They were very large, with great hands and arms, moss-green skin and coarse hair like the hide of a wild boar. Their longer legs allowed them to cover the uphill distance in no time – trolls, I was immediately sure, were coming our way!

Nagata, who was keeping last watch, barely had the time to shout a warning before they closed in on them. Both took a swing at him and missed; Nagata danced away from their huge arms. As I brought myself up from my sleeping bag I began bringing on the insults: trolls have a high capacity to regenerate, and fire and acid are the only weapons one can use to interrupt their regeneration. However, no matter how vile my insults were, they paid me no mind, and certainly didn't catch on fire. I quickly understood what I was doing wrong: they likely didn't know the common speech, and therefore my attempts were useless!

Takeshi took a different approach, by grabbing for his naginata and stabbing at one of the trolls, giving Nagata a chance to tumble between them and get at their backs. Oksana tried to put the other one to sleep, but he simply ignored her just as he ignored me, slobbering and grunting and trying to get at my brothers. No matter, because with Takeshi keeping the one busy, Nagata managed to bury his wakizashi on his sides, puncturing him end to end and bringing him down. He managed to dodge the other one's swing in one quick dodge. Since sleep wasn't helping, Oksana instead cast forth not one, but a flurry of snowballs at the one still standing. 

At the same time, I glanced over at the fallen troll, to see his wounds quickly closing as regeneration threatened to bring him back. 

Then Takeshi hovered his hand over the naginata's blade, and it came ablaze as if made from flames! (sidenote: I knew I had seen him do something like that before! I knew I had!) Just as I began the first notes of my song, he buried it in the fallen foe, cancelling his regeneration and rendering him dead. He then carefully approached the one still standing, and they began to exchange blows: the troll's awe-inspiring swings missed Takeshi, but the naginata striked true, and with the first burning blow, the troll's regeneration became null.  

Still in a good position to strike, Nagata tried to get an angle to stab the troll in the back. But just then, Oksana hurled a snowball that… missed the mark. As the troll kept moving to avoid the burning naginata, the snowball missed his chest to land dead straight on Monkey's nose. Surprised by the flying snowball, Takeshi also fumbled his movement, and managed to hit himself with the naginata's handle as he twirled it. It was Nagata who finally brought it down, with specs of snow still dripping from his face. 

I foresee some watchtower duty in the near future. In fact, Nagata said that Oksana should do some, too. She shrugged and said she would so no such thing – it was foolish to expend energy for nothing just because you fumbled a hit, accidents happen and none of us was all the worse for it. I think she's taking the wrong approach here, Monkey looked pretty upset by her unwillingness to participate. I know my brothers, and I understand all the reasons why they feel they should do watch duty whenever they fail… and I, too, believe they are being overly harsh and that there are ways to do penitence without exhausting themselves. On the other hand, I also understand how important this is to them, and that is why, after they did it the first few times, I stopped trying to interfere with them. 

Still, I hope this doesn't bring issues between us in the future. For the time being, we collected some troll blood, as it had been requested by a herbalist in Fumidai. (sidenote: or was it the alchemist? I'll have to consult my notes…)

*

Now headed back to Fumidai, it was time to take the detour by the pool near the Tuskwater (sidenote: or should I say, the "f…ing pool" near the "f…ing Tuskawater"?) where our gentle fisherman friend told us a giant turtle has been giving the fishing population grief. With the directions given to us, it wasn't hard to find. And true enough, with my sparse knowledge of fishing, even I know this has to be a good spot. The pool is formed naturally from the Tuskwater, not overly deep and a paradise for the so-called forage fish: medium-sized sweetwater fish that eat mostly plants or bugs. It would be a lovely place to raise carp, for instance. 

And sure enough, as we came by the pool, there was "Old f…ing Crackjaw", a turtle about as large as I am tall, with a snapping beak capable of doing serious damage to canes, boats or fingers!

Still, it wasn't that big of a fight. I mean, this animal was a problem, but not a massive one: Oksana got a lightning strike, Takeshi buried the naginata, and the thing was done for. We camped right there for the night, at the edge of that lovely pool, and even took some time to pull up our pant legs and have a dip about. Nagata made some turtle soup for dinner, served in the shell. Wasn't bad, needed some salt.

With this taken care of, we cleaned up the shell to take back to Fumidai as proof of death. Little did we know, as soon as we arrived in the city, there would be a small crisis waiting for us.

*

It all started as we entered Fumidai and spotted a crowd of people gathered about a fellow who seemed to be bellowing his lungs out. In and of itself, this is not odd. (sidenote: despite all the progress we've made with our kingdom, there are still some things we are yet to address. Namely literacy. It is one of my priorities to make basic education mandatory, so that everyone can read and write, and perhaps once that is taken care of, we will be able to have press and print. For the moment, we spread news the old fashioned way: by way of town criers who stand at specific areas and pass out information – so, a crowd gathered around a man shouting out news is not an odd sight) What is odd, is the message he was passing out, and as we caught snipets of it going by, we decided to approach and listen.

Looking at the gentleman up in his soap box, I couldn't recognize him, and I was sure he wasn't from around. And his message… well. He was speaking against us. Not exactly against the Ameno and Oksana Zima, but against the government of Fumidai! Where was the King, walking about having a good time while his people needed him? Why were the high officials of government prancing about the countryside (I believe "gallivanting" was the word he used, which I got the general gist of, but will have to look up later) instead of here, looking after their subjects? I couldn't believe my ears! And I couldn't believe the crowd was actually eating this up! So as Nagata vanished from sight to get a feel for the people, while Takeshi and Oksana chanted the "excuse me" song trying to get to the front, I simply snuck between the people, until I was right next to the gentleman. And as soon as he made eye contact with me, I asked him to start over because I didn't catch all of his hogwash. And I wanted equal time. 

So from the top of the same soap box, I (and Takeshi, as soon as he could reach me) asked the populace if they were unhappy. If they were hungry, heavily taxed, ill or if they needed us present for any reason other than to see we existed. The reply was negative: and I added that we are doing anything but taking a holiday. I, and my massacred feet, should know! We are securing territory, dealing with threats, solving problems and gaining allies and resources to give our people a better life! A holiday? I wish! And I told them of how hard Takeshi works everyday, and of how he will be working even more every day now that he has 22 hours out of it at his disposal! I told them of how hard Nagata works, ensuring everybody can walk about the street safely and flagging the problems before they happen! I told them of how hard Oksana studies to understand the creatures and the flora around here, to help us deal with it before it reaches Fumidai! And I told them of how we camp on the road, of how we eat those thrice-cursed travel rations, and how we miss the comforts of home to make sure everyone sleeps with a roof over their head and a meal in their bellies!

From here, we dispersed the crowd and called an emergency meeting to learn more about this finger-pointing shouter. Well, all of us but Nagata. He said nothing to any of us, but I was sure he would be following said shouter around to discover who he was. According to Oleg, he arrived in Fumidai about a day after we left, and has been spreading this notion that we're out there "gallivanting" instead of working. In fact, he's been doing it well enough that he's managed to raise some unrest. His name is Grigori, apparently he is a bard, and his motives are his own.

Nagata joined us some time later, saying he followed the man into a tavern but couldn't figure much more out. Now, Takeshi wants to bring the man in to ask him what his deal is, but I pointed out how bad an idea that is. If he publicly arrests Grigori for criticizing the government, he sends out a message that there is no such thing as free speech in Fumidai. In the same way, if Grigori suddenly vanishes off the face of Golarion without warning, the rumor that will follow will be that Fumidai whisks away their criticizers unlawfully. To me, this has to be dealt with publicly and in equal time. I asked Takeshi if he would organize a festival for me. I want a chance to give the people my perspective of what we do when we're out there in the Greenbelt. In fact, I want them to decide which of us is right. I want a bard duel. 

Takeshi pondered the idea for a while, and thought it was good. He agreed to call in a duel, install a stage in front of Town Hall, and even have a formal invitation sent to Grigori at the inn! 

The greatest skill of a bard is improvisation. The ability to start an impromptu performance, or to save one that's not gone as planned, is the bowl of rice in a bard's meal. That said, it's not a gift. It's something you work at, something you train. When I retired to prepare for my performance before Fumidai, what I did was basically work on several pieces, add words to them, and try to make them interchangeable, so that whatever this clown throws at me, I'll be able not only to respond, but to throw it back at him. 

Come the day of the duel, I was pleased to see the turn up. Not only a lot of people showed up to watch, but so did Grigori – dressed in purples and carrying his lute. (sidenote: I love the way he sneered at my shamisen when we got on stage. The lute is a traditional string instrument in these lands, just as the shamisen is a traditional string instrument in Tian-Xia. But while a lute usually has between 15 and 24 strings, a shamisen always has three. I love that the fool thinks more strings equals more quality.)

I even let him open. I mean, it's good manners: he is our formally invited guest, and the one with grievance, so it's only fair. (sidenote: not quite. I took a page out of the Book of Bear here. In the same way that Takeshi sometimes waits for enemies to move towards him instead of closing the distance himself, I was allowing this one to set his own pitfall, place some nice, sharp spikes at the bottom, cover it in leaves and netting, all nice and pretty… so I could shove him into it once he was finished.)  
 
I am glad to report, without wanting to toot my own horn (or… diddle my own shamisen?) that I won the duel, and that the man retired in silent shame. The duel developed into festivities well into the evening, and by the time I was done, I had blisters on my fingers and joy in my heart. I returned briefly to Town Hall to learn Monkey was missing, but I wasn't worried: we knew exactly where he was.

He was following Grigori's walk of shame out of Fumidai, to discover who he was about to go cry to. 

———

UZUME'S DUEL WITH GRIGORI (as sung on public stage) or "Come Gallivating With Me"

You said we've been prancing off at the first day that we meet,
But you haven't seen the state of my poor, tortured feet!
Be silent you silly lout, you don't know what you're saying,
and I promise you can come along when next we go "gallivating".

You'll be sleeping in the Green with no roof over your head,
along with wolves and boars and trolls and bandits and the undead!
They're not so good bedmates, boy, they try to snack on you,
And you won't sleep a wink until your expedition's through!

And forget all that you like about sleeping in 'til late,
but look up on the bright side, you're sure to lose some weight:
if not because you'll be walking, battling, and facing ordeals,
then because you'll be eating dry ration for all your meals!

So up on the box you stand doing a lot of ugly talking,
I'd like to see you shut up and begin to do some walking!
I'm securing the land so that my people can rest true,
And you're fat and full of fancy and care for nothing but you!

So it's been a splendid duel but yes, our time has passed
So go away and don't let our front gates hit you in the arse!
You've been a great opponent, but enough is enough,
and we'd take it very kindly if you'd simply bugger off.

View
Deceiving Looks
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4713, Summer

A local popular saying claims there is no rest for the wicked. The meaning of this statement is simple: those who are evil and have guilt hanging heavily over their heads are like to have trouble sleeping peacefully at night. By that logic, I should be the most terrible person ever to set foot on the earth, because just as I came out of dealing with a collection of pending requests from the people of the Greenbelt… Svetlana brought in another batch, in a proverbial wheelbarrow, to pour at our worn-out feet.

When Svetlana rises from her chair in Council it means she wants the floor, and is about to tell us of the troubles that reached her lap on the past month. Today she told us the story of a fisherman who recently came to work at one of our fisheries. He did so because he was chased out of his usual fishing spot, a quiet pool around the edges of the Tuskwater. According to him, a giant snapper turtle has taken residence in this pool, and viciously attacks anyone who comes close by. It must be one seriously good fishing spot, because he petitioned the Council to get rid of the turtle. 

Also today, Svetlana brought us a rumor that's been running rampant through most lumberjacks working the edges of Fumidai. One of them claims to have seen what he described as "a great spiked, wingless dragon, with paws full of claws and a mouth full of teeth". Most other lumberjacks claim the man was drunk, and probably dreamed the whole encounter. But the man in question seems very sure of what he saw: he threw a lance at the thing, and claims it fled to the South. He'd like us to see if we can find it before it attacks some lumbering operation. I looked at Oksana, but she gave me back a blank stare. Even a tatzlwyrm could probably fit that description. It could have been anything. It could have been nothing. But I suppose there's no harm in looking it over, just to be sure. 

And finally, the most important issue Svetlana had for us today, and the one that got my attention right away. It concerns a missing child. A boy called Thig Tannersen has been known to go for long walks around the edges of the Tuskwater. Sometimes he stays out for hours at a time, well into the night. His parents, we were told, are at their wits' end with him… and now he's gone. He went for a walk heading South, and hasn't been seen for the past couple of days. So either he's lost, or something or someone got a hold of him. 

Takeshi pointed out that he was familiar with the name Tannersen, and Svetlana nodded at him. This boy is the son of a blacksmith in Fumidai, and nephew to Mathis Tannersen. 

Obviously, and regardless of whose child he is, I turned to Takeshi and told him this was our top priority. If the boy is lost, the longer he spends roaming, the less likely he is to find his way back and the harder it will be for us to find him… and if something got a hold of him, the longer he's out, the less likely we are to find him in… useful time. Takeshi pointed out (and Nagata backed him up) that we still have worgs running around our farmlands, and that should be our first priority. The needs of the many, before the needs of the few. The boy is one person; the worgs are likely to kill dozens. 

I accept the logic. I can't abide by it. If there's a lost boy in this territory, along with worgs running rampant, all the more reason for us to find him before the worgs do. I was outvoted here, and I understand that Takeshi has to see to the worgs before they make more victims… but I can't help but think about the boy, lost somewhere in the wilderness, alone and likely scared. Perhaps to soothe my concerns, Takeshi promised that we'll go looking for him right away, once the worgs are dealt with. And the quicker we can deal with the worgs, the faster we'll free up our schedule to look for Thig.

Again, I am not at all happy with the decision. But Takeshi is leader, and I defer to his authority anyway. I defer to his authority publicly at least, and during Council I didn't insist. However, I plan to do everything in my power to speed up this business, and move on to searching for the lad. Even if I have to whine and bore Bear half to death until I get my way.

I think Takeshi noticed I was upset, because as we were headed for the Town Hall kitchen to pick up my beloved, delightful trail rations before we set out, he told me we were just six months away from rice and tea. The last time we were in Restov Takeshi took some time to talk to every foreign merchant he could find. He even met some who were coming from Tian-Xia, and managed to ask for a shipment of goods from home. I know when my big brother's trying to cheer me up, and for his kindness I smiled at him. But worry for the missing boy kept gnawing at me throughout our packing and the start of our journey. 

As Takeshi had determined, we first headed towards the site where the worgs had been seen last. On the very first day out, we went by two of the attacked farms to find empty buildings and dead sheep. Gruesome as it is, it's just what Nagata needs to start us off: fresh tracks. He crouched about for a few moments and confirmed the rumor: wolves, between four and seven on a pack, and one much larger than the rest. It was evident from the size of the pawprint when compared to the rest: this was a monster wolf.

(sidenote: by now I should be used to this but, WHY AM I IN THE LAND OF THE GIANT THINGS?!)

He went with the trail for about a mile, slow progress but progress nonetheless. While Nagata was looking down at the ground, though, we were looking up and around, and spotted what looked like a monk in meditation atop a low hill a way's away from us. Takeshi found it odd – it was like a figure out of one of the fighting schools of Minkai, immobile in deep concentration. He decided to approach, just to see who it was. 

We left the wolves' trail for the moment (after Nagata marked it so he could find it again) and made our way closer to the figure. Much to our surprise, around a hundred feet away, we began to realize this was no monk, and certainly no human. His skin was a greenish hue, his ears large and pointy, and a pair of tusks protruded from his lower lip and powerful jaw. His thick arms were slightly longer than his legs. I exchanged a look with Oksana as it dawned on me that this had to be a hobgoblin, and she nodded in silent agreement. Of course, this made the figure even more puzzling: hobgoblins as I've read on them are fiercely belic, a warrior race, and I could see nothing but peace and serenity in his demeanor. Everything shouted "monk" at us, with the exception of his clothes: animal hides, tree bark and moss made up most of his attire. As we approached carefully he opened one orange eye to size us up, but made no movement, aggressive or otherwise. That is, until we were close enough to talk to: then he opened the other eye to have a better look, and instantly asked, in perfect speech, what were three Minkaians doing so far away from home. 

(sidenote: this is the second person in the Greenbelt who managed to identify us as coming from Tian-Xia down to what province we come from. It's very unnerving. I keep thinking this must be a spy from elsewhere…)

The hobgoblin introduced himself as Turgut Haavel and greeted us, getting up from the lotus position. I could not get over the way he spoke. His speech was more elaborate than most hobgoblins would be able to produce – more elaborate than some humans I've met! He also told us he is a druid, and has been traveling about these parts. He knew we had to be from Minkai, he explained, because he's been there. According to himself, he's been very much everywhere anyone could be. 

Takeshi responded by introducing us, and asked if the druid possibly knew anything about a worg terrifying these parts. Turgut nodded and called it the Howl of the North. (sidenote: IT HAS A NAME?! How long exactly has this thing been terrorizing the Greenbelt if it has the right to a name?!) Takeshi explained we are after it, and invited the druid to accompany us. In return for his aid, he will introduce him at Fumidai, and to the local fey community. The proposal seemed tempting to Turgut, who replied that he's had problems going into human communities before, but if we can assure him it's safe, he'll trust us. 

I also had to ask, but Turgut didn't see a little boy wandering about. 

We spent most of the rest of the day following tracks. Takeshi and Turgut discussed at length, and I was more and more impressed with the druid as time went by. Obviously he knows his business well enough: nature seems to hold no secrets to him. He's well-versed in history and geography and dabbles in a few languages, amongst which Minkaian. At camp that night he told us that he's different from his kind, and for that has never truly been accepted among them, but for being one of them he has never been accepted elsewhere, either. Most people are unable to look past the hobgoblin to truly get to know him.   

Sounds lonely. I know he's a druid and that most druids I've heard of go about the wilderness keeping company with animals rather than people, but still…

*

The following day our hunt for the worg continued. Turgut's aid was priceless: midway through our tracking he said he would scout ahead, made himself to become a creature of pure air, and took flight in a swirl of leaves and dust. He was gone for about half an hour, and as he returned, told us the pack was close by, and likely to have caught our scent already. We had the advantage of knowing about their approach, so we waited.

Soon enough we saw the worg – a monster wolf indeed, larger and apparently fiercer than the rest of its pack. It was swiftly approaching with three more, regular-sized wolves. Yet even as we braced for the impact, Turgut conjured up a tiny, shiny marble, that once thrown at the approaching wolves became a huge orb of raging fire! I was surprised at that, but not enough to leave me dumbfounded. Nagata had tracked up to seven creatures, and I had four before me. I quickly glanced around to ensure they weren't approaching from elsewhere, before I started playing. 

The largest of them made a bee line for the largest of us: the worg came at Takeshi, and Takeshi brought the naginata down as the worg closed in. The beast lost all momentum it had, and missed Bear sorely. Bear, of course, would not let the chance go, and stabbed at it fiercely, ending its life. 

Nagata, as usual, chopped out the beast's head to present before Fumidai as proof the threat was deal with. We thanked Turgut for his help: that ball of fire made our fight much easier. He was still juggling flames and making them dance around his fingers as we spoke. It's nothing short of amazing the way he can control fire. 

But now, a new challenge was before us, as we turned our steps towards Fumidai once more, and prepared to introduce Turgut to our city… and vice-versa, as locals say. I was pretty sure Turgut would like Fumidai (sidenote: well, as much as a druid can like a city if at all…) but I was concerned on how Fumidai would like him. As we approached the city, I decided to take a gamble and held his hand. He seemed surprised at that, but I think he understood the intent. In the end, I think he would've done pretty well for himself even without our help. 

As people began approaching and gawking at him, he began talking to them. And most of the people had exactly the same initial reaction we had when we met Turgut: he looks pretty threatening, but sounds so well-spoken and educated, one has a tendency to stop and listen. The difficulty, I believe, is giving him a chance to speak, and that he got from us. Takeshi then drove the final hit on the nail by presenting the head of the Howl of the North, and explaining to the gathering masses how Turgut was instrumental in its defeat. When last I saw him, Turgut was being dragged off to the Flowing Silver by some of the city's men, for drinks and celebration. It worked out better than I could have expected! 

As for us? We took a light meal at Town Hall (sidenote: with possible exception to Monkey, who never takes light meals – only heavy), and set off once more to make the best of the daylight. Like everyone, Takeshi has faults, but of all the people I've ever met, I've always known him to do good by his word. With the worgs taken care of, it was time to look for a lost little boy.

*

We didn't have much to start with when trying to find Thig Tannersen. We knew from his parents he has the habit of walking off somewhere outside Fumidai – "exploring", he calls it – and go amiss for hours at the time, always headed further south along the margins of the Tuskwater. That was all the direction we had, so that's the way we headed as well. Along the lake we found a moor of sorts: rolling hills, muddy and damp, and a blanket of fog that parted with our every step forward, only to close behind us again. Fortunately, because of the muddy ground and the cold, footprints are preserved. And Nagata once more delivered, finding a trail of small footprints leisurely headed south. 

We followed that trail for what remained of the day and much of the next one. And it was mid-morning in the next day that Takeshi spotted what looked from afar like the ruins of an old cabin. We could have simply noted it down in the map for exploration later, as the tracks seemed to avoid it. But it's odd to find a ruined cabin with a strong, sturdy-looking fence built around it. Said fence was covered in sticks, animal bones and black feathers. A lonesome scarecrow kept watch, planted midway between the fence gates and the front door. Just as we were taking in the scenery, a raven cried out in the distance. All we needed was bloody thunder, and this was all out of a creepy tale. 

Of course, with all of those bones and feathers and odd-shaped sticks staring at us, all eyes went to Oksana. Being a witch, if these trappings were familiar to her, we should have a pretty good idea of what awaits us inside. Instead, she told of us a rumor she's heard that an old witch lives in these parts, called Old Beldane by locals. Some people claim it is a really a hag passing as human! 

(sidenote: I do my best not to let it reach my face, but it chills me to the bone every single time someone mentions hags. Like there is a fist-sized snowball in my gut that I don't notice until it bounces around and nudges at the walls of my stomach. I know what I am and what I'm not. Still, I fear the day when I will come face to face with what I truly don't want to be.)  

Perhaps there was a witch, and perhaps there was a hag. For sure, from the looks of the fence and that creepy scarecrow, the owner didn't want to be disturbed. So what did we do? What did I, with my fist-sized snowball rummaging through my innards do? I approached the rusty bell next to the gate and rang it, of course! 

A raspy, elderly voice shouted from somewhere inside the house – likely right behind the front door – rudely asking what did we want. Takeshi introduced himself as the Lord of the barony and us as his entourage, here to explore uncharted lands and meet his subjects. The voice seemed unimpressed – and still rude – but gave us permission to approach. We opened the gate and crossed over to the door, under the stare of that frightening scarecrow. In fact, Nagata seemed very interested in that thing as we went. He refused to turn his back on it, and as we went by, he whispered something about it moving…

Then the door opened and I swallowed hard at the person who opened it. (sidenote: alright… it's a fact that looks can deceive, and they do deceive. We know as much, and just a few days ago we met a hobgoblin that, under other circumstances, we might have perceived as a threat and a beast, and who turned out to actually be an ally and an educated gentleman. But the so-called Old Beldane, well… I'm not saying she looks scary, but I can see how the rumors began!) She didn't look like a hag… well, maybe not completely. But she looked like what most people conjure in their minds when the word "witch" comes around. Elderly, skinny, with wisps of white hair wrapped around her skull, skin like parchment spread over the bone, warts and a long, pointy nose, and all the makings of a fairytale witch. Her attitude did very little to improve upon the first impression: she was crude, rude and had all the diplomacy of a flying hammer. In fact, right there at her doorstep, she began looking up Takeshi from the top of his helmet to the tips of his toes and back up again, (sidenote: as if she was sizing up a ham to buy at a market stall, thinking the merchant was ripping her off) and wound up saying he didn't look like much. 

My applause to Takeshi, he didn't lose an inch of face, and went inside the cabin after her. While her back was turned, I whispered to Oksana, asking her if she thought it was truly a witch. Oksana shook her head and told me likely she had some magical affinity, yes, and probably some fey bloodline in her, but she was no witch. 

Inside the musty, dusty, mold-ridden cabin, the woman offered us a seat and disappeared into the kitchen area. I looked about at the stuffed animal heads and bones hanging from the walls, the herbs hanging from the ceiling to dry, the wooden carved statuettes and fossilized insects gracing the shelves, and wondered to myself what was coming up next. And that is when Old Beldane conquered me, shamelessly, by defrosting my frozen gut. She returned with an iron kettle spewing vapor, several clay cups, and a mason jar full of prime black tea!

I lost most of the conversation after that. Oh I know perfectly well Takeshi and she spoke, even bantered at one another, concerning her living here and Fumidai's founding, the locals, the rumors and whatnot. But my complete attention was in the woman's long and bony fingers, slowly opening the mason jar, pouring a spooful of wonderful-smelling black tea on each cup, then pouring the hot water over it, sending the leaves swirling aroundto color the water a deep, rich brown. She covered the cups and handed them to us, one at a time, and I stuck my nose inside mine at once to take a deep breath of the lovely aroma. (sidenote: SHE HAD TEA! She had delicious, strong black tea! May every one of her ancestors hold a seat of honor at Shizuru's side in the afterlife, she had tea!! May a thousand blessings fall upon her and her house, she had tea!! May every god grant this good woman a boon for her life, she had tea!!

Somewhere between my second and third sip she told us her actual name is Helga Verniex. Old Beldane is what the people call her. And most of them hate or fear her, or both. She's been accused of snatching children, making cattle ill, poisoning wells and whatever else anyone can think of. She's done none of the sort, in truth. She just wishes she could live here peacefully on her own, as she did well before any of us set foot in the Greenbelt. She did, in fact, confirm she has some magical aptitude, especially as crafting magical items is concerned. Takeshi was discussing the possibility of offering her a job by the time I was done with my tea.

And then I stuck my finger in the air to interrupt the negotiations, and ask if she would be so kind as to tell us how she came by this delicious miracle of beverages. (sidenote: I am ashamed of myself, I am! And I almost feel like calling myself baka and joining my brothers on their next spell at the watchtowers as penitence, every drop of focus I had went out the window, I confess.) She seemed amused at that, then said she enjoys it, and therefore has some leaves and seeds in stock. She was even kind enough to offer us some of the seeds, though she warned us we probably wouldn't be able to grow it in this climate. (sidenote: I'm willing to try and I'll enlist our druid friend's help for it if I must!)

While we sat there, her behavior became increasingly softer, but by no means polite or gracious. Still, at first she sounded like a fairytale witch, and as time went by, she began to come on more and more like a grumpy nana. She said she would consider Takeshi's offer if we managed to bring her back something from further south: black rattlecap mushrooms, which she told us she needs for personal reasons. We promised to look into it. 

Before we set off once more, I had to ask her the question, and I did so as delicately as I could. Had she seen a little boy walking about here? He was lost, and we were looking for him. I asked the question carefully because she told us she's been accused of snatching children – I didn't want her to think I was implying anything. But she seemed to understand my concern, and told me that no, she hardly ever steps foot outside these days, and short of the boy ringing the bell, she wouldn't have noticed him. 

We camped on the moor that night, thinking to keep following the tracks in the morning. I wrapped the tea seeds in a little square of paper and carefully hid them inside my bag. I'm already planning where I'll try to plant them. 

*

The following three days were spent following the trail of small footprints in the mud. The Tuskwater gave way to Candlemere Lake, which gave way to a river. With each passing day, I grew concerned for the boy's safety. Nagata's been doing quite the job of tracking him, and he told me time and again he couldn't see evidence of any large predators around. But even so, who knows where that boy might be? Even without anything that might try to have him for supper, he could have fallen into a bog, or gotten trapped in the terrain somewhere, or who knows what! 

It was almost a relief to finally see a possibility of where he might have gone.

While following the tracks, we looked over a fortified island of sorts sitting in the middle of the river. It was surrounded by a wooden palisade, crudely made, not like the one that used to bar entrance to the Stag Lord's fort. This was obviously thrown together a little more haphazardly, and likely with much less planning. Smoke rose as if from fires made inside. Nagata followed the tracks to the edge of the water – the boy had to have come by here. 

As we were arguing on wether to try to call attention from within, or approach stealthily and try to discover if someone in there was holding Thig, a panicked screech reach our ears from the other side of the palisade. The scream of a terrified boy.

We didn't really plan anything for the few moments we stood there by the margin. All of us rushed in without much consideration. We ran into the water and crossed over to the island as fast as we could – the water reached nearly to my neck, Takeshi had to help me or I'd be dragged by the current. All of us, that is, but Oksana, who simply flew across the water and reached over to peep inside the wooden palisade. She seemed to be talking to someone by the time Nagata managed to reach the crude-looking gates. It didn't go well, whoever it was Oksana was speaking to, because I heard her chant the sleep spell shortly after. As we reached land again Takeshi called for Shizuru's blessing, and Nagata disabled the gate. Oksana rejoined us with one word – lizardfolk – even as we marched through the gate. 

I didn't know much of lizardfolk, and I have a bit of a tendency, like many, to confuse them with kobolds, when in fact they are two very different creatures. Kobolds are dragon-kin, small and fond of strength in numbers. As shown by our success at Scottsdale, they can be reasoned with, spoken to, and treated as allies. Lizardfolk is another story: they eat most everything, and in fact regard most everything that's not lizardfolk as food. They're larger than kobolds, heavier and much stronger, and usually refuse to parley with creatures they might be sizing up for the tribe's dinner.

As we walked inside we could see several mud huts, enough to house a whole tribe of lizardfolk. Said tribe was reaching for their weapons and coming towards us. But I wasn't going to give up that easily: I asked for parley, and tried to explain we were here to retrieve a human child – no more, no less. We wanted to avoid bloodshed if we could: all we cared about was bringing the boy home. 

That seemed to set some of the lizardfolk thinking (sidenote: as with kobolds, I have a hard time telling how one of these individuals feels. They're reptilian, so it's sometimes hard to tell from body language or facial expressions how they're feeling) and the battle was postponed for the time being. I didn't need to look to know the naginata had not yet rested against Takeshi's shoulder, however, and the wakizashis had already been summoned to Nagata's hands. 

Without approaching very close, the lizardfolk pointed us to the back of the largest central hut. We followed, weapons in hand, to see a boy of about twelve curled in a ball in the middle of the courtyard between huts, screeching and clawing not at lizardfolk, but some unseen entity that seemed to be attempting to get a grip of him. Evertyhing in his demeanor spoke of fear, but we couldn't tell what was causing it. Oksana muttered something about "hallucinations" as she approached him.

Before we could follow, however, Takeshi tapped me on the shoulder. Our arrival had attracted someone else out of the huts. A larger lizardfolk male was coming our way, followed by several female-looking ones, and another kind of four-legged lizard in tow. Like a warlord marching out with his concubines and hounds. He seemed to be asking who we were and why in blazes had the rest of the tribe allowed us to come inside. This was a brute, I could tell, and I wouldn't be able to win him over with diplomacy. So I did the next best thing: I tried to intimidate him into submission, to try to make myself the larger, stronger, scariest creature of the two.

Or at least that was the plan, because I opened my mouth and my voice faltered, making my statement about as intimidating as that of a field mouse. Takeshi snickered at one of my sides. Nagata dropped his head on the other. The silence that followed my mighty, powerful mewl told me that if the lizardfolk weren't laughing at me, it was only because they lacked the facial muscles to do so. 

Instead, the largest of them said one word: attack. (sidenote: actually he said one word and it was a sibbilating, half-hissed thing that sounded very much like someone trying sneeze quietly, but I suppose it was "attack" he meant)

While my first display had hushed much of the lizardfolk tribe into submission, and therefore most of the tribe was reticent in following the orders, the females didn't seem that bothered. 

At the chieftain's word they drew javelins and began throwing. Takeshi braced and waited for their approach, while Oksana, from farther away, managed to land a snowball right into one of their snouts. The two "hounds" came at Takeshi, and the two of them got a slash across the heads for their trouble. It didn't seem to stop them: both of them bit brother Bear, and the second one got a hold and threw him to the ground. Before it could do much else, however, Nagata was on top of him, slitting its pudgy neck and saving Takeshi from some serious trouble. 

With Takeshi still prone and dealing with the first "hound", the chieftain came for Nagata. I was already playing the song, but the situation was growing dire. The females were closing in, and some males in warpaint were pouring out of another hut. Takeshi managed to get his bearings and stab the "hound" through the head, but by then the chieftain was slamming at Nagata hard enough to draw blood; Monkey called for Oksana's aid, but charged all the same, landing both hits with his wakizashis. 

To try to get the situation under control, I turned to the females, shouting every insult I could think of at them, until they fumed and were set ablaze. 

Oksana ran by me in Nagata's direction, managing to tap him between the shoulder blades and close some of his wounds, right before the chieftain landed a hit on her. By now, Takeshi was cutting through the remaining females, making heads vanish with a slash of the naginata. He went from one to another, until he reached the chieftain as well, and right on time – another blow, and I know Nagata would have been down. Instead, Takeshi's blade caught on fire, and skewered the chieftain through the heart, cauterizing the wound on the way out, and leaving that cursed lizard to fall in a heap.

(sidenote: I am very sure I saw Takeshi's blade catch on fire… I know it did, despite all the creatures burning around us. I'll have to ask him about it later on)

There were still the approaching braves to handle, but once their chieftain went down, they were somewhat less inclined to attack. Takeshi pointed the naginata at the boy, who was still squirming on the floor without any apparent reason. Again, Bear told them all we wanted was the boy, and we would be out of here right away. In a very broken speech, the largest of the braves said he had no issue with us taking the boy, but "the god" might. If we could defeat "the god", then we could take the boy, and be on our way. Behind me, Nagata whispered we should simply raze this place to the ground and get Thig… but even as he spoke, blood was falling down his clothes and face. I had no doubt that we could fight our way out if necessary, but we could certainly not take all the tribe on. Instead, Takeshi chose to take the risk: he called upon the blessings of Shizuru to close Nagata's wounds, and asked where was this "god" the braves spoke of.

We were pointed out to a farther away, smaller hut. Even as Thig continued to squirm and sob on the ground, we marched towards it, determined to best whatever it was that lived inside, grab him, and be out of here as soon as possible. 

The space was cramped, the ceiling low, and pitch black looking inside. We moved in slowly, trying to make room for everyone. At present, there was nothing here: not an altar, no symbols or images, not a living soul. Just as we had begun thinking we'd been played, a floating, lizard-like skull came into existence in the middle of the hut, in a flash of green light! I can't explain why, but the very sight of the thing gave me shivers! It simply came into existance, seemingly laughing at us, and sent a bolt of lightining at Takeshi.

Each and every one of us was scared, of that much I am sure – but we lashed out all the same! Nagata slashed away with the wakizashi, while Takeshi dropped the cumbersome naginata for the katana in such close quarters, and made a downward slash. I backed away until my back hit the wall, and did the only thing I could do: play the shamisen. Oksana chanted her sleep spell, but the creature seemed to ignore her – instead, it zapped Takeshi once more. My brothers' blades were having a hard time hitting it, the thing wouldn't stay still, and it was obviously immune to sleep…

It dawned on me then: will o'wisp. And if, indeed, it was, there was very little we could do to strike at it. My spells would be useless, only physical damage would affect it. Takeshi realized it as well, and despite our reverence for his father's katana, he was much less used to wielding it than the naginata. So he dropped one and retrieved the other, and tried to make room to slash at it. Oksana began chanting a spell again, but only got zapped for her trouble.

Then the thing turned its attention to Nagata, and landed a bolt of lightning on him so fierce it lit up the entire hut. I saw Monkey wobble, and retrieved the wand given to me by Lady Tiressia. I managed to close some of his wounds, as Takeshi kept the thing busy trying to stab at it. Oksana understood Nagata was in trouble, so she ran up to him… and felt up his butt. I was so surprised I nearly dropped the wand. I realized a split second later that she had delivered a healing spell at him. (sidenote: still, wow. Timing, Oksana! Besides if you want to cop a feel at my brother I'd prefer you'd do it out of my sight, thank you very much!

I'm complaining now, but right then I had no time to be surprised for very long. While we were trying to keep Monkey on his feet, on the other side of the hut, Takeshi was doing his best to keep the creature's attention. It must've realized what we were doing, however, and zapped at Oksana for trying to heal its target. We danced with the disembodied skull, mostly missing our hits, while it happily distributed lightning between Takeshi and Nagata. 

There had to be something else I could do, so I dropped the wand and retrieved my mace. I've hardly ever used it, though I keep it for just such occasions when I might be held against the wall by my enemies, or I run out of spells. I doubt I could land a hit if my life depended on it – if Takeshi and Nagata were having a hard time, imagine me. Still, I swung wildly at the thing, hoping to distracted it long enough for Takeshi or Nagata to strike. Oksana followed my lead: she too had little to no chance of actually doing the creature any damage, but while it was busy with us, it wasn't minding Takeshi. And Takeshi took the chance – he skewered the skull through with the naginata, and it vanished with a dreadful yell. 

Will o'wisps are known for their ability to turn invisible at will, and we weren't sure wether we finished it, or set it on the run. It hardly mattered. For the lizardfolk around, their "god" had been defeated. The largest of the braves told us to take the boy and go, before he changed his mind. And while I am quite sure my brothers would like to get rid of them all on a more permanent basis, these fights had taxed us considerably. We took the opportunity. Oksana put the exhausted Thig under her arm, we quickly searched the bodies of the dead and the empty huts for valuables, and made our way out double-time. 

It took us three days to return to Fumidai, caring for our injured as we went. Thig seemed physically unharmed, but also slightly unhinged. Later on, Oksana would tell me will o'wisps cause and feed on fear. Likely Thig was brought into the tribe to serve as food for the thing - he's been kept terrified for days now. There is a hallowed look to his eyes that we did our best to disperse, trying to distract him and getting him to chat with us. By the time we reached Fumidai he likely looked a little more like himself… sort of. He was talkative and reacted to us well enough. But whenever he went quiet, there was still that air of fear about him…

We marched him into the city and went straight for the smithy, where his father works. I was expecting a happy reunion between father and son, and I got my wish sort of… well.

Thig's father is a blacksmith and I suppose he's been worried sick. When he caught sight of us approaching with Thig, he dropped the work he had been doing and ran inside his shop, instead of at us. I found this odd, until I saw him return – with an iron ball and chain in hand. He ran right up to his son, chained him to the ball, and THEN hugged him tightly.

Well… I suppose he deserved that.  
      
———

BARD EXERCISE – Finished Composition

HAIL TO BELDANE FOR SHE HAD TEA

So thirsty were we going out in the night,
A thirst so terrible it was all but profane.
But lo – on a crooked window, there was a light,
Marking the dwelling of dear Old Beldane.

Beldane showed us in and then sat us down,
and made fun of our names and looks with glee.
But all was forgiven and all was endured,
For Beldane presented us with a cup of tea!

Beldane, Beldane, you're ever so creepy,
you grumpy old bat, you rude banshee!
You touched our hearts and left us weepy,
Nobody who's evil ever drinks tea!

For so many weeks we had felt so alone,
But our arrival here was surely destiny,
For Old Beldane took us in her home,
and served us each a steamy cup of tea!

Beldane is a handful, she comes on quite strongly,
She spits at beer and sneers at coffee,
But she had exactly what makes us all happy:
A delicious, finely brewed cup of hot tea!

Beldane, Beldane, you give me a fright,
But we left your home in divine jubilee!
And such have I reckoned ever since that night:
Nobody who's evil ever drinks tea!

(sidenote: I ran this through Takeshi, who reminded me that not everyone who drinks tea is a good person. As evident by the fact that the Jade Regent drinks tea. I asked him if he had ever stood witness to the Regent drinking anything at all and he shut up)

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Once More Into the Breach
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4713, Summer

We have been awfully busy for so long that I nearly forgot about how much walking we did last year. The truth is, we're not living in absolute luxury or growing fat on our profits, but we've been fairly comfortable, so I can't complain. Fumidai is not exactly the major city we were used to living in Minkai, but it's a very decent start.

Still, as weeks go by, I am positive we will soon return to expedition. We're pretty clear on what lies on the northern half of the Greenbelt, most of the terrain there has been explored. But our present charter also grants us power over the southernmost half, and that is very much a mystery to us. We didn't venture past Tuskwater or Fort Ameno, and the time was approaching in which legwork would be necessary once more. 

My day began with me sitting in Council at Town Hall, and hearing about all the news. The four of us usually walk in about an hour earlier, to discuss matters best kept between us, like the information Nagata gains from his dead-drop. After all, nobody needs to know where he gets his insight from – Oleg knows, and as far as Monkey is concerned, that is one person too many. 

When last Oleg went to Brevoy, I asked Monkey to enquire about our neighbors. I mean, we're doing pretty well for ourselves, but I was somewhat curious on how the other three groups fared on the course of this past year. Today, Monkey had some news for us concerning that. To the Northwest we have the Twelve Monkeys, and no news from there, which in fact bums me out a little. I haven't forgotten about that Jack Knife fellow, and I would like to keep an eye out for his activities. I can't really explain why he got stuck in my mind, but from the moment I first saw him (sidenote: and the ungodly amount of blades he carries on his person), I knew he was no good. 

To the South sit the Militant 25, and the word around is that some serious losses have been had. For lunch. By trolls. Which, in fact, does not sit very well with me either. By all accounts they were a serious military force with formal training and a combat-experienced leader. They're to the South, so that means that these trolls we are hearing about may well be squatting in our territory as well. I wouldn't like this to become our problem eventually.

Finally, the UAG travelled East, and from what we've heard they've had both alliances and brawls with a tribe of centaurs. Then I had to ask Nagata what a centaur was. According to his description and Oksana's contributions, it should be quite the impressive creature: a horse and its rider, fused into one massive, mighty creature. It got me puzzled for a bit, actually: what do they eat? Obviously a human-like stomach would not be ready to accomodate the kind and amount of food necessary to keep a horse… and some of the things humans eat would be most unfit to feed it. Where IS a centaur's stomach anyway, on the human part or the horse part? And how many of them do they have? When a lady centaur becomes pregnant, does her human belly swell, or does the horse belly? It's all very baffling to me. I'll be going to the library with my questions sooner or later. 

My musings on the nature and anatomical paradoxes of centaurs would have to wait for another time, as people began coming in the Council Room to start our meeting. According to every report, Fumidai remains stable and prosperous. We've spent a year working on infrastructure, Takeshi said, so now it's time to look at expansion and further claiming of resources. I hold some doubts on wether we should move right away to expand, or ensure our road network reaches Oleg's Trading Post first. Takeshi hopes to do so in three months tops, but it is our link to the nearest settlement, and our connection to the road to Restov, so (and I told him as much) it was a dire priority.

We went to Restov only once during the previous year – it's a rather long journey and we had to rush all the time to get everything done. Namely, shopping. The addition of magical items to our gear is much welcome. I especially like the handy haversack I ordered while I was there, and which was delivered a few days later. Unlike the bag of holding, one does not need to rummage through the contents to find what one wants: it mystically comes to the top of the bag whenever I open it. It'll come in really handy if I'm going to be using wands more often. 

(sidenote: I've read through my journal and everything I've learned on the past months, concerning accompanying my brothers and Oksana in adventures, and I believe I want to be friends with wands. My magic is limited, and sometimes I need a little boost. Using them is still tricky, but as with learning to play a string instrument, it all boils down to how much time is invested on practice)

On this Council meeting we laid the necessary documents to build the First Fumidai Bank – it's a necessity at this point. We had the regent visit us two months ago, and commerce went through the collective town roof. Takeshi spoke at length about the need to raise an army and the possibility of starting a waterfront. Nagata, on the other hand, wants to claim the former mite tunnels as his own personal lair – a fact that he's shared with us, but did not publicly discussed in Council. Again, no use having a secret lair if everybody knows where it is (duh).

We've also signed an edict to declare the birthday of our town as a holiday, the first recognized by our kingdom.

As for the news, while the proud tradition of looking over wanted posters may be lost, we are still hearing about what our people want done. Namely, Svetlana now brings the posters to us, as our Councillor and keeper of records. According to her, the Lord Mayor of Fumidai is offering a reward to whoever claims the head of a forest drake that's been sighted somewhere in the Southern Gnarled Marshes. (sidenote: there was some confusion at this part for a few minutes, as we began enquiring who was this man calling himself the Mayor of Fumidai. Oleg then explained to us that as he isn't always in Fumidai, he delegated its small management to a Mayor, so Takeshi might want to go meet his new manager soon – although if Oleg picked him out, we're pretty sure everything's on the up and up) We also have the town herbalist asking for a shambling mound's sap and the local alchemist calling for troll blood. 

Takeshi glanced at me while saying that we knew what this meant – it was time to venture out again. In fact, he wants to travel to Tiressia's grove, as we still have unfinished business with the Lady of the Woods, and her request for aid concerning a monster tree. As we head there, we will have a chance of exploring some of the yet unseen territory as well. I know why he glanced at me, because I felt the dismay coming to my face when he said we'd go on foot. 

(sidenote: the truth is, I tried to get used to riding a horse. I swear on Shizuru's golden visage I tried. Nagata even tried to help me, holding the reins while I very poorly attempted to get myself atop the saddle, walking the horse with me on top of it, even strapping me to the saddle. Naturally these attempts were held in the courtyard behind Town Hall, well away from rumour-spreading mouths, because I have my dignity. But horses dislike me, and I honestly am not overly fond of them. While I cannot help agree they're magnificent beasts, they're also very large and scary and could stomp me to itsy bitsy pieces if they were so inclined. I've seen some of the local farm women ride horses like men do, with one leg on each side of the saddle as if they were born atop it. In Restov, noble-born women very gracefully jaunt on special saddles that allow them to sit with both legs on one side and keep their dresses neat. In Fumidai, Ameno Uzume tried both styles and wished she had more hands with which to hold on to the mount, let alone command it!! I'm having a rickshaw built…

Ah, but this time, I am not making the same mistakes I did a year ago. I went to the garrison and asked the taskmaster there for a pair of boots, the smallest size he has. I also went to the local herbalist to get some salve – my feet were almost back to their regular selves now, and I'm about to torture them once more. I'm taking a fancier kimono with me (sidenote: the poor seamstresses of Fumidai had to spend a week studying my old one before they could produce anything that resembled it), but I'm wearing the old silken ceremonial – Takeshi blessed it a while ago to make it even better, and it's the go-to wear for traveling about. We had a very delicious meal the day before we departed, since we'll be getting familiar with the thrice-damned trail rations once more. And come dawn on the next day, we were walking out the town gates once again, for the first expedition of the year.

Weather is still good – Summer's at its end but not quite gone yet. After my first Winter in the Greenbelt, I learned to enjoy the good weather. (sidenote: I used to think Minkai was very cold in the Winter. I was very, very, very, very, very, very wrong…) We began by making towards Tiressia's grove, and from the hillside area of Fumidai we travelled through light forest grounds.

Right on the first day, just a few hours out of town, trouble was to find us.

We were simply walking through yet unexplored territory, and I was getting used to the idea that we'd be traveling on foot again for quite a while. That's when we began hearing someone shouting in the distance. Now I couldn't tell exactly what was being said because of distance and the breeze, but judging by the harsh sounds and cadence, I was quite sure it must be cursing. Detouring from where we were, we spotted what looked like a gnome caravan in distress. Apparently they had been attempting to cross Skunk River and managed to pull two of their wagons to the margin, yet one of them must have gotten stuck midway across, got caught in the current and was about to be dragged away, ponies and all! Several gnomes stood at the margin, yelling and biting their nails, and the wagon driver was doing his best to keep the animals calm and save the vehicle. But regardless of his efforts, the Skunk pulled on. 

We bolted to the rescue, of course! I began a tune to inspire Nagata's actions. I'd likely be of little or no use in the water (I can barely keep myself afloat let alone save someone from drowning!), but athletic Monkey was another story. He pulled out a length of rope and threw one end of it to Takeshi (who is, without a doubt, the strongest of us), tied the other end around his waist, and lept right in. He fought the current and swam to the caravan, and began to release the two ponies from their straps. I changed my tune then, to fascinate one of the beasts and lead it out of the water. My music managed to lure one of the ponies out of the soup, but not the other: it was far too panicked and almost kicked at Nagata while he tried to release it. It would pay me no mind; Oksana saved it by levitating it out of the water just enough that it could paddle to safety without the current dragging it away.

While we tried to save the ponies (sidenote: because gnomes are smaller, I am told, they usually have ponies instead of horses, or even riding dogs, which are closer to their size. I can get behind that. If these were actual horses, I don't know that I'd be able to hold one by the reins and hope it wouldn't drag me off! I'll consider telling Takeshi about this, and see if my riding attempts will be more successful with a smaller mount…), Nagata was off to work on the caravan. With Bear keeping a firm grip on his lifeline, Monkey managed to use a second length of rope and tie it around the caravan's axle. He swam back to the margin and we all began to pull on it, trying to budge it from the muddy bottom of the Skunk. The thing wouldn't move. At least not in the direction we wanted to move it – the Skunk was still pulling. Takeshi yelled at the gnomes to come help, and all together we finally managed to slowly drag it to the margin.

The gnomes were ecstatic (sidenote: most of them – one or two were chasing after the second pony. When the creature found itself out of the water, it began shaking itself and evading its owner as if vexed to be put through this situation) and yelled out a hurray. One of them (as I recall, the one who had been fiercely cursing) walked right up to Takeshi and asked to shake his hand. He had one black eye and a split lip, and introduced himself as Jubilost Narthropple, leader of the expedition. He spoke quite quickly, but as my command of the language has improved over the past year, I was able to understand him pretty well. Takeshi introduced himself as the Lord of these lands, me as Grand Diplomat, Oksana as our Magister, and Nagata as… well… Takeshi introduced him as "master of information", which I suppose sounds a little bit less shady than "Royal Spymaster". 

When Takeshi introduced Nagata, however, all the color returned to Jubilost's battered face, a twinkle came by his eye, and he said it was very good we met then, because he was in DIRE need of some information. According to him, this expedition is looking to find an ancient dwarven outpost somewhere in the Gnarled Marshes. They're explorers, just like us. Of course, sooner or later we had to address the water buffallo in the room, and ask what happened to his face. According to him, the expedition had a nasty meeting with some kobolds shortly ago (sidenote: I'm hoping it wasn't our friends at Scottsdale, that would be pretty awkward…) and could use some help finding their way around.

Takeshi offered them a stay at the Flowing Silver in Fumidai, at least until they can see to their injuries and rest from the scare they got here. Takeshi also said we are explorers as well, and we'd help them discover that dwarven outpost as soon as we take care of some business of our own. Jubilost accepted: every gnome in his entourage seemed to have his nerves frayed by the accident here, and they look like they could use the rest. So we gave him a letter of recommendation for the inn, and pointed them in the general direction of Fumidai. 

Hope they can get there without running into more problems… 

As for us, we kept on heading for Tiressia's grove. For me, it's always a delight to see the Lady of the Woods. She is so beautiful and wise… you spent an entire childhood listening to stories about the "little people" and the spirits of forests, and then you finally meet some and they're everything you ever imagined they would be. No matter how long, I'd take the journey in stride for an opportunity to speak to her. I should have known, however, that after so long living in the budding Fumidai, the wilderness would take the chance to remind us of how unforgiving it can truly be.

First, there was a baghest. Two nights after we met the Narthropple expedition, I was roused from sleep by Nagata's yelling, and opened my eyes to see him being bitten by what looked like the cross between a wolf and a large, wingless bat! We scrambled up to go to his aid, but it wasn't easy. A barghest can play on your emotions, and I began to feel increasingly sad and demotivated as I looked at it. It took me a lot of willpower to keep on playing. Takeshi saved the night, however. He seemed completely unfazed by the creature's influence. He simply charged in naginata in hand, and dropped its full weight on the creature, nearly chopping it in half. Nagata was fine, and it took me and Oksana a while to get out of the doldrums, but we managed to make it through the night.

Then, two days after that, while we were crossing some light woodland, we heard yipping barks somewhere close. Oksana halted us before we moved towards them, and informed us that it was no dog we were hearing, but a thylacine. According to her, they are a sort of half-dog half-rat beast, very vicious. We carefully followed the yips towards a small clearing. There was a hole in the middle of it, like the remains of a pitfall. Takeshi, Oksana and I carefully approached the hole, while Nagata went up a tree to get a bird's eye view. As we were getting close to get a good look of the creature, though, the ground gave out from beneath our feet, sliding away into the pitfall! I managed to jump back, but Takeshi, weighed heavily by his armor, didn't, and went right in with the creature! 

Things got a little… let us say hectic. Takeshi was trying to get back inside the hole to kill the trapped thylacine, Nagata who was rushing to the rescue landed face-first inside, Oksana tried to put the creature to sleep without much result, and I was going between panicked and trying to help my brothers, and trying not to facepalm at the fumbling results we were having. Eventually, and with the thylacine dealt with, we managed to pull the two Ameno boys out of the hole, and continue on our way. 

Talking about the discovery later on, at camp, we reached the conclusion that the trap must have been meant for Tuskgutter, the monster boar we defeated last year. We're not far from where we found it, and from Nagata's analisys, the pitfall was probably dug months ago. On our way through those woods we found some more evidence of hunters and trappers, in the form of bear traps and other such devices. We dismantled those we found. After all, they were very old, and likely more dangerous to wayward travellers than the fauna. 

Adding insult to injury, on that very night and before we could set up camp, we were surprised by a hungry pack of wolves. We've dealt with them enough to be able to take care of it, however. Takeshi is quite adept at his art, and seeing him at it is something else. He takes form, prepares, and waits for the enemy's approach, so he can pick them off before they reach him. When he manages to do it perfectly, he can take on four foes without blinking an eye. Nagata, too, has kept his skills well-honed. He is, hands down, the swiftest and most agile of us, and he's been practicing tumbling past opponents to get them from the back. He nearly has it down to perfection. 

*

A few days later, much like we bumped into the Narthropple expedition, we found ourselves caught up in another complicated situation. It came about as we left the light woodland we'd been crossing and began entering deeper, thicker woods. I remember that Takeshi had made an observation about how this would likely be a good place for lumbering. And, true enough, we spotted several carts for carrying logs up ahead, by the edge of a lovely pond filled with white and pink lillies. Also true enough, we could hear loud swearing coming from their area. And this time I could tell every single sailor-blush-inducing word. 

As we approached, we came upon a confusing scene. Two lumberjacks were apparently standing guard at the pond, while the rest waited, axe in hand, well away from it. All but one: a large man who stood in front of the other two, but seemed to be yelling at the pond itself, claiming he was going to hang someone by the feet and put them out to dry. At first I couldn't understand who he was yelling at, but as I approached, I noticed there was, indeed, someone else here. Someone submerged to the nose in the pond waters, staring defiantly at the swearing lumberjack with clear blue eyes. 

Before the man would pop a vein out of rage, Takeshi decided to approach and defuse the situation. He addressed the lumberjack first, who told us his name was Corax, and that chopping down wood was his business. He and his men came by this area for some fine pieces of oak, but as they managed to take down the first few trees, the nixie that lives in the pond hypnotized two of them and threatened to do worse before she let them disturb any more of the flora. So Takeshi turned then to the pond, where the nixie had poked her head out of the water to reply that she would, too. I could get a better look at her face then. Nixies are a kind of water fey that look like very small young women. This one was fair of skin, with hair ranging between a nearly white blonde and lilly-pink, with shells and strips of algae gracing the strands, and those clear blue, determined eyes that left no doubt that she would do well by her threats. Takeshi greeted her amiably and walked into the pond up to his knees to speak to her. He told of how we had already taken the issue of needing lumber for construction to Lady Tiressia, and of how she had given us permission to do so in a given territory. He promised to lead the lumberjacks there so they could do their business, leaving the trees around her home alone. 

The nixie introduced herself as Melisande, and said that if the Lady of the Woods has no qualms with our lumbering in a given territory, she will abide by that decision. This place is holy ground for fey, however, and the lumberjacks have taken down five of the trees around here. She demanded that those trees be replanted as means of making amends before letting the hypnotized men go. 

Takeshi heard her grievance and returned to the edge of the pond to speak with Corax again. All in all, he seemed to be playing diplomat quite well, so we stood by and let him continue. It's good practice for when he has to do it from the seat of a throne. 

He offered Corax a deal then – to lumber for Fumidai. Namely, to chop down trees in a specific territory and clear the path around this area to eventually have a road built. They'll have steady work, and as long as they keep to the places determined by the Lady of the Woods, the fey will not bother them. However, before any of that happened, we needed to replace the fallen trees. The lumberjacks, of course, know plenty on how to chop wood, but very little about planting trees. Instead, Melisande told us that we could make a tree grow almost instantly by virtue of a magical item called a treefeather token. The Lady Tiressia should have some.

We asked the lumberjacks to wait – we were headed to consult with Lady Tiressia, and we'll be back to pull them out of this situation. 

Now with a plan to solve this matter, we rushed towards the grove. It was lucky we came by when we did. I understand interactions between people and fey are not always smooth, and this could have turned sour for both ends – we're trying to build a kingdom here, and aggravating the natives is something we don't want to do, both individually and as a species. I was a little jealous of how well Takeshi handled that, and told him as much: he did really good and gained himself some time, some contractors for lumbering, and possibly a good impression with the nixie. As Grand Diplomat of Fumidai, I'm taking notes!

(sidenote: besides, I want to keep in good talking agreements with the fey. So far, every fey I've met is delightful in its own way, and inspiring!)

Unfortunately, it was only on the following day that we managed to reach the grove, but Lady Tiressia was already waiting for us. In fact, she knows the nixie Melisande, and through her own ways, knew we had met her and were on our way here. She reluctantly parted with five treefeather tokens, as they are precious and rare, but told us she understood they were necessary to pacify the nixie.

The next topic in this meeting was… somewhat less plesant. It concerned our find of a dead unicorn last year. I felt depressed to hear about it once more. To this day, it remains the saddest thing I've ever witnessed. Tiressia knows a little more now, or she believes she knows. She is sure, for one, that a fey killed the unicorn. She doesn't know which or what kind, but she's positive it was feyfolk. Some within the First World are getting restless. Perhaps Melisande will be able to tell us more once we've deal with her issue, Tiressia told us. Melisande knows all that happens in the Greenbelt wherever water can be found. Monkey beamed at this, and said he might take up talking to her sometime.

(sidenote: that would be the sight indeed. Monkey's a great swimmer and he proved as much not many days ago. But I somehow can't wrap my head around the sight of him paddling along a creature born in and of the waters, and trying to get her to reveal to him what she knows about the Greenbelt. Monkey is certainly not going to become Koi…)

As for the other issue that brings us here – the scythe tree Tiressia told us about last year. It's advancing quickly and nearing Tiressia's grove. She asked if we might be bothered to deal with it now. Time and trial have made us stronger and she is sure we can tackle it. We promised it would be a priority for us, just as soon as we solve Melisande's issue. We departed once again, with the trees opening to lead us through, promising to return with good news.

The following day we returned to find everything, fortunately, as we left it. The lumberjacks were still camped at the edge of the pond, with two of them serving as paralyzed guards. Melisande swam about the middle, keeping an eye on the rest. Corax was pacing about as we approached, but seemed happy to see us, and we addressed the nixie once again to let her know we'd been successful in acquiring the tokens. I placed one down on the ground as per her instructions, and doused it with water from the pond. And all of a sudden, it burrowed into the soft soil, came back out as a sapling, grew in girth and length, and became an ACTUAL oaktree, all within a few moments, leaves and all! My jaw dropped, then formed into a smile, and my brothers silently handed me the rest of them. While they spoke to Corax to figure our the details of their relocation, I was running around in a more joyous and giddy manner than I'd like to admit to myself, choosing places to set down tokens, douse them and watching them pop into beautiful, adult trees! It was amazing!   

With the five trees replaced, Melisande did good by her word: she released the lumberjacks from the spell, and promised she would be an ally to us. 

Now it was time we did good by our word: we pointed our steps further South, to find and end that scythe tree.

*

It came to me during our trip that we don't even know what we're looking for. Sure, I am expecting some kind of animated tree or something to that effect, but it dawned on me this morning that I wouldn't know the thing from any other tree if I was to see it. I mean, the area we're exploring is full of trees, most of them large and thick, and short of one of them poking us in the forehead, we can't tell if they're animated or not.

I brought this concern to Oksana during our second day of looking, and she said she did know, more or less, what a scythe tree might look like. She described a large tree, walking about on its roots as if they were feet, and using its thickest branches as arms. It gave me the creeps just hearing her description. But when I asked how we could tell a scythe tree from the rest if it didn't move, she looked at me blankly, and replied that she supposed we would not be able to. Which leads me back to square one, as locals say. Unless the thing moves, we might as well just have gone by it. I said to Takeshi and Monkey that we should grab some tall grass and tickle the trees as we go, and if we hear a giggle we attack. My brothers just looked at me funny, and I'm pretty sure Monkey said something about me being out of my mind under his breath. But it was a legitimate method!

On the following day we were still searching – I was looking at every tree as if it might just come at me. We took a slight deviation off the trail we were following to enter a small clearing, and that's when my worst fears came true: a tree branch bent down to swipe at Takeshi's head of its own volition! Caught offguard, Takeshi took a very nasty blow, but warrior that he is, he recomposed himself quickly, and repaid the kindness by swinging the naginata deep into the offending tree's trunk. 

The whole tree sort of… shrugged then, like it was stretching stiff limbs, pulled its roots out of the ground, and flexed its branches into life. And, frightningly enough, it was just as Oksana had described it: an actual tree, moving like a real creature and coming towards us. Oksana conjured up a dark cloud over the tree, that boomed with thunder before dropping lightning over on the enemy. By then, Nagata was gone – he had vanished into the woods, likely trying to go around the tree to strike at its back. I saw him again for a moment as one branch whipped him away, and another reached down to grab Takeshi. Throughout all of this mess, I kept on playing, cursing myself over and over that I was not able to help some more. I could see Nagata trying to get close again from behind the trunk, and getting whipped once more. He pressed on, however, driving his wakizashi through the thick bark once and again. Takeshi, evading the grasp of the branches, drove his naginata to pierce the same spot he had attacked before, making it through the bark. The creature began bleeding sap. When it toppled over, Takeshi drove the naginata deeper still, to ensure it was dead. And once it fell, it became just like any uprooted tree should look.

We had to sit for a moment and lick our wounds. The battle was swift, but not easy. From here, we would take another route to Tiressia's grove, to see what of this territory remained to be seen. Takeshi wants to make sure there's nothing else lurking about here before we move on.

Yet lo and behold, once again the trees parted and moved aside to make our journey back swift. It doesn't surprise me that the Lady of the Woods would know of the scythe tree's demise as she knew of its approach. What I did not expect was to find her in joyful tears by the time we returned to the grove. This was a truly worrisome threat to her, and we dealt with it as promised, and she was ever so grateful. We received from her several gifts in the form of scrolls, magic potions and a wand I ended up keeping. Lady Tiressia told me I might want to look into wands as a form of complementing my arcane talents (sidenote: great minds do think alike!) And for now, and the future, we count both Lady Tiressia and the nixie Melisande as our allies and informants in the Greenbelt.  

*

Things are different now, compared to last year at this very time of year. Our goal before was to see and pacify as much ground as we could. This meant long expeditions through mostly uncharted terrain, carefully managing our load and taking into account our resources. (sidenote: and so many trail rations I grew very much to consider them my nemesis) These days, we have one more issue to account for when we go out: that each time we go into the wilderness we need to return to Fumidai in time to have our issues sorted out and attend the monthly Council. It's harder work than it sounds like, as most everything is. 

Takeshi has it the worst, I believe; he has to see petitioners, solve disputes, look over countless documents detailing our economy, our productivity and our stability, and solve pending issues and requests. Takeshi's proven he has a knack for navigating bureaucracy, which, I believe, is a great quality for a leader these days. He's a good leader, an involved leader. Looking at him working, I think Grandfather would be proud of him.

Oksana's domain is everything magic. She's also been doing a lot of work for the herbalist, her knowledge on plants has come in very handy. She counsels Takeshi on how things can be made better, easier and swifter with the aid of magic. I understand there are also words being had to found a Magical Academy eventually, maybe even a caster's tower.

As far as Nagata is concerned… well. I don't know much about how he does his work and neither does anybody else, which means he's doing it extemely well. 

Right after we returned to Fumidai, and having been in the town for just a few hours, we had to hear a petition from a man called Loy Rezbin and his wife Latricia. They have a project to start their own village somewhere in the territory where we found and got rid of a tatzlwyrm nest. Takeshi didn't want to give an answer right away, but he promised to consider the proposition, and if he believes the territory is safe enough, he will give his blessing. 

There are also rumors concerning those trolls – they're moving ever towards the North. And the lack of a Marshal in our Council, the only position as of yet vacant, is making itself felt. There are plenty of us in Council, but it's still a lot of work. We could use one or two extra heads to think along with us. 

Still, the greatest concern we had on arrival was a story that landed on Svetlana's lap, and which she deemed urgent enough to bring to Council without delay. Svetlana has been doing some of the most impressive work of anyone in Council. I mean, Oleg is our Treasurer, but handling trading and money was already his business before we came to the Greenbelt. Svetlana is his wife and his book keeper, and she has the position of Councillor. That means that whenever people petition us, they have to go through her, and she is the one who determines how urgent something is and who should take care of it. It's a lot to pick up for someone whose previous concerns were if the food stores were well stocked enough to handle Winter, or wether her husband would like potato soup for dinner. 

She told us that three days ago, some cattle from a ranch in the outskirts of Fumidai turned up dead, mauled nearly beyond all recognition. Two days ago, the same happened to a girl from Fumidai. This was bad enough, but just yesterday, it happened again: a shepherd and his flock turned up dead. Both the girl and the shepherd's bodies had been brought to the garrison for burial preparation. Svetlana has no idea what's doing this, and she hasn't seen the corpses, but the people are getting worried, and rightfully so.

Of course, if we were going to look into this… we would have to go down to the garrison and see for ourselves what was left. I wasn't looking forward to it. With all the horrors I've seen, I'm never ready to see more. So when we did go, I stood a bit to the side and let the others have a look. Oksana and my brothers are much more knowledgeable than I in issues concerning the wilderness, predators, health and anatomy. The only thing I'd probably be bringing up was my lunch.

From their descriptions I could ascertain that both the young lady and the shepherd were mauled in the same way Svetlana described cattle had been, and according to Takeshi, partially eaten. Oksana believes this is the work of a large predator, wolf or even worg. So our next stop, of course, was to see the sites, where Nagata could try to track whatever did this. True to his skills, Nagata found some tracks that backed up Oksana's analisys at the site of the girl's death: large predator, wolf-like, and the trail led to a thicket of trees not overly far from Fumidai. Unfortunately, around that very thicket, the tracks became too confusing to make out. We could tell whatever did this came from and returned to the thicket… but no idea how it came to be in the thicket to begin with. Nagata even dove into the midst of the trees to see if there might be some concealed passage, but nothing turned up. 

From the site of the shepherd's demise we had a bit more luck. Nagata managed to pick up the trail once more and return to the thicket with it, but this time he clearly pointed out to us a spot where the great predator's footsteps became humanoid, went around the thicket and headed for Fumidai. It was clear: we were dealing with a werewolf. 

Now assured that we had a wolfman in Fumidai, all that was left to do was to discover its identity. And in this sense, I made use of one of my secret weapons. Fumidai is a young community, but that doesn't mean we don't have some elderly people about. Most of them followed their families here, and settled to do very much the same things they did elsewhere: mind their homes, take care of their children and grandchildren, and know about what's going on in their neighborhood. As this city grew, I made a point to know its people as much as possible. So when I need to know who's new in town, who keeps odd hours and who's been behaving oddly, I go visit the Nana Brigade. One of its most prominent members is Nana Hilda, who serves me biscuits whenever I stop by and has insomnia. And she told me that on the past two nights, when the young lady and the shepherd were murdered, she heard some spooky howling. Just yesterday, when she heard it, she peeped out her window to see someone coming into town, a little wobbly and covered in dirt. Someone she knows is a recent arrival. Someone she knows has been staying at the inn. Someone by the name of Kundal.

Armed with this, we had a break to eat something and discuss what to do. We're in a full moon now, so more attacks are soon to follow. But I keep wondering if this Kundal fellow is even aware he's a werewolf. Takeshi agrees: he is a menace, but perhaps if his change is recent he can do something about it. 

Our investigation took us to the Flowing Silver Inn next, to enquire after Kundal. The innkeeper told us that yes, a man by that name had been staying there, but he hadn't seen him today. We went up to his room and knocked, and when we got no response, Nagata picked the lock so we could go in. The room was empty, very few belongings here. But just as we were searching about, I noticed a lump on the bed mattress. Takeshi lifted up the covers, and I fought to keep my lunch down: a human ear was sitting in the bed, under the covers like a (urgh…) hidden nightly snack. It still had an earring attached. A match to the one worn by the remains of the young lady who was murdered two nights ago. 

Now the search was on. We combed Fumidai looking for Kundal, to no avail. It was as if the man had vanished off the face of Golarion. Nobody had seen him since noon and nobody had a clue where he might have gone. Again – this man was a recent arrival in Fumidai, and not very many people had had a chance to get to know him. Just in case, and as nightfall approached, Takeshi sent out the militia to warn every man and woman to stay indoors tonight.

Come sundown, we left Fumidai to go hunting for wolf.

We found him at the edge of the city, skulking about like a shadow and trying to go unnoticed. Takeshi uttered a prayer and called out to him by name. And just as soon as the first words left his mouth, Kundal charged for him. It would be the last mistake he did in his life. 

The naginata began to work just as soon as he was within reach. Kundal was swinging a greataxe, but couldn't match Takeshi's reach. Nagata ran in right away and tumbled past him at the cost of a slam. He pivoted back, and buried the wakizashis in his quarry. Oksana conjured up her lightning-raining cloud, and I began insulting him so viciously he caught on fire. Just as soon as it had begun, it was over. 

Later on, Takeshi told me he felt this had been a failure. Perhaps we could have done things differently, perhaps we could have managed to bring him back alive to face justice or ascertained wether he truly was a bad man. But now it was over – we live with the choices we make, and hope only to choose better the following time around. I replied that at the very least, the murderer has been caught, and won't be making any more victims.
  
———

So my speculation about centaurs was very much that – there's not a lot of information I could get from Fumidai Library on their ways. I sill have a lot of questions, and even went to Bear and his anatomical savvy for help. He seemed as puzzled as I was, like the question of how centaurs eat had never crossed his mind (sidenote: it had never crossed mine either. I didn't even know what a centaur was!) Something in these creatures doesn't make a lot of sense. I've narrowed it down to three hypothesis:

a) centaurs eat like humans do – they are omnivorous and could, if they were so inclined, sit at the table with us and eat the same things. (sidenote: does a centaur sit, ever? Horses usually don't sit, so can centaurs? Do they get tired of their human backs being upright all the time? Do they sleep standing up? Do they even sleep? But I digress…) They have the right mouth and teeth to eat human food, after all, there's no way they can chew grass. If that is so, they should have a human stomach too, but eat about four times as much as a regular human (sidenote: they should eat about as much as Nagata after training I'd reckon) to maintain the horse bodies. Or maybe several human stomachs as cows have several cow stomachs? Where does all of this fit snugly into a horse's body? Could even multiple human stomachs hold and transform enough human food to keep a horse? They'd have to be eating all the time and a lot of food, and while I've seen Monkey put down amazing amounts of food, I don't think he could hold a candle to the centaur.

b) centaurs eat like horses do – and therein lies the conundrum. How can they chew grass and straw if they have human teeth? Are carrots and apples a treat for centaurs as for horses? And if so, are they highly prized because having horse digestive systems, it's the most human-like thing they could eat? Do centaurs eat only fruit and veggies? (sidenote: imagine feeding a horse with simply apples… that's a lot of apples. Either their territories have endless orchards or I can't wrap my head around the logistics of it). How can a centaur reach the branches of an apple tree anyway, if it can't climb up or put a ladder against the trunk? How do they farm for carrots from atop their height? It doesn't seem feasible.

c) there is some other weird way centaurs eat that I'm not seeing. Maybe they have a specific organ just for eating somewhere between the human part and the horse part (sidenote: a mouth at the navel or… something?) Yuck. 

Furthermore, when baby centaurs are born, do they stand up right away? A tiny baby can't sit up straight when it's born – how does a centaur baby accomodate standing up right away like a horse, with having to lie down like a human? Even more concerning: how can a centaur mom nurse her baby? Does it drink horse milk, or human milk? 

What in the Shizuru's good grace would come out of a human/centaur marriage?! (sidenote: with that said, I refuse to go down this path, I don't even want to know the particulars of how a child of such a marriage could be accomplished! Every hair on me just stood on end just considering it. Brr.)

I don't know how centaurs came to be but the more I think about them, the more I realize the Gods must have had a field day with them. I imagine one of the gods bringing forth a model of his new creation which joins man and horse in perfect harmony. And then all the other gods start poiting out that such a creation has very few advantages and a lot of drawbacks. Namely, every drawback a horse has along every drawback a human has when atop said horse, and that a creature made in this manner is likely to be miserable for all its existence. Then the creating god who made the project throws a tantrum and decides he'll go along with it anyway and figure it out as he goes…

I guess I'll have to meet one to have my questions answered… the ones I can ask in polite conversation, that is…

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Chapter III - On the Founding of Fumidai

(an excerpt from "Stepping Stone – The Memoirs of Lady Ameno Uzume, published 4777)

How does a city comes into being? One is usually born to a place, believing that place has existed in that very state we know it in forever, and most of us believe without much consideration that it will remain so for eternity. A perfect painting of a city that has existed forever and will exist forevermore. Few of us will experience the making of a new place.

My place, when I came into being, was Minkai, and of course I believed Minkai had always existed in the way that I saw it at present. I did not question why the roads turned at the places they turned, nor why the herbalist was across the street from a fabrics dealer. I did not consider why a given avenue ran east to west, or if any planning had been made for it to be so. For me, it simply was, and I could conceive no other way it could ever be. My Grandfather laughed benevolently at my musings, for he had known Minkai before me, and knew that I, too, would notice how the city changed like a living creature as the years went by. But not even my Grandfather was old enough to tell me how the birth of Minkai had happened.

With Fumidai, it was a completely different experience. I see the city today, and the children who live in it, believing it has existed forever and it will continue to exist for all eternity, and I smile. Because I truly am old enough to remember its birth. 

Foremostly there was the issue of claiming territory. For the best part of nearly four months we had been exploring – getting to know our land, what resources we could command and what people we managed to bring to our cause. Eventually, however, the time came to decide on where we would begin to expand and truly form a community. Summer was slowly coming to an end, and with the most famous bandit of the Greenbelt gone, we had narrowed our options down to three possibilities.

First, there was the place formerly known as Oleg's Trading Post. For the majority of our time in the Greenbelt, Oleg's Trading Post had become our second home, and the two lovely people who inhabited it, our dear friends. Oleg had originally moved his business here to – ironically enough – escape civilization. He was not overly happy when civilization traveled South in his wake. However, civilization also meant that his tiny business had inflated into very comfortable proportions. Still, Oleg's Trading Post was not to become the heart of the barony, as we felt this was still Oleg's home, and we wouldn't think of imposing upon him more than we already had. Later, it would become one of the largest trading towns in the Greenbelt in its own right. To this day, whenever I must travel there, I visit the historic fort from where the recovering of the Greenbelt truly began.

Our second option was the Temple of the Elk, but we hardly considered it a possibility for long. We had found and claimed the Temple at the bequest of Father Kavken, and on the day we escorted him there, my brother Ameno Takeshi made a promise: that the Temple belonged to the faith of Erastil, and that it would belong to the faith for as long as he ruled the land. I believe Takeshi would have been pleased that it is so to date: the Temple of the Elk is a place of worship, and while it is not as isolated as it originally was, it remains a place of worship. At least while there is one Ameno left in the Greenbelt. 

Finally, the former headquarters occupied by the Stag Lord and his band. The fortress next to Tuskwater we christened Fort Ameno on the night of the Stag Lord's defeat. This, we unanimously felt, was the best place to start: central to our charted land, close to the water, and with great possibility for a network of roads or waterways. And this was where Fumidai was built.

Before anything was truly built however, some issues had to be addressed. We left Fort Ameno exactly as it was for another year at least – it would one day become Castle Ameno, but that was still a way's away. We enlisted Father Kavken's aid in purifying the land and driving away what undead forces remained in the terrain, and then we began hiring. 

Fumidai began as a handful of tents for workers who came in from Brevoy to build the city from the ground up. A second group of these workers was traveling East from where we would start, extending a road towards River Crossing. Most of these workers had brought along their families, hoping to start a new life here. Some had come alone yet planning to bring relatives from Brevoy once they had a house for them to stay in. Some others came by themselves to start their life anew. There was plenty of land to farm, and some traders who had been choked by competition in Brevoy had a new chance to sell their goods. 

I fondly recall the day when we first stood at the river's margin among a group of carpenters, smiths and stonemasons, wondering how we wanted Fumidai to be. After all, once the grounds were cleaned, all the decisions had to be made. How wide would the streets of Fumidai be? What schematic would be applied to the roads? Where did we think to build a shrine, or a shop? Before we began, I thought it would be something like a new bride decorating her house: deciding where the furniture would stand to make it look spacious yet cozy, or on which cupboard to keep the linens. But it was nothing like that. The scale was overwhelming. At one point, I recall, one of the workers suggested we take a mule and allow it to walk to the water, and build our main avenue on the path taken by the beast. My brother, Ameno Nagata, actually tried to do such a thing, yet the beast moved in circles for a solid quarter of an hour, laid down on the grass and yawned at him before he could convince it to walk to the water – and when it did, it took so many turns we were quite sure it wanted us to build a very large plaza instead of a road.

Takeshi, of course, had a plan. Every morning, he got up at sunrise and took a horse to see how the works on the road to River Crossing were faring. We had amassed quite a bit of wealth and had the help of Brevoy in resources, yet Takeshi knew we had to begin producing for ourselves as soon as possible. His goal was to extend the road past River Crossing, and reach Oaktop Silver Mine. Silver was a precious resource that would make our lives much easier. So after some time arguing where this or that building would stand, Takeshi turned to the men, and pointed them at the river margin. A foundry, he said, was the first thing to build, and it would stand exactly where he was pointing. 

Once the road workers had reached River Crossing, Takeshi began assigning parcels of land out to farmers. Homesteads were built, at first simple cabins, eventually larger constructions. Most of these first few farms began planting almost before they had a roof over their heads: potatos and sweet potatos, wheat and beans. A month later, no doubt inspired by our time exploring the land, we built a fishery there was well. 

The foundry was ready to start operating around the time the roads reached Scottsdale, and the inflow of silver allowed us to proceed. By then, there were less tents and more houses. As we noticed patterns of movement from the workers every day, we began to realize the streets and alleys nearly drew themselves. 

Once the foundry was done, Takeshi chose a close by location for a smithy – the very same that still labors in Fumidai to this day. And once the smiths had a place to practice their trade, Takeshi all but vanished from our sight. Nagata began managing the road workers' progress, and Takeshi continued on the city, spending as much time making decisions as he did working the forge.

As for myself and Oksana, we did what was left to do. Oksana lent her magic where it was needed most, sometimes accompanying Nagata to see the road workers, seeing to workers that got injured or fell ill. Sometimes she accompanied me, and while my brothers created a city, I was seeing to its soul.

Whenever possible, I made the rounds of the workers and their families – getting to know them, hearing their stories, asking what I could do to make their life easier or happier. I repeated the exercize well into my career as Grand Diplomat (although sometimes with my brother Nagata on tow, as he became familiarized with the city from above). One measures how well a city fares by the happiness of its inhabitants, and sometimes citizens who are allowed to vent their frustrations and problems with someone who can truly do something for them is enough to make them happy. 

Some of my opponents accused me often of parading about Fumidai, going for walks instead of poring over the numbers, speaking to strangers and placing myself in the way of danger instead of discussing edicts with other politicians. I believe once or twice I've heard people claim I spent most of my time in office away from the office. But these people were born to their nations, whereas I helped to birth mine. When Fumidai began rising from the ground, we had a population of perhaps 200 people, mostly workers, farmers and their families. Six months in, we had about 3,000 citizens living in Fumidai, and nearly a thousand in the countryside. Someone who claims getting to know and listen to all of these people is light work obviously should cover himself, his ignorance is showing. Naturally, I could not reach 3,000 people then as I cannot possibly reach all the people of Fumidai today – but I tried to reach as many as I could. I knew who went hungry, who needed medicine, what kind of services people needed most urgently, what they felt was missing in the city. Remember: this was before the census, and the only tool I had on how many people lived in this nation was my notes and my memory. 

Perhaps because of those opinions, the Flowing Silver Inn was built soon after the inauguration of the first foundry. Alas, it no longer exists – the building is presently occupied by an apothecary. Still, it was the fastest building to be erected in Fumidai then, as every able man in the community took time to help. An inn (which for some time doubled as mess hall for the workers) meant drinks and warm food, precious commodities when one is out in the country. Not only that, it provided those first inhabitants with a place to meet, exchange opinions, and rest after the day's work. I fondly recall the innkeeper, and even more fondly do I recall his daughter, who was of an age with me then, yet much taller and wider than I would ever be. I don't believe I ever saw anything but a smile on her face. She truly was born for innkeeping, and was an inspiring figure for her good humor in the face of adversity.

By then, our road network had reached the fangberry valley, and foragers and farmers were actively improving on the original fangberry bushes to build an orchard. All the same, we extended a trade route to the gold mine we had stumbled upon during our exploration, and prosperity followed.

Oh, but I make it all sound so easy, retelling our victories one after the other as if everything went like clockwork. My memories were tinted rose by time. But while I do prefer to recall the good times, it is important to also recall the less good times. Beasts and bandits still roamed the Greenbelt despite our efforts. Accidents happened, as they do. We battled the weather, the distance and time everyday from the moment we took it upon ourselves to settle these lands. We fretted over the state of crops. We settled hundreds of disputes between workers. Twice, fires broke in newly begun Fumidai: once from lightning strike, and once from the careless emptying of a pipe. It is important to realize that while we were a nation under Brevoy back then, much like we would have our own local coinage, we would have our own local law – an extensive document that was dictated, decided upon, forgotten about, recovered when needed, amended far too often and argued over on the course of months. At certain moments, the coffers were empty, caravans carrying mineral or cereal were lost to wolves of thylacines, people were lost and mourned dearly. It was not always easy. 

Yet the first year of a new place hardly ever is. We were not sure if Fumidai would fall apart at the seams. But we pulled through, in true Tian-Xia fashion, thanks to hard work, determination and trust in one another. 

Fumidai grew more and more every day. Before I knew it, the first trade shops had appeared, more houses, and eventually a garrison. Winter was already underway then, and we were concerned about it. Fumidai was still very young and we feared we would not be able to withstand the rigorous season. But we did not only withstand it, we thrived. So much so that at the beginning of the following year, First Fumidai Bank was founded, and with it a mint. I was there to witness the coining of the first gold piece of Fumidai. In fact, one can still see it: Takeshi saved it, and eventually it became a permanent piece of the Fumidai Museum. 

At the start of Spring and with basic amenities taken care of, it was time to uphold the arts. The Fumidai Lyceum was founded in March, staffed by myself, a handful of bards from Brevoy, a painter and portrait artist, and an old lady called Merinda, who joined us out of having nothing better to do, who swept our floors and kept our books. I loved the building on the day the last roof tile was placed, and I love it today. It has hardly changed in anything. I remember when we had the massive building for five or six people. Today, it looks crowded at any given time.

On the other hand, Town Hall was built about the same time, but it is one of the buildings that changed the most. It began as a simple hall meant for perhaps twenty people. It grew considerably, and quickly, as it was required to fit a larger staff, more members of the Council, archives and tomes and the city's coffers. When I gaze upon it today, I can hardly recognize the original structure. I remember it as a small wooden shed, far removed from the stone steps, the multiple stories, the fountain in the shape of a coiling dragon and the marble floors it shows today… 

Our Council was held in Town Hall from the moment we were sure it would keep out the rain. Father Kavken was our High Priest even before a single brick was placed, but more people quickly joined. Managing the realm was hard work, and we needed all the help we could get. Oleg Stevenson, with an obvious knack for business, became our Treasurer. His wife Svetlana became Councilor on the same day. It was an obvious choice: she had been Councilor for her husband's business for years. I was given the same position I occupy today: Grand Diplomat. My brother Nagata was, unsurprisingly, Master of Spies. And Oksana Zima, our Magister, in charge of all things arcane.

Our most difficult decision truly was in what concerned the top ranking officer of our armies, and the keeper of our territories: General and Warden were two positions that had to be filled as soon as possible, and we had two very interesting candidates: Lord Kasten Garess, who had come here running from his past, and Akiros Ismort, who lent us his sword on a moment of danger and earned our trust quickly by his honesty. Garess, of course, was the perfect candidate for General: he was formally educated and used to leading men already, whereas Ismort was used to walking the Greenbelt and an accomplished brawler in his own right, and would likely make a decent Warden. The problem was that both men wanted the other's perfect position. Ismort was looking forward to becoming general, and Garess felt much more at ease on the countryside, than within the garrison. Ultimately, Takeshi would not go against their own heart, but allowing Ismort to become General came with a caveat: that he learn quickly, and manage to achieve the formal education he was lacking. 

And yet, it worked. And proof of that is that presently I am sitting here, writing these memoirs in the heart of Fumidai, so many years later.    

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The Siege at Tuskwater Fort (or How I Realized We're All Dummies)
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4712, Summer
We arrived at Oleg's late at night. I dropped on the bed feeling in every way like I could sleep forever. I didn't even bother to have anything to eat. Still, before I finally managed to get some rest, I saw Nagata making for the walls, likely ready to do penitence over hitting Takeshi by mistake a few days ago. We've been through this before, and I know nothing short of an attack on the fort would get them to leave the post, so I bid them a good night with a resounding BAKA and went to get myself, as locals say, some shut-eye.

I had been hoping we'd spend a few days here, but on speaking to Takeshi the following morning, I realized it would probably be less time than I would have liked. Takeshi had spoken to Oleg as soon as he got up and made his daily obediences, about establishing a trading route to get supplies to the kobolds, and Oleg was already setting aside blankets, tools and food. It is Takeshi's intention to escort the wagon all the way to Oaktop Silver Mine, and from there, set off on expedition again. 

I have blisters on my boils and he's already talking about setting off again. I refuse to argue with him because, again, I know this is necessary and settling a kingdom requires a lot of hard work. But there is no salt bath in creation powerful enough to restore my poor feet to what they once were. Just hearing about a new expedition I felt more tired than I'd ever been. It's taking a toll on the rest of me, too: I think I've lost some weight and there are purple circles under my eyes. My back resents me for sleeping on the ground for so long. I'm just shy of my eighteenth birthday and I'm feeling like a grandma of eighty. I don't complain, though. I just hope that sometime in the future we'll have everything set to start our kingdom and the legwork diminishes somewhat.  

We had a new visitor at Oleg's Trading Post that morning – a man who popped into existence out of thin air, wearing heavy robes, and addressed Takeshi as if he knew exactly whom he had to speak with about the issue that brought him here (which, all in all, is sort of unnerving). He introduced himself as Laeren Velzim, head wizard of the court, and said that "it had been revealed to him" that the Scottsdale tribe had been pacified and the bandit activity in this area was considerably diminished. Takeshi explained our efforts in pacifying the Greenbelt, and collected a very generous sum as a reward – while the wizard was here, he also enquired about the crafting or purchasing of magical items from Master Velzim, and arranged to have a trip to Brevoy at some point in the future, for browsing. Magical arms and accessories, he said, will serve us well in the trials to come. 

Wonder if I can find a pair of magical shoes that make the going easier…

The following day, with the supply wagon for Scottsdale nearly assembled, Takeshi called for a meeting during breakfast, to decide on where we're headed. Looking at our map, we have narrowed down the general area where the Stag Lord probably has his headquarters. Takeshi would like a look at it before we decide to venture in to get him. Nagata also got some tidbits from his dead-drop friends. It appears that after Lord Garress was disowned by his father, a dwarf was brought in line for the next head of the house – likely one of the men from the clan allied to the Garress. As for poor Tania… nobody really knows where she went. 

That afternoon, we went out to hunt for supplies. (sidenote: whenever we go hunting prior to an expedition I feel a sense of dread and despair. It means we'll require lots of travel rations, and that means we'll be out for a long while.) We hauled a nearly complete bull carcass back to the outpost, which gave us a whooping ONE HUNDRED RATIONS to carry out for the expedition. (sidenote again: I'm gonna be walking these hills and marshes forever like so many cursed ghosts…)

It took us five days to return to Oaktop Mine. On our way, Takeshi asked me to carefully mark the path we take, as this will likely be our first trading route across the land. That was the most leisurely part of our seventh expedition. Oleg was driving the wagon, and despite it being full of supplies, we took turns riding next to him. There are perks to traveling in a caravan – the going is slower, but you grow less tired, and as Oleg clearly demonstrated, it's easier to bring proper food along instead of trail rations. Oleg set out with a good few lovingly prepared meals Svetlana packed for him. We set off with a hundred trail rations in a bag of holding. 

(sidenote: when our kingdom is formed and growing I intend to talk to Takeshi about setting up a three-day or so festival to commemorate our efforts in exploring this land. The main event will be the Trail Ration Cookout – in which aspiring, talented cooks will attempt to make trail rations into something edible and delicious using only ingredients that can be foraged in the wild. The best dish receives a sum of gold as a reward and the eternal gratitude of Ameno Uzume). 

We finally arrived on the morning of the sixth day, and the kobolds seemed very happy to see us and the supplies we were bringing in. After a year under the rule of that fake shaman and waging pointless wars with the mites, they were in dire need of help. Chief Sootscale asked about the possibility of getting his people some crossbows – kobolds usually hunt with spear, but that means getting up close and personal, and despite fierce, they are still small. Ranged capacity would likely improve the results of their hunting parties. Takeshi had a word with Oleg about it – with the money we have coming in, we can outfit most of the tribe. At this point, Scottsdale has twenty or so members, and finding twenty or so crossbows will likely not be that hard. We have quite an investment out of our own pockets in these supplies, but I trust that it will pay off once the mine begins producing silver once again. 

For the time we were there, a couple of kobold scouts approached us as well, saying they'd found something in their last outing we might want to hear about. They described an area nearby in which there used to be a ferry across a river that is quite the problem to cross everywhere else. While looking for game, the kobolds described some creature that came out of the very waters as if it was part of them, and looked in everything like an animated corpse. The kobolds managed to best it, but that night, the two members of the scouting party that killed the creature were afflicted by nightmares so vicious and terrible they lashed out at one another until both were dead. And the following morning, the remaining scouts were appalled to see the undead creature once again walking on the waters, laughing at them! Of course, the kobolds realized they were out of their depth, and fled back to Oaktop as fast as they could. 

Takeshi heard the tale with a grim look on his face, then began to ask questions: could they give us a more detailed description of the creature? Did it talk? Were they sure it was a corporeal creature? Were they positive it had been killed, only to reappear the next morning? The kobolds nodded and shook their heads, and tried to describe the thing to the best of their abilities. According to them it looked in everything like the regular undead: an obviously deceased, rotting body that moved, walked, talked and apparently thought. Takeshi said he would suspect a dread zombie or dread ghoul, but none such creatures has ever been known to walk on water. The kobolds insisted on this point several times, however: it formed from the water and walked on it, and when it died it melted again into the water as if it was part of it. The fact that it returned after it had been slain, and that it managed to haunt its enemies into fighting to the death reminded me of the tales I've heard of ghosts. But ghosts, Takeshi assured me, are incorporeal creatures. If this had been a true ghost, then the kobolds' spears would have had no effect. Bear brought up a theory that this obviously has to be some kind of undead that behaves like a ghost, so it obviously has some unfinished business in the Material Plane. Resolving that business is likely the one true way to get rid of it. 

I recalled that the first time we met Mathis, he told us of similar rumours: an undead guarding some kind of bridge or crossing. So obviously, we were going to investigate.

(sidenote: I have never seen an undead before and I would be very happy if I never did… the very idea of a dead creature returning from beyond gives me the heebie-jeebies. There are a thousand stories in Minkaian folklore concerning ghosts and the living dead, and roughly nine-hundred and ninety-nine of them end poorly for the living characters!!

Before Oleg set off to the Trading Post again, we ran the story by him, and he confirmed the rumor Mathis had told us about. There used to be some sort of tolling operation down the river, which was abandoned when the Greenbelt was lost to bandits. Whoever was running it was never heard of again. (creepy!)

Monkey was quite vocal about killing it. He said a thing like that couldn't be allowed to walk around, it wasn't natural! Yet Takeshi explained it would do no good to kill it – the kobolds did, and look what happenened to them. Nagata argued he would kill it better and as many times as it took for it to understand it was supposed to stay dead. Bear had to convince him that it's a better idea to try and speak to the thing first, if it parleys, and discover what's keeping it here and if we can do something to send it off. 

So after seeing Oleg depart and promising chief Sootscale we would look into the issue and get rid of the undead creature, we set off once again – uphill, downhill, past the sycamore tree once more, and in the direction pointed by the scouts. It was a quiet two days, as we were all looking forward (or not at all) to see this undead thing that came out of the waters. I was reminded of a Minkaian tale about a water ghost that haunted a river, and the fisherman who not only saved himself from joining the court of the dead, but also managed to outwit the ghost from killing people for several years, until eventually he managed to send the apparition off in peace. It's one of the few stories I could recall in which the living character doesn't die or has some other misfortune happen to him on account of his supernatural experiences. The spirits in Minkaian folk tales are always vicious. I wonder how the ghost stories of the Greenbelt are… 

I asked Oksana but she shrugged and said it was probably not the best time to tell scary stories, and that she would tell me a few folk tales from her country once we were done with this. 

It was on the dusk of the ninth day of expedition that we approached a ruin on the river margins. It was once a ferry, of that there was no doubt: on each margin there was the ruin of a dock, and a rope ran between two post to guide the ferry to safe harbor. There was no ferry to speak of, however, not even a dingy. A sign near the post read "Ring Bell for Service – 5 copper pieces", with a bowl beneath it to receive the coins, and a rusted bell above it to ring for the boatman. Appropriately, there was sepulchral silence. Only the fast river water made a noise. No sign of anything lurking in the waters.

I was going to say that this was hardly a good time to be summoning up ghosts – night was approaching and this was spooky enough without the darkness. Takeshi agreed, but by another logic: we had been walking all day, and were in no condition to do battle if necessary. We camped within sight of the ferry, but it wasn't a peaceful night. Nagata began his watch pacing back and forth between us and the river like a tiger in a cage. On my watch, I tried playing a little tune to cheer myself up, but the air was so heavy around me that even the most joyful song I know gave me an impending feeling of doom. When Oksana took my place, it took me forever to fall asleep. And when I did sleep, I dreamed I was a fisherman in a tiny raft, throwing nets into the water to catch people falling into the river before the water ghost could get them. When I awoke, Nagata was pacing again. Breakfast was eaten in silence, and as we packed and made for the ferry crossing again, there was a general feeling of getting this over with in the air. 

Takeshi went straight for the post with the bowl, the sign and the bell, and deposited two shiny silver pieces – enough to pay for four people crossing, according to the sign. Then he rang the bell three times. 

At first nothing happened. But after a few seconds, a shape began emerging in the middle of the river – just as the kobolds described, as if the waters themselves were gaining consistency and building up into a creature. As it loomed closer to the margin, it kept forming, until we were staring at the dessicated, rotting corpse of a man, wet hair falling in clumps from its ruined skull, pieces of innards peeking from a gash on its side, and what looked like a massive harpoon in hand! And as it made its way towards us (I remember being frozen by the sight, but Nagata had both wakizashi in hand and Takeshi had taken the naginata off his shoulder), and before Bear could ask it anything, a voice emerged from the creature's mouth. A soggy, eerie voice. And what it said was quite clear: we were not whom it sought. It wanted us to bring it the Stag Lord's corpse and hurl it into the river, that it might see him dead. Or else, we were bound to join him in the waters.

Takeshi began backing away from the margin, and as he was the one closer to the water, we had no choice but to back away with him. As we put distance between us and the creature, it quite literally laughed in our faces and melted into the river again, as if it was, indeed, made entirely out of water held together by some force. 

After that, we returned to the place where we'd made camp the previous night to discuss what we had seen. More than ever I felt like a soothing cup of tea. The image of that thing rising from the waters and walking over them as if they had been solid ground creeped the ever-loving wits out of me. Nagata recalled this was the same river we'd followed down from the hotsprings, and from what we had seen of it, there were likely very few places to cross it safely. Recovering and refitting this ferry would be very useful. Plus, Nagata wanted that thing gone as soon as possible – he would not allow a creature like that to walk the land. Takeshi was in agreement, but of the opinion it was pointless to fight it. That thing was once a man, likely a man the Stag Lord murdered, and it had informed us very politely that it could not rest until it was sure the Stag Lord had died. Our objectives aligned: the Stag Lord was our next goal, and we had been delaying it long enough. The time was ripe to head South, and discover where he was hiding. 

We returned to the Oaktop mine briefly, to inform chief Sootscale of what we must do, and then we set off southwards, on a mission to end the Stag Lord's realm of terror once and for all.

******

For the first time, we marched South with the intent to do battle. Up until now, our travels had been of exploration, or plainly running away from pursuit. The clearer objective made the trip seem to fly by. We spoke at length of what else we would be keeping an eye out for during our trip. I recalled Lord Garress telling us about a man who used to run with him, Falgrim Smeeg, who ran south to join a group of bandits, and we were very sure we might find him with the Stag Lord. I pulled the wanted poster I'd taken from the Trading Post, with a depiction of Smeeg's face, and had everyone have a good look at it, in case we saw him. Lord Garress would rather we capture the man alive, so we would have to make an effort to keep him safe if it came to battle, which most likely would. 

We followed the river south, and Nagata's theory seemed pretty evident – the waters were too deep and fast to cross safely at any other point than the ferry. Eventually, we found a place where another arm of the river joined the main course, and began following that. The waters were quieter and less deep there, and we hoped to be able to swim across it further ahead. Despite everything, there were saving graces to that trip. Nagata seemed very interested in the waters for a while. At first, I thought he was still looking out for traces of the undead, but after a while, I realized his interest was much simpler: fish. 

That evening, the thirteenth since we left Oleg's Trading Post, we camped near the margin and Nagata tried to fish. The water was shallow enough that he could wade in to his thighs and stay still for long enough to stab through some fishes. He even managed to very acceptably fillet some! It's been so long since I had properly cut fish! It's not bonito or salmon, but still immensely tasty. We even tried to convince Oksana to eat some, but she looked at us as if we were insane. Instead, she took a whole fish and roasted it over the campfire. Smelled pretty good, but I'm positive it's not as good as the raw deal. Besides, you couldn't get any fresher than just caught – why ruin it in cooking?

As we gulped it down, we made a list of all the things we must try to get from Minkai to make it perfect. Some rice, foremostly, and soy sauce as well. I would like some anko paste and ginger pickles too. Oh, and wasabi, seeds or shipped whole so we can grate it and get the freshest sting we can! Nori as well, although I am curious as to how some of the local algae fare as foodstuffs. As we kept on listing things, I was trying to explain to Oksana what they were, and she wrinkled her nose several times. But I'm sure if she had a proper tasting, she would likely enjoy it. 

It was a good night, with a belly full of fish. The following day, we continued following the river – we're pretty sure this is the Thorne. Further ahead, it will rejoin the Shrike, like as not, and continue South. 

I would have liked to say we had a very uneventful and very delicious trip – for as long as we could, we forgot about the trail rations in favor of freshly caught fish, and after a few tries, even Takeshi was growing adept at catching them with the naginata. Unfortunately, while we were camping in the margin around the dawn of our fifteenth day, we were roused by Nagata yelling for backup. A giant centipede had come by our camp, and even as we scrambled to our feet, it stung Nagata pretty badly. 

The battle was much more difficult than the one in the mite lair. This centipede had the advantage of room to move, so it wasn't an easy fight. It ended with Nagata succumbing to the poison and Takeshi seriously wounded. Oksana and I were mostly untouched, but my brothers took the brunt of the centipede's might. We spent the day right there, tending to our wounded and resting. It would have been unwise to simply continue south with two people in such dire need of medical attention. Takeshi used the blessing of Shizuru to close their wounds and halt the poison in Nagata's blood. So on that day, it was our job to fish – Oksana totally cheated by putting the fish to sleep. So I figured it was just fair I used my music to fascinate them into stillness, then picking them off the water with my mage hand. Perhaps it was slower than stabbing them through the water, but it did the trick.

Just taking time to rest at camp reminded me of our first few days in this land. Camping in the woodlands for days, trying to figure out what we were doing next, start learning the language, living in hiding at the edge of the villages. Nagata went about the farms, taking some vegetables here and there, production the owners likely wouldn't miss. When he went to town, he always brought coin back – coin we did not overly ask where he found. It was the difference, sometimes, between going to bed hungry and not. I remember I used to find myself a corner where lots of people went by, sit down with a pot or bowl next to me, and play for hours for some money. Eventually I improved my number – I'd make origami animals to move about with prestidigitation, making them dance as I played. When the weather was good, I was like to make some fair amount of copper pieces in an afternoon, too. And Takeshi – well. Takeshi actually found jobs in the villages. Mostly odd jobs, like unloading ships and boats who came by the docks, in inland villages as stablehand or all-around helper. Anything he could do, really. We went very much from the edge of a village to another, until we managed to get a good command of the language. Then we began going into villages and staying at inns. Speaking the language was the difference between Nagata clearing out every shady gambling den in a town, or being unable to understand gambling rules. I could now negotiate to play at inns and taverns, and Takeshi could sell his skills at the smithy. 

I thought then I would never be as tired as when we first arrived in this country. I was wrong. Still – we've come a long way from those first few days. With this in mind, we dismantled our camp on the twentieth morning since the expedition began, and continued to march South.

Around mid-morning we spotted a great valley from atop a hill – like a wrinkle in the earth, between several heights. Likely it would have gone unnoticed, if not for the ungodly amount of thornbushes populating that particular wrinkle. And thornbushes like I had never seen – some taller than me (sidenote: some taller than Bear!!), thick, dense, and with thorns like stakes, some as long as a hand. Looking at our map, we reached the conclusion we must be at the place Bokken had mentioned to us so many weeks ago – and these would be fangberry bushes! 

There was also something else that made us notice the place. The equally ungodly amount of white, spindly silk weaved between them, among them and atop them. If not for the way it waved in the wind and the temperature, I would've said I was looking at bushes from a wintry landscape, covered in snow. As we carefully approached, we began wondering aloud at how many spiders it would take to make such a thing. I began to wonder if it was better to find a single, lonesome yet gigantic spider… or thousands of tiny ones. (sidenote: alright – comparatively I think I'd rather have the big one. At least like that we can all direct our attentions to a single target, instead of running around stomping our feet and shrieking at tiny bites like fools!)

Close by, I could spot some bright yellow, thorny berries deep set in the innermost branches of the bushes. The ones closer to the edges, of course, would be pilfered by birds and animals with ease. It would be quite unpleasant to venture into the thickets to get them due to the thorns, let alone the promise of spiders. Takeshi said we shouldn't miss the opportunity while we're here though, so we began picking up berries – the ones that had escaped the wildlife and could be reached by stretching out an arm carefully through the thorns, or the ones I could see and nudge out with a mage hand. It was slow and complicated work, and the valley was some good three miles long! Still, around the edges we went, carefully pulling berries into a bag.  

The following day, we kept at it. But eventually, it became obvious we would have to move further inside the thicket. By the time we had gone all around the bushes, we were still just about halfway there. With no more berries to grab from without, it was time to brave the thorns. Takeshi and Nagata exchanged a look and braced to push in, and begin "digging" a path through which we could all pick up more. No sooner had they gone ten or twelve feet in, a wave of spiders, each about the size of my thumb, began crawling out of everywhere, accompanied by what sounded like someone's teeth rattling together (sidenote: later, Oksana would tell me they are called "chewing spiders" because of that sound). As Bear and Monkey started to get swarmed they pulled back, and the grass became pitch black from all the tiny vermin crawling out after them! As they rolled about and slapped their arms and legs trying to get rid of them, I pulled the wand of burning hands from my bag, and after several tries (note to self: practice more!) I managed to torch the swarms to cinders without setting any of my brothers' eyebrows on fire.

Before the spiders would regroup, we picked the area as cleanly as possible, and Monkey and Bear ventured in again to take some more. Every time they came back out of the bushes they had new cuts and bruises, and by the end of the day they were bloody, tired and made into mincemeat. I looked over the full bag we managed to get, and Oksana considered that perhaps these were not the best fangberries we could possibly pick. But for the time being, it's the best we could do. The berries went into the bag of holding, and I spent most of the evening pulling thorns from my brothers' backs and arms with a pincer.   

We kept heading South for nearly a week without much incident – carefully observing our surroundings as we went, looking for signs of a fort or fortress near a lake where the Stag Lord would have his base. I remember on one night camping in the hills, we felt a great shift of the air above us, as if something immense had flown overhead. We couldn't see anything (sidenote: especially not anything green) but I slept next to Takeshi all the same that night. 

We spotted the fort on the twenty-seventh day of expedition, and Nagata found several boot tracks to confirm we were headed the right way. The night before we stormed the Stag Lord fort, we slept cautiously without a fire for the first time in a while.

*******

Hindsight is the best kind of sight, because it is always accurate. And on hindsight, the Ameno clan and their friend Oksana are dummies. We quite literally found the hardest, most convoluted, less effective way to storm the Stag Lord's fort. We made a terrible plan that backfired in horrible ways and we still kept with it. So perhaps we are not master tacticians, scholars of common sense or even moderately smart. But we are persistent.

It all began with our first sight of the fort. It was set right where the Shrike flowed into a lake, and was surrounded by a tall wooden palisade. We could also see some dark stone towers that seemed to be all but ruined, certainly much older than the rest of the fort. Oksana attributed this to ancient constructions that allegedly dot the lost lands of the Greenbelt, built by some people called Yonbari. Probably whoever built the fort did so atop one or more ruined buildings. The fort was protected on all sides by hills, and the watchtowers seemed to be ever-vigilant towards the front and sides. A beaten dirt path ran all the way to the gates. 

Now if we had been moderately smart, we would have realized that the passphrase give to us by a captured bandit so long ago was worded such that it implies someone asking you a question. Like, for instance, "Who goes there?" I went back on my journal and I even considered this the first time we heard it. But somehow, we did not reach the conclusion we could very well approach, wait for some of the watchers to inquire who went there, and reply with the passphrase. I don't know how I can convey the amount of knocks I gave myself once it was all over and I realized this could have been so much easier. I suppose it was a language glitch that caused us to forsake it. Or perhaps we were so nervous about the whole thing we completely forgot about it. 

The second moment where we should have stopped to contemplate if our plan was sound, was when Nagata suggested an approach through the back of the fort. The landscape was ripe with large boulders and bushes, and we could probably go around the fort to the back, where no visible watchers were on duty. Now, maybe I wouldn't have reached it, but from a tactician's point of view… why was there no need to guard the back of the fort? Sounds like there's something we're missing, right? Well – both of my brothers wondered aloud about how we should be careful as there must be a reason why the back of the fort was unguarded. And still he went ahead with the plan! 

So we began a very elaborate game of hide and seek come dusk. Nagata took point, sneaking between obstacles and watching for the watchers, giving us a sign when it was safe to cross over to the next one. We crossed between obstacles one at a time, waiting until the watchers were distracted or looking elsewhere, then rushing ahead for the next hiding spot. Painfully slowly, we went around to the back, and indeed, no watchers seemed very concerned with looking behind. The hide-and-seek game became easier the further to the back we went. I could tell it made the others concerned. It made me concerned. Why weren't they guarding the back of the fort? And still, knowing fully well we were likely headed towards an unpleasant surprise, we pressed on! 

Persistent, if not overly smart.

Now behind the fort, and still from one boulder cover to another, we began approaching the palisade proper. By now, night had fallen, and while I could see without a problem, I know my brothers and Oksana were relying much on the fort's own lights to tell where they were headed. Still taking point, Nagata ran behind a boulder as close to the palisade as he could get… and that's when the ground around him started moving, as skeletal hands popped out of the dirt and began digging themselves out and reaching for him. Four foul-looking zombies (sidenote: seriously Uzume? Is there such a thing as a fair-looking zombie?!), their sleep interrupted by Nagata's soft steps, were now surrounding him from every side! 

We had decided upon stealth with this plan, but stealth went right out the window at that moment. In my head, my big brother was in danger, and helping him was the priority, so all idea of silence was gone – I began playing for courage, and Takeshi went rushing in. A first swat of the naginata turned one of the restless dead into a mound of rotting flesh, and a second sent another's head flying back. The third managed to get close, thought, and bit hard on Bear's shoulder. The fourth came in to get a bite also, and what he got instead was a naginata through the chest. Between the Bear and the Monkey, the remaining zombie was in the worst possible place I can think of, and didn't stay long enough to realize what befell him.

The fight was quick, but my first thought afterwards was to the watchers. I stopped playing, and carefully peeked out from behind the boulder that was keeping Oksana and me from sight. Takeshi and Nagata ducked behind the one ahead.

One of the watchers was jabbering about "hearing music", but considering the reaction of his companion, nobody seemed to give his opinion any credit and eventually, he forgot about it. We still had our stealth. I allowed myself a sigh of relief, and signaled my brothers that everyhting seemed clear. Nagata got ready to give me the sign for crossing over next to them…

And four more pairs of hands began digging out of the ground around Bear and him. 

(sidenote: I said a few Minkaian words not worth mentioning at this point, the kind of words Grandfather would ground me for saying when I was little. Oksana chewed a few epithets in her own language that probably meant the same as mine, so we're keeping it between us)

As soon as another chord left my shamisen, I knew one of the watchers had spotted us – or the zombies, it hardly mattered. He knew something was about, and shifted against the light to get a better look. There was no helping it – he was already suspicious and I had just confirmed that yes, he was hearing music. As the zombies closed in, Takeshi dispatched them. I saw the watcher pull up a bow and draw an arrow on Bear, the slowest of targets. I was about to call for Oksana to stop him, when clearly we had a small moment of divine intervention. Shizuru, likely rolling around in the Heavens and grabbing her tummy at our stupidity, declared that the bow's string should break and strike the watcher between the eyes. I saw him vanish from sight and heard the translation for the words Oksana and I had been saying just before. Lucky! 

It was the only chance we were going to get, and Monkey saw it. He ran at the top of his speed towards the palisade, and clambered up it like his own namesake. The second watcher trained another arrow for Bear, and Takeshi recalled the passphrase, shouting it as loudly as he could. And, adding insult to injury, the watcher himself yelled out why this was the dumbest idea ever: "From the back of the fort?! Right!" Of course. So much for that.

While the watcher had an arrow trained on Bear, I managed to cross through to the other boulder, all the time playing the song. Bear closed in the angle on the archer's shot to go after Nagata – so when Oksana came in to view, running behind me, the arrow flew for her. Just before I reached the boulder, I saw Nagata vault up the palisade and vanish inside. Takeshi hollered for Monkey to open the gate, and keeping as close as possible to the palisade to avoid the archer, he began running around the fort.

With one of my brothers out of sight and the other bolting for the front gate, I wondered what to do. Going after Takeshi was the obvious choice: there was no way I could clear the palisade after Nagata. I was studying the watcher next to Oksana, bidding my moment when he might try to shoot Takeshi once more, giving me time to reach the palisade and close the angle…

I glanced down at my feet then, because a skeletal pinky finger was nudging my big toe from beneath the dirt.

That… very much sealed the deal, and I ran out of there as fast as my legs would take me, archer be damned. To my credit I managed to avoid screaming like the little girl I am and am proud to say that while perhaps the "Ode to the Wayward Samurai" was never played at such fast pace, I did not interrupt my performance under distress. I made the palisade and began circling after Takeshi, and Oksana ran right after me, under fire from the watcher, and the four bloody zombies that sprung out of the ground like so many decrepit mushrooms ran right after her! Of course, I can't possibly outrun Takeshi's longer legs, and the watcher had taken a liking to targetting Oksana so she couldn't be as fast as she normally would be… still, a missing brother, flying arrows and FOUR OF THE RAVENOUS DEAD running right in your tail will make for a great incentive to be quick. All around the fort we went, as close to the palisade as we could. 

I only stopped when I bumped into Takeshi in front of the gate. It wasn't open. 

Bear howled for Nagata to open the gate again, and yet it remained closed. A cold shiver went through me – where was Monkey, and how could we possibly reach him to help? And how far behind us were those undead?

*

It was only much later that I heard the tale of Monkey's solo adventure inside the fort. He retold it to us over dinner, once the whole thing was over. 

Considering the situation – stealth not being an option, no other viable entry points and a very good incentive not to linger outside, Monkey took the right approach – he climbed over the palisade like he had opposable thumbs on his feet, and vaulted within to try and open the gate. 

What he wasn't counting on – and should have, perhaps – is that he is Ameno Nagata and if he didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any luck at all. 

First, he vaulted over the palisade and nearly fell neatly into an inner wall of spikes that served as added security for the fort. Fortunately, and like his namesake, Nagata is quick on his feet and in his thoughts – he managed to grab on and climb to safety inside the fort. Coming out of the spiked pit, he landed right next to the watcher that by the grace of Shizuru, had had a slight weapon malfunction, and with a swift crisscross of wakizashi, he was out. Nagata clambered down the watch tower and went into a crouch, blending with the shadows, and trying to locate the shortest route to the gate. Through an old building, he could spot the front yard, and, of course, thought that's where the gate might be. Crossing the building was faster than going around it, so Nagata stepped in…

And at once regretted his thoughtless decision. At his right, a man in armor was sharpening his sword, and seemed not to notice Monkey's approach. And at his left, another man lying on a bed roused up as if from drunken stupor. He wore a stag-head shaped helm and looked around, apparently confused.

Monkey froze where he stood, turned on his heels and vacated the building again on the very tips of his toes. He had found our quarry, true enough. Only he had found it with close reinforcements, and Monkey was isolated from the rest of us. When he told me about this, I was reminded of how he found Tuskgutter. I've made a mental note: whenever we're looking for something or someone in the future, send Nagata out to scout. He seems very likely to run into them by mistake. 

So Nagata stepped back and instead of crossing the building, followed the outer wall of the fort, looking for the gate and wanting to keep as far ahead of the Stag Lord as he could. At this point, according to him, Nagata was pretty sure the monster hadn't seen him. But as he took the turn at the end of the building, Nagata hesitated for a second, and it cost him dearly. Atop another watchtower, he saw the man from the wanted poster, Falgrim Smeeg. Monkey stopped to memorize the place, and it took him just a hearbeat – but it was enough for the roused Stag Lord to rush out of the building, look right, and spot him. 

Nagata rushed along the wall, trying to stay out of the Stag Lord's reach – the man was sturdier than he looked and faster than we assumed, I can tell you that, and his sword bit Nagata once. The commotion attracted the attention of the watchers, who began raining down failing arrows on Monkey. I learned, then, why we managed to go around the fort so neatly and without opposition: every archer in the place was now focused inward, and Monkey was in a world of trouble, dodging arrows and slashes of the Stag Lord's sword, trying to reach the gate without even knowing how he was going to get it open…

And then he saw Bear drop in. Quite literally.

******

Outside the gates, we weren't willing to wait any longer: for some reason we didn't understand, the archers were not firing at us, but the zombies were still on our tail, and Monkey surely was in serious trouble. Takeshi began to climb the palisade, slowly and with limited success because of his heavy armor and unwieldy weapon. He would have never made it had the archers been doing their jobs properly. Once at the top, he simply fell inside – I heard him drop on the other side of the palisade, and immediately the naginata began whooshing. I couldn't see Bear, but I could guess what was going on: dropping inside the yard of a bandit fort? Every thug in the place must have gone after him. 

By now the noise was unbelievable: men cursing, arrows whistling through the air, grunts and sword-clashing and barked commands. I kept on playing. My options now were nonexistent: I could stay close by where I was sure Takeshi could hear me, and wait until someone opened the gate… if not for the undead. I could see them then, stumbling around the edge of the fort, coming after Oksana and me. An image of the two of us running around the fort in front of them, like the clowns in the Minkaian opera, came to me… and in the meantime, where were my brothers? What was happening to them?

Oksana then did something amazing. She chanted a spell, and grabbed me by the waist, telling me to keep on playing. I did, an eye on the zombies, without knowing what her plan was. And suddenly, we were being lifted up in the air as if floating, in a straight line, away from the claws of the zombies and getting closed and closer to the top of the palisade! As soon as we cleared it, Oksana quickly recognized Smeeg atop one of the watchtowers, and snapped her fingers at him – he dropped asleep, and wasn't going anywhere until it was over.

Of course, while we found a way to clear the palisade (Oksana later explained that the spell only allowed her to move up and down, so she had to kick the top of the palisade as leverage to drag us in, and it took some effort), my brothers weren't exactly having tea.

As I had easily predicted, Takeshi was nearly overwhelmed with armed thugs who came down from the watchtowers to fight the intruders, and Nagata was clashing (or should I say, dodging?) the Stag Lord. Fortunately, not every man was loyal to the monster. Instead, the man in armor Nagata had spotted inside the building had taken up his sword, but not to come after my brothers. He buried it in the Stag Lord's back at the first opportunity, and began fighting alongside Monkey to meet the threat, effectively drawing all of the Stag Lord's attention and dropping a few more bandits along the way. I was ready to aid with one of my spells, especially because another one joined the fray – a rogue fell on Monkey knives first, falling from one of the watchtowers. Unfortunately for the rogue, Monkey knows that trick all too well and dodged the slash. Yet when I looked toward Takeshi…

I saw a rabid owlbear coming fast in my direction!

(sidenote: on contemplating this battle later, we came to the conclusion the owlbear was likely kept in the fort's jail as something the gang could unleash to defend their fort if push came to shove. The rogue likely opened its cage door, and fled the area to deal with Monkey, leaving the owlbear to pursue the closest target, which was Takeshi). 

Our position floating in the air was not the best one, and since we could only move up or down, Oksana tried to get out of the owlbear's reach by lifting us again – yet I would've had a piece bitten out of me if Takeshi hadn't cleared his adversaries and came to my aid. He placed himself between the owlbear and us, landing a strike with the naginata as the creature approached, but getting the terrible bite that had been meant for me. 

My scream went to the owlbear instead, but the creature ignored it, and due to its proximity, Takeshi was having a hard time hitting it. Oksana also began taking fire, from whatever men armed with bows remained in the midst. I remember that a man holding a club came running behind the owlbear, making for Takeshi, only the owlbear didn't like competition, and slammed him into the palisade beside us. The man with the club fell down and never moved again, and Takeshi took the opportunity to land a hit. The second slam went for Takeshi, who also fell down and stopped moving. My heart sank – Oksana's too, probably, as she sent a snowball flying towards the weakened owlbear, finally dropping him, and bringing us to the floor.

At once I searched my bag for a healing potion, and forced Takeshi to drink it. I lifted my eyes only briefly to see Nagata had fallen the rogue, and the man in armor had the Stag Lord down, with his sword held at the monster's neck. He lifted an open palm and quickly looked us over, signaling peace. Nagata nodded at him, and glanced at me and Bear. The potion wasn't enough to bring him back to consciousness, but it did stabilize him enough to keep him alive, while Oksana cast one of her own spells to revive him. 

With a massacre around us, after lifting Takeshi off the floor, I was ready to question the man in armor about his betrayal of his Lord – not that I mind at all that he betrayed his Lord. If not for his change of heart, we would likely have been killed here. But before Takeshi or I could ask anything, Nagata stopped us. He told us he had seen Smeeg up a watchtower, and Oksana confirmed it, claiming she had put him to sleep. The man in armor said he'd seen him running towards the back of the fort, so probably he woke up again in the middle of the chaos and made a run for it. There was no time to lick our wounds yet – one of our quarries was escaping!

*

Limping slightly from his injuries, Takeshi gave chase in the direction pointed out by our new friend, and we followed. We quickly looked over the inside of one of the fort's buildings, but there was no sign of him. Monkey then called from the very back – "Trapdoor!" he said, and Oksana and I rushed to go after him. Knowing Nagata, he would probably give chase, and I wasn't going to let him go alone.

And like night follows the day, sure enough, I reached the back of the fort to find Monkey gone and an open trapdoor leading to a tunnel. No time to waste: down I went. Thanks to my dark vision I managed to see two bandits, one of them Falgrim Smeeg, trying to open some sort of secret passage that would lead them out of the fort. Nagata grabbed the other one by the collar and put a wakizashi to his face, saying that if everyone would cooperate, nobody would get hurt. In a panic, Smeeg kept trying to open the passage. So I reinforced what Monkey had said… with a twist. Again – sometimes, I can put ideas in people's heads without them realizing it wasn't their idea. So when I said that listening to Nagata was probably a good idea, Smeeg likely thought it was his own notion. He stopped trying to open the passage, lifted both hands in a sign of surrender, and gave up. 

Now with the two scoundrels captured, I was about to turn back through the tunnel… when I heard rushing steps and clanking armor.

I hugged the wall right in time not to be bowled over by a sprinting Takeshi. He tried to halt in time, but ended up smashing into Monkey, for a cavalcade of Minkaian curses and insults. Outside, I could hear Oksana giggling.

We slowly pulled out of the tunnel, with the two prisoners in tow, brothers still cursing, Oksana still laughing. I promised Smeeg, on our way out, we would not kill him – and we won't. After all, Lord Garress bid us capture him alive, and we planned to deliver him that way. Once he had been delivered, it was very much out of our hands, but that's a detail I chose to leave out. No use telling him we were hunting his sorry hide for Lord Garress. However, promising not to kill him doesn't mean we will let him sit about. Nagata hogtied him, as well as the other bandit, and we tossed them inside a jail that, judging by the smell and the look, had once housed an owlbear. 

By then, the zombies were slamming hard on the gate, so we had to address that as well – between both of my brothers, it didn't take long, and finally we were rid of the bloody walking dead.   

Once that was dealt with, we sought out the man in armor that had helped us in the battle. We had a thousand questions for him. We found him inside one of the buildings, both hands on the handle of his resting sword, like a man guarding a passage. (and likely waiting for us to be done faffing about with the fleeing bandits and come talk to him) 

He told us his name was Akiros Ismort, and he was once a priest of Erastil from Taldor. Looking at his weapon and armor, I could not see him as a priest at all, but he quickly explained what strange tidings had brought him to be in this fort this evening. He was in the service of Erastil, but like in the old ballads, he fell in love with a woman. A married woman. In fact, a married NOBLE woman. From Akiros' own say, they had a thrist for a while, but then the husband found out. And the aforementioned woman decided to claim Akiros had raped her to keep her marriage and the perks that came with it intact. 

Akiros had to flee before the nobleman and his guards reached him (and while he didn't mention it, I suppose his messing around with a married lady also didn't sit right with the church of Erastil). There was nothing left for him to do but start roaming around, evading pursuit and trying to make a living for himself. He ended up in this place as another bandit under the Stag Lord's command. He'd been meaning to leave for some time now, but asked us to understand that one does not simply pack up and leave a gang of bandits just like that – when we attacked the fort, he saw his chance for backup, and decided to act. Takeshi told him the influence of Erastil had returned to these lands in the form of father Kavken and the Temple of the Elk. Akiros smiled and nodded, saying he knew – he had spotted the White Grimstag (sidenote: I had to ask Takeshi why he looked so impressed later: the White Grimstag is the main herald of Erastil – a very large albino stag) recently, and that's when he had decided he had to leave for good. The life of banditry was never what he intended to do with himself.

Takeshi digested the tale for a few moments, and then presented Akiros with two choices, as there is still a very harsh penalty for banditry in these lands. His first option was to take a letter of commendation from us and make for the Temple of the Elk, where he would present himself to father Kavken and work to redeem himself… or keep his sword, and work for us by helping pacify and eradicate the forces of evil from the Greenbelt. Akiros grinned at this and said he was all for seeking redemption for a series of poor choices and mistakes, but not at the temple. Not after he left the priesthood the way he did, and not after taking up the sword. For better or worse he was a warrior now. But if we intended to do something good here, he was willing to be a part of it.

It seemed as though everything had been settled, but Akiros refused to depart for Oleg's right away. Instead, he glanced at a trapdoor under a barrel by his side, and it dawned on me – this was what he had set himself to guard. He looked back at us, and informed us that the Stag Lord may well be finished, but this place wasn't pacified yet.

Akiros explained to us that while the Stag Lord was a fearsome foe for a man alone (hence why he didn't attempt to leave any earlier) and he was surrounded by enough loyal goons to make the fight very challenging, what truly frightened him was the man imprisoned in the cellar. Just as well, when we interrogated one of the Stag Lord's men, we had heard mention of an old man who seemed to command as much respect, if not more, than their leader. He couldn't tell us much about this strange old man, however: he supposedly came to the Greenbelt along with the Stag Lord himself, and Akiros could tell us he was wily and dangerous, but that was about it.

We now had a choice: to go down into the cellar and deal with the problem right away, or rest and wait for the morning to do it. As we have no idea what expected us and it was not completely foolproof that the walls of that cellar could keep its prisoner where he was now, we decided to go immediately. 

I was getting ever more puzzled by the story of this old man, but if Akiros couldn't enlighten us and the subject wouldn't parley, I began doubting I'd ever learn the true story behind it all. The Stag Lord was dead and Smeeg seemed pacified, but unwilling to talk to us. Still, there were so many questions… once Nagata removed the stag-like helm from the Stag Lord, he was a simple man – not a monster, not a creature, but a man. And this older fellow he kept locked away and by all accounts beat up often, who was he? Why did the Stag Lord keep him there? And if he was so powerful, why did he allow the Stag Lord to punch him around?

Alas, all we had left to believe was Akiros' word: he refused to go down there on his own, and wouldn't budge from where he stood until he was sure the threat had been dealt with. In no particular moment did he tell us that yes, the old man could well escape the cellar by his own means, but he left enough innuendos about it that we didn't want to risk it.

So a torch was lit, and the trapdoor was opened. The cellar was miserably damp and moldy, and a paradise for spiders, as evident by the amount of cobwebs covering the ceiling. We kept the torch low: if a tiny bit of those webs caught on fire, the whole cellar was like to become a blazing inferno. We went in a few tentative steps with Nagata and Takeshi taking point, looking over abandoned crates and barrels, turning over sacks and other junk that had been left down here and all but forgotten. No evidence of any creepy old men.

Then I heard the mumbling. I couldn't make out the words, but judging by the cadence with which they were spoken, it has to be spellcasting. I had enough time to warn everyone to get ready to fight, and point out a shadowed area where I believed the mumbling was coming from. Nagata ran straight towards it, and true enough, there was something on the ceiling.

At first I feared it would be the thing resposible for all those webs, but I was wrong. 

When Nagata ran in, the creature began mumbling louder, and I recognized the basic wording of a summoning spell. For all it was worth, I began playing. Nagata tried to throw some darts at it, hoping to disrupt the spell, to no avail: the creature shifted away from the flying weapons, and I could tell it had four legs, not eight. In fact, it seemed in all like a dog that somehow could walk about on the ceiling, among the webs!

Just as Takeshi was getting ready to charge in to Nagata's aid, a giant ant popped into existence next to Oksana and me. (sidenote: WHY AM I IN THE LAND OF THE GIANT THINGS?!) Oksana lost no time to send a snowball at it, and despite how close it appeared next to us, the thing failed to grab her in its terrible maw. 

From here, the fight was two-sided: Oksana and I were dealing with the ant, while my brothers went for the caster. Fortunately, Akiros did not run after Takeshi, and stayed behind to help us: one slam of his sword, and the ant dropped in a heap. I turned to where my brothers had ran, in time to see their foe drop from the ceiling, and finally recognize what kind of creature it was: a wolverine, much like the ones we had seen once during one of our expeditions, battling a bear. When it did drop, it aimed for Nagata. Takeshi caught it first, slashing with the naginata again and again. Oksana cast one of her slumber spells, which was absolutely ignored. The naginata, however, could not be ignored that easily. And this time, the Bear won.

Once dead, the wolverine reverted back to the shape of a scrawny old man – a druid, like as not. Akiros seemed very relieved to see it gone.

We spent the night at the fort, making do with what supplies and arrangements were already in place for the former inhabitants. As we prepared a light meal before bedtime, Takeshi spoke at length of how well-located this place is, and that he would like to build the capital of our future kingdom here. It's close to a water resource, and looking at our map, we began wondering if we could build a highway connecting it to Oleg's Trading Post. It's almost a straight line. We would baptize the place Fort Ameno. (sidenote: well it was an Ameno that first got in… it was also an Ameno who got in second, at that… and eventually, it was an Ameno who struck the last blow that would pacify the fort…) Most of our remaining evening was pleasant: for once, we began talking of the future not as a time far away, but something palpable and within reach. With the Stag Lord gone and much of our charted territories seen, it was time to settle out first city.

As he had told me before, Takeshi wants to call it Fumidai – the Stepping Stone.

*

The following morning we swept the fort for all we could use. Some items and resources were put aside to sell, others will be used once the building begins. We picked every corpse in the fort and burned it in a bonfire outside: we know for sure undead rise at the back of the fort, and I would hate to return to more zombies. (sidenote: in fact, if I never again see a zombie in my life, I will be quite thankful, Lady Shizuru. Pretty please.) Two horses remained in the fort, that we packed with everything we could take, plus the Stag Lord's corpse (the only one we didn't burn) and two hogtied prisoners. 

With all this in tow, and moving slower than usual for the two prisoners with us, we began our journey back North, towards the ferry crossing, to deliver the Stag Lord's corpse and be done with the undead haunting those waters. It took us the best part of four days to make the trip back: prisoners complaining all the time, until Nagata strolled by and observed that the Stag Lord was much more quiet than them – perhaps we should give them the same treatment? After that, Smeeg and his friend were much less talkative. I promised Smeeg we wouldn't kill them if they didn't give us trouble, and I believed unless they gave us a heap of trouble, Monkey wouldn't do it… but they didn't need to know that, and he was pretty convincing as it was.

We reached the ferry crossing at dusk in the fourth day of journey. I wanted to camp a way's away from the waters and deliver the body in the morning – the creature is spooky enough without the darkness. Last time, we waited for morning to parley with it. But Takeshi refused to wait this time. First, because he wanted to see this through as quickly as possible. Second, because our departed guest was beginning to ripen up and the smell was already noticeable.

So as we approached the margin, Takeshi unloaded the body off the horse, and carried it all the way to the water, ringing the bell as he went. Just as before, the creature rose from the very waters, standing there in silence as Takeshi placed the deceased Stag Lord afloat in front of it. Takeshi told it to go away, now that what was keeping it here was gone too. And away the undead creature went, melting away in the river current along with the corpse. Only the harpoon remained – Takeshi retrieved it and brought it back to the margin. 

(sidenote: later, Bear would tell me it's not really a harpoon, or a lance as was my second guess, but a kind of weapon called ranseur. We ended up selling it for a very generous sum.)

With this solved, we spent the night at very much the same spot as before. This time, however, the air was less heavy, and it was much easier to sleep. The next day, we made for Oleg's Trading Post – a journey that still took is the best part of a week, with two prisoners along for the ride and an ungodly amount of pillaged goods to be sold.

A few days after our return, Master Valen popped out of thin air once more, as "it has been revealed to him" (sidenote: I know being a wizard he has his ways to know things, but this talk of revelations, while only slightly unnerving the first time around, sounded downright irritating by now. I kept imagining this gentleman sitting on a comfortable armchair drinking a glass of wine and suddenly having an epiphany in how he should really be going elsewhere) that the Stag Lord's realm of terror was over. He was here to collect the helm, and grant us an official message in the form of a sealed scroll.

It was the new charter for the Greenbelt, which, by our efforts and show of abilities, gave us leave to explore further South, and authorized us to form a government. The time to begin building up our kingdom was upon us.

-—-

BEAR'S TITLE – Ideas
note: if Bear is going to be a king in these lands, I think I should fit him with a proper title. Something that reflects his endeavours and makes him known throughout the lands.
another note: that probably means his inner circle will need titles as well……

His Magnificent Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (I could probably do better than this.

His Most Magnificent Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (I understand the word "majesty" is used with royalty but somehow I don't see it applied to Bear.)

His Most Highest (honestly, Uzume!?)

His Highest Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (truly, like a kite in a windy afternoon)

His Most Fetching Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (aff…)

His Noblest of All Majesties, Ameno Takeshi (ugh!)

The Most Majestic of Majesties that Ever Majested –  the Bear!! (this is not working. I have to keep it simple at the start, and maybe I can add some descriptives after)

His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (I… still don't like it. But we'll work on it later)

His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of the Gnarled Marshes, the Stolen Lands and the Greenbelt (okay, I know the Stolen Lands and the Greenbelt are much of the same thing, but it sure makes it sound like Bear rules a lot of things!)

His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Provinces (so maybe we don't have provinces quite yet, but I'm sure they'll form without much of our intervention…)

His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories (good) – Fey-friend, bandit-bane (and berry-picker, spider-squasher, armor-clanker, the hyphenization is not working)

His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories. Friend to the Fey. The Bandits' Bane. Razor of the Vermin. The Wolfsbane-Edge. The Sharpest Knife in the Drawer (what…?)

His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories. Friend to the Fey. The Bandits' Bane. Bug-Squasher Extraordinaire. (alright forget the bugs)

His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories. Friend to the Fey. The Bandits' Bane. Edge of the Golden Dragon. (he might like that) Peacemaker of the Greenbelt. (that's not bad either) Watcher on the Walls (well it would reflect the penitence he does every once in a while – BAKA!)

His Noble Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories. Friend to the Fey. The Bandits' Bane. Edge of the Golden Dragon. Peacemaker of the Greenbelt. 

His Cuddliness, Brother Bear, Safekeeper of the Most Gracious and Serene Ameno Uzume.

(alright, enough – but I've got mine down!)

(which makes me think what I could call Monkey – he doesn't really wanna be known, but perhaps we can find some kind of nickname for him, without giving away his identity)

The Skulker in the Shade (because the Sun is really hot and skulking on sunshine is probably pretty hard)

The Great Oh Shi- (at least that's what I've heard people say when he shows up out of nowhere)

The Monkey From Hell (yuck)

Doom of All Yum-Yums (well…)

Live Bag of Holding (accurate)

The Ghost (creepy)

Ghost Monkey (and his band, everybody!)

(what about Oksana…?)

Oksana Zima, The Pale Lady from Ancestors-Know-Where

Oksana Zima (Okzima? Oksanima?)

Oksana Zima, Thrower of Snowballs (doesn't sound exactly ominous… she's a witch)

The White Witch of the South (meeh…)

The Bleached Witch (has a sort of a ring to it…)

The Most Gracious Lotus Flower, Ameno Uzume – Song of the Greenbelt and Enchantress of the South

(pff, that was the easiest)

View
The Scam at Scottsdale
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4712, Summer

By the 35th day of the sixth expedition it was starting to feel like we'd never get home. From swamps to woodlands to hillside and rocky crag, we kept going. When most people envision a hillside territory they probably think of rolling hills, but this wasn't like that. In fact, some such hills were so tall they were a hair away from mountains. I recall we followed a sort of canyon or crevasse trying to find a way around, always headed downhill, and when we did, I wasn't sure I wanted to cross to the other side at all. The bridge – if a bridge it could be called – was made of old wooden boards and rope. Well, mostly rope. It swayed like a swing in the breeze and looked as if it was going to break once any weight at all stood on it. Twenty feet separated us from the river's waters, but while a twenty-foot fall into rushing currents may not kill you, breaking some bones is still a possibility. Bear crossed first to make sure it was safe. Nagata carried me on his shoulders, for which I was very thankful – both of us likely weigh the same as Bear in his armor. 

After the bridge, the ground kept on sloping downwards. You could still spot herds of mountain goats here and there, and likely their predators – snowcats. We were fortunate enough to find only their tracks.

Around our 40th day out, however, Nagata found other kinds of tracks. He couldn't immediately tell what had made them, but it only took me a glance to be able to tell him – mites. Three-toed, tiny humanoid tracks definitely had to be mites. And according to Nagata, either a very energetic one or several had gone through here. We took advantage of the fact we were still in high ground to gaze around, looking for clues as to where they might have headed. At first it seemed pointless to me – mites are burrowing creatures, so they might well be right under our feet. Yet in the distance, atop a hill and very much lonely in this area was a huge sycamore tree. Not a healthy and vibrant tree like we'd seen before, mind you. No leaves graced its branches. We were still a way's away, but it looked in all dead.

Nagata offered that it might be Bokken's brother's tree again. I shuddered at the thought. For some reason, every time it was mentioned, that story had such a creepy undertone it made my skin crawl. Still, this territory doesn't have many trees, and Takeshi figured this might be worth investigating. 

Like I said, we were still pretty far, so we camped for the night not long after. Usually, when we do, we take turns to watch, and I like to get the middle of the night shift. Not only I can see perfectly well, but it's also when it's quieter, and it allows me some time to write my journal, take care of my nails, or simply have some quiet moments for myself. At first I recall I was pretty scared during my watch. I was always sure something was going to wobble out of the darkness behind me, grab me and whisk me away before I could sound the alarm. I grew more confident as time went by, even if we were attacked at night before. My brothers both sleep lightly, and even when they sleep I know they'd likely come to my aid if it was to happen. The night before our travel to the great sycamore tree, for a heartbeat, I saw my nightmare come to life.

I was sitting away from the fire as the others slept, and was doing some logistics. The number of trail rations we had left was hardly an evidence of how much longer we were going to stay out. We had made a habit of hunting and foraging whenever possible, so we could complement whatever supplies we brought along. And I knew from the start this would be a long trek, but over a month had gone by and we were running short on supplies. And I was tired. So tired, in fact, I took to doing inventory to stay awake.

Then I heard something dragging large feet in the darkness, not that far away from camp. I picked up my shamisen and nudged Takeshi – who, bless him, at once lifted his head and didn't say a word. I silently pointed in the direction of the sound. I'm not sure Takeshi could see much, but I did. It was a large creature, biped as far as I could tell, but with long, thick arms and what looked like a mess of tentacles covering its body. It shied away from the light, but as it went by, I could tell they weren't as much tentacles as roots. It was a hulking shambling mound, a living plant, and one we did not want to contend with if we could avoid it. Takeshi and I (and Nagata and Oksana, because Takeshi carefully woke everyone up in case the thing changed its mind and decided to attack) saw it go away into the darkness once more. That was close! 

*

The sycamore tree was nearly a hundred feet tall I reckon, and stood isolated atop a lonely hill. From afar we couldd tell it was sick – even at this time of year the branches were bare of leaves and the bark looked brittle and discolored. I'm no expert, but if it wasn't plain dead, it was likely headed that way. 

Monkey was likely considering climbing it judging by how he sized up the lower branches, and Oksana knocked once or twice on the trunk. It didn't sound hollow. It was Takeshi who finally figured out what was wrong with it, because as most of us were looking up at the trunk and the top, he had been observing the roots. And on noticing an oddly-shaped root, he moved it with the handle of the naginata to reveal what looked like a shaft, burrowing down into the earth. Mites – it had to be mites again.

I didn't want to go in there for various reasons: bugs were a distinct possibility, it's dirty, and it's mite-sized. I would have a hard time climbing down, let alone Bear, who's twice my shoulder width and at least two heads taller than me. Still, Takeshi insisted we investigate, and even as I was trying to reason against it, Monkey jumped in and Oksana followed suit. Moneky's voice reached us from the bottom: it wasn't too big a fall, but we should prepare to crouch. 

Bear helped me inside – the shaft led to a dark tunnel. Oksana was already lighting up a torch, but I had a moment to examine it in the darkness before she did. I could barely stand straight, and everyone else had to crouch indeed – the tunnel, with exited both to the left and right, was likely of comfortable height for mites, but mites we aren't. Uncommonly, I asked Bear to take the back of the line. If Oksana was at the front with a torch, I'd rather be at the back. It doesn't hamper my vision and I could likely see anything coming before any of the others. Nagata carefully took point and made for the right. Once the tunnel took a turn, I stopped seeing him. I couldn't tell what was happening – but when I heard screeching mites and blades cutting the air, I didn't need to be told Monkey had found resistance. I turned my back on the group to guard the left end of the tunnel, and began playing, stealth be damned. I only stopped when I heard Nagata's voice again – he was telling Bear that "one got away, further into the earth". Takeshi thought we should see what lay on the left end of the tunnel before venturing further in, to try and leave no resistance at our backs. Of course, for that, we had to invert positions.

It was a bit of a miserable moment. Bear retreated back into the shaft to make room, then Oksana and I went flat against the tunnel wall to let Nagata and him through. Again I stood at the rear, and still concerned that at any given moment I might spot a mite or thirty clambering my way. And once the tunnel to the left curved as well, I lost sight of Monkey and Takeshi. I heard them saying something about "giant centipede" and my heart sank – why am I in the land of the giant things?! A spider has no right being the size of a horse, much less a centipede! How does this happen?!

I only managed to finally peek inside once Nagata and Takeshi had cleared the area (which was so quickly I hardly had the time to position my shamisen and play a note). Disgusting little cave. The ceiling vaulted a little higher here, and mounds of dung were packed like nauseating nests, with round, opaque eggs resting here and there. Takeshi was destroying them when I finally came in the cave – a couple of dead centipedes nearly the size of a small dog had met my brothers' wrath. Nagata said another mite escaped and pointed us to the other end of the cave, where a ramp seemed to descend further in a corkscrew fashion. Of course, by now it was unlikely that our entrance had gone unnoticed, so we simply gave chase, rushing down the ramp. It became colder, and belaying Oksana's torch, darker.

When we reached the end of the ramp they were waiting for us, alright – a small army of angry, blue-skinned mites. But of course, we have fought mites before, and they're usually not that difficult to beat: Nagata flew to the middle of them, wakizashi first, and Bear braced and waited for some to approach, picking them clean with the naginata one by one. Those who didn't fall to Oksana's sleeping spell got yelled at. 

Once the fight was over, however, the noise didn't stop. Peeping further in we could see several holding cages, one of which housed a very upset kobold, howling for help. I was going to try to speak to him, but Takeshi simply said we'd be back and moved on. He told me then that the kobold was obviously a prisoner and that he didn't want to open the cage door before we knew the grounds were clear. The chamber with the cages led to yet another one – more mites were waiting for us, and this time, a larger one and its giant tick mount joined the fray – likely the chieftain. Even so, and again – not the toughest of fights.

(sidenote: I've so far been witness to a giant spider; giant frogs; a giant tick; and giant centipedes. The Greenbelt indeed is the land of the giant things. My theory was correct. If I see a giant cockroach, I'm sprinting back to a ship and starting anew elsewhere. WHY?! Why are all these things so large?!)

Once the new array of mites had been cleared, we began looking about this chamber. So far we had seen a nesting ground of sorts, what looked like a jail, and according to Nagata, who saw the right side of the initial tunnel, a workshop. This had all the makings of a war room however: a mite-sized table stood at the center, its top carved into a kind of map, and colored pins here and there seemed to mark important landscape. Neither of us could make much sense of it, however. We also found an odd figurine of a demonic-looking crouching idol. This was strange: it looked like nothing else the mites had, and the degree of detail was too great to have been manufactured by them. It held no magic, and Takeshi assured us that was no deity he knew of. It seemed to be exactly that: a figurine depicting a horned, hoofed, evil-looking creature. I dropped it in the bag of holding - perhaps later on, someone might be able to shed some light on this mystery. 

The only exit out of here was to the right. An opening on the wall led to a great chasm within the earth. On the other side of the chasm there was a similar opening, and ropes connected the two. We couldn't see baskets or platforms, so I suppose the mites did some tightrope walking from one side to the other. Not a prowess any of us would want to try, of course. Takeshi reasoned that if there was an opening on the other side, maybe we could access it through the workshop. We knew now this end of the cave complex was cleared. (sidenote: well nothing kept mites that might be on the other side to tightrope-walk and try to catch us on our backs, but considering how many casualties we had caused among their kinsmen, it was only natural they weren't very inclined to do that).

So we backtracked: past the chieftain's chamber, past the jail (the kobold glanced at us as if he didn't believe we were going by and leaving him caged again, poor thing), past the disgusting nesting grounds, back on the tunnel, again to the workshop. Now seeing it for the first time, I could understand why Nagata had named it: several shabby worktables spread about the chamber held instruments (between tools and torture implements by the looks of them) and raw materials for crafting. A dead mite – judging by its injuries, Nagata's work – lay close to what looked like a miniature catapult. Nagata told me that when he peeked inside there were two of them, one operating the catapult to hurl iron caltrops into the other's mouth and apparently very giddy about it. Why? It's anyone's guess. According to Nagata, he managed to strike one down, and the other fled through an opening on the wall, leading to some kind of chute.

Takeshi went in first. I heard him barrel down the chute, and his landing was accompanied by the screeching of at least four mites. Nagata jumped in right afterwards, and I heard Bear bellow from beneath, so I imagine Monkey landed on him or near enough. Then Monkey shouted that there was no room.

I stood in the workshop and began playing to inspire them. The sound carried across the cave well enough that I wasn't sure I wanted to join them and maybe bring more harm than help.

Later on, Takeshi would tell me of how he indeed landed on a platform on the other side of the chasm, and right into the waiting blades of six mites. Takeshi is a great fighter, but cramped space is always a problem for him – the naginata is a perfect weapon for open spaces, but not caves or tunnels. Nagata doesn't have a similar problem: near or far, the wakizashis will reach where he needs them to. However, he jumped in right after Bear and wakizashis first… and nearly ended up in Bear's lap. On hindsight, he told me, it was a good thing that Oksana and I chose not to fall down the chute after them. We wouldn't have had enough room to defend ourselves if the lot had gone in.

My brothers clambered up the chute once more, once the mites were all finished, and we began looking about for anything we could use here. Oksana and I rushed back to the jail, to free the poor kobold, while Nagata and Bear stayed behind to inspect the workshop. 

The kobold was very relieved that we returned to free him after all. His name was Mikmak, he told us, and he hailed from the Scottsdale tribe! Of course, at once, I had a thousand questions for him: what was he doing here? What was going on at Scottsdale? We had heard about some issues concerning his tribe, so could he tell us what they were all about? Mikmak mentioned some kind of issue with the ruling powers in Scottsdale, and that his chief, Sootscale, had sent him and others of the tribe to retrieve a special idol for the tribe's shaman. I reached for the bag of holding and showed him the demonic figurine we had found in the chieftain's chamber – was this what he was looking for?

The bulging of his eyes told me that yes, that was it. Then the way he looked over my head and began slowly crouching like a scared rabbit told me something larger than myself was standing right behind me. And the way he then vanished into the next chamber told me it was probably not Takeshi. 

Oksana and I looked over our shoulders.

(sidenote: very well. I thought I had seen a giant centipede here, but I was obviously mistaken. Of course, my fault. NOW I was seeing a giant centipede. And they grow larger than small dogs. Or large dogs. Or donkeys. Teehee, silly me! WHY?!)

The thing clacked its pincers at us. And, I realized of a sudden, my brothers were all the way around the cave complex. The first thing I thought to do was get away as far as I could and start playing battle music. Judging by the way sound reverberated off the cave walls, they would hear it even from far away. They would know we were in trouble. But while they didn't get to us, Oksana and I had to defend ourselves somehow. Sleeping wouldn't work on the thing, and it was far too tough to be affected by my shouting. The only thing I could think to do was, retrieve my wand of burning hands from the bag, and try to use it. (sidenote: practice more – it took me three tries to get it right!) Fortunately, and as we know each other well enough, Bear and Monkey had heard the music from across the complex, and came in the other side. We surrounded the centipede, and managed to throw it down. 

Nagata was ready to continue on the streak and skin Mikmak alive, but I managed to halt him in time. I explained to my brothers what Mikmak had told me, and Takeshi asked him what the significance of the idol was. Apparently, he explained, a kobold shaman had come to their tribe some time ago, carrying the figurine as a god or spirit of great power. The mites stole it, which prompted chief Sootscale to send in parties to retrieve it. Otherwise, the curse of the idol would fall upon the tribe. The chief, according to Mikmak, had been throwing every kobold at his disposal at the mites, eager to retrieve the treasure so as not to incur in the curse…

We all exchanged a glance. There was nothing particular about the figurine. It wasn't a holy symbol, a summoning device, not even magical. It was a plain, creepy-looking figurine. Now there was only one question that needed answering: did its owner know it was a decorative piece and nothing else? 

Mikmak couldn't answer the question, of course. And we didn't tell him right away the figurine did nothing. Instead, Takeshi offered to escort him back to Scottsdale, where we could deliver it by hand to chief Sootscale, and enquire about this shady shaman of theirs. Then we finally clambered back outside, and camped for the night at the base of the sycamore tree.

It took us a day and a half to reach Scottsdale, and for the duration of our journey, I think Mikmak was happy to have our company. Kobolds can be vicious as a group, but a lonely one usually falls on the category of prey rather than predator. During our journey, he told us more about the Scottsdale tribe: of how their once large numbers have dwindled ever since the shaman demanded the figurine be recovered, and of how his arrival spelled a lot of misery for the tribe in general. The chief accepted him as a wiseman and under his guidance they began worshipping his god. Yet his god was not a good one: it demanded sacrifices and violence, and in many ways the tribe ended up being directed towards warfare they had not at first intended to invite into their lives. Chief Sootscale is a good chief by Mikmak's account – but like every other kobold in Scottsdale, he is afraid of the idol, and what might happen to the tribe if they don't pacify him. 

The more I heard about this, the angrier I felt. Once more, none of us had told Mikmak yet that the figurine was just a figurine. But we were going to. Without many exchanges on the subject between us, I think we all wanted to simply understand if this "shaman" himself believed his own lie, or if he was conning the whole Scottsdale tribe.

Mikmak led us to an outcrop of large boulders, forming a sort of framed entrance to a cave. As we approached, we spotted a very old wooden sign that read "Oaktop Silver Mine". Takeshi snapped his fingers and said he recalled hearing about it. The old silver mine had been lost along with the rest of the Greenbelt, but by all accounts and until it was lost, it produced silver aplenty.  

A kobold jumped out of the cave as we approached, to greet Mikmak, seemingly happy (and surprised) to see him. Which is telling enough of the general life expectancy of anyone sent to retrieve the worthless trinket from the mites.

(sidenote: alright – I was pretty angry when I got to the mine. I'd been hearing about Mikmak's woes for a day and a half and it was making my blood boil)

After a brief introduction – this kobold's name was Nakpeek (I think; once we began getting introduced to kobolds, with so many "niks", "piks", "tiks" and "riks", it was a bit hard to keep track – and they all look alike as well), we were led inside the mine. It wasn't half as cramped as the mite tunnels. After all, the mine had once been manned by humans – even if now, by all accounts, it was the Scottsdale tribe's lair. At my side, I knew Brother Bear was counting units, just in case. Further down the mine, in areas probably dug after the mine was abandoned, the ceiling of course became kobold-sized, and while I could still walk fairly straight, everyone else had to duck. We went by a plethora of mechanical traps, some more evident than others, with our two guides telling us where to step and what to avoid. Nagata seemed interested enough – likely trying to spot a trap before anyone pointing it out, and improving his detection skills.

Everything seemed reasonably normal for a mine converted into a tribal lair. And then we reached the temple chamber. This one was larger than normal and odd symbols plagued the walls and ceiling, and I got the distinct feeling they had been drawn in blood. I tried to make sense of them, but I was losing my time. Takeshi, at my side, mumbled "Gibberish", and confirmed my impression. The presence of dried blood and the smell of the place nearly had be losing my calm and bellowing this was all a fake. But a lady keeps her cool regardless – so I waited to meet the chief, and then perhaps we could all lose our calm together.

Across the temple was the largest chamber so far, which seemed to serve the kobolds as a throne room or mess hall. Here was chief Sootscale, clad in feathers, bones and warpaint, who rose from his seat at our approach to ask the one question we had been waiting so long for: what were we doing here?

So Bear began speaking, and briefly telling the tale of how we have a chart that allows us exploration of the Greenbelt, of how we were exploring these lands and stumbled upon the mite lair, then went on the clear it out. The chief seemed thankful for this, as they have been at war with the mites for a time. Then, Takeshi produced the figurine, handed it over, and asked the chief if he recognized it. Again – by the bulging of his eyes, he needn't reply. Bear went on to explain about how we had found Mikmak caged in the lair, and what he had told us about the shaman and his vicious idol. So we had to ask: was the idol here before the shaman arrived? And when chief Sootscale said that it wasn't, that it was brought by the shaman…

Well.

I'm glad Takeshi spoke because I wouldn't have known where to start. Bear very politely informed the chief that this was no idol. It had no power. It was ivory, plain and simple: maybe worth some gold pieces, but that was all. It wasn't holy. It did. Absolutely. Nothing.

I need to make a little comment here. Most of my life, I've lived upon humans and humanoids, usually people who look very much like me. I am used to recognize the signs that they are upset or enraged, and I believe this is true for anyone in any species. When I meet radically different people – say, the boggard, or kobolds for instance – it's hard sometimes to determine how they are feeling. A kobold can probably tell if another kobold is feeling upset, however, and as I looked at the chief with figurine in hand, despite the fact I couldn't see the anger in his face, I could see it in the rest of the room – because some began to cower, some drew their weapons, and some simply ran out of the chamber. From the chief's throat a low growl emerged, which became the closest he can probably get to a roar, as he smashed the figurine on the floor and stormed out of the chamber.

We followed suit, as the chief bellowed for the shaman. We went further inside, and into what once had been the chief's chamber, now decorated with more of the same balderdash he had written at the temple. At the center, before a cauldron, stood a kobold unlike any we had seen so far. His scales were a rich purple, and this, as far as the tribe we had seen so far, made him unique. He lifted his head from the brew to see Sootscale nearly charge toward him, and lifted one clawed hand, chanting as he went.

I recognized the spell easily: cause fear. And well enough, chief Sootscale charged back out of the chamber just as fast as he had gone in. We weren't so easily swayed, however: once Sootscale ran out, Takeshi ran in. 

It was the first time I had encountered someone who could cause a fear effect in others, and I confess much of the battle is a blur to me. I remember Takeshi was in serious danger at one point, and that some of my spells misfired or were ineffective. But at the end, we emerged victorious, with the kobold shaman dead, and his realm of fear ended.

Once we had seen to our wounds, chief Sootscale thanked us for the assist. They'd been living in this nightmare for over a year, and now it was over. As a reward, the chief gave us the pick of the kobolds' treasure hoard – Takeshi instead struck an alliance with them, providing supplies that the kobold do not easily come by in exchange for some of the silver in the mine, if the kobolds wouldn't mind trading it. The chief agreed. Before we left, I also asked him for one final token: I wanted an instrument that belonged to kobold culture. He offered me a flute made from bone. This would be the start of my personal collection! My brothers thought it was creepy and I shouldn't take it, let alone play it – I kept it all the same. 

On the way out, I picked up an old journal from the shaman's corpse. It was written in a language unknown to me, but fortunately, I've been learning a particular channeling of magic that allows me to decipher or understand languages that I may not know. I read it later on, in the evenings during meals, and whenever the ground wasn't too difficult to walk that I could afford to have my attention elsewhere. That's how I came to make sense of the origins of that shaman character.

His name had been Tartuk and he was originally born a gnome, of all things. His tale was bizarre: he had died in battle, when his village was invaded by ogres. In fact, according to the journal, Tartuk had been attempting to surrender himself to the ogres when he was killed. However, his death stalled the invasion long enough for the village to regain composure and fight back. He was hailed as a hero, and therefore the village pooled their gold to have him reincarnated. Now, I'm not sure if something might have gone awfully wrong during the reincarnation, or if it's simply a stroke of bad luck, but Tartuk returned as a kobold, with scales as purple as his hair had once been. It drove Tartuk insane, as evident by how misshapen his writing became, and how twisted his thoughts. He fled his village to integrate a kobold tribe, using the odd coloring of his scales and the magic tricks he had retained from his previous life to pass as a wiseman. He had the kobolds raze his village to the ground, and then stayed with them until eventually – by using the same terror tactics he had been applying with the kobolds in Scottsdale – he collapsed it from within. Then he moved on to the next, with the same story. And the next one. And likely he would keep on doing it, according to his journal, until he finally grew tired and took his own life.

I told the tale to the rest of the group, and I plan to keep the journal as a memento of the events. Especially because nobody would believe this story unless I could prove it was true. We camped for the night not far from the Scottsdale tribe, and then finally, just short of 50 days since we left Oleg's Trading Post, we made home.

-—-
UZUME'S CULTURAL EXCHANGE – The limerick

I haven't had much of a chance to consider this country's poetry and music – there just hasn't been enough time, and much less chance for talks with those who often produce these forms of art. But while living at Oleg's Trading Post, a curious type of poetry came by my ear, and of all people, it came from Oleg himself. 

This kind of verse, which he calls a "limerick" is a short, five-verse composition, often in simple wording and with humorous or risqué subjects. The first time I heard one was during one of the evening meals. I know Oleg as a kindly fellow and a very skilled merchant, and so I sometimes forget that he was a soldier. And limericks, for simplicity and theme, were likely the kind of poetry he was likely to come by. On one such evenings, I overheard him telling one to one of Lord Garress' men at arms. I could hear the rhyming but the words escaped me. When I approached to ask him to say it again, Oleg changed color and said perhaps it was not the best thing to be said in "mixed company". I tried to persuade him, but he wouldn't repeat it. The man at arms laughed, and that's when I first learned the name of such verses: a limerick. 

It was Svetlana who came to the rescue. When I asked her about limericks, she sighed and asked if I had been listening to the "old fool" doing his "barracks talk" act again. She knew some limericks as well – milder ones, I understand, and could give me an example: 

There once was a man from Greyhaven,
Largely considered a craven,
He got caught in a mess,
so he put on a dress,
And passed as a damsel unshaven.

They are not at all easy to do but very entertaining. She had a few more to tell me – and of course, I had to take my own tries at them, or I wouldn't be much of a bard. My results were limited and I won't be sharing them as soon as that, but I'll keep them around just in case I can perfect them at another time. This is the one I like best:

There once was a wandering bard,
who caught her whole party off-guard:
She could well sing a tune,
give her allies a boon, 
But boy, are limericks hard…

View
Beauties, Beasts and Boars
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4712, Spring / Summer
We spent a few days recovering at Oleg's Trading Post coming back from the fifth expedition. Takeshi showed Oleg the gold nugget we brought back, and Oleg's layman opinion is that it's probably gold – but just in case, he'll take it to a jeweler in Brevoy, to determine how pure it is. 

The next morning, as Oleg was leaving in his wagon, someone else was coming in. I was sitting around the yard, tuning my shamisen, and so was the first to spot him, but judging by how quickly the rest of the group appeared, they must have seen him coming as well. A man bringing a destrier by the reins, tall and fit, and with a spring in his step that told of agility despite his size. His clothing was finely made, black expensive fabric studded with tiny emeralds. He was also carrying an odd-sized sword – not quite a bastard sword, but too large to be a longsword, obviously custom made. Still sitting at my spot, I muttered for my detect magic spell, but nothing seemed to emit an aura. As he crossed the gate, with a quick salute to Oleg's leaving wagon, I saw his shield too, but couldn't recognize the symbols on it – five dragon heads, of different colors. So what did I do?

Of course, I jumped off my seat and went closer to greet him. My brothers and Svetlana joined us in no time.

He took a long look at the three of us, gave us a grin and immediately said we were far from home – Minkai would still be a long way. I was surprised: not only did he identify our country of origin, but managed to narrow it down to the province! A lucky guess? He seemed to be familiar with Oksana's origin as well: he asked if she was Ulfen. 

(sidenote: later Oksana would tell me not quite, but it was a close enough guess)

He introduced himself as Roggeth Halzn, and said he had heard about the bestowing of charters to explore the Greenbelt. So he decided to stop by, do some business with the Stevensons, and come meet the new neighbors. He seems to have an estate somewhere North of here, in some undisclosed area. According to himself, he's traveled around plenty, and that's how he could tell from where we were. With pleasantries exchanged, he let go of the destrier's reins (the horse went to the stable all by himself) and made a bee line for the kitchen to talk to Svetlana. We saw him emerge later on, carrying some sort of sweet bread or cake, and leave as quietly as he had arrived.

Once he was gone, I bolted for the kitchen to ask Svetlana about him. She told me that yes, he seems to live somewhere North, she's not really sure where, and he sometimes stops by – seems to have a sweet tooth for her desserts. I had to ask – where was Sir Halzn when the Stevensons were being bullied by bandits? Svetlana replied that he doesn't stop here as often as that. She's heard about the one time some bandits decided they were going to raid his estate… and apparently that's the last anyone's heard of them. The man seemed obviously capable, but the way he spoke and carried himself, he also seems to have very little care for what doesn't concern him directly.

The rest of the afternoon was spent quietly. Summer will be coming soon, and the days are longer. Brothers were off to train, Oksana was talking to her pet owl, and I was left to care for my shamisen and my nails. We reconvened in the evening to discuss the following expedition, the sixth since we've arrived. Looking at our map we can tell we have not found every edge of the Gnarled Marshes and there's still plenty of ground to cover closer to the frontier. We planned our path carefully and we're expecting to be gone another month or so.

The next morning, with a bag of holding stuffed to capacity with trail rations, we set off once more.

At first the going was very easy – we're mostly crossing territory we've explored before, on trail rations and water, hunting whenever our stock began to dwindle. As we've seen these territories before, not much trouble to be had as we went - the odd bandit patrol, animals here and there, but not anything that would give us too much fuss. I feel like it's wrong to rob the bodies of the people we defeat… but from a strictly pragmatic point of view, it's the logical action to take. The dead will not need the equipment they carried when they were alive, and that's always something we can sell or use. Coin, both for outfitting our future kingdom and ourselves, is an urgent necessity. In some sort of poetic justice, the weapons these bandits used to terrorize people will be put to better use elsewhere is quite redeeming. 

As we trailed between known ground and unexplored land, I could see a pattern emerge in the terrain. The bog is less damp and less dense at the edges, as would be expected, becoming muddier and less stable as one ventures further to the center. By my accounts the Gnarled Marshes sit dead center in the Greenbelt, and occupy a reasonable portion of land. We know fey inhabit some of it, and that there are places someone's tried to settle before, with limited success. 

Still, the farther west we went, the worse the Gnarled Marshes became. When we first began exploring it, the bog was somewhat depressing to be in, but with time I managed to let go of my discomfort and look at the bright side: how beautiful it looks in some places, the fact it's home to the wonderful fey, how peaceful it is… but on the west side, around our twelfth day of expedition, my heart and good spirits began to sank. It was no marsh. It was not even a bog – it was an authentic swamp, complete with soggy ground, clouds of insects that might well eat you alive if you crossed through them, and sickly trees poking lamely out of the mud. This was the hardest we ever had to scout for a place to sleep, because everywhere you stepped, you sank to the ankle. When it became darker as the night went by, keeping the fire going was a challenge, and the shadows of the trees seemed to be clawed fingers reaching out for you.

The following day, when I thought it couldn't get worse, it did: along with everything we had before, it began to smell. Dying plants most likely, the closest I could recall would be rotting cabbages. And when you're marching about you can't really cover your nose all the time, especially because that would imply you have to breathe through your mouth and you're likely to swallow one of the monstrous horseflies buzzing around! 

I was about to ask Takeshi if we could turn back – there was obviously nothing here we could use and our morning trek was nothing if not miserable – when we stumbled into a clearing. I didn't know it then, but I was about to see one of the saddest things I've ever laid my eyes on.

The "clearing" I'm describing here was not truly as you'd find in a forest, but simply a portion of slightly more solid ground surrounded by those dead-looking trees and vegetation. At the very center of this clearing there was a pond or natural well. We could hear no birds or animals, but the insects were having the time of their lives: the pond seemed to be a paradise for breeding flies and mosquitos. I was reminded of the calm we experienced just before the dragon went by, yet I didn't look up at the sky for the scene that awaited us on the other side of the pond. From where we entered the clearing, it appeared to be a dead horse. We eyed one other, and when nobody had any insight to offer, we began to go around the pond carefully, an eye on the corpse and another on the waters. On approach, the dead horse revealed itself to have been pure white… and there was a hollow mark on its head. Despite the plethora of insects around, the body was very much untouched. And the stench we were feeling came mostly from the pond, not the corpse.

I was puzzled at first by the hollow on its head. Like someone had extracted a little bit of the skull. Then it struck me. I was looking at a dead unicorn.

Without touching it, we tried to inspect the body to the best of our capabilities. Takeshi determined there was no visible way the beast could have been killed – no injuries except for the hollow mark on its forehead, and the horn was likely removed after it was dead. For my part (and Oksana backed me up), I could see no traces of magic, but there was a great sense of wrongness emanating from here. And in a way that I cannot really describe, I wasn't surprised there was. This was wrong. We could sense it, and so could the insects, and that's what was keeping them away from the body. Neither me nor Oksana are knowledgeable enough to venture a clue on what or whom might have done it… but evil fey kept coming to mind. Just in case, I warned Takeshi and Nagata not to come too close to the water. 

It felt bad standing there beside the dead unicorn for how horrible it was to behold… but when we eventually left, it felt bad not to investigate further. Without any clues we could find, there was nothing else we could do… but I still marked the spot on my map.   

Now well and depressed, we kept plowing through the swamp in dead silence. After a while there was no point in complaining about the smell, because we accepted it was not going away so soon. One would think we'd get used to it, but just when we seemed to start noticing it less, it became more intense. Smelly, dark, damp swamp with a dead unicorn in it. All I could do was sigh. Some of the most difficult days of our journey followed – we were irritable somewhat, and nothing in the surroundings seemed capable of cheering us up. At one point I would have welcomed some sort of threat to break the doldrums. 

And at one point, I thought Oksana was truly taking leave of her senses. She kept whispering at us about some kind of "heat wave" or "displacement" she was seeing, but whenever she pointed it out and we followed her finger, there was nothing there. Takeshi shrugged it off as swamp gas, but Oksana kept insisting it wasn't gas. More like a shimmer or what you see in the distance above the road in a hot day. Nagata asked if she'd been drinking our absinthe, and she told him off. Even at camp, when I went to bed and she took my place, she claimed she could see it! I thought she was losing her mind…

… until I saw it too! Just as she described, popping here or there for a few flimsy seconds, usually not long enough to point out. Just as soon as you spotted it, it was gone! I joined her efforts in trying to make my brothers see it – because it looked nothing like swamp gas. Or rather, it could have been swamp gas, only… where was the source? No bubbling in the mud, no worsening of the smell. I finally managed to get Takeshi to see it, but Nagata thought we were all nuts (and told us so repeatedly), he kept missing it. Bear agreed it looked like something that happens naturally… only in an extremely unnatural sort of way. I'm not sure if that makes sense. For how quick it was to fade away and pop up again, we could never see it long enough to study it. But we threaded carefully all the same. 

Eventually our path took us out of the swamp, and into a forest of large trees, and the shimmering seemed to stay behind us. Much like the poor unicorn, without any further clues, we had no way of investigating the phenomenon, and we were all more than happy to leave the swamp behind. 

Delving deeper into the woods, and by our account reaching the frontier once more, our spirits lifted a little bit. The ground was easier to walk and the stench was gone. Colorful mushrooms grew from the bark of several trees, shiny green dragonflies and a rainbow's worth of butterflies replaced the ugly buzzing horseflies, and the trees here were obviously healthy and young. Takeshi was eyeing them carefully, likely still wondering where we could set up a lumbering operation. We would soon find out, just the next day in fact (21st of our expedition) that it was a really bad idea to collect lumber here.

We came upon a wall of very tall trees. And I mean a wall – they were growing so close together they formed nearly a palisade around a pleasant clearing. Upon closer examination, the space between trunks seemed to widen – I can't really explain how. From a distance, I would say not even I could slide through them, but on approach they seemed to make room, just enough for Takeshi and Oksana to cross into the clearing. Once we stepped through the trunks, I scratched the word "clearing" in my head, and replaced it with "grove" – verdant bushes of edible berries grew tall and plentifully all around, vines and hanging flowers forming a kind of dome filtering some of the sunlight and leaving us in pleasant, cool twilight, mushrooms of shapes and sizes I'd never seen before forming whimsical patterns all around the trunks… and at the center, there was a woman. She was clad in what looked like living leaves and vines, and her orange hair seemed to be made entirely out of petals. Even without asking I knew this was a dryad, and if we were standing here in her grove it was because she willed it that we might pass. 

I'm not sure there is a protocol to addressing the higher fey, but gaping at them is probably not it – so I did the only thing I could think to do: followed in Takeshi's footsteps and bowed respectfully. She regarded us with some suspicion, despite the fact she let us in her grove. She spoke to us in the same voice nightingales sing in, and introduced herself as Tiressia, inquiring afterwards about what we were doing here. I'm glad Takeshi decided to speak – I didn't mean to be rude, but she looked so beautiful it was hard not to stare. Brother Bear explained about the chart, and that we were exploring these lands, looking for resources and allies to build our new kingdom. We meant no harm to the beauty of nature around us, but we required lumber to build with. Could she possibly point us to an area where we could acquire materials without bringing harm or disrespect?

(sidenote: very sly, brother Bear. Perhaps not overly subtle, but certainly sly.)  

Tiressia nodded gravely and told us she understood our predicament, and even told us of an area where we would be able to collect wood from older trees, without disturbing the balance – she gave her blessing that we do our lumbering there, and there alone. There would be plenty to collect, she said, and likely enough to meet our needs. Of course, as we were here, we asked her also about the things we had seen in the swamp – the unicorn's corpse, and the shimmering. She shook her head gravely at this – signs of the First World, she called them, a world older than the Material Plane, left over from the gods' first creation. Certainly evidence of evil fey. She also told us about something called a scythe tree further South. A specific tree that has been causing trouble and disturbing the balance, advancing further and further towards her grove. We offered our services, but she chuckled at that, saying she would gladly take the offer, but that as we are, she fears we would be walking to our deaths. For the time being, the scythe tree is under control. One day, however, it will not be, and on that day, she would like to have us on her side. We will need to toughen up some to go against that.

And that's when Nagata addressed the treetops, saying "Is that what happened to him?" I looked up to see a half-goat man hiding amongst the branches. Probably he was there the whole time, and only Nagata's trained eye managed to spot him. Tiressia agreed – the man was her consort, and was wounded badly from his efforts in battling the tree. Takeshi of course offered his healing spells, and we agreed to return to deal with this problem, once we are sure we can emerge victorious, or earlier if the situation becomes so dire addressing it can no longer be postponed. 

We left Tiressia's grove with the forest literally parting for us to pass. It was amazing! Trees simply leaned or moved out of our way! 

**** 

Journeying back, and as always trying to make the best of our expedition time, we decided to take a different route on the return home. Instead of following the edges of the marsh, we ventured further into the woodlands. The river we saw before seems to curve South. We became fairly sure it would be Skulk River – Nagata and Oksana had heard of it before.

Two days into our trek following the Skulk, however, we came upon an odd and creepy construction. An arm of the river seemed to be barred by a large dam or dyke. At first and from afar, we thought we might be gazing at a very industrious family of beavers. But as we approached, we saw something that the average beaver would never have used for construction: dead bodies.

I asked Takeshi if there was any chance we were actually looking at a beaver dam in which some unfortunate fellows' corpses got stuck while going downriver. He shook his head sadly at me, and told me the bodies were truly incorporated into the dam – their inclusion as a… err… construction material, let us say, was deliberate. Studying the margin, Nagata solved the mystery. He told us he could see tatzlwyrm tracks. With a relatively safe place for eggs or young to stay put and don't get dragged downriver, and a source of… err… food… we reached the conclusion it must be a nest.

We had already encountered tatzlwyrm during a previous expedition. In fact, we were paid quite a sum for the head of one. (sidenote: comparatively, it wasn't the best deal we ever made, but light weight in your pockets is better than no weight. Especially as we had only been here for a while, and our finances were not to be spoken of in fear they might prove too jarring and depressing for civilized conversation) If this was a nest, we weren't about to leave it alone and allow more of those to appear.    

Now the only issue was, how could we destroy it? Oksana thought of dousing it with the absinthe I still have, and lighting it on fire. Nagata tried to light up a torch to set it aflame, and Takeshi, closest to the dam, upstaged him by snapping his fingers to conjure a tiny spark amongst the driest branches. I had my doubts the damp wood would catch, but sure enough, there was smoke… and then Takeshi stopped snapping his fingers and took on a battle stance. We stood ready – something was coming. Bear struck at movement close by, in the water, like a fisherman trying to spear down a fish. But the water provided the tatzlwyrm with cover. Nagata went in next, having spotted a second creature right at the water's surface – Nagata was probably surprised and got bitten, but repaid in kind. Farther from the margin I began playing for courage, as Oksana started hurling snowballs. 

It's not often that Takeshi forsakes his naginata for the katana. That usually means the fight has already grown too close for comfort, so when I saw him drop one and draw the other I knew he was in trouble. Before we could do anything, the thing had him in its jaws, and Bear was being held in midair. I yelled at the tatzlwyrm, but I must have somehow botched the spell or misjudged the thing, because it completely ignored my efforts. And afterwards, of course, came the cloud of noxious gas. No matter how many times Takeshi squirmed and slashed at it, the creature wouldn't give him up. 

Nagata must have noticed Bear having trouble then – he had verily made mincemeat out of his adversary, and looked back right in time to see Takeshi being lifted by the maw. He ran toward the tatzlwyrm wakizashi first, going straight to his aid. At least I'm positive that was the intention, because the right wakizashi bit Takeshi instead of the tatzlwyrm. To his saving grace, the left wakizashi found its mark. His will broken, I yelled at the tatzlwyrm again, and it finally let go of Bear. A final strike from Nagata, and it was gone. 

Once we had caught our breath back, we finished dismantling the nest. One of the bodies we managed to pull away still carried some valuables. (sidenote: I am sure Takeshi and Nagata agree with me, that this is too close to graverobbing for comfort. We still need both every clue that we can get, and every gold piece that we can grab.) Among which there was a scroll case, and within it, a map of some sort. It showed a portion of the Greenbelt – that much we could tell, or even which portion, since we recognized some landmarks. A route was marked on it, and the note "STATUE" at the end of the trail seemed to be the final objective.

Curiosity may have killed the cat. But not the Bear. Or the Monkey. Or even the Cricket. And certainly not the… Oksana. (sidenote: find a nickname for Oksana soon.) 

So deeper into the woods we went. I like camping in the woods rather than the marsh for all the obvious reasons, plus it gives me a greater feeling of security. The trees in the Gnarled Marshes were smaller and thinner than the ones we find here, by far. And while the Marshes are beautiful in their own way (except for that swamp bit, which was smelly and sort of spooky) nothing really beats a good woodland. Takeshi told me during our evening meal (trail rations… so many trail rations…) that it's in this territory that he would like to build a lumbering mill, with Tiressia's permition of course, and under the promise that we will plant a new tree for each we cut down. Looking at the abundance of wood around us, it sounds very reasonable. But I'm more concerned of how we might honor such a promise. We are four people to all of this territory, and unless we gain a good deal of respect from our future citizens, we cannot expect they will keep our promises. I've never heard of a lumberjack having qualms about cutting down a tree, but also never heard of one that bothered to replace it.

The following day, and carefully studying the route, we finally reached the statue. I must confess (and no disrespect is meant here, ancestors and Shizuru and Erastil) at first it looked a little… wrong. It was a statue alright – fifteen feet tall, depicting a creature with the body of a man wrapped in leathers and furs, and the head of a great stag with large and wide antlers. If Takeshi hadn't told me it's one of the representations of Erastil, I would've never guessed it. And, indeed, not much further ahead of it there was a ruined building which once was likely a hunters' lodge. But the shape rang a few disagreeable chimes with me. I kept thinking about that first bandit we interrogated, and how he depicted the Stag Lord's ever-present helm. I asked the others if it might be related, but until we see the man for ourselves, a common shrug is all we can do as a reply. Still, Father Kavken might want to learn about this. I updated our own map, and we decided to head there. By our accounts, we shouldn't be far.

*

I am very pleased to report that my first diplomatic assignment went smoothly and was quite productive! We have formed a successful alliance with another kingdom!

Sort of…

Well, perhaps not quite. But it was fun.

After a night camping in the statue's vicinity, on the 26th day of our expedition, we once again dove into the Marshes, hoping to make a bee line to the Temple of the Elk. It was nearing late afternoon when we spotted the ruined buildings – the days are growing longer now, and we have the benefit of more hours of sunlight. We moved closer to investigate. At the worst, it might be a fairly dry place to camp.

But as soon as we could see the door (or what had once been a door), we noticed the ruins must be inhabited. The creature we saw sitting by it was part man and part frog. Big, round bulging eyes spotted us from atop a green, nearly oval head, and he scrambled onto his webbed feet. The animal (sidenote: or at least I hope it's an animal) at his side also roused to life, big enough to serve as a mount for the other, four-legged, sharp-fanged and gooey-looking. Nagata drew the wakizashis and Takeshi was reaching for the naginata. Yet to me, this fellow looked in everything the part of one of Minkai's senior citizens, baking himself in the Sun, waiting for someone to come around and play mahjong, and hoping the teenagers across the street don't come bother him.

I was especially pleased when, after bringing himself to a stand, that person waved its bare hands and grumbled something on the lines of "peace". I halted my brothers with a quick gesture, and stepped forth to try and parley. 

It wasn't easy. As I approached, I recalled stories of the swamp frog-people – boggards, I believe they're called – and realized the probabilities of the man knowing any common tongue would be slim. I tried to make myself understood through gestures and pantomime, and albeit slowly, I began to understand who he was. He called himself Garuum, and the… other one was Ubagub (if that is a species, name or type of creature is another issue), and he claimed to be King of this place. As I recall, boggards live in clans, and a young man is allowed and entitled to defy the chief for his place at any given time. And Garuum, from what I understood, fancied himself chief. The thing is, he didn't win. Didn't even make a dent, considering the tone of his grumbling. His mighty challenge to the standing leader ended with Garuum riding Ubagub away from his clan fast, as the bulk of it was running right behind him. Garuum escaped, and decided it was easier to claim the unclaimed, rather than try to wrestle power from the chief. So he declared himself King of this place, and lives here with Ubagub peacefully.

This I transmitted to Takeshi. The boggard obviously didn't want trouble, and he would probably surrender at once if we were to challenge him. Takeshi said it's okay if he keeps this area, in and around the ruins, so I told him Bear was a King also – of the surrounding lands. And we came in peace to visit his kingdom. Body language is different enough to become confusing but I think he was pleased – he let us sleep in the ruin and even made an effort to further chat with us. Among other topics, we managed to inquire about another of our quests in the Greenbelt – the monster boar Tuskgutter. Garuum knew about it alright – said the thing never ventures too close to his Kingdom but he's seen it in the area, when he goes out to hunt his dinner. It should be somewhere near.

The following day we bade Garuum and his pet goodbye. I was in a really good mood after that. Considering we didn't share a common language or physiology, I believe we struck a good deal, and even managed to get our points across. I doubt I have the physical appendages necessary to ever truly learning to speak boggard, but it's encouraging, to me, that we succeeded. When our kingdom is formed, I will petition Brother Bear to become Grand Diplomat!

*

My good mood was bound to continue throughout the day. When we reached the Temple of the Elk again, we were in for an inspiring view. Considering how shortly ago we saw the place abandoned and derelict, father Kavken managed a tiny miracle. Gone were the lichen that covered the tiled floor, and the stairs leading to the cave were already being repaired. The pool was pristine, and the massive elf figure cleaned and more defined. When we arrived, father Kavken was at work still, whistling a tune and looking very happy. 

He received us as old friends, and offered us each a seat, a cool drink and his attention. He seemed very interested in the statue, and once we told him of how close it was, he asked if we could be bothered to escort him there. Of course we can – but first, as Takeshi reminded, we had a boar to catch. We agreed. No use risking running into the beast with Father Kavken in tow. We were quite sure we'd find it close by, so we promised to return once it'd been dealt with. It would give the good father some time to finish what he was doing and prepare for the trek. 

You would think it should be easy to find a boar the size of a man. And, true enough, it took Nagata's eyes just a short while to find the great boar's tracks. We still spent two days following the creature through the woods, always on the lookout, and we ended up stumbling into it. Because Monkey will be Monkey.

It was the evening of our second day hunting – 30th of our expedition – and we were ready to give up and set camp. The tracks became confusing at one point, and Nagata was sure this was a place of common passage for the beast, but he couldn't tell one set of tracks from another, or discern which was oldest. Hungry and tired, we figure we'd look for a place to set camp nearby, go without a fire, and hope the beast would come by here again. 

Takeshi was evaluating a thicket of trees a little farther away as a possible place to make camp. Nagata went the exact opposite way and discovered a cave. I remember I asked him how safe (and clean) the cave was. I wasn't very keen on finding, for example, a milipede crawling through my bedroll during the night. Nagata said it was fine, in fact that it was perfect to hide in, as he stuck his head inside… and then his voice suddenly died in his throat. I figured he'd found the cave was crawling with bugs, but then he said two words that sent us all into battle mode.

He said, "Found it."

Then he rushed backwards as the largest boar I've ever seen charged at him from within the cave!

It was a scary battle for Nagata. He was, no pun intended, on the beast's snout most of the time. Fortunately, the added distance gave Takeshi an edge, and he managed to impale the thing on his naginata before long. The two boys were hit, but nothing dire compared to some wounds they've sustained before. We collected the boar's head… and had some of the rest for dinner – we had just felled a perfectly reasonable boar, we weren't going to pass on the chance! Ha! Take that, trail rations!

With this risk out of the way, within three days we were returning to the statue with Father Kavken. He seemed delighted – according to him, this place is consecrated ground, and that means it's a safe area, both for us who now stood there, but also any who will. No violence can occur in the clearing around the statue, and no harm can touch those who sit within. For our service once again to his faith, Father Kavken explained, he would call the blessings of Erastil upon our weapons, that they may strike more fiercely for the following seven days and nights.

As tired as I was, this was too good a gift to waste. This still wasn't the time to head home.

Once we left Father Kavken back at the temple, we continued to explore the woodland areas. Erastil's blessing came very much in hand during that time. It is no great deal when you have several hunters to one boar, regardless of how large the boar it is. When you have several boars for as many hunters, however, things can become quite complicated. During one afternoon in particular, I recall, we were surprised by four. At least I was – one of them slammed me on the side so fiercely it nearly threw me to the ground! It was a tough fight. And the tougher they become, the more I realize how careful I have to be when standing around. My music helps, but if I stand too far away, I can't use magic to help the meleers. On the other hand, I get too close, I will become a target, and a liability for Monkey and Bear. I saw Takeshi take a bad risk to come save me. That's not the point of me being there. 

Live and learn, I suppose… fortunately we all got out alright. And well enough, for soon, we would have to contend with even more problems.

-—-

THE TRAVELING BARD DOs and DON'Ts – A SURVIVAL GUIDE by Ameno Uzume

DO buy a good pair of shoes. Stay away from the latest fashions and go to the nearest guardhouse and purchase a set of theirs. I abandoned my sandals days after we got off the ship. Not only were they digging into the skin between my toes, once the mud began, it was pointless to wear them.

DON'T forget your beauty kit. Just because you're in the middle of nowhere you don't have to look like a savage – a bard must arrange to look her best, one never knows when diplomatic skills will be useful or a performance may be forthcoming. My nail kit and my hairbrush are especially precious to me.

DO arrange things in a way that you are in good terms with a cleric. Not only will they patch you up, they can also conjure water. And you will want a bath. Desperately, sometimes. Now if only we could arrange a way for the gods to bless us with hot water…

DON'T forget your instrument. It will be a source of income and it can save your life. Bring spare strings if you play a string instrument, repair kit if you play a drum, cleaning apparatus if you have a flute, for instance. However, if you play the temple organ, maybe traveling is not for you.

DO play with your food. Believe me, nothing you try to do to a trail ration will make it taste worse, so feel free to experiment with ingredients you forage or hunt for.

DON'T disturb the locals, even if they look disturbed to begin with.

DO learn where within your group you should and should not be. The more fights I get into, the more I'm convinced that being a battle bard is much like building a house: location, location, location.

DON'T wear white. Prefer dark colors. It makes you less visible and it's easier to launder. 

DO invest in proper storage. Before we got our bag of holding, we had to carry everything on our shoulders. You may think carrying thirty pounds is a walk in the park. Talk to me again four days later.

DON'T bite off more than you can chew. If you can avoid a fight by staying still for a while or giving the threat wide berth, it's preferable. You won't tire as quickly and who knows how long you'll be out…

DO set watch. Even if it's just two of you. I can't tell how many times it saved me some grief having someone else guard me while I slept. 

DON'T eschew weapons. A bard shouldn't have to carry one, but one fact Takeshi never had to teach me about military tactics is, regardless of how many cons there are, if push comes to shove, you'll want to have something to hit them with. And you are not going to use your instrument to bash someone, unless you play the tambourine, in which case it is hillarious.

DO make business. Often you'll be presented with opportunities to run other people's errands for them, or sell your skills for gold or favor. When I first traveled away from home never did I think someone might pay me to collect a basket of berries from behind the sunset, yet that gold came in so very handy…

DON'T miss opportunities to meet new and interesting people. Just make sure they don't want to kill you first.

DO learn more languages. And improve your mimicry. Inform yourself on local rude signs before trial and error loses you some teeth.

DON'T underestimate how much you can sleep. Miss Ai, who taught me how to write, sing and dress my hair used to boast about how she could look perfectly fresh after only four hours of "deeper meditation". No, Miss Ai. I regret to inform, Miss Ai, that "meditation" has to be "deeper" and longer after eight hours of walking up and downhill. Between expeditions I had "deeper meditations" that lasted me nearly the whole day. I've had "deeper meditations" from which not even the grumpiest Bear could rouse me. Insomnia? I used to complain to Grandfather that the paper on my window was so thin I could see the moonlight and it kept me from "meditation". At this point in my life I can very much "meditate" in the middle of a Summer festival in a large city, behind the dumpling stand, with the trash bin and the family dog on either side, as the Minkai Imperial Orchestra marches down main avenue with every single instrument off-tune. I could "meditate" through that. Right now, I gladly would!

View
Green and Gold
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4712, Spring
It was a fairly uneventful journey back to the Temple of the Elk, with father Kavken in tow. He seemed very excited to finally see the reason for all those nightmares. Once there, he reconsecrated the temple once more, and the waters of the pool began glowing with the blessings of Erastil. That, according to Takeshi, is a sure sign the god approves of what has been done here, and accepts father Kavken as the new guardian of this temple. In fact, the good father plans to linger here for now, and begin to make his new temple a place of peace and worship again. 

Takeshi spoke to him for a long while before we left him to it. In truth, before we brought him here, we held a sort of "family meeting" to discuss a proposal Takeshi had in mind – to ask father Kavken to become the new religious leader of the Greenbelt, and be in charge of all issues divine with the new communities. Bear's gut feeling that father Kavken will do well in such functions seems solid, so we agreed we should go ahead and propose it. Father Kavken accepted at once, and thanked us for all our help with tears in his eyes. 

Our fourth expedition was bound to be long and winded, so we set off directly from the Temple. There was a moment of argument on where we would be headed next. I'm glad we usually hold these in private – the four of us, bent over a map pointing and bickering must be quite the sight. According to Thig-Titter, there are hotsprings in the Gnarled Marshes that I was very interested in visiting. Bear and Monkey weren't sure this was a good place to explore yet, as they found other objectives had priority. 

(sidenote: I admit it: I am somewhat biased in wanting to explore a place where a hotspring likely exists. Grandfather took us to onsen once or twice, and I loved it. Onsen are bathing houses or inns built around mineral hotsprings, where one is allowed to sit in naturally heated water, relax and chat. I would be thrilled if we could have something like that in our kingdom. Talking to Oksana about it in camp I realized her culture has something similar called sauna, in which they sit in a small wooden shack around a charcoal fire, and sprinkle water on it to create steam. They sit in there and steam the room and sweat… and then take a leaping dive into freezing lake water. There are not enough "no"s in any language I know. Who does that?!)

At any rate, our argument ended with a victory for the two ladies: we'll be exploring the area around the hotspring after all! 

Thig-Titter had told us about giant frogs who lived in the aforementioned hotspring, however. And that they like eating cricket-fey (grigs, I believe Oksana calls them). Thig-Titter doesn't know my brothers call me Cricket, or maybe she does, considering her prankster side. On our way there I heard every pun in the book.

Once we reached the hotspring, my hopes of building a teahouse and onsen here one day began to sink. The hotspring pond was surrounded by underbrush taller than me and covered in mist, and the bubbly waters were yellow and smelled weird. Sulphur, we quickly concluded. Takeshi tried dipping the tip of his fingers and told us it was about as hot as a hot bath gets – not boiling, but nice and pleasantly tepid. He had just finished commenting when something underneath the water lunged for him! Given the size of the water displacement, I thought it might be a crocodile! It was actually a frog – a huge frog! A tentacle-like limb shot out of the water to wrap around Takeshi and pull him in, and thankfully missed. 

The battle was made harder by the fact the frogs kept underwater (and it was not exactly clear water) most of the time: Takeshi's naginata kept missing the mark, and Nagata had to tread water nearly to the chest to hit one. Of course, going in the water, one became vulnerable to the frogs' attacks (yes – one more joined the fray after the first revealed itself), as they were much better swimmers than any of us. Not the most nerve-wrecking battle we've had so far, but somewhat complicated. I find that yelling at them works, especially because I can direct a specific, high-pitched note at a target that leaves them somewhat befuddled. Oksana's sleeping spell also came in handy. 

And despite Nagata's troublesome first dealings with Thig-Titter and Perlyvash, I am glad he seems to hold no hard feelings. Once the frogs were dealt with, he retrieved their tongues to present to them as a trophy, and proof that the hotspring was safe to enjoy once more.

We set camp right there, at the pond's edge. Dinner was… ehm. One of the reasons why these long expeditions are taking their toll is the logistics behind them. Securing food and water for such long periods can be tricky. We've been honing our hunting skills, but with nothing about worth hunting, we're left with simple foraging, and it usually makes for a poor meal: mushrooms, lichen, the odd wild vegetable. And larvae. I'm not very keen on it, and choosing between the dry trail rations and fresh larvae is like choosing between stumping your toe on the furniture and having a splinter in your finger. None of it will kill you, but it won't be particularly enjoyable either. Still – it will keep us going, and right now, that's what's important. Our cooking skills have improved (I take back all the mean things I wrote about Nagata taking lessons from Svetlana) and with our new bag of holding, weight is less of a problem. 

The following day we continued our travel, finding geisers and springs here and there. None as large as the pond, but still a lot of them. The marshland gave away to plains to the west. I recall we sighted a pack of moose and managed to hunt one down by way of the fascinate-slumber-naginata combination. In fact, it was precisely the next day (or shall I say the next morning?) we met Mathis. 

I recall it was Takeshi's watch shift, I had been asleep, and it should be getting close to sunrise. At any moment, Bear would be rousing Monkey for his final shift (as guard duty goes, Monkey got what the locals call, the short end of the stick: his are the first and last shifts, right at dusk, then again at dawn. It allows Oksana and me to get our "beauty sleep", but it taxes him considerably…) Takeshi woke us up as someone was approaching our campsite – we couldn't see him, but the sound of trampling bushes gave him away. He emerged into the small clearing where we had been camping, a man with all the marks and makings of a hunter, walking with some kind of bobcat or leopard at his side. Monkey (being Monkey) was gone just before he entered the light of the fire, and if I know him, he would be carefully studying our newcomer from somewhere behind him. 

The man said his name was Mathis, and he was a hunter in these parts. Takeshi invited him closer to our fire, and we managed to talk for a while, and exchange some information. Apparently, Mathis knows some of this area pretty well. He used to hunt around here and sell meat at Olaf's Trading Post. When the bandit activity in these parts became overbearing, he retreated to the North for a while, and was now returned to help with the effort of getting rid of them. We told him of our raid on the bandit camp, and our plans to find the Stag Lord and put an end to his realm of terror. Mathis seemed pleased someone else was on the issue as well. He managed to give us a few more pointers, concerning a family of trolls that dwells about here somewhere, and a legend about a ferry guarded by an undead creature. Before he left, Mathis promised to rendezvous with us at Oleg's Trading Post sometime, as he'll be headed in that direction to restart his business – he's planning to hunt down a bull and sell it there. And that's when Monkey nearly gave him a stroke by popping out of the bushes to request he take two. 

Our expedition continued, fairly uneventful for the next few days. Plains, low grass, herds of cattle aplenty. A hunter's paradise, and I can see why Mathis would be doing business about here. Plenty of opportunity for someone who knows how to track and take down prey. These herds seem to have been undisturbed for quite a while – bulls, auroch, moose and other large herbivores, sometimes in very large groups. In some areas we decided to give them wide berth and don't disturb them, lest one decide to come chasing after us and we end up in a tree somewhere for a few hours. 

As the plains gave way to a savannah I was beginning to ask myself if all these large herbivores have no predators about these parts. Unfortunately, my question would be answered when Nagata found tracks belonging to some kind of large cats – lions, maybe, roaming in a group. And on one occasion when we found a smaller herd and managed to take down a bull for meat, we finally met them. 

(sidenote: I'm starting to see a pattern here. We've battled a giant spider, which gives me shivers just thinking about it, and we've seen giant frogs. I think we're in the land of giant creatures, because there has never been a lion as big as the ones we've seen).

It was Takeshi who spotted them – even if he hadn't, we wouldn't have had any problem seeing the leading alpha male as it approached. And it did so nonchalantly, trotting happily towards us with the security of a head predator that's hardly ever been challenged, followed by four or five lionesses. We had been stripping the bull's carcass of as much meat as would fit in our bag of holding when they showed up, and Takeshi thought it best we do exactly as the cat probably assumed we would: back away, and let them have the remains. We had a good few pounds of meat and this was a fight we didn't need to get into. 

My theory of giant animals continued to seem legitimate the following day, as we continued through the low grass to spot some elephant-like creatures. We only saw them from afar – no sense in approaching and risking attack – but I could tell they were huge. 

Around the eleventh or so day on our expedition, as we moved on, we reached a cemetery. Not a regular, tombstones-and-graves cemetery like we're used to. We entered a territory of rolling hills, packed here and there with berry bushes and tall plants. They appeared to be growing atop some kind of boulder, and as we approached for a better look, we realized they were not so much boulders as cairns. Oksana told us of the barbarian tribes from Numeria that once prowled in these lands, and whom she was sure would have built these mausoleum-like structures to bury their dead. Most of the ones we found had been ransacked. They were opened, anything of value removed, and some items broken. Only a single one remained sealed, and we agreed not to disturb it. Takeshi called for the wisdom of Shizuru and declared there is no evil in this place – no reason to disturb the dead any further. Still, I marked it on the map for posterior investigation. Not that we would consider breaking the seal on the sole closed cairn, mind you. The dead should be allowed to rest in peace. But we can try to learn more about it from another source.

The cairns dotted most of the landscape in this area. I believe the one escaped due to being nearly buried under berry bushes. Any other that was slightly more obvious got pillaged. 

*

Previously I wrote about dragons some, and how the dragon as understood by the locals is much different from the dragons we grew up with. I also recall writing about how the local dragon seems (to me, at least) to be more frightful than the ryu – possibly because I'm a foreigner here, and unfamiliarity would add to my fear. 

On the fifteenth day of our fourth expedition… we learned what the color of that fear is. 

It began with a calm. After we left the territory with the cairns we entered an area of plain land, the savannah mostly behind us. We managed to spot a thicket of trees in the distance, an odd, somewhat out of place dense forest in the middle of nowhere. And then we noticed the calm. No birds were singing. No insects buzzing either. Not a bunny, squirrel or mouse to speak of. It was as if all life had fled that land. The silence was interrupted only by the breeze, and even that seemed to have gone shy, blowing gently as if afraid to disturb the silence. 

In seconds we were nervous. Takeshi and Oksana both agreed this was not natural behavior. And yet, nothing seemed wrong with the place – no magical auras, no signs of evil forces anywhere. We walked towards the forest (because of course we did), but our steps were careful, timid… and as we approached, I don't know who saw it first, but in a moment, all of our eyes were staring at it.

A little dot on the sky.

Usually if it's airborne, one assumes it might be a bird. But as it moved slowly towards us, we began to realize how large it must actually be – it was still a way's away, and we could see it. When it was growing close enough that we could distinguish the flapping wings, we must have all agreed in silence that it was no bird. Takeshi urged us toward the forest – it was the only place we could possible hide in. We didn't need to be told. We bolted towards it as fast as our legs would carry us, with the thing approaching faster now, leathery wings flapping, a tail like a massive rudder steering it through the air, scales and talons and teeth glinting in the Sun. 

We made the trees just in time to duck behind the trunks and see it pass overhead, in a flash not of jade but emerald. Green is the color of fear.

I didn't think they would be so big. And so… scary. 

I have no clue whether it saw us and thought us unworthy of the trouble, or if it missed us. A creature that size if bound to have good eyesight from afar. And dragons sense things common humanoids cannot – it could very well have spotted us rushing and hiding in the trees, and been pleased enough at our reaction that it didn't bother coming down to get a closer look. We didn't risk it – even after it was away and out of sight, we remained ducked among the trees for a while longer, talking in whispers and looking towards the sky, just in case it decided to return. Oksana murmured about the Dragonscale throne and the legend of Khoral the Conqueror, and of how it was believed the dragons' lair would be a great forest in the middle of Brevoy. Because green dragons, she continued, usually nest in ancient forests.

Suddenly, we felt like we were in a very poor choice of hiding spot, and decided to get moving.

I guess I was a little harsh with Takeshi when he proposed we camp here, in the shade of the trees. After seeing that thing fly by, I didn't want to be anywhere near a forest, I wanted to run back to the Trading Post and hide under my bed. I mean, we just saw a dragon go overhead that would call the four of us a midday snack in two bites! Why would we ever want to camp here, especially if we know his kind likes to sleep in the very place we're hiding in?! 

(sidenote: some panic there, I confess. But I don't think it's uncalled for. One day, I might write a song about the first time I saw a dragon in these lands, and I will have to look carefully at the audience to see what effect it draws from them. That day, I'll know if my fear was uncalled for.)

Takeshi didn't think the dragon lived anywhere nearby. Once he explained it reasonably, I saw his point: considering the direction it was coming from, it might well have lifted in Brevoy. And it was obviously off elsewhere (perhaps to take down an elephant?) without giving this place a wink. Besides, Takeshi reasoned, if we had been hiding anywhere near its lair, it would probably not leave us alone so easily – Bear seems to be convinced the thing must have seen us, and simply ignored us. I reluctantly accepted sleeping here – though I got very little sleep, actually. It was soothing when we began hearing animal noises around us again, and see the odd rodent go by. I understand now why everything was so quiet – every creature went to ground as the dragon approached. 

Bear's explanation of why we could camp here safely convinced us, but none of us (Takeshi included) wanted to linger around longer than necessary. During the evening, we discussed doubling back and doing some exploring elsewhere for the time being. Our dinner of field rat (very chewy and stringy, could have benefited from longer seasoning, but it's better than the larvae) and frayed nerves made us long for a return to the closest place we have to home. And considering Mathis' information, perhaps we should refit and start addressing some issues to the South. The Scottsdale kobolds are bound to be somewhere South, according to what we know, and the Stag Lord as well. I wouldn't say we would be running away – let's instead say we were taking a strategic retreat. Takeshi is also concerned we found no place where we could mine for pure stone, a quarry of some sort. He's already thinking construction, resource managing, logistics…

All I could think about for most of the night was the color green.

*

We returned to Oleg's Trading Post on the 21st day… and we had to stay put for a time. I love my brothers, I do, and I am ready to risk life and limb for them. But sometimes they can be a little… I don't want to say "silly", but… they sometimes go a little overboard.

The day before we reached Oleg's Trading Post we were running low on supplies, and with a bounty of cattle herds covering the territories we were crossing, it made perfect sense to go hunting. We were trying to lure a bull away from the herd when we realized we weren't the only hunters targeting it – a pack of wolves had been singling out the same bull as us, and they of course did not appreciate the competition. 

Unlike the issue with the large cat the other day, the wolves were unlikely to let us go. We had lost our target and so had they – so in a wolf's mind, it's only fair if the meddlers become the new meal. Takeshi and Oksana were taking point, and were the first to brace for the fight – wolves are swift and expedite in hunting in a pack. As one charged, Takeshi slashed at it with the naginata. Oksana tried to make it sleep to no avail. A second one charged, and Monkey charged back, but went too wide and missed it. His wider than intended move placed him right in the way of Takeshi's swirling naginata – Bear missed the wolf, but struck on Monkey. 

Things went from bad to worse as the wolves swarmed around Nagata and took him down – Takeshi was doing the best he could, but that swing and (mistaken) hit seemed to throw off his concentration. It worked in Nagata's favor that wolves are extremely territorial – one of them would rather bite away a cousin than go straight for a prey that seems, for all intents and purposes, to be down. Takeshi managed to finish them off and save Monkey, and then spent every blessing of Shizuru he had for today helping him heal. 

Despite the fact that things were complicated for a second, Nagata seemed to be alright. He even tried to pay the wolves back the kindness by making roast wolf for dinner… which was positively disgusting. Mid-meal I actually changed to trail rations. Bear seemed to be upset about hitting Nagata, no matter how many times we told him it wasn't intended, that mistakes happen, and Monkey assured him he was fine. By the time I went to sleep, he was still brooding about it. He didn't seem to be any less brooding come morning. We got to Oleg's well in time to have lunch, but when we gathered around the fire to eat, Takeshi was nowhere to be found.

I discovered after lunch that he had gone up one of the watchtowers and was standing guard with nothing but water!

When I took him a bowl of food and tried to convince him to eat something, all he did was shake his head at me.

When I reasoned that he came out of nearly a month's worth of expedition, a complicated couple of nights and half a day's walk he stared off into the distance for the invisible approaching armies.

When I called him a dummy and told him he'd get sick and have to get bed rest I was ignored more fiercely than ever before.

I told Monkey about this  - it's probably penitence for landing a hit on him during the fight with the wolves. And Monkey climbed up the watchtower and told him there was no need for this. But good luck with that – pig-headed Bear wouldn't give. So some hours later, of course, he collapsed and we had to carry him off to bed.

And what did Monkey do after this?

He went right up the same watchtower and took his place until Takeshi woke up next morning and told him that was enough!

BAKA

I understand that brother Bear feels guilty and thinks he should do penance. I can even understand that Monkey would take his place and complete the watch Takeshi thinks he should do. They forget we have work to do and they cannot jeopardize our progress by falling ill! Besides, if the offended party told the supposed offender it's alright, why overexert yourself when you could employ your energy on something productive? Imagine some bandits came up to Oleg's Trading Post – with one of our meleers exhausted and another getting there, it would be up to me and Oksana, Lord Garress and poor Oleg himself to defend the fort.

BAKA!!

*

One of the things I miss the most in these lands (I think I mentioned this before) is tea. Svetlana knows something or another about the medicinal properties of some herbs, once boiled or macerated in hot water, but it's not exactly the same. It's medicine, it's not tea. The last time Oleg went off to Brevoy for trading we tried to describe tea to him, and despite our efforts (I even tried to draw the tea leaf, but it didn't come out as anything even I could recognize as tea) all we got from him was a blank stare and a scratch of the bald spot. Oleg is a former mercenary, he knows ale and spirits, he knows goat and cow milk, and he knows soup and potions. Tea is something weird and distant to him. The closest we managed to explain was, like Svetlana's tummy ache medicine, only good for drinking at all times. He promised to look it up for us… but we're not getting our hopes up.

Besides (said Takeshi) we are so far from Minkai that even if we do find tea on a market, it's probably an expensive novelty rather than a freely available product. We'd likely pay ten or twenty times per pound what we used to pay at home. 

Right now,  even if it's highway robbery, I think I'd be willing to pay out of my own pocket for a tin of tea leaves. I miss tea so very much…

Monkey pulled me aside today to tell me about the news from his dead-drop. Oleg spoke to him last night, and some of the things I asked him to look up are bearing fruit.

Razor Guy, which we met when we attended the charter delivery ceremony, turned out to have quite the impressive reputation. I wasn't far off when I named him – he's actually known as Jack Knife. From what Nagata's contacts say, he's some kind of local sort-of-a-hero. The amount of deeds attributed to him is insane and sometimes paradoxical – for instance, while some people claim he was in Restov dueling 50 men alone with a blunt paring knife and his wits, some other say that at the time he was robbing a bank in New Stetven, and some other claim that a day later he broke into Skywatch to get a glimpse of all the damns he doesn't give, and the night after that he stole a barbarian totem from Numeria by himself and whistling The Bear and the Maiden Fair the whole time… 

Monkey and I both agreed that this is impossible. He would have to be the most epic rogue in existence. His reputation is impressive, but most of it has to be untrue. To me, Jack Knife (if that is his real name) must be a very large group of very skilled thieves, tramps and rogues, likely not affiliated with one another, and capable enough that they got away with whatever they did, and allowed the one rogue to have the bragging rights because they don't care about fame. Nagata once asked me what was the name of the best thief in the world. Before I could even answer, he told me there was no answer: the best thief in the world was never caught and nobody knows he even did anything. It's the lesser thieves, or the dumb ones, that end up having their names up on Wanted posters.

Besides, Jack Knife seems to be dear to the common people of Brevoy. I can see why. One thing I know for sure is stories, and this is the sort of story the common people cherish. One of their own who, through wits, skills and a fool's luck gets back at the noble and the powerful in their stead. It makes them feel vindicated, especially if the one who did it is a man "of the people". Still, keeping an eye on his advancement might be useful. Jack has at least one very good ability: swindling public opinion. And that is very nearly a divine power when used properly.

The other information Monkey attained from the dead drop concerned the Garess family scandal – and as he began to tell me about it, the details started to return to me. I knew I'd heard this story before. 

Kasten Garess is noble-born and classically trained when it comes to combat. He was meant to one day rise to the seat of House Garess, being the only son to Lord Evan Garess. Unfortunately, Kasten fell in love with a lowborn girl – from our information, a weaver's daughter called Tania Rimovcheg. The scandal came about when the affair reached the public eye. Kasten was disowned and stripped of very much every right except his knighthood. He then traveled South to Brevoy, and ended up here. As for Tania… she seems to have disappeared off the face of Golarion. Nobody knows where she ended up. Icebeard is the most likely spot from what the contacts knows. Monkey and I think this is wrong – if Garess lost everything because of the affair, he should at the very least have his beloved with him! We decided to send back a message to the dead-drop, urging Nagata's contacts to find her. Once we know for sure where she is, we'll bring this up to Bear and ask if we can in any way intervene!

Some days later we saw Mathis again as well – he came by pulling a horse by the reins, carrying an ungodly amount of beef. Apparently he took Nagata's hint and brought two bulls to Oleg's Trading Post. Oleg was quick to vouch for him – Mathis, apparently, was a common sight in the Trading Post before bandit activity flared up, and always delivered on his orders. Brother Bear, again the sly negotiator, struck a deal with him to buy supplies and get some hides tanned – 15% seems to have become his usual base of negotiation, though Nagata thinks it's too much. 

Abundance is usually a good thing, and I am very glad for the abundance in Oleg's Trading Post. But I also know what this means – that some of that beef will go into trail rations lovingly prepared by Svetlana, to stuff in our bag of holding, that we may venture out once again…

*

Fifth expedition was planned over a porridge breakfast.

(sidenote: porridge is this context is something like congee, only with oats instead of rice… I prefer congee myself, but I haven't seen a single grain of rice since I came out of the ship in this new continent…)

We argued on where to head next, and what we would like to actively keep an eye out for. I listed the wanted posters and requests we have pending, and Takeshi insisted on his two primary concerns – where to lumber for wood without offending the locals, and the possibility of finding a quarry for stone. I had to make a warning concerning the Scottsdale kobolds request. Nagata is not overly friendly with kobolds and was ready to raze them to the ground whenever we find them. But the wanted poster clearly states "Solve the Situation" instead of "Murder the Lot of Them". To me, this means that kobolds had existed before in this place, and they weren't always a problem. They are also inhabitants of the Greenbelt, likely to be more familiar with it than we are, so perhaps this situation can be solved diplomatically.

If we are going to rule in the Greenbelt, we need to make friends with the locals. This was true for fey folk (except mites – I've seen mites once and I understand there's no diplomatic value to be had from them. They straight up strike and seem all too joyous about the misery they cause) and this must be true for kobolds. I mean, at least we can try to reason with them before we draw our weapons! Nagata himself should know the value of having eyes and ears out there.  

This expedition takes us southwest, past the first radish patch we ever saw here, and the bandit camp we cleansed during our first travel. We walked for a few days with little to speak of in the way of trouble. At one time, I recall, we saw two creatures locked in combat and decided to steer clear from them – one I'm sure was a bear… the other I have no idea. It was smaller than a bear, but twice as mean! Oksana later told me it was called a wolverine, and it's a predator so terrifying the only creature she knows ever bested it was a beaver – and only because the beaver managed to drown the wolverine while also dying in the process! Don't think I want to be too near one.

Marsh gave way to plains and woodlands, and eventually to steep hills with rocky crags, some tall enough to give way to precipices. On the sixth day of expedition, while walking at the bottom of one such crags, we discovered a tunnel half concealed in the bare stone and decided to investigate.

I remember I was taking point, which is unusual. Due to my nature, I can see in the dark as if it was bright, a trait I try not to give away too much, but which comes in handy in this sort of situations – I can peek inside a dark tunnel and scout, as was the case. Lighting up a torch would of course give us away to anything within. My brothers know about this, naturally. I am sometimes unsure whether Oksana has noticed it as unusual or not – so far she hasn't said anything about it, or questioned where I get this ability from, and if she does I might be able to write it off as magic. 

The dark tunnel gave way to a cave. Takeshi walked in right behind me, and Nagata behind him, announcing he could see tracks likely belonging to a humanoid. But the cave was bare – nobody was inside, nothing of note at first glance. Oksana was closing the line with a lit torch in hand, and when the light struck the cave walls, Takeshi and I saw something shiny embedded in one of them. Upon closer inspection, we could see it seemed to be a vein of gold! 

Just as we were marveling at this find, I heard something running up the tunnel. Heavy, swift footsteps. I turned on my heels and warned the group, but just then, a hulking creature broke out of the tunnel into the cave – tall, hairy, with a wolf's snout filled with sharp teeth, and great muscles in its arms, ending in clawed hands. Like a massive wolf walking upright! A werewolf!

I've heard of the myth of the wolf-men, cursed to walk the earth in bestial form whenever the moon's out. (sidenote: as it turns out, my earlier notion was incorrect – Oksana set me straight at camp later on. Lycanthropy is a disease and not so much a curse) I had never, however, had been face to face with one. I tried to call out to it, but likely I'd have the same result trying to reason with an actual wolf. It came right at me – but Takeshi caught it first. I am positive the downwards slash hit true – but the werewolf simply shrugged it off as if nothing had happened. The myth claims silver-treated weapons are the only ones that can truly hurt a werewolf. But right now, all we had was common blades, magic and music, and that would have to do. 

The slash might not have overly hurt the werewolf, but it gave Nagata the chance to pivot away, while Takeshi gave chase. Oksana tried to make it sleep, but again, the werewolf ignored her spell. Then both of my brothers fell on it – and, in fact, Takeshi fell on it with such fury he dropped it in a single, furious strike! (sidenote: I guess he was a little peeved that the first slash didn't tickle the thing) Once deceased, the  werewolf reverted to his human form. He had no personal effects we could identify, nothing to tell us who he was or if he had a family. We buried him outside the cave. 

Before we left, however, Takeshi made sure to coax a sample of the golden mineral from the walls, saying he plans to have Oleg take it to Restov for examination. Until we know for sure it's gold (I've read there are some minerals that look like gold, but are actually worthless) we'd rather keep this place a secret. I marked it on the map, and Nagata disguised the entrance. A gold mine would be an important asset for our future kingdom. 

Our expedition took us further southwest still, with the rocky heights giving way to gentler, rolling hills covered in wild oats. The odd mountain goat could also be spotted here and there – they're pretty large for goats, and bulky. Much like the auroch, not the kind of animal I would like to have chasing after me. Especially because they actually jump! 

I wish I could jump too. In plains and savannah, the going is easy. The marshes were damp and muddy, but these hills are so far the worst. Sometimes we can find a path between them and follow it… but we're exploring, so every once in a while, it's a climb up the hill, look around, note points of interest, then climb down the hill again. Up the hill, down the hill. Wondering if I'm too old to ask Takeshi for a piggy back ride. I'm tired! 

On one such upward climbs (aff…) we spotted a dead tree atop another hill, further to the South. It was long dead, dry, its branches like the fingers of a skeletal claw reaching up for the sky. That seemed familiar, so I pulled out my journal and searched through the many loose pieces of paper I have there, to find a piece of parchment we took off the body of a bandit – as I recall, the giant spider's final meal. It showed a claw-like tree, alone in a hill, with a red X at the base. Like a treasure map, it dawned on me! All weariness forgotten, I showed it to Takeshi and asked that we went closer to investigate. 

On our way down the hill (only to climb up another one, aff!), Nagata was asking us if we thought Bokken's brother might be in there. For a moment I thought he had lost his mind. But thinking back to our one conversation with the mad potion brewer, I recalled him saying something like that: his brother had gone to live in a hollow tree down South. Which, I confess, sounds somewhat cryptic, not to mention creepy. Nagata seems to have kept that in mind for some reason – ramblings of a madman or something else? We don't know. But even as we went around the dead tree to look for the exact place marked in the map, Nagata was climbing up the tree trunk to peek within, looking for Bokken's brother. I am glad to report nobody was inside.

The map did in fact point to a spot at the base of the tree, where something had been clearly buried. After a good ten minutes digging (we had no such thing as a spade, and I'm not about to use the spoon I eat with to dig), we found an old leather cloak wrapper around a finely crafted dagger, a magic wand, and some trinkets we might be able to sell for a good price. I asked to keep the wand.

My magical capacities are limited. I just don't have the time and dedication to study hard as wizards do. I know I have some talent, especially when entwined with my performance, but it's limited and not always useful. It's out of my depth to, say, sent lightning striking forth from the tips of my fingers, or hurling balls of fire. But I know a thing or three in what concerns the use of magic wands to complement my skills, and I think this might be useful. With Oksana's help we determined the wand's nature: it spews forth a wave of flames when used, as per the spell burning hands. I'll try to study it sometime, and learn to use it. It's a basic spell, good for starting. 

We were in good spirits now, with a possible gold mine discovered, and a treasure found. I tried to keep a happy face on despite still going uphill and downhill, and being very tired. In some places, these hills climb high enough that I can nearly call them mountains – we even saw patches of snow, and I'm making a mental note to buy myself a coat or cape before we venture here again. Oksana, sleeveless, had a grin stamped on her face the whole time, saying things like, "Oh, it's pleasant here!" and "This almost reminds me of home!" She loves the snow. I love the snow too – on the windowsill, while I'm sitting inside with a nice warm cup of tea, wrapped in a blanket. A bit more disturbing were some tracks Nagata found in said snow – wolves, but large, and likely plenty of them. Oksana told us they're likely winter wolves, or arctic wolves as they're called. Unlike the regular animal, these wolves have a breath of ice capable of freezing a human to the bones. Not something we want to contend with right now.

When the cold became too much to bear, we descended once more, and continued traveling as far as the frontier our charter allows us to explore. We tried to spot for signs of the lakeside fort where the Stag Lord is supposed to be living, but couldn't see anything like it. What we did realize was that somewhere about this area there must be some sort of subterranean course of water. You could see endless fields of low grass, and then a veritable path of tall grass in a serpentine shape, crossing the terrain like a river. And water underneath means two things – that the land is proper for farm-building… and probably for rice. I looked hopefully at Takeshi, asking if we're going to have rice planted in our new kingdom, and right away Nagata was on my side, joining his pleading look to my cause. Takeshi says of course we'll plant rice eventually… the place is proper, we only need to secure it and send farmers here. And find rice seeds, of course.

It was under the promise of rice that we decided to turn back and return to Oleg's Trading Post. Our fifth expedition was one of the briefest, ending on the noon of the seventeenth day.

Before, I wrote that the Greenbelt is foreign to us, and that much of the things we were once used to do not exist here – hotsprings' baths, the sakura tree, tea and rice. (sidenote: and congee! Yummy congee) Acquiring these things would probably help us settle and feel more like this is our home, at least for a while. Some of these things will remain unattainable still, but we have good hope one day soon we'll have them. I know the Greenbelt is a stepping stone for us fulfilling our oath to Grandfather and restoring our family's honor… but we're bound to spend so much time here, we can't help but trying to make it a home away from home.

And in this, I thinks Oksana knows how we feel. She's not from as far as we are… but when we reached the snowy hilltops I could see she misses her home too, and the things she grew up with there. It's unlikely we can do much for her as the weather is concerned. But perhaps there might be things she would like to have in this land as well? Foodstuffs, or objects, or commodities that would help her feel at home too…

I'll need to bring up this subject with her sometime.

-———-

BARD EXERCISE – Composition

Objective: composition to be sung along string instrument
Subject: green dragon (brr…)

(very confident in my command of Brevoy's common tongue, but their poetry is something else entirely…)
(spent nearly two hours trying to find a rhyme for "emerald"- don't think there's a good one. Nothing really sounds exactly like it!)

Emerald – barreled (close but not quite) trembled (would have been good but sounds off) skald (ends in the same letters but sounds different) imperiled (could it be that there is nothing that truly rhymes with "emerald"?)

(I'll stick to "green", it's much easier)

Green – Mean (duh) bean (no) clean (aff…) sheen (maybe…) keen (on getting away from it, perhaps) been (useful) spleen (yuck)

Cutting through the sky came the Great Big Green,
All scales and talons and very, very mean.

(sidenote: asked Oksana what rhymes with "jade". She stared at me blankly and asked what jade was. Said for her not to mind that, just tell me words that sound like "jade". She told me "braid" and "blade". Although the thing was not really the same shade as jade…)
(… writing down "shade" as well!!)

Green - things that are green to serve as metaphor: 
    * clovers are green (but it's a bit stupid…)
    * melons are green (hmmm at this time of year in Minkai you'll be starting to see the ice salesmen. Paper cone with shaved ice and melon pulp, so good…)
    * absynthe, apparently, is green…
    * turtles are green (I'm getting nowhere)

(asked Nagata for help with things that are green. He told me green beans, green apples, green peas, green bellpepper, miso, asparagus, avocados, cabbage and melon, and then told me about the ice salesmen in Minkai around this time of year, selling paper cones with shaved ice and melon pulp. I'm hungry now…)

Flashing through the sky came the Great Big Green,
with wings spread wide and emerald sheen.

(Great-Big is sort of bad as well.)

Out of the sky came the Gigantic Green

Flashing through the sky came the Gargantuan Green (I like that actually)
with wings spread wide in emerald sheen,
a tail like a rudder to cut through the air,

and talons so sharp they could split a hair. (needs work)

and talons so sharp they could (WHAT?)

(asked Takeshi for things that rhyme with "air" because I'm still thinking about shaved ice with melon pulp. He jokingly told me that's my specialty, so I told him how the summer's coming soon and the salesmen in Minkai will be starting to sell shaved ice. Now he's hungry too. HA! Then of course, pragmatic as Takeshi is, he went off to inquire where we could perchance get a hold of ice in this place, and melons. Mayhap Oksana can conjure some. The ice, not the melons.)

and talons so sharp you'll want to be elsewhere.

and talons so sharp none can compare.

and talons as sharp as the sword of a corsair.

and talons 

(I wonder if shaved ice with crushed berries would work…)

Flashing above came the Gargantuan Green,
with wings spread wide in emerald sheen,
a tail like a rudder to swim through the sky…

and talons so green they look like yummy melons 

(I'm having a snack…)


Flashing above came the Gargantuan Green,
with wings spread wide in emerald sheen,
a tail like a rudder to swim through the sky,
dead silence below as it hovered by…

View
The Temple of the Elk
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

By the time we managed to return to Oleg's Trading Post, most of the guards were gone. Lord Garress remained, along with his three man-at-arms and father Kavken, but otherwise, and save for the Stevensons, we were back to square one. At Takeshi's bequest, however, we saw some improvements done to the Trading Post. Nothing major, but the gate looked less like it was going to fall apart, and a setup for archers had been placed on the towers. 

We had just arrived from our first expedition, and already had our objective set for another. This time, however, we thought it best to prepare ahead. We placed an order with Oleg for a bag of holding, a useful magical item that will allow us to carry more gear and supplies, and enable us to take longer journeys out of the Trading Post. Along with every other objective we already had claim for ourselves from the wanted posters, there was a new one – it called for the death of a giant boar known to prowl around the Greenbelt – Tuskgutter, it was called.

Once rested, our second expedition would take us back to the Gnarled Marshes (more bog!). Still no signs of civilization. Well, perhaps not completely. Right on our first day, we managed to find the remains of an ancient farm at one of the edges of the Marshes. We spotted the wild vegetables first while looking for a dry place to sleep, and thought perhaps this was another patch of radishes like we found before. Vegetables in nature don't usually grow in neat lines, however. Searching about, Oksana found what might once have been the foundations of a shack or cabin nearby. She pointed several burnt pieces of wood to us. Whatever happened here was lost to time, but the vegetables served us well. I'm not sure how long this second expedition will take. I'd rather not grow sick of trail rations just yet. 

Despite all its terrible conditions (muddy, dark, etc.) I was coming to enjoy the Marshes, if for nothing else for the unchained beauty of nature here. Mist hung in the air in several places – the bog seems to be less dense at the edges, becoming more and more entangled the further towards the center we went. Sleeping arrangements are not always easy, since we need to look for a place to camp without having mud up to our ankles. Decrepit trees and wild, pale flowers seem to bloom a little everywhere. Still a bog, though, and still unknown terrain: one night, on our third day,  Takeshi woke us all up to point out a large humanoid creature hulking about in the mists. We found it wise to shush up and stay quiet, letting it pass by and going unnoticed. Nagata would later check for tracks and identify the creature as an owlbear – we should be on our guard, regardless of how much interested we are in the environment around us. 

In the best interest of keeping this log, I also began to try and draw a map of the places we visit. Logistics are very important: we took to a habit of hunting and foraging whenever possible. 

And it was on the depths of the marsh, and while attempting to hunt, that something wonderful happened.

Well – "wonderful" is perhaps not the best way to put it. It depends on who you ask in the group.

It all began when we spotted a deer, and decided to try and hunt it for food. We'd been walking about for a while and were getting hungry, so it was best to take the opportunity while we had light. Mind you, our hunting strategies are still not perfect. We are down to Nagata trying to scare our prey towards Takeshi, or me using music to attract a beast closer so Takeshi can slay it. At first, it seemed as though this wasn't our lucky day: Nagata leapt to try and grab the deer, but seemed to slip and fall face-first in the mud. Brother Monkey's known his share of rushing and leaping, and even in this muddy ground, he would likely not fall so easily. I was puzzled for a split second – but the deer spooked, and rushed right towards Takeshi. When he tried to slay it, however, I saw him slip as well – and painfully so, dropping to the mud one leg to each side (ouch!) With the deer having escaped into the bush, I tried to ask them what the matter was – this was uncannily clumsy for them. Both my brothers claimed to be tripped by some kind of invisible force. We looked around, but could find no evidence of anyone other than us being here.

While this was odd and worrisome, I was still hungry, and with our prey having escaped, we were looking at a very bleak meal before sleeping. My belly rumbled despite myself, and almost at once I felt a tap on my shoulder – which, I have to confess, scared me, as everyone I'm traveling with was standing before me. I spun around on my heels to see the source of the tap and… nothing. I complained about it to Takeshi, who looked a little further in the same direction to find a cache of wild vegetables gathered atop a rock, as if purposefully left for us! Nagata found no tracks whatsoever, but now I was definitely sure some sort of entity or being was following. We thanked our invisible benefactors for their kindness and made the vegetables into soup. 

Despite beneficial, we came to realize the following day or two that this entity was a little… well. On one morning, as Takeshi was putting on his boots to set out, he found one of them to be full of pebbles. Not long afterwards, as we were walking, Nagata began to complain about being itchy around his back. When he removed his shirt, we found poison oak leaves had been dropped down his clothes. We feared he was looking at a bad rash, but the next morning, he was almost healed – again, as if by interference of some benevolent force. We were glad he was better, but he wasn't glad at all – his underwear was missing. And then dropped out of the sky, right in front of him! 

Throughout all of these "pranks" I had begun to suspect fey were the cause – and lore claims they can be pacified with gifts. At every camp we made, I was sure to leave a tiny origami animal, as I figured they might like it as an offering. And in a way, I think it might have made our dealing with them easier. The poison oak was worrisome, but I am sure they intervened in Monkey's healing too – and the underwear moment was hilarious. (sidenote: now let us speak of it never again, as Nagata said).

Despite our invisible friend pulling our legs every once in a while, exploration was fairly easy. We managed to get good nights' sleep most of the time, and other than a trio of bandits, we found no obstacles. Even when the bandits attacked, I could see the influence of our benefactors: more than once I got the impression they were tripped or pushed back before they could lay a hit on my brothers. Takeshi told me that night he is somewhat concerned about lumber. We will certainly need to build structures, and for that we will require raw materials. But a lumbering operation on fey country is never a good idea, as they will fiercely protect their territory in the same way they protected the deer we were hunting when we first noticed their presence. The territory we were in has plenty of woodland – but we're not sure where, or if, we can chop down trees. I'm not overly concerned for now: we're a long way's away from building, and I had hoped that by then we could have met what locals we will meet, and understand how we can carry our objectives without threading on them. 

Besides, if this is fey folk, I wanted to see them, and be able to talk with them! I was so marvelled to learn that this land has fairies (sidenote: alright – some fairies. I am not thrilled to see mites at all. I mean the good kind of fairy). 

I got my wish just the following day, when our benefactors finally revealed themselves to us. They materialized in front of us, out of thin air! One was a tiny cricket-like creature who called herself Thig-Titter-Tut, and the other was a dragonlike creature with butterfly wings, about the size of a cat, called Perlyvash. Later, on camp, Oksana would tell me what kind of fairies they were, but right then and there I was so amazed at how pretty and tiny they were! Before I left Minkai never in my life I thought I'd ever get to see real fairies! 

We managed to chat some – they told us about the area and some of the troubles it has – the bandits, the kobold, a trapper somewhere further North placing heavy hunting traps, and deep within the marsh, a hot spring where giant frogs live. They also managed to tell us about a great bear – and it immediately rang true with father Kavken's dream about a lost temple guarded by a bear. We promised to look into it – and to return, to place some of their fears at ease. If some of the locals we'll have to deal with are fey, I'll be very happy to be ambassador. 

*

After we met the two fey we set back to Oleg's Trading Post to refit. We spent a few days resting up, and even heading West some to hunt down a wild bull for meat. Oleg brought back the bag of holding we ordered. When Takeshi showed me how it worked, I was reminded of how Monkey works: food goes in and seems to weigh nothing, and more of it can be accommodated than you'd think possible. 

I had to ask Takeshi how much longer will our expeditions become – we went hunting as preparation for the next one, since we plan to order a whooping fifty rations (!) before our next departure. The answer I got was expected but not pleasing: it's likely we'll be leaving on longer and longer expeditions each time. I know this is mandatory, that if we're going to chart and manage the land we need to know what we can count on. But I feel tired of living like a nomad. It's been nearly a year since we left Minkai, and we haven't stopped yet. In fact, Oleg's Trading Post is the closest we've had to a home in a while…

As we prepared our third expedition to the Greenbelt, I noticed how Takeshi seems to be going along well with father Kavken. I don't know all that much about Erastil as a god, but He seems in line with Shizuru despite the differences in their priorities. Brother Bear has been trying to set the good father's worries at ease, explaining we have leads, that his dream is truly an omen and he's not losing his mind. If there is a lost temple of Erastil in the Greenbelt, we'll find it. 

Father Kavken seems very grateful for our help. He said he'd give us each a charm before we head out, to make traveling swifter for a while. It will allow us to at least transverse known territory quicker. 

(sidenote: on other news, Brother Monkey's been asking Svetlana for cooking lessons. Svetlana obliges him, but I'm not sure if Monkey's the best or the worst person to teach cooking to. Ever since I can remember, Monkey eats for two – three, when he's very hungry, and four if the food is delicious. Five, on special occasions. I don't know where he stuffs it all – he's been lean since he was a child – but still, it goes in. Now let us imagine Monkey in a kitchen, making dinner without running out of ingredients first! On the other hand, people who love to eat often become good cooks, since they will want to enjoy good food whenever possible. And I have to admit that the prospect of having someone who can turn a bland trail ration into something more akin to a meal is very dear to me at this point.)

Speaking of Nagata, I had a chance to talk to him concerning that "dead-drop" arrangement he has in Brevoy, where Oleg drops off questions then collects the answers for him. I asked him to try and learn of the rogue we saw in Brevoy, with the Twelve Monkeys group. I figure there must be a story here, and that that character wasn't there on chance. Everyone seemed very straightforward except for him. Maybe Nagata's contacts in the city can tell us more. I also told Monkey about my doubts regarding Lord Garress past – I know I've heard some kind of gossip about that before, but despite my attempts to bring back details, I can't remember. Surely in Brevoy someone must know what happened. 

*

We set off on our third expedition with a myriad of goals other than the plain exploration of the land. We've begun drawing a map of what we know, of course, but I also had a list of objectives made. Between the odd job posters in the Trading Post and the issues we promised to check on for our acquaintances, there is a lot to be done. No use bawling about being tired of travel right now – the time for resting isn't here yet.

Firstly we tried to find the trapper Perlyvash and Thig-Titter told us about. The fey managed to point us out where he lays traps on a map, and when we began approaching, I could see what the problem was. To my knowledge, trappers stick mostly to small game – rabbits, squirrels, badgers, foxes and small cats. The first trap we found (sidenote: and the second, third and fourth and so on) were bear traps! All of them, huge saw-toothed metal contraptions that would turn small game into paste! They were everywhere, and sometimes so well hidden even Nagata almost put his feet on one! 

This is nothing if not irresponsible! Most of the people we've met in the Greenbelt were bandits, but still! It's the equivalent of fishing with gunpowder! I was ready to call whoever put these down to explain himself, because it made no sense to us. He couldn't be after food, since any small animal caught in a bear trap would be instantly pulverized, and he wasn't surely after hides for the exact same reason. We gathered some fallen tree branches and began springing as many traps as we could find. Why imagine: traders going by these routes, couriers ahorse, even the poor fey could be caught up in these and killed! 

As it turns out, however, the trapper would never answer for his actions and we would never understand why he thought this was a good idea. We managed to track him down to the southern margin of Thorne River. According to Takeshi, he had been dead for a couple of days, apparently a victim of his own senseless trap-laying. He appeared to have been trying to build a deadfall (sidenote: who builds a deadfall for rabbits?! What in blazes was the man trying to hunt?!) but a set of ropes gave out on him, and the logs he'd been trying to lift came down, crushing him. We found no personal effects, or any evidence of his intent. We took some time to pull the corpse from under the logs and give it a proper burial. I guess we'll never know what he was after now… but at least all those bear traps won't hurt anyone anymore.

The next morning, Takeshi announced we should go after the bear, following Thig-Titter's best guess of where it is. I was still somewhat dazzled by the bear traps. It would make sense to me if the man was pouching for bear, but the only one we've heard about is (supposedly) so far from where he died, laying traps there would make no sense. What game we could identify from sightings and traps was small – what was he after?

I also find that dying trapped under logs while trying to build a huge trap is a strike of irony from karma… or is it? We couldn't find any proof of sabotage or ill intent but… it's too proper. Even for karma.

At any rate, my mind was bound to get away from all that by the night's events.

I remember I was having a beautiful dream where I was preparing a traditional tea ceremony. (sidenote: I miss tea so much… they don't have it here… I'll have to speak to Takeshi and Nagata about finding a good place to plant some) I was roused from the dream by screams and sounds of a scuffle. I opened one eye to see Takeshi already on his feet… and then the creature! Oksana, who was keeping watch, was being held in the maw of a horrible snake-like creature with two tiny arms – the tatzlwyrm Oleg told us about!

We scrambled out of our sleeping bags to action – I didn't even bother to stand, I just grabbed my shamisen and did what I do: I played for inspiration! Takeshi ran in to flank it even as Oksana managed to wiggle free of the maw. The naginata missed the mark, but it gave Nagata the chance to get closer: he struck the beast with one of the wakizashi. But then it was his turn to be gripped in the maw! Oksana, from a safe distance, began hurling snowballs, while Takeshi tried to land a hit – I could see he was thrown off by the brightness of the campfire. Trapped between the jaws of the great creature, Nagata struck it again and again, until it finally toppled off and died. 

By the time we could swallow our respective hearts back down from our throats, the creature's head had been expertly lopped off by Monkey to take back to Oleg. We saw to our injuries – Oksana was relatively unharmed, but accidentally poisoned herself trying to extract a sample of the tatzlwyrm's poison. I think she expected it to be some sort of liquid, in the same way a snake can be milked for its poison… but it was actually a foul-smelling gas that burst out in a cloud when she tried to extract it. After that, we were twice as careful handling the remains. Takeshi insisted on skinning it, claiming the hide might be valuable or useful.

So much for a quiet night's rest.

It was the following day, around noon, that we found what would later be known as Temple of the Elk. It is one of those places in the Greenbelt you'd have to see to fully take in what it looks like, but I'll try my best to provide a description. Imagine a grotto set up against a wall of natural rock, in which a gigantic elk's head has been carved, and beneath it, up a set of ruined stairs, the entrance to a natural cave. As if the original settlers of the temple had decided to take the cave for their holy place, paved the ground in front of it to form a type of small plaza, and then framed the whole front of the bare rock in a carving of an elk's head. In the middle of the grotto we could see a pool of green water, ripe with lichen and overgrowth weeds. It could be a beautiful place (sidenote: and in fact it became a beautiful place) once cleaned up and properly restored.

We found the entrance by following the rock, as its shape, no matter how decayed by time and the elements, was obviously that of a symbol of Erastil. But no sooner had we come within and looked around, we saw father Kavken's dream come to life before our very eyes. From the cave entrance loomed the largest bear I've ever laid eyes on! Despite its size and bulk, it seemed diseased somewhat – even from a distance I could see patches of fur had been eaten away by some rash-like affliction, and open sores oozing pus dotted its flank and head. It roared at us, enraged, and we prepared for battle. Takeshi stated the obvious by yelling "Probably cursed!" as he charged for it up the stairway. The two clashed midway through the run, with Takeshi making the best of his greater reach to land a hit with the naginata. I started playing; Oksana brought in the cold. I lost track of Nagata for a moment, and only spotted him when he jumped on the bear from the side of the steps. True to his fashion, he probably went around to study his prey and strike from the back. The fight was brief, despite all, with Takeshi powerfully dispatching the monster… then unceremoniously losing his balance and sliding down the stairs. But we'll leave that out of the history books. 

I remember gazing back at the pool before approaching, and seeing that its waters were now clean and pristine, as if the overgrowth had been magically wiped away. When I looked back at the stairs, there was no longer a dead bear, but a man – an old, dessicated man with overgrown hair and beard. And there before my very eyes, I saw him rot and crumple to dust and be blown away by the breeze, the only remaining evidence that I wasn't dreaming being his bones. The elk carving on the rock seemed to glitter brightly, and Takeshi announced that a powerful curse must have been placed here, and it was now lifted. 

Before we set off to give father Kavken the news, we decided to investigate inside the cave. Along with an ungodly amount of remains (probably bear chow), we found a journal. I must say I love journals – that's why I write one. It gives the writer a chance to pour out his heart and remember the past in order to take lessons from it. In this sort of situations, it also gives us insight into motives that might be unclear to us otherwise. Brother Bear wouldn't let me read it though, claiming the journal was to be delivered to father Kavken, and if he saw fit he would tell us about its content.

Even Brother Bear needs to sleep, and we all take turns keeping watch when we camp at night. I didn't spend the whole of my watch with my nose buried in the journal, of course, and I had to interrupt my reading often to actually do what I was supposed to be doing. But I managed to skim through it enough to understand what happened.

The man/bear we defeated at the temple was once a priest of Erastil himself – at least a century ago in fact, by my calculations – who was tasked with guarding the place from harm. Harm in this sense means gnolls, trolls and kobolds. As these creatures spread farther and multiplied, and kept making attempts on the temple, the priest was left alone in his task, and was starting to despair. He devised a plan to perform some kind of a ritual in which he lured a bear into the temple and sacrificed it for protection! I am now very knowable as the faith of Erastil goes (and of course I will not ask Takeshi, lest he finds out I read the journal against his wishes), but this seems to be, as the locals say, shooting an arrow into your own foot. I'm not sure what it was that the priest was trying to achieve, but Erastil took offense. He turned his former priest into a bear, and bound him to guard the temple until someone worthy came to reclaim it. Undying, the priest/bear must have gone half mad with despair indeed. If we hadn't shown up to free him from the curse, he would be here until… well. Forever, I should say.

On our way back to Oleg's we managed to find the same marshland area where Thig-Titter and Perlyvash live, and tell them of our discoveries. They were happy to learn the bear was no more, and that there was one less tatzlwyrm on the Greenbelt. When we told them of the trapper, however, I got the impression that Perlyvash was awfully quiet, and with some inquiry, he admitted to have had a part in his death by chewing the ropes on the deadfall. I don't think Perlyvash meant to kill him – likely he hoped to trap the trapper, and things didn't turn out as he hoped. From his telling, many small animals and fey folk found their deaths in the bear traps laid by the man. I understand his reasons… but I wish he would've waited a while longer for us to deal with it. Perhaps we could have found a way to reach an agreement…

One way or another, there will be no more trap-laying. 

We also stopped by the radish patch we found on our first expedition to collect some for Svetlana – she asked us if we could go by there on our way out. I tried tasting one and thought I might want to wash my tongue with soap – whatever is she planning to make out of these? They're terrible! Nagata ate one too. But Nagata eats most anything…

On our return we delivered the tatzlwyrm's head to Oleg as requested, and the radishes to Svetlana. We also managed to speak to father Kavken. Takeshi handed him the priest/bear's journal. I was glad that in the end he decided to share its contents. He asked that we escort him to the temple. After all, he traveled to the frontier to do Erastil's work, from his own telling, and he believes that's where he's meant to be. Takeshi agreed of course, and gave his word that for as long as there are Ameno in these lands, the holy grounds of Erastil belong to His faith alone.

Father Kavken doesn't talk much about himself or his past. I get the feeling there might be, as locals say, a chip on his shoulder. But I was not about to press him for that information; instead, we prepared to set off again next morning, and escort him to the temple. 

We were to set off on expedition again once we dropped him off. The fourth since we got here.

So tired.

I probably looked miserable enough that Svetlana, bless her heart, managed to prepare a hot bath for me.  

-———————————
UZUME'S CULTURAL EXCHANGE – Radish Soup

As it turns out, the radishes we collected for Svetlana were meant for a soup. "Soup" itself seems to have a different meaning altogether here. From Svetlana's cooking I can see they like their soup more in a stew-type fashion, or pureé. Minkaian soup is more often broth-based. 

In Minkai, radish soup is specifically made to detoxify the digestive system, if I remember Grandfather's teachings. Traditional Minkaian radish soup may be healthy but I find it terrible. It's made with sweet dates that are supposed to cut on the acidity of the radish, chicken stock, peppercorn and wolfberries, and it boils FOREVER, until you get a cloudy, yellow-brown broth with chicken pieces and bones floating about. Again: it's a very healthy soup and it's preferred by those who like the peppery aftertaste of radish and peppercorn. Unfortunately, to me and a lot more like me, it tastes like medicine more than actual food, and doesn't look all that appetizing.

Radish soup here is different. It's a creamy, stew-like concoction that along with the radishes, calls for potatoes, chopped onions, greens, carrots, parsley, chicken fat, pork, beans and a little sour cream. The radishes are fried in the chicken fat before going in the soup, so all that sour taste goes away, leaving only the radish taste itself, and the carrots are almost puréed into the broth to give it consistency. Their sweetness also helps one forget there's even radish in there. It's very filling and rich – when Nagata tells me he won't be able to have seconds and needs to take a long walk after dinner, we're talking in the realm of magical formula here. 

Talking to Svetlana after the meal, I congratulated her on a wonderful end result. She asked me if I had had radish soup before. I said I hadn't, and I don't mean it as a lie. Minkaian radish soup is good for when you have a sore tummy. This is the radish soup I want to be eating for pleasure. 

View
Bandits and Madmen and Spiders, oh my!

4712, Spring
I woke up somewhat cranky the next morning. Likely it had something to do with having slept in a swamp. (sidenote: actually, I am still unsure what word to use to describe this place. I know "swamp", "marsh" and "bog", and for phonetics alone I want to call it a bog. I can't really explain why but… the sound of it, "booooog", is well in tune with the general feel and look of the place.) Nagata shared with us that the bog we're crossing is supposed to be known as the Gnarled Marshes (so maybe that is the correct word, I still like "bog" better. If you say it aloud you get the exact sound I'll be making whenever I recall it: booooooooog). He also told us he heard some stories about both kobolds and mites. We are sure kobolds exist in this bog – we've had an encounter with them – but mites, well, that's a whole different story. Lore has it they are evil, annoying fey despised by even other fey. It makes sense that they would choose this place as a home: it's cold, damp, muddy, dark, ugly, disagreeable – much like how lore describes mites themselves. 

We rose early and continued on the bandit's tracks, headed due west, with Nagata taking point. It was a long and tiresome walk… and I mean LONG and TIRESOME. We were traveling nearly nonstop for almost ten hours. Time is of the essence: we want to reach the bandit camp before they miss the party sent to Oleg's Trading Post. Or at least we think we want. The issue was discussed at length during the trek. Nagata believes we might want to thin their ranks by forcing them to send out a search party and catching them off guard. Takeshi, on the other hand, thinks we might miss them altogether and would prefer to find them gathered. Both points are valid… and we continued walking. SO much walking.
  
Eventually, thank Shizuru, the bog gave way to more solid ground, and soon we were at the margin of a river. I couldn't take one more step, and I think I wasn't the only one. Night had already fallen by the time we stopped to rest. We decided to camp here for the night – continuing on the way would tax us too much, and we are expecting violence when we arrive at our objective. 

*

I awoke at dawn, still a little cranky. We've been traveling long… and the previous day's walk through the cold and the mud took its toll on my spirits. Takeshi, however, seemed to be in a good mood this morning, even before breakfast and considering he got early shift. I had barely began on my trail ration when he explained why he was so happy. He told us about a sign from Shizuru he had seen during the night. I halted midway through chewing and took a glance at Nagata to see how he was taking this. It's a tall order – my brother claims to have witnessed a dragon, a small ryu, strolling downriver during his watch. And he believes this is a portent from Shizuru. 

Forgive me oh Mother of Us All. Forgive me Grandfather, wherever you are. Forgive me, my brothers, but I am somewhat skeptical. When we first came to this land, I was not expecting to find dragons at all. For all my life, I thought dragons were noble and dignified creatures that existed exclusively in Tian-Xia. One of Lady Shizuru's forms is, in fact, that of a dragon. I was shocked and appalled when I first heard of "dragons" in this land, and realized how different they were from the creatures I learned of as a child. The Western dragon is a beast of might and terror, and depending on its color it may or may not be a thing out of a nightmare. In some tales they speak of the dragon as a wise and extremely intelligent being, and this resonates with what I know. But then there are… other stories. Gone is the kindness, the awe and magnanimous demeanor I know from the stories of my youth, replaced by a horror-summoning presence. If the lore is to be believed, such are the dragons of these distant lands.

So when my elder brother, whom I hold in high affection and respect, tells me he spied a ryu moseying along the waters… I am skeptical. I took the story with a grain of salt. When Takeshi began his shift it was still dark, and I know his eyes are not the same as mine. He might have thought he'd seen ryu, when in fact it might have been… something else. We are still somewhat unfamiliar with the fauna of these lands. Shizuru only knows what that thing could have been.

Still; with the coming sunlight we managed to get a better look at our surroundings. The bog had given way to a woodland of sorts, with thickets of trees here and there. Very verdant, much more pleasant land. Last night I suggested Nagata (Brother Monkey) climb up one of the trees in this area and attempt to spot lights in the woods. If the bandits have their camp here, they are likely to have fires going, and in yesterday night's darkness it might be easier to spot. His scouting was inconclusive though, he thought he had spotted some luminosity in the distance. So he went back to tracking, and took point once more. 

The tracks took us south now, until about noon, when we stopped to eat something and Nagata went up a tree again. He described to us what he saw: the river we had been following narrowed up ahead, and on each side of the woodlands, several tributaries trickled to join it. The ground was definitely much more solid than in the bog – and so we kept following the tracks, and the river. At some point ahead the tracks turned east through a pathway of sorts. I couldn't tell if it was a natural avenue clear of underbrush and trees, or if common passage here had formed it. Still, we advanced with care – Nagata still taking point, Takeshi guarding our backs, and Oksana and I between them. I pulled out my shamisen, just in case we were reaching our objective. 

We had taken a turn around a thicket of bush into a clearing, and all of a sudden we knew we had found our quarry: a wagon was sitting in the middle of the path. That's when I saw movement up a tree – I glanced to my side and saw Oksana staring at the same spot. An archer was up on a platform cleverly hidden in the treetop – and he was already training an arrow for us. 

I barely had time to tap Nagata's shoulder to call attention, and he bolted to close the angle on the archer. At my side, Oksana began intoning a spell. I saw an arrow from a different direction hiss by him, missing him by a hair. In a matter of seconds we were bumbling into action: a harsh and deeply accented voice coming from beyond the platform where the first archer stood yelled for "ALARM!!" So much for stealth… 

I ducked behind the wagon for cover as Takeshi charged in. Oksana vanished into the thicket at my side, but I knew she couldn't be far off – considering I could see her snowballs going by, she was probably attacking from cover. Just as I started playing an inspiring tune I spotted an insane-looking woman, nearly frothing at the mouth with rage and glee, come out of the bushes ahead and make for Takeshi. Was this the terrible bandit that threatened to kidnap Svetlana? Takeshi went after her and two of the brigands following her lead while Nagata took care of the archer. 

Now Takeshi is tough, and a skilled warrior, but she seemed to have the advantage of sheer brutality plus two subordinates. My heart sank when I saw him drop face-first on the ground. From where I was, I couldn't tell if the blow had been fatal… I looked around to see where Nagata was – he had cut through the archer, and was using his limp body as a shield for the other. We rushed to Takeshi's aid – if he was still with us, the woman with the hatchets was in a position to chop off his head and be done with it. She looked so strong and wild that likely a blow from her hatchet would be enough to end my life, but I had to do something. In other circumstances in the past, I've managed to plant notions in people's minds, convince them of concepts or sow doubt so completely they were convinced it was their own idea. I tried it here as well… to my dismay, she reveled so in the heat of the battle there was no distracting her from us. Fortunately, Nagata managed to make it down from the platform, and Oksana shot out from the bush, in time to throw her down and save Takeshi. I ran to his side and forced him to drink some medicine to stabilize him, and to my relief, he opened his eyes. 

With the hatchet woman down, and her brigands dead, there was the second archer left. Nagata looked tired and beat, but he rushed in for the climb. The archer seemed to have misplaced his bravery when the hatchet woman dropped, and attempted to flee… only to trip on the edge of the platform and plunge down in front of my brother, his neck snapping with a sickening "crack!" sound. 

Just as quickly as things had begun, they ended – the medicine seemed to have a good effect on Takeshi, and Nagata… well. Nagata seemed convinced his strike of luck with the second archer's clumsyness was a sign that Shizuru is looking out for us. I am somehow tempted to agree. Things got ugly here for a second. 

We went through the bodies and collected the living while Nagata went further past the platform and the bushes. He came back saying there was a camp, but it seemed clear. We tied up the hatchet woman and another survivor, and unceremoniously placed them on the wagon we'd come across at the entrance of the clearing. Takeshi wanted both of them properly judged before anything else, while Nagata was of the opinion we should hang them by the neck and get it over with. The charters bestowed upon us claim the penalty for banditry in these lands is death, and while none of us had any doubt of how these people's end would be, Takeshi insisted we hold a proper trial for them. I have to side with Takeshi in this one, if for nothing else, because we should speak to these people and try to get some clues about the stag skull medallion we removed from one of their own. 

Oksana and I stayed with the wagon to babysit for the prisoners, while Nagata and Takeshi went back to the camp. Takeshi was worried with the number of people we had encountered: by his account and the amount of bandits the Stevensons told us about, there should be some missing. No sooner had they disappeared behind the bushes, Oksana and I heard a scuffle – this wasn't over yet. Later on, Takeshi would tell me of how Nagata and him nearly bumped into a returning scouting party as they reached the camp. Oksana ran in to help, and I started my tune again. I tried to stay close to the wagon, though – wouldn't want these prisoners escaping while we fought…

(sidenote: unless it is obviously otherwise, I always assume the people we encounter are much more experienced in this lifestyle than we are. And this woman… this woman somewhat frightened me and disgusted me. I'm not about to admit it to the others of course, but she did, and if I had seen her so much as accommodate herself on the wagon, I'd drop the mace on her head. Even though she had been bound, I was deathly afraid she would get free from the bindings. I am hoping that in time, and with the coming experience, we will be able to match our knowledge and skills to that of the natives, and my confidence will improve…)

Four more bandits had shown up; two fought and two fled, and all of them were dealt with swiftly enough. 

Once the surroundings were secured again, I attempted to talk to the hatchet woman. I must confess I was not very inclined to do so, knowing the manner of promise she had been spewing with the Stevensons, but the need for information was dire. Our chat wasn't very long. Just as we removed the gag from her, she began howling out a string of insults at us, and wouldn't parley despite my attempts. Even bound she looked very frightening: her eyes were bloodshot, and she began changing into a crimson hue as the insults kept coming. There was no talking to her, she would listen to nothing… and Nagata eventually decided to draw his wakizashi and put her to final rest. 

The other surviving bandit was much more willing to speak to us. I believe it was a combination of my conversational skills… and Nagata and Takeshi standing beside me. I wouldn't lie to the man – he was going to die for his crimes as the charter calls for. (sidenote: although in other circumstances, I would have preferred to ascertain if he could have been reabilitated…) However, he could die quickly and painlessly at the end of Nagata's blade, or we could hang him from a tree branch and wait for his life to go out. I tried to set his fears of painful death or torture at ease, and he simply poured out a stream of useful information. Most of which concerned his leader, the Stag Lord.

The bandit described the Stag Lord as, quote, "a monster". From his telling, the Stag Lord is an accomplished archer and meleer, even known for crushing a man's hand with his own. That's how strong he's supposed to be. He always wears a stag head shaped helm, and none of his men has ever seen him without it. None knows his face. Some think he has no face. Some think that IS is his face (spooky!). The Stag Lord seems to demand his men's respect through fear, and managed to build a solid mythology around himself, to a point where loyalty to him is nearly unquestionable. He also seems to be a known drinker, and keep a strange old man locked away close by… I'll never forget the bandit's face as he spoke of this old man. He seemed to be as terrified of him as he was of the Stag Lord.

They bunk up in the northeast shore of a lake on which the river we had been following earlier ends, a place called Tuskwater. The bandit even gave us the passphrase to gain entry, and I'm writing it down so I won't forget:  'By the Bloody Bones of St. Gilmorg, who wants to know?'  Taking the wording into consideration, we likely need someone to ask "Who goes there?" or "Who are you?" before we say it…

With our conversation done, we did well by out word and gave the bandit a swift demise. I was left to reflect on the information we had gathered, and managed to comment some of it with Takeshi. Here we have a man (or an alleged man) ruling through intimidation, who never shows his face… just like the Jade Regent. A wave of nostalgia came upon me, as if I was to relive our trials in Minkai. And just as in Minkai, and just as with the Jade Regent, I silently vowed to end this Stag Lord's realm of horror. Nobody should have to live in fear, or be forced into a situation imposed on them by someone else. Bandits like the hatchet woman would of course follow the lead of this psychopath… but what about others? How many of them went further than they originally intended and then found themselves stuck under his rule?

By the time my reflection was coming to an end, it was time for us to head back. In hindsight, perhaps some of the horses left by the bandits that went to collect at Oleg's Trading Post would have served us. We gathered everything of value we could find and placed it on the wagon, but have no animals to pull it. No pun intended on my dear brothers, who ended up pulling it. Among gear and useful items, we also found Oleg's stolen goods, which we will return immediately upon arrival.

Oksana expressed some concern about hauling this wagon through the Gnarled Marshes. I understand it – the wheels would get stuck in all that mud really quick. Besides, I wasn't very willing to cross the twice-cursed bog again. So we decided to try to circle it.

Our journey took us through plainlands and low-rising hills that were much easier to travel than the bog. Our journey was fairly uneventful… well, except for the mites. One night, as we rested by the fire, a mound of earth rose close to our camp, and several small creatures dressed in rags and wielding knives came for us. Not much of a challenge… but it does prove the existence of fey in these lands. I was somewhat concerned – legend has it the worst thing you can do when faced with a group of mites is killing one, as the rest of the group will hound you incessantly. Still, the combat was not long or difficult – Nagata barely had time to stop stuffing his face before Takeshi had dispatched most of them. Still, credit to Brother Monkey, he ate the rest of his meal with wakizashi in hand. Whether this was to be ready for further threats, or keep wayward fey from stealing his food, we aren't sure.

*

When we finally made our way back to Oleg's Trading Post, we were surprised to spot guards on the walls. So naturally, we closed the distance to the gate sneering and wondering where all of this military was when Oleg and Svetlana were getting terrorized. 

As it turns out they were Brevoy guard, under command of a gentleman called Kesten Garress. The Stevensons had been expecting them. Now, I am sure I have heard the name Garress before, but for the life of me I could not pinpoint where. Even in conversation with the man I did not want to pry because it was obvious there was a sore spot somewhere in there (Takeshi did it enough for us both). He's a melancholy man, both when we spoke of politics and when we discussed pacifying the Greenbelt. He directed our attention to some wanted posters the guard put up, and asked if we could be of service. 

I felt somewhat overwhelmed during the conversation. All of a sudden there were all of these wanted posters with different tasks the residents would like to see completed. Lord Garress is looking for a man called Falgrin Smeeg, a Varisian who previously worked with him, stole from him, and fled to the Greenbelt to join some unsavory group. Takeshi took the opportunity to inquire about the Stag Lord, but Lord Garress didn't have any further information he could provide. Other than that, well… the posters told of unrestful kobolds, bandit presence, and some kind of four-legged snake identified as a tatzlwyrm. 

I asked Oksana (who is from closer by than we are) what a tatzlwyrm is, and she told me it was a dracoform, on par with drakes, a medium-sized wingless dragonkin. At once I recalled Takeshi's tale of ryu swimming downriver. The size of it, as described by Takeshi, seems about right with the poster's description. Oksana is unsure about whether or not they can breathe fire, but is pretty convinced that they are not solitary, and that they are carnivorous.  

Just as we were having this conversation, we nearly died from heart attack at a cry of "THE BEAR!!". Credit to us, all weapons were drawn immediately, but there was no actual threat. Instead, a very sheepish cleric approached from the guard tents, apologizing for startling us and introducing himself as father Jhod Kavken, a disciple of Erastil. He has been having a recurring nightmare about a lost temple, and some sort of monstrous bear. He doesn't know what it means, but Takeshi seems convinced that this might be a vision sent to the good cleric by his god, urging him to do something. He is just not entirely sure of what. For the time he's been here, he's been venturing off Oleg's Trading Post some, trying to spot any sort of large structure that may once have been a temple of his faith, but so far his search has been fruitless. I'm writing it down in case we find something during our expedition.

Finally, we were very happy to inform Svetlana and Oleg that their troubles were over, and that the bandits wouldn't bother them any more. Oleg asked us if among the bandits' belongings we had come across a silver ring. It seems the louts stole it from Svetlana on their first visit. We went through our loot again, but it wasn't there. Oleg said he would put up a poster for anyone who comes across it – and he confessed to being responsible for the tatzlwyrm bounty as well. Takeshi and him spoke at length concerning Oleg's trips to Brevoy to sell his goods, and struck a deal to sell out loot as well – with a 15% commission off the top price for deals made with him. I thought it was fair. We will need a substantial amount of coin if we're going to fortify the reclaimed lands, and Oleg makes a profit as well.

Later on, Nagata also told me he arranged to have Oleg handle something called a "dead-drop". Then he had to explain to me what that was: in short, Oleg will be dropping off messages at an arranged spot for Nagata's contacts, and then picking up their replies and bringing them back. It's the only way Nagata can keep his ear to the ground from a distance.

The day ended on a very positive note, with our bellies full and a comfortable bed waiting for us. I even got a hot bath from Svetlana! Yay!

*

The following morning, after a good breakfast, we started off with a meeting to discuss what we were going to do next. Takeshi and Nagata seem very eager to take on every wanted poster and request placed on Oleg's Trading Post, and every objective is pointing us to the same place: exploring the Greenbelt. We decided to go on a first expedition for a few days, and see what else we can find. 

Before we left, however, Takeshi took some time to talk to the guards, and inquire about the possibility of them helping with some of the fort structures. Like I wrote before, Oleg's Trading Post is solid… but old. And the artillery on the towers is – and I can say this even without any knowledge of engineering – an art piece at this point more than a defense system. The guards grumbled about it but said they'd see what they can do. Without proper resources they're not going to manage any miracles, and apparently they won't be staying here much longer. In line with something Garress mentioned the previous night, several troops are being recalled to Brevoy anticipating the visit of the ruling regent. So they came in late to help the Stevensons and will depart early … I won't even comment on this. 

However, and again, they seemed to refer to Garress in harsh tones. One of the guards even spat (eww) and said he wouldn't trust his sister in the vicinity of Lord Garress. This puzzled me – again, I know I've heard something, at some point, concerning the Garress family. And I recall it was scandalous. But for the life of me, I can't remember what is was! I even took a moment to ask Svetlana and Oksana if they remembered anything of the sort, but alas – Oksana knows about as much as I do, and Svetlana has been living so far from civilization for so long she is not privy to any gossip. It's eating at me – but I don't remember what it was.

Before we left, we also asked Oleg if there were any experienced druids or rangers in these parts, to his knowledge, that could help us explore and find some of our objectives. Oleg told us he didn't know anyone of the sort: the closest he could mention is an old hermit that lives due east, about a day's trip from here, a potion brewer Oleg sometimes trades with. That very much settled our direction, and we set off on foot, trying to make the most of what we had left of the morning. 

Traveling east was pleasant, as the lands we found were mostly flat, with some verdant hills tugged in between. Prime farmlands, as Takeshi called them. We couldn't see a living soul, and whatever animals we spotted were small size – mostly rabbits or rodents. We had a chance to discuss how our expeditions are going to be arranged. We mostly travel afoot, and those trail rations can get too heavy (plus I'm very much sick of them). Considering Takeshi expects these expeditions to sometimes be long-drawn, there is no way we can pack up food and carry it about for the whole round trip. We began drawing a map of the places we've been, as well as what resources we find. I know something or another about mushrooms, and Oksana has forgotten more concerning edible herbs than I'll probably ever know, so we took to foraging along the way as a solution to our ration conundrum. 

On the second day of our expedition, we attempted hunting. Which is something we don't have a lot of experience on. Nagata approaches hunting as he approaches most everything else: go unnoticed, make the most of surprise and be swift about it. Well, come to think about it, that's very much what hunting is. We managed to practice a little, as fauna became more diverse the further east we went – elk and deer seem to be staples here, and Nagata managed to track what he thinks is either a large dog or a small wild cat. The plan for future hunts will be even simpler: Nagata will attempt to run the animal towards Takeshi's naginata. Oksana and I will handle foraging, which has not been overly difficult so far. Radishes, wild vegetables, berries and nuts are abundant in this area.

It was at the end of the second day that we found the hermit's cottage. True to Oleg's description, it was in the middle of nowhere, and a curious sight. From the ground up and midway to the roof (if a roof it could be called), the house was solid and well-designed, seemingly able to withstand the elements. However, the top side was a hodgepodge of materials thrown haphazardly and without much regard for resistance or style. It was almost as if two different people built each a half the house… or the original builder lost his mind, or somehow un-learned how to build a cottage mid process. 

When the sole resident came out to meet us, I was more inclined for the latter. Bokken was how he introduced himself. I think. Though I was present for the most part of our rather lengthy conversation with him, I understood very little of what he actually said. Firstly, because I was baffled by his aspect. I don't know what I did expect when Oleg told us about a hermit and a master potion-brewer… but I did not expect someone who looked like Bokken. Disheveled, unkept hair in varying lengths down to his shoulders, three days' worth of a beard, a smile that seemed carved on his face rather than a natural occurrence, and… well. How shall I put this? A crazy stare. One could look Bokken in the eyes and in no way that I can really describe, understand that the paper lanterns are lit but nobody's home. His voice is shrill and he speaks very quickly, making it difficult for me to follow in the conversation. Takashi did most of the talking, he seemed to be able to get Bokken to focus long enough to make a logical point. He is, indeed, a potion brewer, and despite the fact he is obviously a few waves short of a shipwreck, I have nothing to point out where his skill is regarded. We bought some potions from Oleg before and had no remark on them. He's always desperate for materials, he told us, namely fangberries, and will pay handsomely if we can retrieve some for him. 

Brother Bear is starting to reveal himself quite the shrewd negotiator – when Bokken mentioned the reward for bringing back berries, Takeshi managed to talk him into a potion discount as well. I applaud him, it was expertly done.

During our conversation, Bokken also told us (quite often) about his younger brother. Every other sentence turned to that, in fact. From what I could gather, Bokken has (or had? I couldn't very well understand) a little brother who went insane. Must be the family tradition. 

(sidenote: I am being somewhat mean. Despite how Bokken looks and acts we know he is an expert of his trade and whatever happened for him to end up like this must have been terrible. He makes an odd impression but he doesn't seem to be a bad person.)

Anyway: Bokken's little brother went insane and began abusing the family, beating them and threatening to kill them. Then Bokken rose his hand and showed us he was missing his ring finger, which his brother allegedly chopped off in order to steal a ring from him. He spat on the ground every time he mentioned his brother, which was a little disgusting. If for nothing else because he mentioned him so often that there was a puddle of yuck on the ground by the time we left. He also told us that his brother "went to live in a hollow tree down South". Seems like rambling to me, but I'm writing it down anyway. In case we… find him? 

(sidenote: I am seeing a pattern of behavior here. The guards spat when talking about Garress and Bokken spits when he refers to his brother. Spitting seems to be a demonstration of despise or disgust… but it's so vulgar and gross I don't think I want to pick up the native habit. Now to keep my brothers from picking it up…)

On the following day, our expedition took us further east. We crossed over to the very edge of land covered by our chart. On the course of several days we turned south and southwest, to explore some of the areas we hurriedly crossed when returning from the bandit camp. The weather was good and the going was easy. The lands are lush with vegetation and flowers. At some points I had to remind myself this was an expedition, not a leisure walk. We saw a pack of wolves in the distance once, and our hunting seems to be improving. We managed to catch a deer one night, and tried to make deer jerky. The results were… well. Not delicious. Perhaps not even good. But edible enough to keep us going.

The only other event I have to speak of during the expedition…

I confess I've been avoiding it somewhat. I got a terrible fright out of it. During our travel we came across a clearing. It was an almost perfect circle where carrion plants and insects seemed to be dwelling. Here and there, strewn about the grass, were the remains of deers, boars, animals small and medium – even people. We were wary to approach at first. I tried to ascertain the presence of some kind of magical effect, but there was nothing. Then we dropped a piece of jerky within the area to see if we were dealing with some sort of carnivorous plant, but nothing happened either. I even considered some species of mushrooms or fey… but all our theories seemed to be unable to explain this perfect circle of death in the middle of the clearing.

Eventually, our curiosity took the best of us, and we began walking within this circle, towards the center. I remember we took a few moments to examine some of the bones – picked clean, the lot of them. As if by vermin. But the amount of vermin necessary to clean bones in this manner would certainly be conspicuous, and why only within this circle…?

As we approached the center, we noticed a small mound of what looked like dirt or stones. And suddenly it dawned on me. Among the old tales of Minkai I heard as a child, there was one concerning a spider who instead of weaving a web dug a hole and covered it with a lid, waiting for prey to get close and snapping to grab it. I barely recall mentioning this to Takeshi as he carefully approached the mound…

… and all of a sudden there was a giant spider. 

(sidenote: I am not new to hearsay about giant vermin, even in Minkai there were rumors about such creatures. But the words "giant" and "spider" should never coexist in the same language, let alone the same sentence! I've seen my share of household spiders and always figured them as harmless, sometimes even cute… I had never seen one so up close and so enlarged! They're hideous! I used to think spiders were tiny weaver-type things, much like ants only with more legs… but this was horrible! And hairy! And all those eyes! I had nightmares about it for days!)

It wasn't a difficult battle, but my performance was somewhat subpar, I must confess. I couldn't find my zen in front of that thing. I mainly kept a few simple chords going while trying to disguise my panicked screaming as song (read: KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT!!). I was expecting a lot out of that clearing but THAT, not so much!

Once the creature was dead (still not approaching it), Nagata even made a point to search the tunnel it came out of. It's probably a good thing he did: we found a bandit's corpse, and in his pocket he had a poorly hand-drawn image of a claw-like tree, with a red X mark in blood. I was taken back to how Bokken told us his younger brother went off to live in a hollow tree… perhaps there was more to his telling than we thought.

After that terrible thing jumped out of the ground in front of us (and much to our need to refit) we began making our way back to Oleg's Trading Post, for a much deserved rest. 

__________________

I tried to write a haiku:

Archer up a tree,
Without care tried to flee me,
Snap! And afterwards, crack!

… my sensei was probably correct. I should leave poetry to others and stick to the shamisen.

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