Making of a Realm

An Unsent Letter

(during her time, Lady Ameno was a prolific writer – poems, journals, prose of all kinds, treatises, plays and letters make up much of her estate. Among the wooden chest where Lady Ameno kept her correspondence, however, there is one item that never saw release to the public. Upon her death, as per her wishes, the unsent missive was taken to Minkai. There, a priest was instructed to perform a ritual upon it, to have it reach its destination in the land of the dead, and then burn it without reading its contents.)

Dear Grandfather,

Never in my wildest dreams did I consider I might one day be writing from so far away. I could look upon a map and pinpoint where I left and where I now sit, but that would not be the true measure of the distance. I am separated from Minkai now by more than kilometers. Time moves ever forward, relentlessly, and us with it wether we like it or not, and time now separates me also from the home I left. And I must confess I am not the same girl who boarded the ship in our island. I wasn't a year ago, and certainly am not now.

I hope my letter finds you well and healthy, and know that in our new home in Fumidai, all of us are well and healthy too. 

Where can I start to tell everything that's happened since we were together last, Grandfather? I can hear your answer even across the time and the ocean: at the beginning, and going on from there. But it's not that easy, for I am not certain where the beginning was. From hiding in the woodlands like thieves, to surviving by whatever means we had available, to the arguments we had amongst ourselves about refusing to live like this forever and wanting desperately to set right what is wrong, to the realization there is no way the three of us alone could muster that. I could transcribe from my journal to tell you of how we first heard of the River Kingdoms and the Stolen Lands, of how we embarked on this seemingly impossible quest to take people under our banner and create a kingdom from the ground up, of the adventures we've had in this strange country and the friends and foes we've made on our way. But I feel like it would not convey the true measure of what we've been through. 

Truth is, I sometimes look around me and I feel like I still don't know how I came to be here. It seems as if just yesterday my greatest concern was putting on my makeup and ensuring it stayed on perfectly. These days I worry about our ever-expanding kingdom, about commercial routes and establishing a diplomatic platform with the neighboring territories. Sometimes, I become blindsighted by it all – I forget that the idea is to use this project as a stepping stone (hence, Fumidai) to return and face our Enemy with proper backup. When we started it seemed like it would take no time at all – some months, maybe a year? – and yet here I am still, a little over three years out of Minkai and still with no plans to return. Sometimes it feels as if this is my new life, and I have to remind myself of the end objective… 

Which is of course not to say I've forgotten or forsaken my Grandfather. We don't speak about it much, true. In my gut I know that Nagata and Takeshi are in no rush because they've accepted what I cannot. That if we had boarded the first ship back to Minkai as soon as we arrived in this country, we would still be too late. That done is done, and now we can only hope to return to take out our Enemy, restore the honor to our name and house, and properly bury the last of our ancestors. Perhaps it's foolish of me to think so… but I cannot accept it. Not until before my eyes I see the evidence of the fact. I simply can't.

But discussing this is not why I decided to write to you today. Instead, I was hoping that if a letter might reach you, you would know that we are together as a family and doing our best. 

You will be so proud of Takeshi, foremostly. He's done well by all of us and "tireless" doesn't begin to describe him. He was a bastion for us before all of this ever happened. Today, he is a bastion for the thousands of people who live under his rule – he is a just and fair King, involved and concerned, who is not above rolling up his sleeves to join the men at the foundry or the forge. His faith is unshakable and true, as is obvious by the blessings that have kept him, us and others from perils and aided in taking down those that would bring us harm. Many have gathered under our banners and I believe that is largely because of him. Do you remember how disgruntled he became for his need to sleep? These days, thanks to magical aid, he sleeps but two hours a night. The rest is spent in the most efficient way possible, working for others and for the land. 

As for Nagata, he is still Nagata: scarecrow-thin and agile despite how much he eats. With that said, I think you will hardly recognize him when next you see him. He is an accomplished warrior who seems to dance and twirl around his foes like a breeze, delivering paper-thin strikes with remarkable grace. His skills now extend even to the art of the shuriken, and he continues to hone them. Whatever quarry he sets to find, he will find – through harsh weather and merciless terrain, he will find it. I know you were worried, when we were children, that our Monkey would deviate from the path of righteousness, but that is far from the case. His devotion to the Lady Shizuru is without pair and his heart is exactly where it should be.  

There is also Oksana Zima, who has become somewhat like a sister to us. She's been with us from the very start: Takeshi saved her life and she has walked with us since. She hails from the far North as I understand, and it is true that I know not much about her past and what she's running away from – for I have the notion that she escaped from some horrible fate much like we did – but she's proven herself a fierce ally and well worthy of our trust. I look forward to introducing her to you. 

I also look forward to bringing you to Fumidai one day, Grandfather, that you may see with your own eyes all that we have built. Our kingdom is large and diverse, both in appearance and in its people. I never expected it would be easy, and sometimes it's hard not to fall into despair. About a year and a half ago we had some troubles: someone seems to harbor a desire to see us fail, and has done everything it could short of a confrontation to ensure we do. It culminated when, in our absence from our capital city, a monster out of the most frightening folk tales marched into it, taking lives and destroying whatever it could lay its paws on. We have since tracked it down, and ensured it will never again harm anyone – but what was lost, was lost. And we know, thanks to much studying and the aid of those more learned than us, that it was not a natural occurence. Not some creature who crawled out of the woods, but a sorry thing that was pushed towards Fumidai by foul magic weaved by some unknown rival. 

Things have looked up since, however: we've expanded and rebuilt, and tried to make amends for the lives lost. We also received a visit, about six months ago, from our neighboring Eastern nation of Varnhold, and once it appeared clear that they are not responsible for the things that have been happening in Fumidai, we managed to establish some trading with them. I hope to learn something from their bard, Maestro Penrod… 

Sometimes I feel so tired, Grandfather… it takes a toll on us all, I think. Every once in a while, when I go out on some errand, I see the other girls my age and I envy them somewhat. They go about carelessly, concerned only with their everyday affairs, never having to sleep on the cold ground in the dark of the wilderness, never having to look monstrosities in the eye and know that they might not walk out of there, never worrying on wether they'll sleep quietly all night, or be roused by the arrival of some beast… I sometimes miss that, styling my hair and leisurely going to the teahouse to discuss trivial things, and strolling down the market to see new fabrics for a dress or what the latest fashion in hairpins is. I try to keep myself focused but despite making the most of what time I have, I sometimes feel like I'm missing out on my own youth. And the very realization of this makes me think that I already have missed out. I don't see myself strolling down the market carelessly today, without worrying how our economy fares or if the merchants I meet have been poised here as spies or dissenters. Even when Oksana and I go out for a walk together, we end up speaking of things relating to our duties, exchanging tips on the magical arts (in which she is much more well versed than I am) or comparing our administrative feats in our respective venues. I wonder if my brothers feel like fate has cheated them out of their normal lives sometimes. And I wonder what advice you would dispense me in this matter…

But there are also the good days, when we get out of our strifes and nobody got hurt, when I get to perform on stage or lecture at our bard's college, when I realize that I have never intended to come here but I might have ended up where I needed to be. Sometimes I consider my accomplishments and realize that I would never have achieved them if my life was what I desired it to be. Likely, Grandfather, you never intended this life for us either. When you looked at us as children, what were we to become, in your opinion? Perhaps you expected Takeshi to follow a life of priesthood, I to pursue the career of entertainer, and Nagata to become a warrior for our Lady's honor. But things happened as they happened, as we did the best we could under the circumstances. I dare say you will be proud – and that makes it all worth it. 

I look forward to returning and finally doing what I set off to do in the first place. And I look forward to having tea with you and my brothers at the end of some afternoon, somewhere in the future, and sing about our adventures to entertain you. I look forward to making this your home as it is ours, and having you live out your days comfortably and without wanting for anything. That's all I truly want, and should Lady Shizuru grant to me this grace, regardless of how unlikely it seems, I have nothing else to ask for.

With love,

Uzume

View
Every Inch of My Kingdom
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4713, Autumn

Considering our heralds had only a few hours to summon a full city meeting, the turn-up was impressive. Most of Fumidai, and quite a few people from close-by farms attended. The plaza in front of Town Hall was filled to the brim with people, some of them even asking homeowners to climb up to their first floors and peep out of windows to hear Takeshi speak. And while I must say he didn't do half bad as oratory goes, the old motto of "showing, not saying" worked wonders in this case. 

When Takeshi took the stage atop the stairway leading to Town Hall, Nagata was already there. I noticed because he's my brother of course; most people will likely have little recollection of him among the rest of the servants, and I reckon Monkey prefers it that way. Once Takeshi had the people's attention, Monkey pulled on a cloth to unveil the cursed owlbear's head, stuck on a pike and covered in tar. The gasps and following silence of recognition took the crowd by assault, even as Takeshi swore before the city, before the Council and before Lady Shizuru, Empress of Heaven, that no threat to his realm would go unpunished from this day forth until his last breath. 

(sidenote: short and to the point, but I would have liked if he'd given the crowd proper warning before showing them the rotting head of their enemy. I could see some people turning green at the sight of that…)

After that, it was off to Town Hall for a delicious brunch consisting mostly of meat and vegetable pastries and hot tea, while an extraordinary Council session was held. I learned then that Bear had been busy up until the last two hours before dawn. Not only did he draft the repair plans for the foundry lost in the owlbear's rampage, he also sent a message to the fisheries around the lakes asking for a boat and a boatman. Nagata has shown great interest in visiting and exploring the tower in the middle of Lake Candlemere, and Bear believes it is high time we get to it. So even as I bit into my first pastry, Oleg came forth to bring the response from the fisheries: many are willing to make a boat available, but we'll have to look elsewhere for a boatman. As rumors have it, whoever sets foot in Candlemere Tower (appropriately named) does not return. And nobody wants to test if the Amenos & Co. are capable of changing that. Oksana and I were tasked to look further into these rumors after the session. 

We also received a visit from Valen, the royal mage. This time he was kind enough to at least manifest outside the door and THEN come inside, much to our guard's dismay. We greeted him with rolling eyes, but he seemed pleased: along he brough a hefty sum as a reward for dealing with the trolls. 

While he was here, we told him about the tragedy that befell Fumidai a few days ago, and of how we had dealt with. Valen replied with "uh-huh" and "I know" to most of our tale. Nagata, disgruntled, asked if he could also tell us who sent the damn monster to our city, since he knows so much. But sadly, the court wizard couldn't help with that.

Or so he claims. I sometimes wonder if he might not be involved in all of this: he has demonstrated time and again that he can move fast, know what he shouldn't, and likely command powerful forces. The lack of apparent motive keeps me from pointing my suspicions out, at least for now. 

Once he had left we finished the session and our brunch, and reconvened for a private meeting – meaning, just the four of us – a few hours later. In the meantime, I got the opportunity to do a little digging on the rumors surrounding Candlemere Tower and why everyone is so afraid of it. Nobody knows exactly who built the tower, what purpose it served or why it was abandoned. But abandoned it is, and most seem to be convinced it is haunted. I read tales of strange lights above the islet where the tower stands, shades in the water, and blood-curdling screams cutting the night. And then there's the detail that says most people who go there never return. 

And of course we're preparing to go there. Delightful prospect.

Had Nagata had his way, we would be going right now. In fact, Takeshi asked for a boat to be made available because he plans on investigating it soon, but not immediately. Nagata insisted several times, but Takeshi was determined in his decision: we don't know what we'll find and we don't know how long it will take to see the area. Even if it is close by, Takeshi would like to incorporate that into the start of a new expedition. We discussed the matter at length (sidenote: in fact we argued a bit, from how and when to tackle the tower, to how long the trip might take and where we should head afterwards, to how none of us has ever had to row a boat) until we came to the conclusion it was best to start for Candlemere after the next Council session.

———

I come from a place where bureaucracy and bribes go hand in hand. It is so much a part of Minkaian culture to haggle for what you want and lubricate legitimate requests with gold that one would almost deem it normal. 

Imagine a traveling hawker who wishes to rent a space on the market to set up his stand for a season. The amount of forms and requirements he needs to submit to achieve this is overwhelming. And whoever is in charge of renting such spaces might deem this merchant's goods are not interesting enough to have on sale this season – because trends claim so, or because he doesn't think he's going to profit from it, or because it's Oathday, it didn't rain last night and he's wearing a green tunic. In order to rent this space, our imaginary merchant can fill out all of the forms, wait while his goods rot in the cart until he's given permission to set up shop… or pass a little coin on to the bureaucrat in charge as a "token offering", to expedite the process or ensure its success- maybe both! 

Just the same, in a Minkaian market, one does not simply go up to the merchant and ask what his price is for, let's say, a kilo of turnips. Instead, we look at these wonderful turnips that will make a delightful stew and inform the merchant of how much we are willing to pay for a kilo of them. Now, when we do this, we know that turnips like these are worth maybe three copper pieces a kilo, for the sake of the argument. But we tell the merchant we'll give him one. He'll ask for five then, and we'll say we'll give no more than two. And it goes on from there, until we can agree on a price. This is a process that can take some time, and with specific goods it will require one to walk away from the goods announcing loudly they're shabby or too pricey, until he calls us back and is willing to negotiate further. 

A few days ago I got the distinct impression of how horrifying this part of my culture is to the people of this land, as we received a formal visit from an Archbanker. I was puzzled when I stepped out to greet him, and found myself looking at a priest, not a bureaucrat. I can understand how the flow of coin can be conjoined with a religion, and that a god might interest Himself in it as means of advancing civilization, so we were off to a good start there. When he began talking about the importance of measurement and pricing, however, he lost me a little. Abadarians believe in set prices and haggling as they see it is a means of achieving a further deal, not the primary purchase itself. So if I was to go to the market to buy turnips, the price per kilo would be defined beforehand, and there wouldn't be much to haggle with there. I could, of course, ask the merchant for a better deal, but there would be no question on what the set price is. 

With this said, I believe the Archbanker was quite impressed by how our economy fares. And perhaps a little horrified. Takeshi agreed to show him some of our records, since we've nothing to hide. We explained that while taxation on goods and transactions exists – the government of Fumidai needs to get money for its venues somewhere – we do not require tithe from our people directly. I couldn't tell if the man was marveled or confused. As for market prices and measurements, we adopted the system already in place in the River Kingdoms – it would be far less difficult for people to practice rules they are already familiar with, than introducing the Minkaian way. 

It was Oleg that saved us from further frightening the Archbanker – he arrived just as I was explaining the Minkaian way of bribery and haggling, and he came in to quickly let the priest know it did not quite work like that here. We let Oleg take it away after that.

All in all, however, I think it went well. The Archbanker told us in parting that Fumidai's economy seems solid, we have a steady profit coming in, and the people are happy – the fact that we require no tithe is bound to encourage trading in our lands, and we might expect some population booms if we keep this up. 

——-

I feel somewhat anxious about visiting Candlemere Tower, and with good reason: the rumors about it are spooky enough to leave anyone wary. Although that was not what troubled me most. 

What troubled me most is what I'll be getting there in.

I was once almost carried into a grand ship that sailed me from the home I've once known to the home I now dwell in. That was the first and single time I've traveled across long courses of water. In order to get to the islet where Candlemere Tower rests we need first to conquer Candlemere Lake by way of a boat, and with this in mind, Takeshi had requested the local fisheries to make a boat available to us, as well as a boatman. They agreed to the first request, but nobody wants to set foot on the islet itself…

… and now that I've seen the boat, neither do I. I believe this kind of vessel is known as a dingy in popular speak. The word "dingy" can also mean "gloomy" and I understand why. It was a tub. A small wooden boat that would carry four people tightly and five uncomfortably. The words "S. S. Blessed-Attempt" were written in chipped paint on its side, and a pair of oars was the only way of propelling it across the waters. As soon as Takeshi stepped in, the tub wobbled every other way. I could already see myself soaked to the bone and hanging on for life so dear. 

I reminded my brothers I can barely swim. Monkey laughed at me and told me I'd be fine: he's a good enough swimmer for us both. At once he settled himself at the oars, more than willing to try and coordinate them on his own.

Hardly sharing his enthusiasm, I ended up boarding. 

(sidenote: in conversation I ended up understanding that "S. S. Blessed-Attempt" is the name of the dingy, and the two S stand for "Sailing Ship". I don't really find this nutshell worthy of a name much less the cathegory of "ship", but if I was forced to baptize it, certainly this is not what I'd call it. S. S. Piece-of-Junk is more like it…)

It was somewhat tricky to move at first, and for a few moments it seemed as if Nagata couldn't make the tub go where we intended it to go. With a few hours of practice, in the end, we set off on our way, moving along the margin of the lake in the direction of Candlemere Tower. It took us two days to reach it, and for those two days I've come to the conclusion this has to be the worse way to travel. The S. S. Gods-Help-Us wobbles and balances with every movement we make – sometimes with every movement we don't make! – and it was a test of willpower to keep my meals down. 

We approached the islet in the morning of the third day, and I was starting to wonder if all the rumors weren't just that. We had camped on the margin closest to Candlemere Tower and set off at dawn, and for all the time I was there I saw no strange lights or shades in the water. As we approached the islet, however, another problem became apparent. Most of the land was covered in brambles and bushes of stinging nettles that would make our movement all the more difficult. I told Takeshi I was not all that keen on poison ivy, and those thorny leaves looked very much like it. Fortunately, we all decided to wear boots. 

Monkey jumped out first, in order to catch the rope and pull the S. S. Whose-Idea-Was-This onto shore. The tower itself is in ruins, partially collapse and seemingly abandoned for ages. Oksana thinks this place is old, perhaps all the way back to the Age of Destiny and the birth of the world! And Takeshi is inclined to agree: that the whole thing didn't simply turn to rubble is testament to how sturdy the building is. As we approached (crushing nettles underfoot with every step, and being very careful not to touch the leaves) we began to make out symbols carved on the stone. Oksana believes they are some form of ancient aklo, the water language spoken by evil fey. I tried to read them, but the symbols seemed to move and shift before my eyes – I couldn't make anything out. 

And then Takeshi told me not to try. He feels an aggressive aura all around this place, something old and upset. The symbols marring the walls are prayers to Yog-Sothoth he said. When I asked who that was, he told me the less I knew about it, the better off I'd be. 

I was about to protest at this. But then an oppressive silence fell all about the islet. I felt like something was watching, and that we were not welcome here. I glanced at Oksana and saw fear taking her over: her shoulders were slumped, her eyes darted across the brambles looking for threats, her lips tightly pressed. She looked as if she could run away at any given moment. 

Then the lights began coming up. One or two at first, phantom-like balls of glowing green light floating just above the overgrowth. Then more, until the islet was dotted with them as far as we could tell. I had seen this before, this kind of creature. They were will o' wisps, who feed on fear, likely summoned by our discomfort. One spawned right in front of the tower and bee-lined towards us – I saw Oksana hurl a snowball at it and miss. 

Takeshi took stance and called for a fighting retreat. We were severely outnumbered and the bramble wouldn't allow us to escape quickly. We simply had to hold on until we could reach the S. S. Bath-Tub.

It was a miserable struggle. Every time one of the creatures came close enough to us, Takeshi struck at it with the naginata, missing most of the time. Nagata got a few hits in, but for every one of them that vanished from existence there were more. I was playing for courage as we backtracked, but once I looked over my shoulder, I was left in dismay as lights came alive above the waters as well. Peering over my shoulder caused me to stumble on the underbrush and fall – I wasn't hurt but already I felt the itching and nausea from the nettles' sap. Oksana managed to help me to my feet, and used her magic to waive the effects of the poisonous sap log enough for me to board.

Nagata was the last to jump aboard the S. S. Driftwood, after pushing it away from the shore. He manned the oars and rowed as if every devil in Hell was after us! Takeshi stabbed at any wisp that got too close for comfort, while Oksana and I paddled (a little awkwardly) to get us swiftly away from the islet. Oksana's magic wore off sooner than I expected however. One moment I was paddling along, seeing the islet sink back into the background, the next I had my head out of the S. S. Barely-Afloat and was bidding farewell to my breakfast. I remained sick for most of the journey back to the margin and some hours after that. As he was helping me off the dingy Takeshi was saying something about how a long time of evil-worshipping in the islet must have imprinted an aura of fear and dread there, and will o' wisps are known to feed on fear. He wants to have the islet cleared. So does Nagata but he's been more eager to visit there than he is now. As for me… I just wanted off the S. S. Spit-and-a-Wish. I even welcomed the muddy margin. 

Unfortunately we tried again the following day: Monkey rowed us to the shore, we stepped over the bramble and took on as many wisps as we could for the better part of half an hour. The islet seemed to have too great a contingent of them to beat. Even if we managed to scare a few off, who turned invisible and disappeared, we knew more would return in some time. We ended up rowing back to the margin once more, feeling frustrated as we barely dented the population of wisps. Takeshi is considering sending a squad of priests here to cleanse the place out. For the time being, we're leaving it be. 

——-

By now I had had about enough of the S. S. Firewood-to-Be. I never thought I'd be happy walking! Even so, Takeshi was adamant that we deliver it safely, so we took it towards the Gnarled Marshes and delivered it to the first fishery we found, with regards. Goodbye, S. S. Good-Riddance, and hopefully I'll never have to sail on such a thing again. How do fishermen do it? 

Once we were walking again towards disputed territory, I opened my journal to see if there was any other request we could fulfill in this area. As it happens, Nagata answered me before I could find it. He found a set of tracks belonging to a great, land-bound drake. I seem to recall someone mentioned a forest drake to us some time ago, so perhaps we could go after it. Nagata disagrees, however: the tracks are at least a week old, and if the drake roams this territory, we'd do better to try and locate fresher clues.

The following day he found more tracks, these some three to four days old, headed towards southern Gnarled Marshes. This, Nagata said, was a proper trail to follow, but if we are willing to, we better start while they're relatively fresh. We agreed it would be best to deal with this as soon as possible, so we went into marching order. Nagata led us straight to the thing's lair: a great tree overlooking a large hole on a mound of earth. And lo and behold, in front of it lay a wingless, western-like drake covered in green scales, nearly the size of a cow. It was apparently keeping busy with the spoils of its last victim, but as soon as we approached, it charged for us at dazzling speed!

The Ode to the Wayward Samurai was already playing, and behind me I heard Oksana shout that the thing is like to spit acid. Just as she had said it, the lizard coughed up a spray of translucent spit that caught Takeshi and Nagata dead on! Smoke began to rise from their clothing and armor. It might've caught me too, if not for how close they were, like a wall in front of me! A thundercloud came into existence above the beast, but it dodged the lightning with uncanny agility. 

Takeshi and Nagata both ran towards the thing, but while Takeshi stood waiting in front of it, drawing its attention, Nagata tumbled past it to get at its tail. Once Monkey was in place, Bear called to Shizuru for strength, and slammed the naginata's blade into the lizard's snout… and the handle in his own knee. Then from the creature's blind side came Nagata, slicing away at the tough hide until the lizard collapsed. As Oksana scavenged the area and my brothers skinned the lizard for its hide and head, I finally found a note in my journal about the forest drake – it was the court wizard himself who asked us to deal with it. If he's true to his nature he probably already knows we're done with it. I got to wondering if he might be watching, so I commented aloud on how much I like lillies. My brothers looked at me as if I was insane – but perhaps Valen will play, and then I'll know exactly how far his capacities go.

——-

So far we've met a lot of denizens of the Greenbelt with whom we managed to parley: fey, boggards and people who already lived here and with whom we have a fairly good relationship. I pride myself of trying to talk to anything that can be talked to. We'd do best with allies rather than rivals.

Alas, it doesn't always go as expected. Sometimes denizens do talk to us – but they in no way mean well. 

Some days after we left the forest drake's lair we found an area made of mostly rolling hills – and as we stood atop one of the taller ones to oversee what lay ahead, we spied a person – or what we thought was a person – at the bottom of another one. I was puzzled on how I could so clearly see it from so far away. Then it dawned on me: the person in question must be huge! I looked at Takeshi in a silent question of what we should do. He wants us to approach carefully. As usual, I asked if I might try and talk to the thing, and Bear agreed. So I armed myself in every language-facilitating spell I know, and we began walking towards him. 

As we approached and he got sight of us, he gulped down a casket of cheap-smelling wine as if brandishing a tankard, and rose heavily to his feet. (sidenote: why am I in the land of et cetera, et cetera… I'm growing used to it by now. At least it's a person-like thing and not a bug!) He looked me over curiously as I approached and greeted him. Takeshi was right by my side, and Oksana right behind me. As for Monkey… the fact that I didn't see him told me he was keeping us safe from elsewhere. 

The giant said his name was Mungok and he asked us if we knew of any giant ladies around this area. I told him he was the first giant I'd ever seen in the Greenbelt, and asked from where he hailed. He didn't immediately answer: instead, he was looking at me intently, with a drop of drool forming at the tip of his lower lip. I was suddenly sort of uncomfortable. I wasn't sure if the giant was looking at me as a possible meal… I glanced at Takeshi for assurance and saw his face close up. In Minkaian, he spoke a word: "evil".

At the first chords of the Ode, Nagata was raining down pain. Monkey leapt from a nearby tree to try and land on the giant's back. I heard fingers snapping and a word of magic behind me before he landed, however. Mungok closed his eyes… and fell TOWARDS US!

Takeshi, Oksana and I managed to dodge the giant's fall in the nick of time, and Monkey pirouetted in the air to land on the ground with little damage, having lost his target. The giant's snoring made the earth tremble, so Takeshi silenced it with a naginata to the nape of the neck. 

We were catching our breath after that unpleasant surprise, when we heard squealing from the giant's bag. Which, in itself, was large enough to keep a horse in. Takeshi cut it loose with the tip of the naginata, and another casket came tumbling out. Once we opened it, cheap wine and herbs poured out, along with Jubilost the gnome – shaken, dizzy, slightly drunk, but very much unharmed! We had to ask: what in the name of Shizuru was he doing inside a giant's bag? Jubilost explained, and none of us understood it for the speed and slurriness of his chatter. I told him to calm down and speak more slowly, but the next bout of words came out as incomprehensible jabber just the same. We had to sit him down, give him some water and food, and some time to relax before we could understand what he was trying to convey. 

Apparently, Jubilost left Fumidai a few days ago, still searching for the dwarven outpost he set out to find originally. He left on his own, however, with most of his expedition having stayed in Fumidai. He got lost quickly, and then stumbled into Mungok. He couldn't outrun the giant, of course, so when Mungok picked him up by a leg he said he was very thin, stringy and likely to make a very chewy meal, hoping Mungok would let him go. Instead, the giant shoved him inside a wine casket with spices to… marinate a little before cooking. So Jubilost's spent the last day or so stuck inside a barrel of wine, breathing the fumes and trying not to drown every time Mungok moved, waiting to become Jubistew…

(sidenote: I saw Nagata sniffing the inside of the casket and examining the herbs with some interest. He seemed thoughtful for a bit, then looked at Takeshi and commented this would make an excellent sauce for lamb. Takeshi smacked him upside the head.)

I think the story would make a nice comedy since it ended well. But I doubt anyone would believe it to be anything else but a work of fiction…

——-

Upon our return to Fumidai, we looked over the map and counted territories. The Greenbelt is no longer disputed. It seems amazing but we've seen all that there is to see, up to the frontiers with the neighboring lands. It's done – it's finally done! No more walking around exploring, from now on I'm riding my phantom carriage everywhere!

At Council Takeshi began laying the plans for new communities, and asked for the availability to have farms and a stockyard established wherever the ground is plain enough to accommodate them. We're very excited to develop Fumidai now that we know exactly how much area we're dealing with. Ideas were bounced off the Council – the first cathedral to Shizuru in the West is Takeshi's next pet project. I would like to have more stages set – theaters, inns and halls with enough space for simple performances – and Nagata wants a temple and an orphanage for every town we raise. All of us are starting to look at the possibility of raising more units for our army, and Takeshi wants to have the menagerie built as soon as possible. Lest we forget, we have an owlbear cub sitting inside a jail cell still. I understand that most of the people who deal with it do so as quickly as possible and without looking at it too much. The wounds are still fresh in the people's minds. I've heard that Turgut visited the thing once or thrice, and he claims the owlbear is healthy… and growing. Soon the jail cell will be too small, so we should start to consider where to properly place it. 

Then, even as we were discussing where we could build a menagerie as soon as possible, Svetlana stood and asked for the floor, to inform us that there was trouble brewing in Fumidai. The Council fell silent to hear her speak. She explained that there was evidence we may have a cult of Girona forming in our midst. 

We were puzzled for a bit, until Takeshi, with his insight knowledge of various religions, explained who Girona is. Then I grew grim. Girona is a hag goddess that concerns herself with hatred, extortion and spite. Communities where such cults emerge will often tear themselves apart as the cult members – most commonly adulterous wives, embittered prostitutes and spurned lovers – arrange the means to pitch inhabitants at each other's throats. Even as Takeshi was enumerating the most likely members, Nagata was counting on his fingers, and once Bear was through with the explanation, Monkey had about a dozen women who might fit such profiles. 

(sidenote: there was a slight moment of argument between my brothers at this point, as Takeshi found it hard to believe prostitutes live in Fumidai, to which Monkey replied that no, they don't – but "courtesans" and the occasional "exotic masseuse" are known to exist here and there.)

Once he was done with the explanation, Takeshi moved on to the solution: to eliminate the cult as soon as possible. I had to agree immediately. Few know as well as we do what damage a hag can do to a community, and even if this coven is composed only of human women, sooner or later they are bound to attract… other such creatures. And that is the last thing any one of us wants living around here. 

Once Council was dismissed, we started investigating – and we would investigate for the better part of a week. Nagata went out to follow some people and break into some houses. I began visiting some of the elderly residents of Fumidai, most of which I met during the birthing phase of this city, and asking about suspicious behavior. Takeshi also summoned some people to his presence, hearing report after report, and trying to discover who these people were. A week later, we reunited to compare findings and our efforts paid off. From the original twelve individuals flagged by Monkey as people of interest, I had narrowed the possibilities down to six. All the others had viable alibis. Takeshi didn't have much: he believes the leader of the coven will be a newcomer, not anyone who already lived in Fumidai. 

Monkey's stalking was what truly paid off. He told us of how he had been following one of our suspects about for most of a day, and was ready to give up. When night fell, however, he saw this same person leaving Fumidai, and fell in step behind her. He followed her all the way to an old barn in the outskirts of the city, a remnant from one of the first settlers who ever came here. He couldn't find a comfortable entry point or any area from where he could peek inside. So instead he found a comfortable bush with a view of the door and squatted there for a good few hours, taking notes. He counted six people going in, and two hours later six people came out. He told us that the barn, for all intents and purposes, looked abandoned. He could see no light, hear no noise. And he told us he recognized some of the people coming out as midwives from Fumidai. He has no idea who the leader of the coven is.

Unbeknownst to us, Takeshi was already partial to some of this information. When the last of the women had departed the barn, Monkey made a bee line for Bear – unluckily, he happened to reach our big brother exactly during his 2-hour sleep window. Takeshi had been coming out of a 12 hour kata as punishment for fumbling a strike in battle recently (BAKA) and Nagata simply waltzed into the room and woke him up. Judging by his demeanor as Monkey shared his story with us, he wasn't especially happy to be woken up. So being Bear, he repaid the favor by finding where Monkey was sleeping after a hard night's vigil, and conjured a few gallons of water over his head.

With this information in hand, Takeshi is fairly convinced another such reunion of the coven is to happen soon, and he intends to be there when it does. Come dusk, we'll all be squatting in the bushes for a while…

(sidenote: the fact that the leader of the coven has not been identified bothers me. It could be just a woman. It could be a hag. And if it is a hag, we had better break the coven as soon as we can.)

Takeshi delivered Nagata's list of known members of the coven to Oleg, and informed him we'll be handling this issue personally tonight. Should we for some reason fail to return, he knows what doors to knock at. Oleg promised it wouldn't come to that: if we take too long to return, he'll send help. With the proverbial torches and pitchforks if needed be.

——-

We first approached the barn around mid afternoon, just to become acquainted with the surroundings. Nagata pointed out the spot where he hid last night, and advised us to do just the same tonight. As Takeshi insisted in seeing the barn's interior before he had to storm it, it also fell to Monkey to disengage the lock. (sidenote: which, I must say, was likely the only part of the barn that was brand new). The first thing we did when the door was opened was to step on a tripwire and hear the ringing bell that told us we'd been caught. A moment's panic later we realized there was nobody inside to hear the alarm, but the tripwire's location was duly noted. Nagata re-engaged it so nothing would seem amiss, all the time cursing and asking how is it a bunch of midwives and prostitutes (sidenote: at Takeshi's piercing glance he corrected himself to "courtesans") know anything about bloody tripwires. We searched the inside of the barn to find it empty, with no evidence of foul play whatsoever. 

That is, until Monkey located a trapdoor leading to a small cellar dug beneath the barn. Cramped, dark and dank miserable little space that made me feel a pang of claustrophobia while I was in there. At the very back, we found a simple altar built out of piled-up stones. Takeshi warned us it would not be easy to fight in here if needed, which likely will be the case. Once we had seen enough, we backtracked, closed the trapdoor, avoided the tripwire and sunk into the bushes outside. Now we waited for nightfall.

(sidenote: I had no doubts before this event that Takeshi is patient, but to summon up the patience to squat in a bush for hours stalking someone, without getting bored or falling asleep is truly Nagata's art. Within an hour I was bored to tears. Oksana even took a little catnap. Silence was of the essence, so I couldn't really practice my singing or playing, and all I could do was make little animals out of folding paper to amuse myself. In the meantime, like twin statues guarding the entrance to a noble house or gargoyles perching from a castle's towers, my brothers stood watch in silence well into the night. Nagata can stand immobile for hours on end, with small breaks to stretch his legs and little else.)

It was past midnight when Takeshi shook me out of my attempt to make the tiniest, teeniest paper crane I could fold properly. Shades were moving up the road and towards the barn, and I squatted between my brothers to see them. And thanks to my eyes, I could recognize them too. I had seen some of these women around Fumidai, there was no doubt about that. They arrived one at a time, with slight intervals between them, made their entrance into the barn and closed the door behind them. Nagata was counting them as they passed – once six had gone through, it was time for us to move. 

Disengaging the lock again was easy for Monkey – and we knew already there was a tripwire across the door that would activate an alarm, so he tried to disable that as well. When I heard the bell ringing and saw the grimace on his face, I knew he had botched it. I had assumed Monkey would backtrack to safety and let them think the tripwire was faulty. I was even ready to run back to the bushes and wait for another hour or so…

Instead, Monkey stood up and kicked in the door, rushing inside in the direction of the trapdoor. So much for subtlety. Once Takeshi began running after him, stealth was also a faint memory. I let Oksana through and went in last, to see the trapdoor already opened and a faint light coming from it. There was no time to lose, so I began playing right away. Takeshi jumped right into the cellar, and Monkey and Oksana stood by it. As cramped as the place was, it was likely they had no room to go in.   

I heard terrible shrieking from beneath, along with the sounds of a struggle, and Takeshi's booming voice calling for Shizuru's eye to fall upon this place. A shrill, raspy voice rose also to meet his prayer, this one asking Girona to give her daughters favor. (sidenote: I know a prayer to the Empress of Heaven has more to do with the strength of one's faith that the tone of one's voice, but considering Takeshi's baritone I wondered however Girona could hear her priestess above my brother's shouting…) From the trapdoor, Nagata produced a collection of shuriken and began hurling them in. Oksana went around the trapdoor in a hurry, trying to find an angle to attack, and once she had it she snapped her fingers and told someone below to sleep. 

I didn't even try to find my way down there. I knew all too well Takeshi could hear me and that's all I could do from where I was. A few moments later, with the shrieks continuing and the sounds of clashing armor and blades, Monkey jumped inside too, and the noise went up twofold. Shortly after, however, there was silence – and with the way clear, I could finally look inside and see what had happened.

Takeshi was retrieving his naginata from the floor when I began going down the stairs into the cellar. His father's katana had already returned to the scabbard, once properly cleansed of the blood of our enemies. Naturally, and having seen the cellar before, Takeshi knew he would not have enough room to swing a cumbersome weapon, and chose the close combat katana for the fray. He was injured in several places: the six women had been armed with daggers, and one of them apparently tried to claw out his eyes. It was a massacre inside: heads separated from bodies, women slit in two, some covered in shuriken. 

A seventh figure was slumped next to the altar, likely the leader of the coven. Takeshi pointed her out to me as the leader, and owner of the shrill voice I had heard from above. He told me he could feel the madness and resentment emanating from her like so many fumes while she lived, and he was sure she was the one who started all of this. I approached carefully to pull back the hood of her robe. She was no hag – she was a midwife from Fumidai. I knew her. I knew people who'd had their children delivered and cared for on their first few days of life by this woman. If I hadn't seen her here I would've never believed she could lead a cult to Girona. 

Then I noticed the gem resting on top of the altar. Even if I made no gesture towards picking it up, Takeshi warned me against it. He called the gem the Eye of Girona, and it is just that: a way for the hag goddess to peep into our world. I pointed out to Bear that this likely meant this goddess knew exactly who had foiled her coven's intentions, and could be staring at us at this very moment, right? Unimpressed, Takeshi said yes, that likely Girona had her sights upon us and removing the gem from its altar would invite her rage. "Let her see this, then." he added, and the naginata came down upon the gem, shattering it to pieces. 

——-

Next morning (which came far too swiflty considering I was up until two or three stalking a coven!) it was my job to write an official statement of what transpired inside the barn. Seven women were dead and we felt we had to inform our citizens. These women, for better or worse, had families and friends in this city. They would be missed by some, and it was best if their loved ones knew what happened to them and why. They were buried outside city limits, but not so far that anyone who wishes to visit their graves has a hard time of it. The barn was burned down and the grounds on which it stood were reconsecrated. 

Winter is here, and we'll be doing the last of our construction for sometime. At Council today Takeshi came armed with plans and maps, and told us he expects to have one last project completed before the rains make it impossible. The plans showed a large cathedral, larger than the temple we have already in Fumidai. A palace worthy of the Empress of Heaven. Takeshi showed us a draft for the central wing: a large, round, clear window should occupy a large portion of the back wall, with a depiction of Lady Shizuru in front. He also wants to place it so that when the Sun comes up every morning this window is turned straight at it, borrowing from its light and channeling it inside the cathedral. Once completed, it will be a sight to behold. 

I had to ask what the little annex next to the main wing was, as I could not immediately identify its usefulness. As it turns out, Takeshi means to have a personal cell there…

*

THE DAY THE SUN HID AWAY
(a Minkaian tale as written by Ameno Uzume and told by Ameno Takeshi on the inauguration of the House of the Empress in Fumidai)

Recognize, you who hear me, how the Sun travels on the Skies. Shizuru, Empress of Heaven and Blade of the Sun, who dances eternally over the world clad in sunlight and yellow silk, whose influence brings up the crops from the dirt, the animals from their hovels and the people from their shelters. No lie can stand before the Light of Shizuru, no cruelty can go unnoticed, no evil can go unpunished: the Empress of Heaven shines Her warmth upon us all, and sees all that the Sun can touch. But it was not always so. 

My ancestors told of that terrible day in which Shizuru ceased to dance upon the Heavens. Upset by the struggle of Mankind, by dark hearts who sought no repentance, by the absence of hope and the blood spilled upon the land for no reason, Shizuru one day refused to come out into the Heavens. She sought out the deepest cave, the darkest hole in the earth, the farthest pocket in which Her Light could no longer reach Mankind, and there She decided to dwell for all eternity. 

The next morning never arrived, for the Sun did not come out. The land was left in darkness. Not even Tsukiyo of the Moon who reflects the light of Shizuru upon the world as she slumbers could do anything, for without the Light of the Sun reflecting off his blades, he had no way to alight the darkness of night. And in this terrible night Mankind dwelt for days… the birds no longer took to the air, and the crops ceased sprouting from the dirt. In that horrible darkness of a moonless, eternal night, Mankind struggled even harder for fear, for ignorance, for desperation. We could not see one another for who we were, and thus we feared whatever shape came out of the dark towards our fires, be it harmless animal or neighbor.  

The Gods looked below and saw how Mankind suffered and repented for the absence of the Empress. And so did they gather outside the cave where Shizuru dwelt, pleading that She may once again dance across the Heavens and bring us out of our dark misery by the grace of her Light. But the Goddess refused. She would not come out, for there was no hope in the hearts of men. They did not desire peace, and therefore could do their warring in the very darkness that clad their hearts. They held no hope, and therefore there was no hope for them. They took the Light for granted and therefore were not grateful for its life-giving powers. The gods told Shizuru She was mistaken; that there was hope for Mankind, that there were those who held virtue and sought peace still, and She could not abandon them. But the Empress was convinced otherwise, and the rest of the gods could plead, cry, threaten and shout all they wanted, Her decision was final. None had the might to remove Her from the cave, and none had the means to prove to Her she should. 

Instead, the gods turned to Mankind and urged them to prove to the Goddess that they were worth saving. Every able man lit fires on the earth, and every woman who carried in her a note of song or a cry of hope was called upon to sound it. Every child with joy still in their hearts and every warrior who strived for peace were to come together before the mouth of the cave and call for the Goddess. Every farmer took up his hoe or shovel and brought along the rooster from his coop, to sing to Shizuru that it was time to emerge. And every man of faith was to call out that he saw the Light, that the Empress may know that even if She should forever sit in her dark cave, there were still those who could glimpse her Shine. 

And thus it was that all of Mankind who wished for the Light gathered at the mouth of that deep cave – singing bards and peaceful warriors, monks, priests, women and children, roosters, gods and all. And for Shizuru they sang for days, and for days they called out: "I see the Light!" "I hold hope in my heart!" "I strive for peace!" "I uphold the honor of my name!" The young and the old called and called, until their voices were hoarse. They sang, danced, cajoled and laughed in praise of Shizuru. 

The Goddess was unmoved for three endless nights still. But as She heard them from within her cave, as their song resonated in the foundations of the earth, as She heard their joy and counted the voices that called for Her, did She realize how many there were. How these mortals upheld Her teachings still, and even when plunged into the deepest darkness, they shouted they could see Her Light. And so the Goddess emerged from the cave, dancing in her dress of sunlight and yellow silk, and every rooster cawed the arrival of the morning after a long, terrible night. The Empress of Heaven once again danced to the sound of the peaceful, the hopeful and the joyous, again brought the crops from the dirt, shed her Light upon us that we may see each other and recognize each other, and hold no fear. 

Shizuru made a promise to Mankind on that day; that while there was one soul among us who could shout that she saw the Light, even in the most absolute darkness, the life-giving Sun would rise in the East. Her outstanding promise holds still, as evident by the arrival of every dawn. So thus is our responsibility to uphold the honor of our houses, to seek out the virtuous path even in the darkest of times, to battle solely for the continuous peace, to praise every morning we see rise in the East before our eyes as the source of all Life, that the Empress of Heaven shall continue to dance across the skies and cast upon us the warmth of her Light.

View
The Beast of Fumidai
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4713, Autumn

Trolls are giant humanoids that may live in a wide variety of territories, and therefore have a wide variety of characteristics. They are usually green or greenish in color and their fingers end in claws. They can weigh up to an average of a thousand pounds and stand 14 feet tall. They are known to be incredibly strong but not particularly clever.

I have been freshening up on my knowledge of them as troll hunting continues. At Council, Takeshi opened up the map and evaluated possible territories where we could find them. Oksana and I discussed the sightings and from the general traits they give us, we are in accord that these must be swamp trolls. Nagata's contacts claim 10 to 20 trolls, which is in line with what I know for that kind as well.

Expedition begins tomorrow. Just when I was getting used to sleeping on a bed. What's it going to be this time? Endless hills to climb up and down, mud up to the neck? Perhaps another mushroom grove with several trappings of Minkaian cuisine attempting to repay me for every time I've had mushroom soup? Because of my experiences in expedition so far I learned something about how to conjure up a carriage that will make our journeys swifter… through known territory. Takeshi already warned me that once we begin on expedition proper, we'll be walking in order to explore properly. I didn't argue with his assessment. At least I won't have to walk for part of the trek.

We left at dawn and reached Melianse's pond just after midday. It was agreed that it would be better to consult with her for more information before the expedition begins. Her knowledge of what happens in and around the Greenbelt's courses of water will prove pivotal in finding the creatures quickly.

Takeshi asked her if she knew about the trolls. She told us they might be to the southwest and promised to scout ahead of us. We returned to the carriage and followed the road going in that direction for as long as we could. We camped for the night on the shores of the Murky River. 

The following morning, something most peculiar happened. We were raising camp and getting ready to continue when I noticed a little bird jumping about in a tree branch, and watching us over intently. I could have discarded the sight as the normal behavior of a tiny woodland creature, if that tiny little bird hadn't opened its beak and called for Takeshi by name! (sidenote: also, who would've thought a tiny woodland creature would have such a deep baritone voice?!) It began speaking to us as if it was a person, saying it was a herald from Melianse with news of the trolls' location. Takeshi spread out the map, and the little thing hopped over it and nipped at a given area to point us where the trolls had been sighted. Its message delivered, it flew away once more, chirping happily. 

So now we're headed there because a little bird told us so. Indeed.

(sidenote: perhaps one day I will strike a deal with Melianse to lend me some such heralds. I can already see myself on stage, performing the classics of Tian-Xia opera with an actual monkey and an actual pig… )

Instead of taking the carriage the whole way, we decided instead to set off on foot. Well, my brothers decided. To me, we could have traveled most of the way comfortably, but that would not allow us to explore the grounds between here and where the bird pointed us. In order to make sure the area is fully explored, both Takeshi and Nagata agreed we should continue afoot.

(sidenote: and Oksana went along with it, but of course she did – Oksana is tall and has long legs. I'm a munchkin who takes two steps where Bear takes one. No pun intended, but I'm the minority, so I deferred to their decision. Sulkingly so.

The marsh was lightly wooded here and it wasn't at all hard to find troll tracks, as they are huge. Nagata identified three to four elements in four groups, all converging towards the same general area. It took us four days of following the tracks – the ground consistency helped, as there is plenty of mud where such footprints can be preserved. On the fourth day, we camped without a fire. Nagata is sure that we're gaining ground. He also managed to find us a safe place to camp. In all honesty and looking at his record, when he announced he was going to look for a place to set camp, I was expecting him to run back to us trolls in tow. It's a talent, really. Whenever we need to find something, we'll ask Monkey to find a place for us to camp, and as they say in Brevoy -voilà

The next morning we set off due South, where the marsh began to touch light forest. The ground is still very much solidified mud, so the tracks are still visible and easy to follow. Not long before we started, we spotted a few craggy hills, as if a mountain had sunk into the marsh, leaving only the very tips in the open air. The very top of these hills had to be at least a mile high, and another such ahead. The trail of footprints seem to lead towards it, so we cautiously began our approach. 

Midway through the rise we spotted some sort of watchtower or fortress, derelict and likely abandoned. Nagata studied the tracks here and evaluated that perhaps a dozen different individuals had gone by – we should be close. He took point for the climb, and we tried to be as quiet as possible in spite of Takeshi's armor, which clings and clangs with his every movement. Monkey can likely go unnoticed much easier than us (sidenote: Oksana can be pretty stealthy, but her size doesn't help. I mean, she stands a little taller than Takeshi. She's not exactly easy to hide. I, on the other hand, can duck behind pretty much any bush and disappear. The perks of being small…?)

A winding trail went up the hills towards the watchtower and being the path of least resistance, that's what we took. From the building, arrow slits peeped out at us, but there wasn't a sound from within. Takeshi studied it as we went and called it a barbican, and told us the architecture definitely had to be dwarven. When we came close to the tower we managed to peek inside one of the arrow slits to be greeted by the sight of two trolls apparently beating each other for fun inside a room that was barely tall enough for them! 

There was no door to this watchtower. Instead, there was a hole on the wall where a door likely once stood. I wouldn't think trolls would have opened the door – in fact, I'm very much sure they wouldn't fit through any door formerly placed here by dwarves. I reckon they simply threw it down, along with its frame and part of the wall, and made themselves an entrance. We approach as quietly as possible, and decided to take the two trolls out as swiftly as we could without alerting the rest. (sidenote: I had seen two, but I knew there had to be more. Nagata said as much from the tracks, and it was anyone's guess where the rest of them were – all we knew is that there were two at the entrance, and we'd have to go from there)

Oksana was the first to come out of hiding – she looked at one of the trolls and snapped her fingers with a word of magic, and it fell to the ground in a heap, immediately starting to snore loudly. While the other was dumbfounded, Monkey sprinted up to him with both wakizashis in hand and slashed deeply across its side. Takeshi ran in right after. A swirl of flame took over the naginata's blade – a wise move to cancel out the troll's regenerative abilities – and it slammed into the troll's belly almost to the spine! The troll fell back like a mighty tree, and Nagata at once slit its neck to ensure it wouldn't rise. 

As for the snoring troll, it was a matter of Takeshi twirling the naginata to stab down its throat with the flaming tip, and there was silence. 

Two stairways parted from this room – both upwards, one South and one West. Takeshi pointed the tip of the naginata towards the southern one and we acknowledged with a nod. 

We began climbing, with Takeshi taking point. Monkey would stay behind in the entrance room to cover our back. The stone that made the flight of stairs as well as most of the walls around us was white and polished. It was obviously the result of great craftsmanship. Which is why I was so dismayed when we came closer to the top and the smell began reaching my nostrils. The stairway ended in a round room that smelled like a latrine, with caked filth covering the floor like a horrible mat. The stone here was far from white, and that's probably why we missed the crouching troll near the back wall – being very much moss green himself, he almost blended with the surrounding dirt.

Of course, as soon as the thing stood only a blind man would have missed it. And Takeshi, who was in the front, charged towards him right away. I played two chords of the Ode… and then I saw a white hand come beside my face, fingers snapping, and heard Oksana mutter a word of magic behind me. Just as quickly as the troll had risen, he fell back again, asleep. Takeshi halted mid-charge and glared over his shoulder to find Oksana smiling giddily at him. 

Before any snide bantering could take place, as I'm sure it would have, we heard loud barking from below. I managed to sneak past Oksana and climbed down the steps to see Nagata contending with a massive, four-legged thing. Its neck was thick as a tree trunk and its maw opened impossibly wide for the size of its head. I want to call it a hound, considering its general shape and how the trolls handle them, but it looked unlike any hound I have ever encountered before or since. Nagata was less inclined than me to appreciate the beast, and buried both wakizashi on its side; by the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, the hound had fallen, but its wounds seemed to be closing fast. It was regenerating in the same way trolls do. Monkey had no time to be concerned with the thing, however, as one lumbering troll was following the dog down the other set of stairs, stretching one clawed, gigantic hand to slam at him. 

There was no time to lose. I reached into my bag to find the handle of my wand already waiting to be picked up. I pointed at the fallen hound, and a ray of fire blasted into it, effectively stopping the regeneration and allowing the beast to die. Nagata was already dancing with the new foe, first slashing at its neck, then its side, and finally the back of its legs – the troll, too, fell in a heap as his bleeding wounds began to close. 

I heard a sickening "tchunk!" behind me that told me Takeshi had stabbed the upstairs troll out of its misery. Already Monkey had stepped over his opponent to head up the other set of stairs and see what else awaited. I stood in the room with my wand at the ready as Takeshi and Oksana joined me. Bear's naginata found the fallen troll's chest, but as it came out the flame was extinguished in a puff of steam. I asked if he could light it up again, but Takeshi replied he had consumed the blessing of fire for the day – our sole source of fire now was my wand, and whatever we could make by mundane means. He then unceremoniously stepped over the troll's corpse to follow Monkey with myself and Oksana in tow. 

We came into a dark room – I knew the rest of my people were blind here, but I could see clearly and moved slowly to inspect what lay ahead. Just as I had taken a step or two inside we heard barking hounds from our right, and froze in place waiting for something else to come at us – but the barking continued for several seconds without any hounds showing up. I could also perceive the rattling of a chain, so I figured the hound must be leashed. 

The room I now stood in was wide and its walls were carved with symbols I didn't immediately recognize. It would be hard to, with the writings in blood and dirt all over them. At its center lay a great stone table, and atop it a headless corpse that had begun to smell. There were exits to the left and right. Oksana was lighting up a torch, but Takeshi gestured at her to keep closer to the door with it, and allow me to peep into the darkness and try to make out what lay ahead. 

Trying to ignore the rotting corpse, I peeked to the right first – and true enough, two great hounds were chained to the wall in the following room, which judging by the cages and chains should be some sort of kennel. I turned to my brothers and tried to convey through mimic that there were two and that they were chained up. Despite the smiles and chuckles I probably succeeded, as the group moved to take care of the hounds. 

Monkey went first for one of the chained hounds, and dodged its gaping maw to stab it on the side. Knowing that we didn't have plenty of sources of fire to stop the hounds' regeneration, Oksana threw her torch at it as she approached. I understood her point but all she managed to do was plunge us into darkness once more. She had to light it up again to allow my brothers to finish the chained beasts, and then set fire to the corpses. 

With the hounds dealt with and the barking silenced, we addressed the left-hand exit on the wide room. It gave way to a tunnel carved into the stone and dirt, and leading deeper into the crag. Further ahead, the tunnel became wider, forming a sort of chamber filled with barrels and crates, and funneling again into a tunnel. 

The place being dark as it was, and with the knowledge that trolls can effectively see in the dark where most of us could not, I halted my brothers and proposed to scout ahead. I can turn myself invisible for a while, and it would allow me to at least count how many there might be left and return. Takeshi was against it for a few moments, but ended up allowing it – I'm small, lithe and even if they heard me, they wouldn't be able to see me. Trolls aren't particularly clever. This could work. 

So I made myself invisible and began slowly sneaking through the tunnel. My eyes quickly adapted to the darkness once away from the torchlight. The first time I regretted this unfortunate course of action was when I spotted a side exit on my right, and peeked inside to see a couple of trolls talking to one another in grunts and cackles. Sure, I was invisible, but when one of them glanced right in my direction, I was afraid he would somehow see me. I stood very still with my hands over my mouth and nose, and waited… until it looked away again and continued chattering with its friend. I skittered past the exit to continue on the tunnel, towards where I would again regret this idea and once and for all accept the fact that despite how well my scouting mission went, a scout I'm not. Because at the tunnel's end was yet another chamber. As I approached, I could hear two more voices conversing with each other, and as such expected two more trolls.

Imagine my astonishment when I peeked inside and saw a single one. Larger than the trolls we had seen so far, this individual had two heads – complete with four ears, four eyes, two noses and two mouths, and more sharp, yellow teeth than any other creature on Shizuru's green earth is entitled to. Apparently he was talking to himself, because the heads seemed to be having a pleasant chat with one another. And this thing, again, once glanced in my general direction (with both heads!) and looked away undisturbed. 

I'd had enough of a solo adventure for my own good by now, so I skittered back to the group double-time, after making sure the chamber occupied by the two-headed troll had no other exits. Upon my return I told my brothers what I had seen, and Takeshi assured me it was best to fight a creature with two heads that think separately from one another and have limited rule of the main body, than a beast with a single head and many limbs that all obey the one mind. (sidenote: I can't fault the logic, Bear, but between a two-headed troll and multi-limbed beast I'd rather be home sipping tea and contemplating twilight!) Takeshi already had a plan: we would use the tunnel as a bottleneck to be able to fight them one at a time. The signal would be my music.

So I called for haste, and began playing even as Oksana summoned her thundercloud. And sure enough the trolls came – well, one troll came, at least. Actually, I'm not sure if I shouldn't say two. If a two-headed troll comes charging through a tunnel built just big enough for it to fit (which by the way is one of the scariest things I've ever seen!!) does it count as one enemy or two!?

But come it did – both heads howling and salivating and claws at the ready. Takeshi was ready for him, and managed to get a hit in before they clashed. It didn't slow the two-headed troll much, as he slammed into Bear and one of its heads took a bite out of his shoulder that dented armor and drew blood underneath! Takeshi managed to hold the huge thing in place, keeping it from barreling into us, and then pushed it back with a naginata through the gut. Monkey jumped into the wall to bounce past Takeshi as much as the cramped surrounding would allow, and both of his wakizashis' blades vanished inside each of the troll's necks. It fell back loudly, and Oksana struck it with the torch to ensure it would stay there.

We had considered perhaps the two other trolls would be right behind this one (these ones?), but they weren't. Trolls definitely aren't clever, but they aren't stupid either, and since they must have heard the charge, clash and demise of their… sideshow elder cousin… they seemed to be biding their time inside the room. 

That's when Takeshi stepped over the two-headed troll's corpse, and began shouting out one of the martial hymns to Shizuru, hoping to draw them out. (sidenote: I wrote "shouting out" but I should have written "murdering". I reckon dear Shizuru above would agree to grant her blessing if only to shut him up! Every cat in a 2-mile radius was probably on its way to us right now! This is the sort of performance one reserves for the end of a show, when we want the audience to vacate the premises!) What he lacks in singing ability he makes up for (poorly) with enthusiasm – I love my brother but I regret to inform that there's only one singer in the family and he isn't it. The trolls seemed bothered enough to actually charge out of the room and straight at him, however, so I believe it achieved the desired effect. 

Takeshi always prefers that enemies come at him, and as usual he managed to strike at one of the trolls before they reached him. But reached him they did, and when that happened, a mess of claws and sharp teeth and powerful limbs fell on Takeshi with such might I feared Bear would fall. He endured it, however, and it was time for me to hug the wall and allow Oksana and Monkey through. Monkey held a shuriken between each finger, and a rain of them fell on the trolls. 

As for me? I was a little less subtle than Bear. Instead of a battle hymn I yelled the most vicious tirade I could think of at the trolls, causing them to catch on fire and effectively stopping their healing abilities (sidenote: considering I would get some pepper paste on my tongue every time my Grandfather heard such things from me as a child, I think I'm becoming quite good at this). My wand still in hand, I also sent a ray of fire at the one that seemed to me the strongest, and Takeshi threw it down with a slam and stabbed it. He immediately turned the blade on the second troll, who was slapping Nagata out of its way, and both were left on the floor. 

This is the part of the story where I got clever, and it cost me dearly. In time, I hope to learn my place in the group. (sidenote: my actual, physical place. Distance is something I'm still learning to cope with, not only on how close I have to be in order to affect my allies as well as my enemies, but also not to be caught in physical battle in the process. Before, I wrote that Takeshi is no singer, and I am certainly no fighter, and as such should not go into the fray by myself) But today certainly wasn't it. See, while my brothers tended to their wounds I thought I'd clamber past the trolls, go into the room they were in and scout ahead. My ability to see in the dark would allow me to spot any incoming enemies and retreat back to the group, I thought. Somewhat emboldened by the success of my previous scouting mission, I continued down the room to find a corridor due South. 

Suddenly something was upon me. Something huge, with great rocks protruding from its arms and legs, and hands that could easily snap my head off. I remember the claw closing in and the pain burning all about my face, and suddenly there was Nagata in front of me, and Takeshi's clanking armor close by. Behind me I heard Oksana shouting that it wouldn't sleep. I tried to crawl away from the melee. 

Suddenly there was fire everywhere. Beneath me, around me, catching on my clothes and hair. I don't very well recall how I managed to get away – I know I ran back and swiftly cast a spell to allow me to move faster out of there! I managed to reach Oksana and look back, to see Nagata dancing with the rock troll, unable to get a strike in just as the troll swung and missed. And that's when I realized something was wrong. For all I know of trolls, it is necessary to inflict wounds by fire or acid for them to stop healing and truly die… but for all the fire burning in that corridor, the rock troll seemed impervious to it. Whatever wounds my brothers inflicted were soon closed, and it seemed like we would be unable to stop it. 

In the midst of the confusion, Oksana tried to hurl a snowball but ended up hitting herself. By now I was furious – at my own dumb idea of scouting unprepared, at these terrible creatures that obviously ate people and destroyed whatever they touched, and at the way this particular one refused to go down for the count. So I yelled – I yelled at it until my voice was hoarse. And surprisingly enough, I saw the rocks that dotted its limbs crack and crumble as if by virtue of the sound itself. The wounds were no longer closing. We had a chance!

So while Takeshi braced against the brute, Oksana summoned a forest of icy spears from the ground, that effectively pinned the creature where it was. Nagata smiled from ear to ear, and buried his wakizashis in its gut. It was finally over.

(sidenote: well, it was over for the rock troll, but not for me. I lowered my head and heard everything my brothers had to say about how we don't split up while we're in unknown territory – ever! – and how this could have gotten me killed. There was nothing I could really say other than how sorry I was, and in order to redeem myself I will, upon my return to Fumidai, sit in the library for a day getting familiar with the different types of troll and their weaknesses.)

Once we were sure the tunnels were clear, we examined the chamber at the end of the corridor where the rock troll had come from. He seemed to be the leader of the lot – I asked Oksana where all the fire had come from, and she told me the rock troll had caused it, which would make him more capable and intelligent than the average moss troll we found here. On the back wall of his chamber was a map of the Greenbelt, with symbols and markings for settlements, bridges and apparently, troops. Nagata deduced these trolls were not here on their own accord – they were hired specifically to come here and disturb the peace. On this note, we cleared the place of what we could carry and took note of other resources we might be able to salvage from this place later on. We finally left that stinking place at dusk, and camped right outside the hole that had once been its entrance. 

———

I thought troll-hunting had been a nightmare in its own accord. I wasn't ready for what happened four days later. 

This issue was resolved for now – we were fairly sure that the trolls had been placed here purposefully, and that they were likely taking orders from someone who obviously wants to disrupt our kingdom. For the four days it took us to reach Fumidai again, I read back on my journal for all the evidence we have that someone or something is out to get us: the merchant caravans persuading our own inhabitants to fight amongst themselves and harm our cohesion, the fat bard that came to Fumidai to spread unrest, and now trolls taking orders to attack in specific areas. We have an enemy, that much is obvious – what his motives are, why he is attacking our kingdom, that we do not know yet. 

I was sitting inside my conjured carriage pondering on this with Bear and Oksana as we made out way back to Fumidai. Monkey would be at the reins, taking us swiflty back home. There was a sudden jolt, and we began moving faster, as fast as the carriage could take us. Takeshi stuck his head out to ask what the matter was… and fell silent. I couldn't see what he was looking at, but I could hear Monkey shouting. Smoke was rising from behind the walls. Fumidai was burning. 

As we approached, I managed to look out the other window and I saw it too – great columns of black smoke coming from inside the walls at several points within the city. We crossed the gates unimpeded – no guards stood at the battlements. Inside, buildings were in shambles, and people were rushing like ants on an anthill, carrying buckets and barrels and whatever container they could fill with water to put out the several fires still raging inside. We went by groups of people, some injured, some in shock, some looking for their loved ones, most of them fighting the flames. 

There was no time to ascertain what had happened: our foremost priority was to help. Oksana ran right for the fires, conjuring ice spikes and waves of cold to help put it out. Takeshi and Nagata went after the injured – one calling for every blessing and favor he could use to heal the wounded, the other scouring ruins for survivors and taking to the roofs to assess the damage. Left on my own I did what I could: I began calming people down, gathering them away from danger, and trying to figure out what had happened. I had a message sent to father Kavken at the Temple of the Elk, to come as soon as he could and bring as many healers as he had on hand. I also sent out a message to Turgut, as he couldn't be found anywhere nearby, hoping he would come in and help. 

Daylight gave way to night, and still we continued. I learned that most of our Council was in hospital – Akiros and Kasten had taken minor injuries, Heff was seriously wounded, and Oleg had been burned badly by the fires. I saw Takeshi briefly at Town Hall somewhere around midnight, as I was giving myself a little break to drink water and sit down. In passing he told me one of our foundries had been completely destroyed, and several families had lost their homes. He was coming in to start arranging for a place for them to stay, and organize our Town Hall staff to ascertain casualties. 

I was exhausted, but the time to rest was still not here. Takeshi asked me to start talking to survivors, and get to the bottom of what happened. So I began going about town on my own and listening to the stories people had to tell.   

Most of the people hardly recalled what had happened. I had to piece together the tale from what I've heard, and once I was too exhausted to continue walking about, I went to the hospital to try to talk with Kasten and Akiros and fill in the blanks. Apparently this destruction was the work of a great creature – most people said it was as tall as a house – stout, bipedal and covered in some kind of hide. Some people told me it had fur and some spoke of feathers. Some told me it arrived out of the blue and began destroying everything. Most people couldn't tell when or through where it had gotten here. 

Akiros told me he was sure it couldn't be a natural creature, and that it didn't attack out of hunger. Fumidai is reasonably-sized, and a hungry creature would likely look for an easier prey, like the herds of sheep and goats we see passing by almost daily on the road. No – it came for Fumidai specifically, and according to him, it seemed to go wherever it would cause the most damage. Kasten added that the reports of both fur and feathers were accurate – he was sure it had both. I tried to piece together a sketch from his description, but by then I could hardly keep my eyes opened. I ended up spending the night in hospital as well, sleeping in an unoccupied bunk. 

My dreams were haunted by giants. I was a very tiny person lost in a world of gigantic things: people were huge, and horses were gargantuan, and ants and flies were as large as a mule. In my dreams I was looking for my brothers, trying not to get stepped on or become something's meal. But the creatures kept becoming larger and larger, until I saw the largest of all – a rock troll, as big as a mountain, covered in fur and feathers as if it had bathed in tar and then rolled around in a tannery. As its foot was coming down above me, I woke up with a start.

I washed my face and bit into a trail ration that tasted like nothing, and stepped outside depressed and upset. There was a ray of hope when I got outside, though: Akiros and Kasten were out of hospital and back to work, and Kavken had arrived at dawn with nearly every priest of the Temple of the Elk behind him. Turgut was already here too, as was obvious by the air elemental roaming about the ruins of buildings, picking up rubble and carrying it outside the city. I went by Oksana, who was napping in the Town Hall waiting room, and met my brothers in the Council chamber to present my results. 

Nagata sat brooding at the table – I could not see his face for the mask, but I could see his eyes and the bags under them that reached almost to his chin. Takeshi, too, looked exhausted, and said he would have to stop for a couple of hours of sleep soon. His magic ring allows him to disregard sleep but he still needs to rest. Town Hall staff had just brought in a document that puts casualties well into the 500 people. I reported about what I had been able to piece together and showed them my unfinished sketch. 

We stared at the document and the sketch in silence for a long while. Takeshi looked grim, and Nagata even more so. He didn't stay long – he rose tiredly from the chair and excused himself. I was going to tell him he's no use to the cause if he collapses on the job, but Takeshi told me to let him go. I know Nagata enough to be well aware of what he's going to do next: he's seen the numbers, he has an approximation of how the thing looks, and now he's going to find the set of footprints that matches it outside Fumidai. 

Turgut joined us some time afterwards, and he too looked at the numbers and the sketch with what seemed to me a pained expression on his face. From everything I've heard, I had a good idea of what this beast might be: an owlbear. And I asked our druid to give me his opinion of the matter. Turgut agrees that it sounds awfully like an owlbear, but the size is off. No owlbear has ever grown so large to his knowledge, and one owlbear alone shouldn't be able to do so much damage. His strategy is off as well – just like I had considered, if the thing was hungry, it would probably have gone for cattle. 

A day of hard work later, Nagata returned, saying he had something to show us. We followed him to the woods around Fumidai, and he pointed out to us tracks large enough for me to sit in comfortably. It wasn't clear how the thing had gotten here, that much he told us. But it was pretty obvious what path it had taken once it was done. Takeshi deemed things were under control in Fumidai enough that we could leave without too much worry, and so it was time to go after this monster. 

We followed the tracks for three days, to the edge of our explored territory, and then beyond. Most of the time we were quiet. Weariness had become a part of my bones in the past few days, so much so I no longer complained about it, and simply endured it like an old soldier endures an old war wound. It felt like I would never be rested again, but still I pressed on by my brothers' side. 

The creature's lair was something out of an adventure novel. We found it two days after we left the explored areas of Fumidai and ventured after the creature into unknown territory. It was a hole – not a cavern, not a cave, nor a hovel, but a veritable hole in the earth, on the side of a hill, yawning darkness framed by trampled earth, bits of fur and feathers, and the occasional chewed-up bone. Inside, as far as my darkness-defying eyes could tell, there were mounds of dung, dried-up gore and more bones. 

None of us were looking forward to it, but we weren't about to leave this thing roaming the Greenbelt. So we ventured within. Under the light of Oksana's torch I could now see a large natural chamber covered with filth and blood nearly to the ceiling, with a steep ramp ahead leading to a wider, taller chamber. Nagata took point right in front of her, ready to bring down his blades on anything that stirred in the darkness. And ahead, something did stir. We could hear it – the clumsy movement of a large creature.

I had heard the reports, the retellings, the descriptions – I even tried to sketch the beast in accordance to what I had been told about it. But I wasn't expecting what I saw. I've seen an owlbear before, when we raided the Stag Lord's fortress a small eternity ago. But this… this was an altogether different creature. Larger even than the large thing that I'd seen before, with a sort of harness or barding made from stone. Once it stood upright it towered above us all, nearly too large for the cave, and roared its defiance at us, who would intrude into its lair. 

Once the roar died down, only my music remained. 

(sidenote: I can't get over how large the creature was. I am positive no such being can grow that size: there had to be magic at play here. I have come to terms with the fact that I now live in the land of the giant things, but this is ridiculous. The only thing larger than this I've witnessed so far was a dragon – and I'm not entirely sure if the dragon wouldn't be the same size!

(side-sidenote: I'm fairly sure, as I was in the back of the marching order, that my brothers and Oksana didn't hear my frightened squeal, neither did they saw me cower like a pup at the sight of the beast. Empress of Heaven, I can hardly imagine how the people of Fumidai felt, seeing this thing march through our streets! The months of expeditions and battles have at least paid off: my natural reaction to a threat is to play…

As the beast lumbered towards us one of its claws took a mighty swing for Takeshi, grabbing him in very much the same way a small child grabs a doll. Before I could call for aid Nagata was already rushing for it – at the last possible moment, he tried to slide under the monster's legs to get to its back. But an owlbear has two claws, and managed to take a grip of Nagata. Which is not to say either of my brothers went gently into the embrace: even gripped by the waist, Nagata slashed at the beast's arm, and Takeshi dropped the naginata to draw his father's katana and stab twice. Oksana snapped her fingers at it, but the monster wouldn't sleep. I believe I heard her say something about a curse, but with both my brothers gripped tightly, I confess I was more concerned with making the thing let go of them than understanding whatever was wrong with it. 

Even as Takeshi took another stab I tried yelling at the creature, but it ignored me in pretty much the same way it had ignored Oksana. Then it squeezed my brothers tightly, drawing the breath from their chests. And I was now faced with a problem: there was precious little I could do to help. I was sure the beast would not understand any language I could emulate, and therefore what influence or effect I could attempt to place over it was futile. I looked eagerly at Oksana, hoping she had another plan…

… in time to see her pitching a snowball that struck the owlbear right on the snout! Already worn out from fighting his two quarries, the owlbear dropped Takeshi, who landed perfectly on his feet. Blood loss getting to the beast, it began toppling down. Nagata shouted "Make way!" but Bear was too close to run. The owlbear fell right on him with a slam, and once Nagata managed to wiggle away from its grasp, he had to lift up the beast so we could retrieve Takeshi from beneath it. 

I took no wounds from the fight, and neither did Oksana. But the creature had done a number on my brothers, who sat side by side even as Takeshi prayed in thanks for the victory, and called upon what blessings it could to close their wounds. Oksana examined the owlbear's barding closer, and explained that it was some sort of curse or corruption bound to the piece that had turned an otherwise normal owlbear into that. As I looked about the cavern, I also discovered something that had become a disturbing staple in the problems we've been facing: a map of the Greenbelt, with a path clearly detailed from this particular cave to the city of Fumidai. As with the trolls, it seemed obvious someone with ill intent had sent this creature there to cause chaos. 

Further down the cave, a new and even more depressing sight awaited. A dead owlbear, this one a regular type, much like the one kept by the Stag Lord. Three dead cubs were bundled not overly far from it. Corpses and carcasses dotted the end of this cave, in various decomposing states, as if the living mate had continued to bring food in, even after they were killed…

Even as theories flew between us (Takeshi believes the dead owlbear is the female, but none of us really know enough to determine the gender of one of these things; Nagata is more interested in what killed them, and placed the cursed barding upon the surviving family member) one of the bundles hooted softly. I jumped nearly out of my skin! Takeshi examined the corpses more closely, eventually pulling one of the cubs farther from them. Despite being covered in gore and filth, the little owlbear lived, and when Takeshi laid his hands on it, perked up and began growling for food like a little bird might. 

I wasn't entirely sure if the sight was beautiful (baby creature begging for food) or terrifying (the "baby creature" is larger than a medium dog and has claws and a hook-like beak that would bite one of my fingers clear off, if not the whole hand!) but I wasn't about to abandon an orphaned creature to its fate with both parents dead. Takeshi said he wants to take it back to Fumidai… which is, honestly, one of the worst ideas he's ever had. After the city was ransacked by an owlbear I doubt the good people of Fumidai will warm up to the tyke! Bear seems to believe it's alright, and that he can place it in some kind of menagerie within the city. He was adamant in bringing it along.

In the meantime, Nagata had occupied himself with the corpses. Bandits, he said with certainty, and likely the ones that killed the normal owlbear and the other two cubs. But our question remained: who had come here to bind this creature, corrupt it, and sic it on us?

We decided to explore the rest of the cave before we left. Perhaps something remained here that would give us a clue. 

And on hindsight, we should have just left. For even as we took a corridor on to another cave, I was left to ponder wether it is best to have a few giant creatures, or millions of tiny ones. 

First, it was the giant spiders. It's baffling, really. I am in no position in my mortal existence to question creation and ask what is the purpose of giant spiders in the great design. Certainly the Empress allows them to be because She surely has none in Her immediate vicinity. Not that by now they are especially complicated foes: we've dealt with them before, and experience and training pay off – Takeshi fell two as they approached and a third on his own. But why? Why do things like this exist? I don't overly mind the tiny ones, as long as they stay in their webs munching on flies and don't come tapdancing through my hair! Why do they grow so large?!

After we went through every spider that decided we looked delicious, part of a wall collapsed and thousands of centipedes poured out… on top of me. I don't rightly recall that particular moment. I only noticed the shambling mound that came with them off the wall when I saw its remains. For most of the time I was running in circles, tumbling away form the sea of centipedes, pulling them off my hair, wiggling them off my clothes, slapping them away with the shamisen! By the time I was rid of them (and exhausted), my brothers had dealt with the shambling mound. 

How do Bear and Monkey do it? Once I managed to emerge from the sea of centipedes, my arms and legs were a mess of blood and bites. Takeshi could ask for no more blessings today, and so I had to, for the first time ever, drink a healing potion. They taste herbal and awful. Takeshi was of the opinion we should leave now, before someone was seriously injured. Nagata, on the other hand, wanted to continue: by all accounts we had one cave left to see, and he didn't want to come back all the way at a later date. Besides, he reminded us, we had agreed to see the caverns in search for clues on who might want to harm Fumidai. Takeshi argued that he was out of blessings to call in, and all of us had injuries that would require attention.

And as they argued with one another, the violet fungi came down from the ceiling. 

Violet fungi, as I've researched since, are living mushrooms about the size of a man who often dwell underground. They are notorious among other kinds of carnivorous plant for how vicious an injury they can bestow. One struck by its tentacles (as Takeshi was) may suffer a gash so deep and so terrible it will eat away at flesh and expose bone with remarkable swiftness. 

This said, if I never see one of those again, it will be too soon. Takeshi's injury bit into the flesh and required immediate care. No more clues awaited inside the cave, so we called our day in, camped close to the entrance, and the following morning (with an owlbear cub in tow), I conjured a carriage to bring us home as soon as possible. 

Before we left, however, Nagata returned to the inside of the cave, and came back bathed in blood up to his elbows. He had gone back for the cursed owlbear's head, that we might present it to Fumidai as proof that they need not lose sleep regarding the monster anymore. 

It took us two days to return to Fumidai, and the Sun was well into going down when we arrived. All I could readily think of was soaking my sorry, centipede-chewed self into a hot bath for three hours, washing my hair, doing my nails, drinking a cup of tea and sliding into a soft bed. But that is why Fumidai has a King and not a Queen. Takeshi marched briskly from the carriage to Town Hall with an owlbear cub wrapped in a bag under his arm, sent a curious clerk to summon a city meeting tomorrow morning followed by an extraordinary Council session, and went on to deposit the hooting thing inside a jail cell, with orders that it should be fed and not disturbed. He told Nagata in passing to go find a pike big enough to stab through the cursed owlbear's head, and called for several servants to bring him scrolls and ink that he may start drafting the new First Fumidai Forge during a light meal. 

I didn't even try to keep up. Instead, I went to Svetlana to beg for hot water. 

*

BARD EXERCISE – Of the Land of Giant Things

I seem to recall not so long ago, 
when days were sweet and life was slow,
seeing the industrious ant at work
and the tiny spider from its web lurk,
and wondering how creatures that are small
could live in a land of giant things at all.
For to the ladybird we stand gigantic,
we send the grasshopper into a panic,
ever jumping away from our feet.
Even the scorpion goes into retreat
before a might that is naught but size.
And in my youth did elders theorize
on how it would be so much worse
if ever the parts were in reverse.
 
Then I came to the land of things so large
a frog can stand as big as a barge,
a milipede is the size of a ship,
and worms no longer silently creep!
And spiders – dreaded, as big as oxen,
dismiss the web and favor the toxin.
I am the one who now scurries and hides,
fearing that before the turn of the tides
I'll be crushed to a pulp or turned into lunch
by sentient mushrooms that from atop lurch!
For I live in the land of the giant things,
of insectoid maws, legs and wings…
Whatever bug it happens to be,
all of them want to make a meal out of me!!

View
A Council Complete
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4713, Autumn

Returning to Fumidai, we almost literally bumped into Turgut out in the street. He told us he received a message from the Lady of the Woods, saying we required his presence here. Takeshi walked us to Town Hall while presenting his proposition: to make Turgut Marshal to these lands, which will allow him to spend as much time as he wants in the wilderness, and only come in to Council once a month. We could use his wisdom and experience in the wilderness, Takeshi told him, and of course, regardless of his decision, he would always be a welcome and cherished citizen of this realm.

It's not as hard to read Turgut as it is to read, say, the kobolds. He seemed bemused, but for the time being said he would keep a conservative position and give us his final answer within some days. 

As we bid him farewell, along came Oleg, and trotting behind him the most interesting-looking woman I've seen in some time. Her skin was a greyish purple, and she wore a heavy breastplate and carried what Grandfather would call "a peacemaker" (sidenote: more like a piece-maker) – a heavy flail about as large as Takeshi. She walked like a man, and very much stood like a man, and when she opened the mouth, with the voice of a woman, she spoke like a man. Oleg went on to introduce her as Heff Jinn, a friend from his adventuring years, a person of trust that would enrich our Council as Royal Enforcer. These days, Heff Jinn is a bounty hunter, and Oleg believes she would do well in this task. Takeshi told her that a friend to Oleg was a friend to us, and if she wanted it, the job was hers.  

Heff Jinn sized us up (and I mean actually: she looked us all head to toe like she meant to order the Amenos some longcoats) and said she'd give us an answer in three days' time – she wants to get a look around first. With that said and without even bidding us goodbye, she left. I don't want to say she was unpolite but… frontal, maybe?

As we waited to go into the council room, I asked Oksana what she made of Heff Jinn. Oksana told me she was a suli – an uncommon species that comes from the cross between a human and a genie, or "jinn" as they're truly called.

(sidenote: wait… HEFF Jinn? Right there when I was in front of her, and without knowing what she was, it didn't dawn on me, but looking back now… alright. It has to be some sort of nickname or war title or something of the sort. Either that, or Heff's parents had one terrific sense of humor. Heff Jinn… honestly?!)

We sat in Council once more to hear about the latest news. Svetlana got word that the innkeeper's daughter was interested, and would pay well for, elven artifacts, particularly statuary – when we clear out the elven outpost, we'll take it into account. There was a lot of statuary in that central tower chamber. A little more worrisome than that was the presence of Valen for today's Council: he came in announced by Oleg with a missive from Restov. Apparently, rumors of troll activity are already reaching them and the Lord Mayor is concerned. We promised Valen we would address the issue as soon as possible. In truth, we have been exploring about in hopes of finding evidence of trolls. Yet the only two we stumbled upon seemed to be alone…

I was upset that the issue had reached Restov, and I wanted to deal with it as soon as we could. 

The last bit of news was a doozy, as locals say: Kasten Garress took the floor first to let us know we had seven prisoners at the garrison waiting for trial. This came on as a surprise, but he quickly explained himself: they were the leaders of a mob that was ready to march on Scottsdale with the proverbial torches and pitchforks to evict or kill the kobolds of Oaktop Mine! Understandably, we were confused: what possessed these people to do this, especially if the kobolds have been our allies for well over a year? 

Fortunately, they never reached the silver mine. Turgut caught wind of the protest, and warned Garress about it. Lord Garress gathered a few good men from the militia, took an alternate route to intercept the mob, and brought them back to Fumidai in chains. 

Takeshi agreed to sit and judge the men this afternoon, but before that, some preparations were required. He sent Nagata out to learn some more of what might have brought this about, and asked for a room to be prepared in the garrison, where we can hear these men say their peace. To ensure that they truly say their peace, he had Father Kavken sit in and prepare a zone of truth for the trial. 

When Nagata returned, he brought back a disturbing rumor. Apparently, some villages and farms in the periphery are receiving visits from caravans of traveling peddlers meaning to trade. This, in and of itself, is not odd. What is odd, is the trail of unrest they leave behind them as they depart. It seems that everywhere they've gone there have been problems – and nobody really recalls what the merchants looked like, or what they spoke about. Nagata says that out of perhaps ten caravans in the territory, he's pretty sure two or three of them are in on this. 

With this in mind, we sat for the first official trial held in Fumidai. (sidenote: at least, most of us sat; Nagata went somewhere in the chandelier…) I was somewhat surprised, when I took my place and before Lord Garress marched the accused, to see Heff Jinn sitting in to attend. She stood at the back of the room, arms crossed and heavy flail sitting by her side. I'd later learn that she heard about the trial while sitting at the Flowing Silver, and decided to come see us at work. Takeshi thought it fitting – after all, if she accepts the position we offered her, she'll be the one tracking down and hunting the cause of all this mess.

Lord Garress brought in the accused – seven men from ranches and farms around Fumidai. Takeshi received them with a bare katana laid across his knees. (sidenote: once again dear brother Bear, not subtle in the least… but you got the desired effect) The men were understandably nervous, so much so that one of them, convinced he was living the last hours of his life, went and soiled himself. It made the rest of the meeting a little awkward. And err… scented. 

Bear opened up the session by asking the men to explain their actions, and answer my previous question: what possessed them to take action against the kobolds? One of them, who seemed to be the leader of the lot, began talking about the kobolds in very much the same way I wrote about the lizardfolk some time ago: they were lizard people who could not be trusted, ate people and caused disturbance. We had to explain to him that the kobolds are some of our oldest allies, and that every silver piece coined in this city comes from their hard work and dedication. Surely the presence of kobolds at Oaktop never bothered them before – why should it bother them now? When did this mistrust of them began?

The story he told was an echo of the rumors Nagata brought us just this morning. A traveling merchant caravan had gone by his ranch while headed eastward, and they were the ones who pointed out the fact that the "vicious lizard-people" at Oaktop were a disaster waiting to happen. He could not recall the face or name of the merchant he spoke to, though he could remember the caravan, what business he had had with them and when they had arrived and departed. He realized he'd had a conversation with one of the peddlers about the kobolds, and he seemed to know what he was talking about. But for the life of him he could not bring back details concerning the man himself. 

I was taking notes now, and when I glanced over at Oksana, I realized she, too, was taking in the statement and wondering what magic these peddlers could have worked on the ranchers to put them up to violent action and cause them to forget how they were led into it. I whispered as much to Takeshi: this is no coincidence. I knew that Grigori the Pudgy was just the beginning of something bigger, and this was it. Someone was purposefully arranging to spread chaos in the Greenbelt, and after Grigori tried and failed, they were expanding the operation to traveling merchant caravans.

Takeshi agreed, and again faced the accused. His verdict was harsh, but fair: each of the men is to spend a month working at Oaktop Mine, and living among the kobolds to learn of their ways and be educated regarding their neighbors. Each will serve his sentence separately, one at a time, while the rest keeps on working at their ranches and farms to help support the family of the missing man while he's away. In that manner, Takeshi hopes to help them see the kobolds in a new light, while diminishing the impact on their families. I was happy with the verdict: it puts people to work instead of locking them away, allows for rehabilitation instead of cruel punishment. It will bring about understanding, and not hatred. Of course, this is a decision Takeshi was able to take because the mob didn't get to violence: if they had marched through Oaktop, caused disturbance and made victims, everything would have gone very differently…

Heff Jinn vacated the room shortly after the verdict was passed, and she was smiling. I think she was pleased with the verdict too.  

Once the door was closed, Nagata rejoined us again: he plans to look deeper into this issue, but so far, from what he could ascertain, these people were being very professional about the way they spread their influence. Something is happening: we just don't know what or with what end, yet…

For the time being, Takeshi wants to counter the spreading unrest with education. Establishing a mandatory schooling period for every citizen of Fumidai was already on my wishlist, and now so is ensuring that people hear the truth and nothing but the truth about what happens in their realm. (sidenote: well, at least as much as possible. This is a very tall order: I can establish some guidelines for what town criers say and forbid them to spread around any news they're not sure about, but this is a vast territory and I don't expect to be able to control the news and rumors. Once we're sure most people can read, we can have official documents sent to the four corners of the realm, but for the time being, our priority is to counter the actions of these peddlers until we figure out what's behind them). He also plans to have a monument built to diversity. Just like the kobolds were targeted this time, other groups may come to be the brunt of violence. Bear wants to send a clear message that be he kobold, feyfolk, elf or dwarf or gnome, Tian, Varisian or Ulfen, as long as he comes in peace and ready to work hard, he will be welcome in Fumidai. 

It's a wonderful idea. But why is it that something keeps gnawing in the back of my mind that despite all of these good ideas and positive thoughts, it won't be enough? 

*

Today was a great day, despite all that's been happening. My personal office at the Lyceum was completed – the varnish finally dried on the floor and all the furnishings are in. I even managed to turn a large broom closet into my own tiny, personal bedroom for the time being. So I can sleep here whenever I feel like from now on. I mean, the inn is all well and good, but it always feels exactly like that: an inn room. This is a bit closer to my own place.

Despite all that's been built in Fumidai, we are still lacking a proper home here. Takeshi has plans to refit Fort Ameno as Castle Fumidai, and we'll likely live there once it's completed. For the time being, however, I have my own cozy little corner. 

From inspecting the works on the Lyceum and making sure everyone is nice and settled there (not a lot of bards yet, but many people seem interested, which is very good) I went to Town Hall to meet with the rest of the crew. I arrived to find the hallway full of crates bearing the Minkai Imperial Signet! Takeshi's order for goods from home has arrived! 

Oh happy happy day! There were bags of rice, vials of soy sauce, mason jars filled to the top with green and black tea leaves, silks, clothing and sandals, proper crafting paper, cherry tree seeds and a set of shamisen strings, and even a folding screen for Takeshi's bedroom! I felt just like a little girl running through the hallway from crate to crate, waiting for the workers to open them to see what treasures sat inside! I almost wanted to cry… it's like home came to Fumidai to meet us. 

While I was at it, Oksana looked over all these things that were completely foreign to her, wrinkled her nose at some, looked others over curiously, and asked me about all of them. I must have looked like a fool. And for a while, maybe, a little sad. Seeing all of these things reminded me of Grandfather. I wonder where he is. If he's alright. If he's someplace warm where his bones won't bother him.

If he even lives yet…

I retired to the latrine to have a moment for myself. No use in letting my brothers see me cry about something we can't do anything to change. At least not yet. I have to do my part and put in my effort as well, so I've got to keep myself together. 

Once I was sure I was composed again, I returned to Town Hall, this time to see Nagata buzzing around the crates, grabbing armfuls of food and rushing towards the kitchen. There I found Svetlana and the poor cook from the Flowing Silver Inn, looking at everything he was laying out before them with puzzlement. It would appear Takeshi wants to have a Minkaian meal cooked for Council, as traditional and authentic as we can make it. This, in and of itself, is a problem. We have all the ingredients here, but nobody who knows how to cook it. To our good fortune and welfare of the project, Svetlana is no stranger to Nagata buzzing around her in the kitchen, and as he tried to explain how things are prepared, what they're supposed to taste like and how the final product looks, she had a pretty good idea of what she had to do to accomplish it. Bless her food-preparing skills and the patience in her heart.

More good news awaited me as I went into the Council room to see what Takeshi was up to. It's been three days since the trial and the first of the men must be arriving in Oaktop today. Heff stopped by and said she accepted the position of Royal Enforcer – she's invited for dinner tonight. Turgut also gave us a yes, and will be ordained Marshal come morning – also invited for dinner, no doubt. 

So dinner was had today by the complete Council, in celebration of coming together to overcome obstacles. Much like I figured, Oksana took some bites of properly prepared fish and loved it. Nagata found himself a contestant in Heff, who shares his fondness for abundant food. It was very much a race between them, and they both ate enough for three. (sidenote: although I can perfectly see where Heff stores what she eats; with Monkey, the mystery remains). I don't think Oleg was overly impressed, he's more of a meat-and-potatos kind of person, but all in all, I think everyone enjoyed the experience. 

I went to bed tonight at my little corner in the Lyceum, with a belly full of delicious food, and a heart that dares hope. Tomorrow, once again, we leave on expedition with one main goal in mind: to find, and get rid of, those cursed trolls.

*

Despite how much has been said about trolls lately, and the fact that we've encountered two of them not so long ago, there isn't much I know about them. While we cross known territory towards the south, Oksana and I pooled our knowledge to see if we could determine where they're likely to be.

We know trolls fall into the category of humanoids despite their feral appearance, and they're usually large and lumbering. A creature their size is bound to leave clues of its passage, and we're counting on Monkey to keep an eye open to them. They bite, and have great claws that can deliver a vicious attack (this much we learned from fighting them before). It is a widely known fact that a troll's capacity for healing is amazing: I've even heard stories of adventurers beheading a troll, only to end up with two within a day or so: one that regenerated his head back, and one that grew a body from the chopped head. Wounds delivered by fire or acid cancel out a troll's regeneration for a while – hopefully, long enough to ensure it dies. They're heavy but sturdy, and usually not the smartest creatures. While trolls can be found very much everywhere, and depending on their type they may have different qualities, we're pretty sure we're dealing with swamp trolls, and we're likely to find them somewhere in the Gnarled Marshes. 

Going south, we found a ford on the third day of expedition that allowed us to cross the Girded River, one that departs from the Tuskwater Lake and makes southeast. No troll tracks to be found – if they were this close to the Tuskwater, I believe we would have bumped into them already.

We continued, uphill and downhill once more, for three other days. Further ahead the ground began rising, and looking ahead, it's likely to rise some more. The Girded River doesn't follow, however: it kept at the same height even as a ravine formed around it, to become a veritable canyon further ahead. At one point we realized we wouldn't be able to cross over to the other side anywhere near: it's too high up, and the fall is… scary. We were ready to backtrack to the ford, but we're of course a little sore about that: it'll take us at least a pair of days of quick march to return, and we have to mind the date for the next Council. Time is of the essence.

Oksana had an idea then: perhaps she could ferry us across, one at a time, thanks to her flying spell. Takeshi was not so keen on the idea, however: he's the heavier of the lot, and becomes even heavier when you account for the armor, and he doubts even Oksana's magic would allow her to carry him safely from one side of the canyon to the other. Instead, he proposed Oksana take one end of a rope, tie it firmly somewhere on the other side, and we'll try to tightrope walk across. 

Right away I didn't like the idea: what if we fell? I've acquired a ring that allows me to slow down my fall, but that doesn't mean I'm ready to jump off a canyon! For safety's sake, we determined one person will cross at a time, with a lifeline tied around their waist in case something happens. 

So Oksana flew across first, carrying the rope, and tied it to a rock. On the other side, Takeshi also found a safe place to tie his end. Nagata crossed first, doing sommersaults and cartwheels across the rope (sidenote: that cheeky Monkey…) for bragging rights, no doubt. Takeshi went afterwards, very carefully, and with Nagata and Oksana both holding his lifeline, just in case. He also made it across safely. Then… then it was my turn. I tied the rope around my waist, secured the shamisen at my back and the bag around my shoulders, threw my lifeline across and said a prayer to Shizuru, asking her to protect fools and their lousy ideas… and then I took three steps on the rope…

And right afterwards I was testing the full acoustic capacities of the canyon with what we'll just call the "I Fell Off the Rope" song. It's a nice, loud song with lots of interesting words in it. I didn't even call out Bear and Monkey for snickering until they pulled me to solid ground. Never again, brothers dear! I'm glad there was nobody for miles to witness me swinging about the canyon yelling obscenities. We'll leave that one out of the history books. 

Still, other than a hungry pack of wolves we swiftly dealt with, we saw nothing of note for the following four days after that. No troll tracks, or any other tracks that Nagata could tell. The ground became rougher by the yard, with mounds not so much smoothing off from the solid rock but jutting out like great boulders. 

As we were walking along, Takeshi suddenly told us to hush – he could hear something. And once we went quiet, we could hear it too. It sounded like a woman calling for help!

Takeshi didn't skip a beat; he charged towards the direction of the sounds, went around a crag, and halted of a sudden when a large creature jumped off it and landed right on him, taking a fierce bite off his shoulder and dropping to attack again. The body said "large cat", while the head spoke of "carnivorous mammal" and the paws were more like a deer's – I recognized it as one of the chimera family, a leocrota. These creatures usually lurk about the wilderness and can imitate almost any sound they've heard before in order to lure in prey. Including, of course, a call for help.

Without me saying anything Takeshi realized he had been played. So he called for the blessings of Shizuru, took a step back to gain room and struck back at the thing. I was expecting a tough fight, but Oksana made it much easier: she chanted her sleep spell (sidenote: pardon – hex), rendering the enemy to slumber, and Nagata easily finished it. 

Once it was gone, Nagata took the time to find its tracks, and follow them back to the beast's lair – a cave at the bottom of a valley. We found the remains of the latest victims, and a rare treefeather token as well! Also a prize was a suit of armor made with blue scales, along with a matching shield. Oksana isn't sure they are true dragon's scales, but perhaps a close relative. At any rate, they will probably sell for a good price.

Of course, we weren't expecting to have a relative of the armor's come by to bother us… but it did.

Two nights later, we camped in the midst of rocky ground. The ground rose ever upwards, almost as if it would continue on into a mountain. I don't know how long it had been since we'd gone to sleep, but it couldn't have been much. Thanks to his ring of sustenance, Takeshi covers three turns of the watch these days: his own, mine and Oksana's. Monkey usually keeps first watch while he sleeps. And it was Nagata's shout that rose us, therefore, we were probably sleeping for an hour when it happened.

Nagata's shout roused us, and I opened my eyes to see Monkey dancing around a long, lean blue creature, with a tail like a scorpion's that stung my brother right on the side! I shook my head and tried to clear my vision, already reaching for the shamisen. Takeshi was quicker than me, so when I opened my eyes again, he was already contending with the blue blur. When it flew towards the light of the fire I finally saw it clearly: two legs, two wings and a long tail with a stinger at the end, dragon-like but not quite a dragon, of course. Had it been a dragon, my brothers wouldn't have been fighting. Instead, I'd be waking up under Bear's arm as we bolted away from the thing…

Oksana sent in a snowball as I began playing the first thing that came to mind – the Ode to the Wayward Samurai – but the shot missed. Monkey dodged the sting and the bite, but a wing caught him even as he tried to get behind it. As agile as the creature was, it wasn't a match for the combined might of Monkey and Bear. Once Nagata managed to get to its back, it was all a matter of time, and eventually, the creature fell off the air. 

Once it was dead and we managed to get a good look at it, Oksana identified it as a wyvern – a close relative to dragons, but smaller, leaner and with less limbs. Takeshi skinned it during his long watch, he's planning to use the hide. 

*

From there we kept on climbing, ever-upward. It took us two more days to reach the top. It wasn't so much a mountain as a very high elevation, but it sure felt like a mountain to me, and mountain goat I ain't. In many places I had to ask for Takeshi's help climbing, or for Nagata to find a path for me to safely keep going. Oksana flies whenever she finds some ground she can't easily transverse (sidenote: also her legs are longer, so she doesn't have half the trouble I have. Therefore I must declare she is cheating on this particular climb!)

From the top, however, we could see far and wide. To the south, we spotted what appeared to be large craters on the ground, as if the hills had been pockmarked by falling stars. Takeshi opened up the map and began drawing paralels: somewhere down there should be the place where Old Beldane asked us to look for black rattlecap mushrooms. So perhaps we won't be finding any trolls about here anytime soon, but there's something else we can take care of. 

Naturally, after climbing so high up… we'd have to climb back down. I summoned all of my patience and followed Takeshi through the path of least resistance, with Oksana floating down whenever the ground became uneven (sidenote: cheating! Viciously, shamelessly cheating!) and Monkey, of course, leaping past the roughest patches. My lack of agility and Takeshi's armor keep us from such insane stunts. We took the straightest, least accident-inviting path we could make out. (sidenote: I also remain behind him; in case I fell, Bear could probably stand firmly and break my fall. If he was to fall while I walked in front of him, we'd likely stop somewhere at the base of the hill.)

In two more days of careful climbing we began approaching the craters we'd seen from afar, to discover they were not so much craters but natural pools of hot mud. Oksana said they're likely heated up by thermal stone or volcanic activity, though if that is so, I have no idea where the actual volcano could be. Right now, I didn't care either, because if nobody had told me that was mud, I'd be thinking it might be… something of similar color, smell and consistency. The whole place smelled like the Abbadon's own rear end, as locals say!  

Regardless of what it was or how it smelled (sidenote: but dear Shizuru, did it smell!) we could see vast bunches of mushrooms of several types, colors and sizes growing around these pools. Some, in fact, so large they were as big as me, and bigger! 

We began approaching tentatively to look for the rattlecaps, but the smell was so intense I looked at Oksana to see her turn green – and I was likely turning the very same color. I felt like my breakfast was about to return to greet me. Takeshi must have noticed, because he told us to stay back while he stoically braved the stench and approached. Even at a distance I couldn't take it anymore: my breakfast did come back out… and as I lifted my head from retching, I saw the largest of the mushrooms stir to life, and reach out for my brother!

Takeshi must have seen it move from the corner of his eye because he took a stance with the naginata and charged in, only to be slammed and gripped by the creature's tentacles, and lifted up in the air like a child lifts up a doll. Nagata ran right after him to help, but despite his efforts, the creature swallowed Takeshi up in one mighty gulp!

I tried to yell. More of my breakfast came out instead. And Oksana's followed. Nagata danced around the creature, trying to slash at it and make it throw up Takeshi, but it was too sturdy. I couldn't even muster the strength to play a single chord! I could hear Takeshi from the creature's gut, yelling and trying to pierce his way out, but the thing was simply too tough. It all seemed lost; but Nagata, bless him, pressed on until he managed to throw the creature down, open it up, and pull Takeshi back out. Bear seemed rattled, but alive, and now covered in mushroom juice. 

I was never so joyous for a sight that made me throw up even more.

Takeshi seemed alright, and the naginata had stayed out of the belly of the beast – but his father's katana was still in there. As we heard this, we knew we had to retrieve it before the acids in the mushroom did damage to it. With my breakfast gone I felt a little better, and tried to conjure my mage hand to retrieve it without having to approach. I would've succeeded nicely, but Monkey probably didn't realize what I was doing, because just as I pulled the katana out of the creature he dove into the mess to look for it! So now we had two of us retching at the sight of the other two.

Lovely…

Once we were sure Takeshi was alright and the katana was recovered, Oksana and I backed away from the pools to get some air, while the boys gathered as many rattlecap mushrooms as they could find, swiftly so that we could vacate the place once and for all. If I never have to return to this area I'll be all the happier for it! Along with the rattlecaps, the boys collected a few kinds of mushroom which, according to Oksana, are rare and of good use in potion-making and medicine. The place might be worth telling our Fumidai herbalist about.

I don't know how she managed to muster the willpower to look at mushrooms. I spent most of that night dreading the sight of anything even remotely related to food. 

Takeshi spent most of the night at work, I understand. When the great fungus swallowed him, he drew his father's katana to try and cut his way out, and the acid of the creature's gut got to it. I lent my mending spells before I went to bed, and he spent most of the night taking care of it and praying for forgiveness. 

I'm sure he's forgiven. All that matters is that our Bear is alright. Thank you so much, Shizuru, my brother is alright. 

*

Fumidai was built at the edge of the Tuskwater, but the truth is, we never really stopped to see how far the lake goes. Sure, we can look it over from the margin, and from the top floor of the Lyceum, for instance, we can see the lake spreading well into the horizon. But only now that we're getting up close do we realize, the stretch is not made up of a single lake. 

The Tuskwater is the northmost one, and we know that fairly well from following the margins while looking for Thig Tannersen. The southmost one is called Candlemere according to what we've heard, and the two are connected by a tiny strait. At first, when we came by the edge of a great lake today, we thought we were looking at the Tuskwater. Only a careful consultation of maps, along with rumors we've heard in Fumidai, allowed us to realize this is the other one. 

Like the Tuskwater, the Candlemere stretches far. From the margin, however, we spotted some kind of construction at its center, like a tower rising up from the waters. Nagata seemed very intrigued: he wanted to head there and investigate, but we ended up deciding against it. It's still a way off and we have no manner of crossing the water. Besides, we'll have to be back at Fumidai for the Council meeting and we've been out for seventeen days at this point. Better to arrive early, than risk being late. 

So we followed the margins back to Fumidai, taking note of the strait between the two lakes and marking it on the map. At Nagata's request I also added a question mark in the middle of the Candlemere – he insists we investigate the tower as soon as possible. He's curious about it, and intends to inquire around once we're back. 

Following the margin has one more perk: once we were back at the edge of the Tuskwater  we only had to follow along to find Old Beldane's cabin. We rang the rusty bell, and the familiar rude voice asked what we wanted, but once she knew it was us, her tone mellowed out. A bit. Well, as much as I believe her tone can possibly mellow out. (sidenote: Beldane is a grumpy old lady and I can understand all the reasons that led her to be this way. Still, it's nice she's just a little less grumpy when dealing with us) She was glad for the rattlecaps and decided to take Takeshi up on his offer. She promised she'd go to Fumidai regularly to see to the crafting of magical items, but we shouldn't expect her to be there all the time or be nice about it. 

Overall it was a productive week at home. I got myself a new wand and Oksana made us special cloaks to keep us safe – Winter will be upon us soon and we'll need the extra layer of clothing. Not only that, but they will make us tougher, swifter and more determined, thanks to the magic Oksana wove into them. Takeshi spent a week at the forge, likely working on his new armor, and Nagata is interested in training some new apprentices and establishing more "birdies" to feed him information. 

We also sent forth a message to master Loy Rezbin and his wife, granting them permission to start the village of Tatzlford as they had requested. Takeshi believes it will be a good thing to establish a settlement so deep within the Gnarled Marshes. He'll have the road stretch to meet it at soon as possible. 

——— 

UZUME'S CULTURAL EXCHANGE – Proverbs

Proverbs are part and parcel of a given culture, a way to easily remember a tidbit of useful wisdom. What one culture considers useful and compacts into a proverb to pass on to the next generation may not be of special importance to another. Like popular poetry (I believe I wrote something about limericks before, for instance), proverbs are genuine insight on how a place's people thinks. 

Sometimes, they're not so easy to understand. When I was a young girl, my Grandfather seemed to be a venerable, beloved repository of such tidbits of wisdom. Some are easy to understand, like "Father's debt, son's to return" – meaning that a new generation can make right the mistakes of their ancestors. But then there were things like "Three monks have no water to drink", meaning a project can be spoiled by too many people with different opinions handling it. It took me a while to figure that one out.

Ever since I've been in the Greenbelt I have compiled a list of proverbs and popular sayings I've heard, and tried to puzzle them out. Some are still a mystery to me. 

"Trust yourself and your horse." – alright, I can understand a ranger ahorse out in the wilderness likely trusts himself pretty well, and his mount, having been trained by him, is obedient and trustworthy. But I don't see how this goes out to everyone else. I wouldn't trust a horse trained by me. I seldom trust a horse trained by someone else! 

"Forge while the iron is hot." – well naturally. I don't know much about forging, but I know that if you decide to clank down on a cold piece of metal, the only thing you'll accomplish is waking up your neighbors. I took this one to Takeshi since he's much more knowledgeable of the forge, and he nodded gravely, patted me on the shoulder and said that yes, this was true, and he would keep it in mind, thanks for the incentive. I have no idea what I said to him, but it seemed to help. So… good, I guess?

"Better a sparrow on your hand than a pigeon on the roof." – err… because, I suppose pigeons poop everywhere and then your roof will be dirty? Maybe a sparrow does less of a mess than a pigeon because it's smaller and it's easier to clean? So a small mess right next to you, where you can clean it easier, is better than a big mess on a place you'd likely have to use a ladder to reach? Better a small problem right here than a big problem well away?

"First a stable, afterwards a cow." – I asked Oksana about this, and she very patiently made me realize that if I bought a cow without having a stable to shelter it, it would die from the cold or run away. So it's like the "first thing's first" I've been hearing around! I honestly wasn't understanding it and thought I hadn't heard the whole proverb. I thought it might be a longer sentence that gave advice on how to build a ranch: "First a stable, afterwards a cow, then a horse, a pig, three or four chickens and a dog."

"Your elbow is close yet you can't bite it." – After five or six attempts to bite my own elbow (I couldn't), I went to Oleg with this and asked if he could explain the meaning. He said that just because something seems easy, it doesn't mean it's not hard, or even impossible. I walked away happy with the explanation. When I turned back to thank Oleg again and say goodbye, he sheepishly hid away the elbow he was trying to bite. 

"There is no family with no ugly relative." – well that's just terrible. What could this statement possibly mean? Nobody's ugly in my family! The more I pondered on this, I eventually reached a conclusion that it must be something in the sort of "There's a black sheep on every flock". But really, it's a horrible proverb. Imagine me stating something like this at the dinner table – both of my brothers would murder me with a gaze! 

"To miss the forest because of the trees." – huh? So the forest is hiding among the trees? I don't get it. I bumped into Turgut at Town Hall last week and since he's a druid, I took the chance to enquire about it. Turgut laughed and said it had nothing to do with trees, and instead means that when paying too much attention to detail one often forgets about the general situation. He then gave me the example of Takeshi deciding to suddenly manage every individual farmer in the Greenbelt and not realizing how the barony's crops are faring for how much time he spends on that. I guess I understand the gist of it, but I couldn't help wondering if Bear COULD manage every individual farmer in the Greenbelt. He sleeps for two hours, he probably could do it!

"Birds fly not into our mouth ready roasted." – oh this one is for Monkey. I told him about it and he went into a curious, silent moment. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth, and smiled. Then he looked at me and said that it would be a wonderful world if it was so. I began to picture roasted chicken taking to the air (despite the fact live chicken don't fly), while a broiled pigeon flew overhead and a stuffed turkey ran by. Suddenly I was hungry so I sort of forgot about the proverb…

View
The Fort, the Lizards and the Crazy Hermit
(a page out of the journal of Ameno Uzume)

4713, Autumn

Autumn is here (or as locals call it, Fall. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that "leaves fall" during this time of year). So far, I must confess, it's the season I love most in the Greenbelt. When I lived in Minkai I loved Spring, in no small part due to the cherry blossoms. Here… well. It's just not the same. But Autumn, now that was a surprise for me. The verdant landscape gave way to a palette of brown, orange and golden hues. The weather is still good enough to go out without wrapping yourself in a blanket, and it's nice to see the carpets of leaves covering everything, like tatami mats covering beaten dirt ground.  

We'll still have good weather for exploring and according to all evidence, Fumidai will do well during the following Winter, which leaves me very happy. At Council today, we looked over the state of our crops and granaries and everything seems better than could be expected. 

Of course, we also raised the issue of our dear friend Grigori. I sent the dissent-spreading bard packing, but the issue remained with us. Monkey – being Monkey – decided to follow him after he left the duel. He followed him right out of Fumidai and away before realizing he was journeying too far from the city. So whomever Grigori ran to, it wasn't close by. 

And we are sure he ran to someone. What possible interest could Grigori have to raise unrest in Fumidai? We all agree that there is more to this, all we need to understand is what, and who benefits from spreading chaos in our realm. Our first guess, of course, was our neighbors. The other groups that set off to explore the Stolen Lands the same as us. Lord Garress thinks this is a very real possibility: from what he's been hearing, and out of the four original parties, we seem to be well ahead of our competition. Akiros, however, believes this must be the work of the River Lords. And Oleg thinks noble house of Brevoy…

Nagata will consult with his "birdies" as he's taken to call the dead-drop information box, and we'll see what he brings back.   

Takeshi also brough up the subject of offering the vacant Marshal position in our Council to Turgut. He thinks the hobgoblin would be perfect for the job. I saw a few odd faces around the table, ranging from amusement to disbelief, but the more Bear spoke about it, the more convinced the rest of the Council seemed. So Takeshi will offer him the job sometime soon. In fact, when last we left Turgut, he was being dragged off to the Flowing Silver for drinks with the folk from Fumidai. I think they wouldn't be contrary to the idea. 

As for us, we'll be doing some more… "gallivanting" (sidenote: I did look up the word and it means very much what I thought it might. On hindsight maybe I shouldn't have sent Grigori packing. I should've brought him along to "gallivant" with us for a while, see how he liked it…) to unknown territory in the meantime. 

Takeshi was hoping he would be able to find Turgut before we left, but predictably, the druid is no longer in Fumidai. Takeshi believes he might have decided to pay a visit to Lady Tiressia, so that's where we'll be headed first. 

*

As it turns out, Lady Tiressia did see Turgut: he came to visit her shortly after we brought him to Fumidai. She was pleasantly surprised to make his acquaintance. I recall we discussed several issues with Turgut for the time he accompanied us in our travels, and one such was the same subject we discussed with Tiressia: something amiss within the First World. The dead unicorn and the fleeting displacement we witnessed on the marsh. The Lady and Turgut also spoke at length about the issue, and Turgut is off investigating what he can. We presented our idea to bring Turgut into Council and she agrees he would be a valuable asset. She'll even forward a message to him, asking him to be in Fumidai in time for our next Council. 

We even got permission to spend the night at her grove safely before setting off to explore! It's much preferrable than camping in the wild. Camping is never safe, despite the fact I know Monkey (and Bear, now more than ever, since he won't be needing to sleep more than two hours a night) are watching over the rest of the group. I spent most of the evening reading from my journal and retelling our adventures to her. 

As we were leaving the grove the following morning, Nagata broached another subject that's been giving him grief: all the lizardfolk we left at the fortified island when we collected Thig Tannersen. He feels the lizardfolk will be trouble sooner or later, and would like to take care of them before they decide to take care of us. Takeshi agrees – we'll see to it when we're returning from this expedition. 

So we set off once more. Six hours into our search we found what looks like the start of a river. Not very far off we could see what looked like a stone outpost – elven, judging from what detail we could make out above the treetops. The outpost was obviously abandoned for long but seemed mostly whole. Nagata took to the ground and said there were no tracks of relevance to be found here. 

Before making a bee line for the place we went around it, ensuring nothing evil, upset or hungry was in the vicinity. As we went, most eyes were trained on the ruins, trying to get more details. The outpost was once apparently composed of four watchtowers connected by tall, thick, crescent-shaped walls, making for a mostly round structure overall. At the center, a larger tower rose up to well above the treetops. As we went around we found one of the crescent-shaped outer walls had collapsed, providing a place of entry. Takeshi couldn't tell if time had crumbled this wall or if it was due to some form of attack, but whatever took it also did a job on one of the four watchtowers: it seemed crumbled into rubble from out there. If not for the taller, central tower we might have missed the place altogether. Vines covered most of the building and walls, effectively blending it into the surroundings. 

Of course, the Ameno family could never resist a ruin, so we decided to stop and investigate. 

While there was a gate, closed fast by sturdy wooden doors, we went in through the breached wall, which brought us to a courtyard overgrown with weed – in some places as tall as my waist (sidenote: which isn't saying much, it means most of the others had underbrush up to their legs). Instead of accompanying us as we tried to pass over the rubble, Monkey climbed up the wall beside us to get a bird's eye view of the place. Even as Nagata rejoined us down here to say that all seemed clear, Oksana approached the central tower and took to the air to try and peep inside through one of the muderholes. She said it was dark inside – so dark she couldn't make anything out. 

From the inside of the fort, we could tell all the watchtowers had their own door for access, but there were a few differences between them. The newest-looking one was on the southeast tower, we could tell it even without Takeshi's engineering expertise confirming it. The northwest watchtower also had a door, but it was almost impossible to make it out beneath all of the vines choking the building – and amongst those vines also were humanoid skulls, seemingly entwined in the vegetation, in an almost decorative manner. The northeast tower had no roof, and judging by what little we could see through the windows, its insides had collapsed, leaving it almost a hollow silo. The last of the watchtowers was gone altogether, collapsed long ago. 

As for the central tower, two arches opened into it, and peeking inside we could see a wide, round chamber with a vaulted ceiling and a stone stairway leading up. Frescoes depicting elves at hunt or play once decorated the inside walls, but they were so faded we could hardly make them out. Well, at least that's how I described it to the group – it was dark inside, with light filtering through the entrances but reaching very little into the actual chamber. Oksana told us she believed there was some magical darkness effect at play on the upper levels, which kept her from making out what's inside. 

We tentatively walked inside the central tower first, but just as soon as we went in, Nagata demanded everyone leave again – he had spotted something amiss. We rushed back outside once again, with Nagata at the back of the line to make sure everybody left safely. Just as he was about to vacate the chamber as well, a whoosh of purple mist spread from nowhere and filled the chamber – Monkey left in the nick of time! I looked at Oksana for clarification and she said that from the whiffs she was getting, it was likely poisonous gas. 

Once the gas had dissipated, Nagata told us all to stay put while he searched for more… "surprises". And he said it in a way such that nobody begged to disagree. Once he gave us an assurance the place was cleared we returned inside and made our way upstairs, with Monkey taking point and myself closing the line. The climbing took a while – it was a very tall tower – but of a sudden we stopped, and I heard Takeshi talking to someone, asking what they were doing here. And just afterwards I heard the naginata's blade cutting the air, which told me there was combat at the top of the stairs! In front of me, Oksana began chanting a spell, and even if I couldn't see from my position, I knew there was trouble. As I reached for the shamisen to begin playing, I heard a sibbilating voice above calling: "Defend me!", it demanded. I didn't know what was going on, but began playing anyway, even as Oksana in front of me finished her chanting and threw a snowball into the room. A raspy voice responded by uttering a curse of idiocy at her – which landed straight in Oksana's indifference, and rolled away harmlessly. 

Once it was over and the line moved up, I managed to put together what had happened, more or less. The stairs ended in a great circular chamber, about forty feet tall and with a grand skylight. On the floor lay what looked like an elven woman in a flowing white dress – she was dead. Takeshi told me of how Nagata and him had spotted her from the top of the stairs, and before much conversation could ensue, he muttered a prayer to Shizuru to look upon this creature and call it out for what it was. And to his eyes, she glowed with an aura of evil. Somehow, the woman realized he knew, and at once began dancing, putting an enchantment on Nagata and bidding him to defend her from the rest of us! It might have worked on Nagata, but Takeshi was unimpressed, and fortunately he and Oksana managed to take the woman down swiftly. I don't know what we'd do if Nagata, dazed as he was by the enchantment, was to turn against us. (sidenote: well I suppose I do – Oksana would have to try to make him sleep before he hurt us or we hurt him!

Taking a close look at the woman, her resemblance to an elf seemed to be fading somewhat, and Oksana is sure this was some kind of evil fey. A lot of elven-looking statuary and clothing sat in this chamber, and we took the lighter pieces to sell. We'll have to return for the rest at a later date. It's early in the expedition and we don't want to risk getting overencumbered. (sidenote: it's bad enough walking about in the wild, let alone walking about in the wild with cargo… I can't really complain, though, as collecting junk has earned us a fair amount of coin so far. In fact, most of our finances depend on an old local adventuring proverb that claims that if a given piece is not attached to the floor, it should be picked up and sold elsewhere. Taxation in Fumidai goes right into the state coffers. Our own pockets depend on "appropriating" unneeded gear and objects.)

Returning to the courtyard we decided to continue our exploration with the northwest tower – the one with the vines and skulls. Getting to the door wasn't easy. The vines were almost like rubber, and pulling them away required quite some chopping, tugging and cursing. It became all the more frustrating when we finally cleared the door and couldn't open it, as it seemed barred from within. Oksana once again took to the air and tried to peek through a murderhole, telling us that the inside seemed to have collapsed as well, and become overgrown with vines from the inside as well as the outside. I asked that she took me up to have a look myself, and I noticed something odd. The vines on the inside seemed almost alive. I could swear on Shizuru's golden katana that they moved even as I looked at them. Returning to the ground, I told my brothers I suspected this were assassin vines, and that the skulls outside were not decorative, they were remains of meals. For the time being, we decided to leave it well enough alone. At a later date, we'll return to clear it out. 

So instead, we crossed the courtyard to see the southeastern tower. The one with the newest door. And up close, there was no question: the original door had been replaced. Which told us, of course, someone dwelled here. Perhaps the lady upstairs?

With a scare already under his belt, Nagata checked for traps before we tried to open it. When he found it clear, he simply turned the knob and threw it. And indeed, the chamber inside was furnished and appeared to be lived in, but whatever lived in here wasn't good. The first image I got from the inside was of a wall covered up to the ceiling with hair, bloody scalps in many stages of stiffness someone had simply nailed to the wall. From the size of the furniture I could tell it was someone small, smaller even than me – so it was not the abode of the lady upstairs for sure. But if not her, who could have done this?

Just as I was about to open my mouth and share my reasoning, Oksana yelped behind me, and I turned on my heels to look at her, just in time to see a flash of green rushing behind the central tower, and Oksana clutching a wound on her flank! She yelled it was a quickling – a kind of evil fey that moves faster than the eye can see, and it had rushed at her from behind her back, stabbed at her, and ran away again. Nagata stood in the doorway, his eyes scouting for the green flash, and Takeshi and I got ready to go into action. Still nursing the nasty wound, Oksana went airborne, but told us she couldn't see it. The creature had, for all intents and purposes, vanished

So Monkey tried to call it out, yelling into the courtyard that if the thing wanted its room intact, it better show its face. We waited quietly for a reply, and one came, giddily saying he'd get it back eventually. Takeshi rushed in the direction of the sound, but his lunge hit only empty air. 

From this, we began a game of cat and mouse with the quickling – every now and then we'd see the green flash that told us he was close by, and tried to catch it to no avail. As I waited for the flash to hint at where the thing was I felt a piercing pain to my side, and realized it had gotten behind me! I turned in time to see the flash – and I began to feel sickly. It occurred to me that the blade must be poisoned, infected with disease, or both! When he got away from me Takeshi swung at him and was almost sure the blade had hit, but it did nothing to slow it down! 

Of course, there were four of us, and (at least as far as we knew) one of him. We simply had to be patient, careful, and wait in ambush. Takeshi told me to lean on the watchtower wall to make sure the thing couldn't get to my back, and waited. Once the green flash was visible we went at it with everything we had, being ready to spring to it as soon as we saw it. Finally, and after nearly an hour of tense hide-and-seek, the quickling met its end at the edge of a naginata. We took down the scalps, Takeshi said a prayer for the lost souls, and we burned the lot of them. 

I was still feeling a little woozy by the time we were done, but didn't complain. Oksana told me I'd be okay, and there was still a tower to see to the northeast. This one was almost completely destroyed and hollow. The inside gave out and pooled on the bottom of the tower, in a heap of broken stone. Amongst the stones we found some bodies, mostly old and in various states of decay. Most of them weren't whole, but the… aff… head count… told us between sixteen and eighteen people had perished here. At first I thought that they might have died when the tower collapsed, but Takeshi disagreed. He said there was too much of a time difference between the state of the bodies and the state of the stones. Likely these were the poor owners of the scalps in the quickling's den. But why would he toss them here?

And suddenly I was covered in rats. 

Yes, rats.

Lots of them.

All over me.

So many rats.

(sidenote: when I am a venerable old lady writing my memoirs for posterity, there are of course moments that will not be mentioned, even though they happened. I intend to tell the truth of our adventures and nothing but, but omitting is not lying. And I will certainly omit the moment when I was standing next to an ungodly amount of dead bodies and a wave of hungry rats swallowed me, biting and scratching and trying to make me the next meal. I know, when I put it like that it sounds like an exciting peril. What's not so exciting is Ameno Uzume, Grand Diplomat of Fumidai, running about like a headless chicken shouting "GET'EM OFF! GET'EM OFF! GET'EM OFF! GET'EM OFF!", waving her arms and doing the "I-have-vermin-in-my-clothes" dance. I would very much like to outlive the tale of this lovely moment, thank you.)

So let us just say we dealt with the rats by way of Oksana's thundercloud and the last charges of my wand of burning hands. Keeping in mind I was swimming in rats at the time I used it, I think my aim was true enough to get the brunt of them off me, so Takeshi could then unceremoniously collect me from their midst (sidenote: or rather, grab me by an arm and yank me away while I waved the spent wand every which way I thought I saw a rat) and let the thundercloud finish the work. 

Once we had all calmed down (sidenote: once I had stopped screaming), we took some time to dig a common grave outside and give all of these poor people a decent burial. By the time we were done covering the hole, daylight was fleeting. We walked away from the abandoned outpost and made camp by the river's edge. Night was, fortunately, uneventful – a good thing because between the poison, the hide-and-seek game with the quickling and running around screaming for a quarter hour, I was exhausted. 

(sidenote: as soon as I return to Fumidai I will take the mother of all hot baths in creation. I feel pasty from exertion, I smell like rat and the expedition isn't over yet.)

We continued the expedition towards marshlands, which very quickly approached the "swamp" description with everything it implies – watery ground, foul smells and mosquito clouds. It's good to see that things may change, but Monkey is still Monkey, and the quickest way to find trouble is to ask him to find us a place to camp. On one of these nights, while he was looking for a place to sleep, he interrupted two mating monitor lizards we then had to fight off. (sidenote: in the lizards' defense, we walked in on them…

On another such nights, while we were sleeping, a herd of river elks ran by us. Well, not exactly by – more like over. I curled into a ball in my sleeping bag and prayed to Shizuru not to have my head crushed by a hoof, but when the herd had passed, we were alright. Sleeping again that night was out of the question, but we were alright. 

On yet another occasion we awoke in the morning to find all of our equipment had been moved. Namely, I woke to find my shamisen not next to my sleeping bag, but atop a tree. It was harmless enough, likely good fey playing around. I asked Monkey if he could go up and retrieve it, but Oksana ended up flying to get it, as Monkey woke up to find himself dressed in her silken ceremonial and was trying to take it off. 

Fun times in the wilderness!

I don't think these will make the final cut of my memoirs, either. 

*

As we moved further south in the expedition, we began to find firmer ground, and (finally) leaving the marsh behind. It was on the 8th day since we'd left Tiressia's grove that we came upon a very large mound of dead trees and fallen branches, forming numerous cave-like hollows that could only be the lairs of some kind of creature. Almost like a beaver dam on solid ground. We explored warily, with Takeshi taking point, wondering what kind of beast had built it. Considering also that every few feet we found either bones or pieces of junk, we could tell we were wise to thread carefully. 

As we turned around the trunk of a large tree we finally saw the beast that dwelt here. I imagine that it was somehow related to crocodiles – the general shape of it was similar, with the difference it didn't so much crawl with its belly to the ground as galloped like a dog or a horse, and it lacked the elongated head of the crocodile. It still boasted a mouth filled with large teeth, and spikes covered part of its cuirass. A hodag was resting by the largest lair hollow. So that lumberjack, as drunk as he might've been the night he spotted it, was right!

The creature got up as soon as it saw us, and closed the distance between itself and us in a heartbeat. I began playing even as my brothers ran past me towards it. The hodag caught Monkey first, biting and scratching him, but failing to catch him between its maw. Before Takeshi could strike, Oksana snapped her fingers and told the creature to sleep – and the hodag very obediently dropped on the ground slumbering. Then it was a matter of putting a blade to its neck, and putting it out of its misery.

Very anticlimactic, but I'm getting used to that. Oksana's sleeping spell (sidenote: she corrects me every time: it's a hex, whatever that is…) Nagata took the time to chop off the head so we could take it back as proof that the lumberjack had told the truth, and that the matter had been dealt with. 

Three days after we had felled the hodag, we began to take a turn on our expedition to head towards Fumidai while exploring as much ground as possible. So far we've been southbound, and now we're taking a slight turn eastward. As Takeshi pointed out on the map, we'll curve towards Fumidai once more, and ensure we are home in good time to get out matters in order and attend Council. 

As we were walking an area not overly far from the place where we collected Thig, Takeshi called for a halt. I peeked beside him, thinking he might had seen something ahead on the road, but everything seemed quiet to me. In Minkaian, he told us he suspected we were about to be ambushed, while at the same time pointing at random things on the side of the road to make it look like we had stopped to admire the trees. I know Takeshi feels comfortable speaking to the group in our native tongue now – Oksana spent much of the past year teaching me her language, and in turns I taught her ours, so we can communicate unimpeded when necessary. (sidenote: her accent is horrifying and hokey and there's little to do but practice to correct it, but I suppose I probably sound to her like I have something stuck in my throat when I speak in Skald…)

Nagata asked Takeshi (again, pointing at a tree and sounding much more pleasant than the situation demanded) what he'd seen, and Takeshi (making gestures towards the treetop as if he wanted to build a treehouse on it) said not to look now, but over ahead, where a group of boulders and broken logs sat beside the road, he was sure he'd seen a lizardfolk skulking in wait. They likely hadn't spotted us yet, but he wasn't taking any chances. Oksana pointed out (making some kinds of round gestures towards the tree as if she wanted to wrap it in wool) that we're not that far from where we collected Thig, so maybe this is the hunting party of braves we left behind on the lair. 

So we decided to ambush the ambushers. 

I told Nagata to pass behind Takeshi and make as if he would be going up the tree. I can render him invisible for a spell and he can approach them from behind without a problem. He whispered where he planned to be, I cast my spell, and he vanished away. Then we all walked happily toward the tree, only to go around it and sneak behind the ambushing party – true enough, Takeshi had been right. Several lizardfolk braves were waiting for someone to go down the road here, ready to pounce. Wether they were waiting for our return, or simply hunting travellers, it matters very little. They weren't leaving this place. 

Takeshi called upon the prayers of Shizuru and charged in first, moving closer enough that he could be seen, and waiting for the lizardfolk to come meet their demise. I began playing, and Oksana summoned her cloud. When the lizardfolk were wary to approach Takeshi I began insulting them, viciously enough that, like before, they caught on fire. Caught between my fire and Oksana's lightning, one dropped right away. As the rest ran towards us, Takeshi began picking them off, one by one. Two managed to close in, one stumbling and missing his attack, and the other landing a vicious blow on Bear. 

Then Nagata materialized behind the group and began picking off the slowest of the lot, the wakizashi dancing in his hands. One by one, the lizardfolk fell, caught between the furious blades of the wakizashi, the devastating naginata, catching on fire and being struck by lightning. The combat didn't last very long – the last remaining survivor managed to get past Takeshi to take a slash at me, and got yelled at so viciously I must say, he spontaneously combusted into a tower of flames. 

We counted the dead foes once the battle was done, and tried to recall how many we had left behind in the fort. We couldn't very well remember how many there were the last time we were there – we left in a hurry after defeating their fake god, before the lizardfolk decided they wanted to take us out because of it. As I recall we were in bad shape from the battles inside their compound, and couldn't afford to stay and fight those many creatures. However, our answer came the following day, when we took a slight detour to visit the fort again. It was empty – whatever remained of the tribe was devastated during the reverse ambush. 

*

It was almost time to head back home by the time we met the lizardfolk braves in the road. By Takeshi's calculations we should have five days to explore some more area before we truly need to rush back to the city. Again, I don't complain: I'm dying for a hot bath and I'd like to return as soon as possible, but I know we need to make good whatever time we have. At least we were going easier now, still through light wood. On the day after we visited the now abandoned lizardfolk fort, we found yet another threat haunting the road. 

At first it seemed as if we'd met another traveller. Takeshi spotted a man coming out of the bushes ahead of us – an elderly fellow with a shaggy beard, a leopard falling in step behind him. My first idea was that we might be looking at a druid and his companion. When he saw us he walked in our direction with a spring in his step and hailed us. Takeshi introduced himself as the baron of these lands, and the man frowned and slightly wrinkled his nose at that. We asked after his name, and he refused to say it. Sometimes, when we spoke to him, he seemed to ignore us or take slightly longer than usual to answer… it seemed as if something was off with him somehow. There was an odd glint to his eyes. He seemed a little bit crazy to me. 

Once he seemingly grew bored with the conversation, the old man turned and made toward the bushes to leave. However, when he passed by Oksana he produced a dagger out of nowhere, and tried to stab at her without provocation! At once we ran to her aid, of course. Nagata, lighter than most of us, was first to reach the old man, and dropped him like a bug. Takeshi dealt with the great cat, and soon both lay dead at our feet. 

We went through his clothes and possessions, but he had nothing that would drop us a clue of who he was, what he was doing out here, and why he lashed out at us when he obviously was stepping into a fight he couldn't win. While we discussed our theories, Nagata went into the bushes, likely to find the man's tracks and see where he'd come from. Minutes later he returned and pulled down his mask, staring at me with a strange expression, and saying there was something we had to see.

We followed Monkey as he pointed down the tracks for us, and explained this could've never been a druid. Even a novice druid, if he so wishes, will leave behind no trace of his passing in the wilderness. Monkey stopped by a tree, saying the tracks led right to it. Then he knocked on the bark and we all heard the hollow sound his knuckles made against the trunk. 

It was a hollow tree.

We found Bokken's brother!!! (sidenote: I really don't want to be mean, Shizuru knows, but I should've picked up on the… similarities?) Sure enough, he was living in a hollow tree to the south! (sidenote: so maybe Bokken was the least crazy of the two? Perhaps he went crazy because his brother made him crazy?! I don't know…) The whole situation gave me the creeps all of a sudden, and while I wished we had managed to talk to the man and understand what caused that hostility or if he could be helped, from everything I heard Bokken say about him, I was glad we were no longer in danger of bumping into him. 

We found a soft spot on the earth between the hollow tree's roots where a small chest had been buried. Among other things we found a silver locket holding a portrait of a woman. The resemblance to Bokken was uncanny (minus the crazed hermit look). Perhaps it was their mother, or sister? I kept it, so that next time we visit Bokken I can return it to him, and explain what happened. 

On this note, we turned our steps towards Fumidai. 

———

UZUME'S CULTURAL EXCHANGE – The People's Ways

I've lived in the Greenbelt for over a year now, and learned much of the people and their ways. In some respects, I have noticed some behavior differences between the people of Minkai and the people of the Greenbelt. Sometimes, I have to admit, the natives have a much better approach than the Minkaians. Other times, I must say, we do things much better back home. I just decided to jot down a few of the greatest differences between our peoples. I feel like this might help me weigh them out and work through them.

Minkaians are more formal. When I first arrived here, I realized there was a stark contrast between the way people deal with each other in Brevoy and in Minkai. In contrast, Minkaians must look to the people of Brevoy as cold and stoic, whereas in Minkai, a Brevoyan would appear way too friendly. There is a social structure to be perceived, understood and respected in Minkai – you don't talk to your neighbor the same way you talk to a close acquaintance, and none of them are similar to how you address, for instance, an employee. When Takeshi was working odd jobs just a few days off the ship from Minkai, he told us of how despite the language barrier, once his employers warmed up to him, they were ready to treat him as a friend. This would never happen in Minkai if it was the other way around, and especially not with a foreigner. In Minkai, an innkeeper will not ask how the food was, and strangers gathering to hear the news around a town crier won't chat to each other about them. 

Brevoy is more diverse. In Minkai you see Minkaians. Perhaps you will sometimes see someone else but usually it's someone from Tian-Xia: their looks and clothes may differ but we mostly look the same. In Brevoy it's not so: even without counting the nonhuman folk, I've seen Varisians, Ulfen and Cheliax since I got off the ship. In Minkai it seems to matter how different you look from everyone else, whereas in Brevoy it's more of a melting pot. 

Bowing and shaking hands. Takeshi got in the habit of shaking hands with people he deals with because of how often he's given a hand to shake. This sort of contact is somewhat frowned upon back home. In Minkai you bow, and keep your hands to yourself. Bowing here is expected to happen when you're faced with a figure of great authority, like a king. Even when it happens, Brevoyans bow differently – it involves taking a step back, and doing something weird with one arm to the side and another to the chest. It's more like something out of theater than the bowing I'm used to. 

Room to stretch. Minkai is an island, and therefore space is one of the most precious commodities you can get. A wealthy man in Minkai will have a spacious home with a few choice items for decoration – in other people's minds this is a man who is doing so well he can afford to buy himself space to move about uncluttered. In Brevoy, a wealthy man will often fill his home with all manners of items, some of which are terrible or cumbersome – in other people's minds, this is a man who's doing so well he can afford to fill every empty space he owns with junk. It's a difference of perspective, really, but it tells me something about the way people think here and there. 

Brevoyans are blunt where Minkaians are subtle. In Minkai, Bear would sometimes be called a little too blunt. In Brevoy, most everyone speaks as he does. The Minkaians are always afraid to offend their neighbor, so we're very careful about how we speak to one another. Brevoyans seem to have more of an emotional cuirass. If a friend in Minkai began dating someone I don't like and asked me what I think about him, I'd probably beat around the bush, never directly speaking ill of him but dropping some subtle hints that I'm not fond of him. The other person is supposed to pick up on these hints, but never call me out on them directly. The same situation would go different in Brevoy – I'd tell the person straight out she's dating a fool and that makes her a fool too, and why haven't you dumped him yet, again? And she would probably slam me over the head with a bucket for that, and call me every name in the book…

View
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)

View
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)

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