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.