By the time we managed to return to Oleg's Trading Post, most of the guards were gone. Lord Garress remained, along with his three man-at-arms and father Kavken, but otherwise, and save for the Stevensons, we were back to square one. At Takeshi's bequest, however, we saw some improvements done to the Trading Post. Nothing major, but the gate looked less like it was going to fall apart, and a setup for archers had been placed on the towers.
We had just arrived from our first expedition, and already had our objective set for another. This time, however, we thought it best to prepare ahead. We placed an order with Oleg for a bag of holding, a useful magical item that will allow us to carry more gear and supplies, and enable us to take longer journeys out of the Trading Post. Along with every other objective we already had claim for ourselves from the wanted posters, there was a new one – it called for the death of a giant boar known to prowl around the Greenbelt – Tuskgutter, it was called.
Once rested, our second expedition would take us back to the Gnarled Marshes (more bog!). Still no signs of civilization. Well, perhaps not completely. Right on our first day, we managed to find the remains of an ancient farm at one of the edges of the Marshes. We spotted the wild vegetables first while looking for a dry place to sleep, and thought perhaps this was another patch of radishes like we found before. Vegetables in nature don't usually grow in neat lines, however. Searching about, Oksana found what might once have been the foundations of a shack or cabin nearby. She pointed several burnt pieces of wood to us. Whatever happened here was lost to time, but the vegetables served us well. I'm not sure how long this second expedition will take. I'd rather not grow sick of trail rations just yet.
Despite all its terrible conditions (muddy, dark, etc.) I was coming to enjoy the Marshes, if for nothing else for the unchained beauty of nature here. Mist hung in the air in several places – the bog seems to be less dense at the edges, becoming more and more entangled the further towards the center we went. Sleeping arrangements are not always easy, since we need to look for a place to camp without having mud up to our ankles. Decrepit trees and wild, pale flowers seem to bloom a little everywhere. Still a bog, though, and still unknown terrain: one night, on our third day, Takeshi woke us all up to point out a large humanoid creature hulking about in the mists. We found it wise to shush up and stay quiet, letting it pass by and going unnoticed. Nagata would later check for tracks and identify the creature as an owlbear – we should be on our guard, regardless of how much interested we are in the environment around us.
In the best interest of keeping this log, I also began to try and draw a map of the places we visit. Logistics are very important: we took to a habit of hunting and foraging whenever possible.
And it was on the depths of the marsh, and while attempting to hunt, that something wonderful happened.
Well – "wonderful" is perhaps not the best way to put it. It depends on who you ask in the group.
It all began when we spotted a deer, and decided to try and hunt it for food. We'd been walking about for a while and were getting hungry, so it was best to take the opportunity while we had light. Mind you, our hunting strategies are still not perfect. We are down to Nagata trying to scare our prey towards Takeshi, or me using music to attract a beast closer so Takeshi can slay it. At first, it seemed as though this wasn't our lucky day: Nagata leapt to try and grab the deer, but seemed to slip and fall face-first in the mud. Brother Monkey's known his share of rushing and leaping, and even in this muddy ground, he would likely not fall so easily. I was puzzled for a split second – but the deer spooked, and rushed right towards Takeshi. When he tried to slay it, however, I saw him slip as well – and painfully so, dropping to the mud one leg to each side (ouch!) With the deer having escaped into the bush, I tried to ask them what the matter was – this was uncannily clumsy for them. Both my brothers claimed to be tripped by some kind of invisible force. We looked around, but could find no evidence of anyone other than us being here.
While this was odd and worrisome, I was still hungry, and with our prey having escaped, we were looking at a very bleak meal before sleeping. My belly rumbled despite myself, and almost at once I felt a tap on my shoulder – which, I have to confess, scared me, as everyone I'm traveling with was standing before me. I spun around on my heels to see the source of the tap and… nothing. I complained about it to Takeshi, who looked a little further in the same direction to find a cache of wild vegetables gathered atop a rock, as if purposefully left for us! Nagata found no tracks whatsoever, but now I was definitely sure some sort of entity or being was following. We thanked our invisible benefactors for their kindness and made the vegetables into soup.
Despite beneficial, we came to realize the following day or two that this entity was a little… well. On one morning, as Takeshi was putting on his boots to set out, he found one of them to be full of pebbles. Not long afterwards, as we were walking, Nagata began to complain about being itchy around his back. When he removed his shirt, we found poison oak leaves had been dropped down his clothes. We feared he was looking at a bad rash, but the next morning, he was almost healed – again, as if by interference of some benevolent force. We were glad he was better, but he wasn't glad at all – his underwear was missing. And then dropped out of the sky, right in front of him!
Throughout all of these "pranks" I had begun to suspect fey were the cause – and lore claims they can be pacified with gifts. At every camp we made, I was sure to leave a tiny origami animal, as I figured they might like it as an offering. And in a way, I think it might have made our dealing with them easier. The poison oak was worrisome, but I am sure they intervened in Monkey's healing too – and the underwear moment was hilarious. (sidenote: now let us speak of it never again, as Nagata said).
Despite our invisible friend pulling our legs every once in a while, exploration was fairly easy. We managed to get good nights' sleep most of the time, and other than a trio of bandits, we found no obstacles. Even when the bandits attacked, I could see the influence of our benefactors: more than once I got the impression they were tripped or pushed back before they could lay a hit on my brothers. Takeshi told me that night he is somewhat concerned about lumber. We will certainly need to build structures, and for that we will require raw materials. But a lumbering operation on fey country is never a good idea, as they will fiercely protect their territory in the same way they protected the deer we were hunting when we first noticed their presence. The territory we were in has plenty of woodland – but we're not sure where, or if, we can chop down trees. I'm not overly concerned for now: we're a long way's away from building, and I had hoped that by then we could have met what locals we will meet, and understand how we can carry our objectives without threading on them.
Besides, if this is fey folk, I wanted to see them, and be able to talk with them! I was so marvelled to learn that this land has fairies (sidenote: alright – some fairies. I am not thrilled to see mites at all. I mean the good kind of fairy).
I got my wish just the following day, when our benefactors finally revealed themselves to us. They materialized in front of us, out of thin air! One was a tiny cricket-like creature who called herself Thig-Titter-Tut, and the other was a dragonlike creature with butterfly wings, about the size of a cat, called Perlyvash. Later, on camp, Oksana would tell me what kind of fairies they were, but right then and there I was so amazed at how pretty and tiny they were! Before I left Minkai never in my life I thought I'd ever get to see real fairies!
We managed to chat some – they told us about the area and some of the troubles it has – the bandits, the kobold, a trapper somewhere further North placing heavy hunting traps, and deep within the marsh, a hot spring where giant frogs live. They also managed to tell us about a great bear – and it immediately rang true with father Kavken's dream about a lost temple guarded by a bear. We promised to look into it – and to return, to place some of their fears at ease. If some of the locals we'll have to deal with are fey, I'll be very happy to be ambassador.
After we met the two fey we set back to Oleg's Trading Post to refit. We spent a few days resting up, and even heading West some to hunt down a wild bull for meat. Oleg brought back the bag of holding we ordered. When Takeshi showed me how it worked, I was reminded of how Monkey works: food goes in and seems to weigh nothing, and more of it can be accommodated than you'd think possible.
I had to ask Takeshi how much longer will our expeditions become – we went hunting as preparation for the next one, since we plan to order a whooping fifty rations (!) before our next departure. The answer I got was expected but not pleasing: it's likely we'll be leaving on longer and longer expeditions each time. I know this is mandatory, that if we're going to chart and manage the land we need to know what we can count on. But I feel tired of living like a nomad. It's been nearly a year since we left Minkai, and we haven't stopped yet. In fact, Oleg's Trading Post is the closest we've had to a home in a while…
As we prepared our third expedition to the Greenbelt, I noticed how Takeshi seems to be going along well with father Kavken. I don't know all that much about Erastil as a god, but He seems in line with Shizuru despite the differences in their priorities. Brother Bear has been trying to set the good father's worries at ease, explaining we have leads, that his dream is truly an omen and he's not losing his mind. If there is a lost temple of Erastil in the Greenbelt, we'll find it.
Father Kavken seems very grateful for our help. He said he'd give us each a charm before we head out, to make traveling swifter for a while. It will allow us to at least transverse known territory quicker.
(sidenote: on other news, Brother Monkey's been asking Svetlana for cooking lessons. Svetlana obliges him, but I'm not sure if Monkey's the best or the worst person to teach cooking to. Ever since I can remember, Monkey eats for two – three, when he's very hungry, and four if the food is delicious. Five, on special occasions. I don't know where he stuffs it all – he's been lean since he was a child – but still, it goes in. Now let us imagine Monkey in a kitchen, making dinner without running out of ingredients first! On the other hand, people who love to eat often become good cooks, since they will want to enjoy good food whenever possible. And I have to admit that the prospect of having someone who can turn a bland trail ration into something more akin to a meal is very dear to me at this point.)
Speaking of Nagata, I had a chance to talk to him concerning that "dead-drop" arrangement he has in Brevoy, where Oleg drops off questions then collects the answers for him. I asked him to try and learn of the rogue we saw in Brevoy, with the Twelve Monkeys group. I figure there must be a story here, and that that character wasn't there on chance. Everyone seemed very straightforward except for him. Maybe Nagata's contacts in the city can tell us more. I also told Monkey about my doubts regarding Lord Garress past – I know I've heard some kind of gossip about that before, but despite my attempts to bring back details, I can't remember. Surely in Brevoy someone must know what happened.
We set off on our third expedition with a myriad of goals other than the plain exploration of the land. We've begun drawing a map of what we know, of course, but I also had a list of objectives made. Between the odd job posters in the Trading Post and the issues we promised to check on for our acquaintances, there is a lot to be done. No use bawling about being tired of travel right now – the time for resting isn't here yet.
Firstly we tried to find the trapper Perlyvash and Thig-Titter told us about. The fey managed to point us out where he lays traps on a map, and when we began approaching, I could see what the problem was. To my knowledge, trappers stick mostly to small game – rabbits, squirrels, badgers, foxes and small cats. The first trap we found (sidenote: and the second, third and fourth and so on) were bear traps! All of them, huge saw-toothed metal contraptions that would turn small game into paste! They were everywhere, and sometimes so well hidden even Nagata almost put his feet on one!
This is nothing if not irresponsible! Most of the people we've met in the Greenbelt were bandits, but still! It's the equivalent of fishing with gunpowder! I was ready to call whoever put these down to explain himself, because it made no sense to us. He couldn't be after food, since any small animal caught in a bear trap would be instantly pulverized, and he wasn't surely after hides for the exact same reason. We gathered some fallen tree branches and began springing as many traps as we could find. Why imagine: traders going by these routes, couriers ahorse, even the poor fey could be caught up in these and killed!
As it turns out, however, the trapper would never answer for his actions and we would never understand why he thought this was a good idea. We managed to track him down to the southern margin of Thorne River. According to Takeshi, he had been dead for a couple of days, apparently a victim of his own senseless trap-laying. He appeared to have been trying to build a deadfall (sidenote: who builds a deadfall for rabbits?! What in blazes was the man trying to hunt?!) but a set of ropes gave out on him, and the logs he'd been trying to lift came down, crushing him. We found no personal effects, or any evidence of his intent. We took some time to pull the corpse from under the logs and give it a proper burial. I guess we'll never know what he was after now… but at least all those bear traps won't hurt anyone anymore.
The next morning, Takeshi announced we should go after the bear, following Thig-Titter's best guess of where it is. I was still somewhat dazzled by the bear traps. It would make sense to me if the man was pouching for bear, but the only one we've heard about is (supposedly) so far from where he died, laying traps there would make no sense. What game we could identify from sightings and traps was small – what was he after?
I also find that dying trapped under logs while trying to build a huge trap is a strike of irony from karma… or is it? We couldn't find any proof of sabotage or ill intent but… it's too proper. Even for karma.
At any rate, my mind was bound to get away from all that by the night's events.
I remember I was having a beautiful dream where I was preparing a traditional tea ceremony. (sidenote: I miss tea so much… they don't have it here… I'll have to speak to Takeshi and Nagata about finding a good place to plant some) I was roused from the dream by screams and sounds of a scuffle. I opened one eye to see Takeshi already on his feet… and then the creature! Oksana, who was keeping watch, was being held in the maw of a horrible snake-like creature with two tiny arms – the tatzlwyrm Oleg told us about!
We scrambled out of our sleeping bags to action – I didn't even bother to stand, I just grabbed my shamisen and did what I do: I played for inspiration! Takeshi ran in to flank it even as Oksana managed to wiggle free of the maw. The naginata missed the mark, but it gave Nagata the chance to get closer: he struck the beast with one of the wakizashi. But then it was his turn to be gripped in the maw! Oksana, from a safe distance, began hurling snowballs, while Takeshi tried to land a hit – I could see he was thrown off by the brightness of the campfire. Trapped between the jaws of the great creature, Nagata struck it again and again, until it finally toppled off and died.
By the time we could swallow our respective hearts back down from our throats, the creature's head had been expertly lopped off by Monkey to take back to Oleg. We saw to our injuries – Oksana was relatively unharmed, but accidentally poisoned herself trying to extract a sample of the tatzlwyrm's poison. I think she expected it to be some sort of liquid, in the same way a snake can be milked for its poison… but it was actually a foul-smelling gas that burst out in a cloud when she tried to extract it. After that, we were twice as careful handling the remains. Takeshi insisted on skinning it, claiming the hide might be valuable or useful.
So much for a quiet night's rest.
It was the following day, around noon, that we found what would later be known as Temple of the Elk. It is one of those places in the Greenbelt you'd have to see to fully take in what it looks like, but I'll try my best to provide a description. Imagine a grotto set up against a wall of natural rock, in which a gigantic elk's head has been carved, and beneath it, up a set of ruined stairs, the entrance to a natural cave. As if the original settlers of the temple had decided to take the cave for their holy place, paved the ground in front of it to form a type of small plaza, and then framed the whole front of the bare rock in a carving of an elk's head. In the middle of the grotto we could see a pool of green water, ripe with lichen and overgrowth weeds. It could be a beautiful place (sidenote: and in fact it became a beautiful place) once cleaned up and properly restored.
We found the entrance by following the rock, as its shape, no matter how decayed by time and the elements, was obviously that of a symbol of Erastil. But no sooner had we come within and looked around, we saw father Kavken's dream come to life before our very eyes. From the cave entrance loomed the largest bear I've ever laid eyes on! Despite its size and bulk, it seemed diseased somewhat – even from a distance I could see patches of fur had been eaten away by some rash-like affliction, and open sores oozing pus dotted its flank and head. It roared at us, enraged, and we prepared for battle. Takeshi stated the obvious by yelling "Probably cursed!" as he charged for it up the stairway. The two clashed midway through the run, with Takeshi making the best of his greater reach to land a hit with the naginata. I started playing; Oksana brought in the cold. I lost track of Nagata for a moment, and only spotted him when he jumped on the bear from the side of the steps. True to his fashion, he probably went around to study his prey and strike from the back. The fight was brief, despite all, with Takeshi powerfully dispatching the monster… then unceremoniously losing his balance and sliding down the stairs. But we'll leave that out of the history books.
I remember gazing back at the pool before approaching, and seeing that its waters were now clean and pristine, as if the overgrowth had been magically wiped away. When I looked back at the stairs, there was no longer a dead bear, but a man – an old, dessicated man with overgrown hair and beard. And there before my very eyes, I saw him rot and crumple to dust and be blown away by the breeze, the only remaining evidence that I wasn't dreaming being his bones. The elk carving on the rock seemed to glitter brightly, and Takeshi announced that a powerful curse must have been placed here, and it was now lifted.
Before we set off to give father Kavken the news, we decided to investigate inside the cave. Along with an ungodly amount of remains (probably bear chow), we found a journal. I must say I love journals – that's why I write one. It gives the writer a chance to pour out his heart and remember the past in order to take lessons from it. In this sort of situations, it also gives us insight into motives that might be unclear to us otherwise. Brother Bear wouldn't let me read it though, claiming the journal was to be delivered to father Kavken, and if he saw fit he would tell us about its content.
Even Brother Bear needs to sleep, and we all take turns keeping watch when we camp at night. I didn't spend the whole of my watch with my nose buried in the journal, of course, and I had to interrupt my reading often to actually do what I was supposed to be doing. But I managed to skim through it enough to understand what happened.
The man/bear we defeated at the temple was once a priest of Erastil himself – at least a century ago in fact, by my calculations – who was tasked with guarding the place from harm. Harm in this sense means gnolls, trolls and kobolds. As these creatures spread farther and multiplied, and kept making attempts on the temple, the priest was left alone in his task, and was starting to despair. He devised a plan to perform some kind of a ritual in which he lured a bear into the temple and sacrificed it for protection! I am now very knowable as the faith of Erastil goes (and of course I will not ask Takeshi, lest he finds out I read the journal against his wishes), but this seems to be, as the locals say, shooting an arrow into your own foot. I'm not sure what it was that the priest was trying to achieve, but Erastil took offense. He turned his former priest into a bear, and bound him to guard the temple until someone worthy came to reclaim it. Undying, the priest/bear must have gone half mad with despair indeed. If we hadn't shown up to free him from the curse, he would be here until… well. Forever, I should say.
On our way back to Oleg's we managed to find the same marshland area where Thig-Titter and Perlyvash live, and tell them of our discoveries. They were happy to learn the bear was no more, and that there was one less tatzlwyrm on the Greenbelt. When we told them of the trapper, however, I got the impression that Perlyvash was awfully quiet, and with some inquiry, he admitted to have had a part in his death by chewing the ropes on the deadfall. I don't think Perlyvash meant to kill him – likely he hoped to trap the trapper, and things didn't turn out as he hoped. From his telling, many small animals and fey folk found their deaths in the bear traps laid by the man. I understand his reasons… but I wish he would've waited a while longer for us to deal with it. Perhaps we could have found a way to reach an agreement…
One way or another, there will be no more trap-laying.
We also stopped by the radish patch we found on our first expedition to collect some for Svetlana – she asked us if we could go by there on our way out. I tried tasting one and thought I might want to wash my tongue with soap – whatever is she planning to make out of these? They're terrible! Nagata ate one too. But Nagata eats most anything…
On our return we delivered the tatzlwyrm's head to Oleg as requested, and the radishes to Svetlana. We also managed to speak to father Kavken. Takeshi handed him the priest/bear's journal. I was glad that in the end he decided to share its contents. He asked that we escort him to the temple. After all, he traveled to the frontier to do Erastil's work, from his own telling, and he believes that's where he's meant to be. Takeshi agreed of course, and gave his word that for as long as there are Ameno in these lands, the holy grounds of Erastil belong to His faith alone.
Father Kavken doesn't talk much about himself or his past. I get the feeling there might be, as locals say, a chip on his shoulder. But I was not about to press him for that information; instead, we prepared to set off again next morning, and escort him to the temple.
We were to set off on expedition again once we dropped him off. The fourth since we got here.
I probably looked miserable enough that Svetlana, bless her heart, managed to prepare a hot bath for me.
UZUME'S CULTURAL EXCHANGE – Radish Soup
As it turns out, the radishes we collected for Svetlana were meant for a soup. "Soup" itself seems to have a different meaning altogether here. From Svetlana's cooking I can see they like their soup more in a stew-type fashion, or pureé. Minkaian soup is more often broth-based.
In Minkai, radish soup is specifically made to detoxify the digestive system, if I remember Grandfather's teachings. Traditional Minkaian radish soup may be healthy but I find it terrible. It's made with sweet dates that are supposed to cut on the acidity of the radish, chicken stock, peppercorn and wolfberries, and it boils FOREVER, until you get a cloudy, yellow-brown broth with chicken pieces and bones floating about. Again: it's a very healthy soup and it's preferred by those who like the peppery aftertaste of radish and peppercorn. Unfortunately, to me and a lot more like me, it tastes like medicine more than actual food, and doesn't look all that appetizing.
Radish soup here is different. It's a creamy, stew-like concoction that along with the radishes, calls for potatoes, chopped onions, greens, carrots, parsley, chicken fat, pork, beans and a little sour cream. The radishes are fried in the chicken fat before going in the soup, so all that sour taste goes away, leaving only the radish taste itself, and the carrots are almost puréed into the broth to give it consistency. Their sweetness also helps one forget there's even radish in there. It's very filling and rich – when Nagata tells me he won't be able to have seconds and needs to take a long walk after dinner, we're talking in the realm of magical formula here.
Talking to Svetlana after the meal, I congratulated her on a wonderful end result. She asked me if I had had radish soup before. I said I hadn't, and I don't mean it as a lie. Minkaian radish soup is good for when you have a sore tummy. This is the radish soup I want to be eating for pleasure.