Chapter 3 The Things You Do for Yaks
After their day as heroes of the city of Kong Wan, the Lau brothers, Bayar, and the dog Wan-wan set out on what they hoped to be an uneventful and profitable conclusion to their yak drive, only to see it turn out anything but. New friends were met, hazards faced, and mysteries encountered.
Fire Day, 22nd of 12th Month, ZY1113
Setting out from Kong Wan, the party ran into an ill omen: a dying vulture lying crumpled in the road before them. Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that the vulture’s eyes were covered in black splotches, and so was its tongue.
That night at a wayside inn, the innkeeper explained that a number of animals had been turning up with the same black splotches, usually birds of prey or large predators. Meanwhile, Bayar met a trio of Orc Imperial riders headed to Kong Wan to enlist in the army of the Governor. With an eye to acquiring their horses, Bayar bargained to write them a letter of recommendation. He based this on the reputation of his father, the distinguished archer Oko. While the soldiers were not at liberty to sell their government-issue horses, they offered to pay for food and wine that night. So Bayar wrote their letter, and a raucous party warmed the inn that night. Tse-dong even learned a handful of Orcish words and a dirty limerick.
Late that evening, Mo-tse went out to check on the yaks and discovered it was snowing, but not any normal kind of snow. Falling from the sky were black, tar-like particles. The innkeeper explained that the strange phenomenon was known as Thaumas Ashes. People said the particles were detritus from the heavenly forge of Thauma the Sky God.
Still later that evening, the inn was infiltrated by an intruder. It might have gone unnoticed were it not for Tse-dong’s keen ears. He started awake to find a masked man entering the room. The intruder side-stepped Tse-dong’s thrown dagger and fled back the way he came. Everyone else, roused by the ruckus, chased after. But he slipped out like a ghost, leaving no tracks in the snow. Wan-wan the dog sniffed around the perimeter of the inn and continued to bark, but the intruder was nowhere to be found. The party gave up the search in vain.
Water Day, 23rd of 12th Month, ZY1113
The next day, the party carried on with their travels. Soon it became apparent that illness had struck the herd of yaks: three began to grow sluggish. Later, they started to drool and masticate, while refusing food. Abrasions were found on their tongue. Tse-dong healed the abrasions with magic but the other symptoms persisted. Neither of the herders knew what was wrong with the animals. They had no choice but to press on.
Near dusk that evening, they came upon a strange sight: an Elf girl in nothing but her undersilks, covered in snow and shivering, with bruises and scratches all over her body. They learned the girl had been attacked by bandits, who took most of her possessions and clothing. But the robbery was interrupted by a sudden avalanche, of which she was the lone survivor. Her name was Tass, and she was a healer and fortune teller. As such, she was quickly welcomed into the group of travelers.
A predicament presented itself: although the next inn was close at hand, the way was blocked by the avalanche. The party was forced to make camp. Tass warmed by the fire. Meanwhile, wolves howled in the night.
The howling was no idle omen. For about midnight, a pack of wolves lunged into camp and attempted to take down one of the sick yaks. Any normal wolf might have been frightened off by fire and a few shouts, but these were crazed, twitching wolves no doubt afflicted by the same illness that felled the vulture. The wolves went for the jugular of their opponents, fighting with uncommon ferociousness. Bayar managed to frighten off a handful with a roar amplified by his Thunder’s Voice spell, but the rest fought on. They ripped into Bayar’s throat and sliced clean through Mo-tse’s left arm, while very nearly killing one of the yaks. All three might have died if not for quick magical healing. The wolves were finally fended off by deft crossbow marksmanship, especially at the hand of the newcomer, Tass.
Wood Day, 24th of 12th Month, ZY1113
But the party was not out of danger yet. In the morning, they had to cross the mountain of snow left by the avalanche. A quick investigation found the snows shifting and unsteady, ready to trap unlucky travelers in a tomb of snow. Fortunately, Mo-tse came up with a clever idea. He removed the wheels from the pull cart that carried the yaks’ food. Then he used the flat cart bed to distribute weight like a giant snow shoe, and drove a yak onto the cart bed. In this way, he managed to pack the snow and make a passable trail through the avalanche. The whole group made it through unharmed.
As for the ill yaks, their condition continued to worsen. But the herders met with a stroke of luck at the next inn. There they met a second Elf girl, this one an herbalist. In exchange for having her fortune told by Tass, the herbalist agreed to examine the yaks. She quickly diagnosed them with an illness called wooden tongue. It afflicts bovine animals, often after a change of feed. The tongue develops abrasions, which then become infected. The condition is fatal if not treated with an iodine solution within two weeks. Fortunately, she had iodine in her pouch of herbs and medicines. Soon, the yaks were on their way to recovery, thanks to the Elven herbalist. Her name was Kanya. She was going their way, so she offered to travel with them and tend to the yaks.
Metal Day, 25th of 12th Month, ZY1113
As the group continued to descend out of the mountains, dwarfish shrubs gave way to tall evergreens in the foot hills.
Earth Day, 26th of 12th Month, ZY1113
Sun Day, 27th of 12th Month, ZY1113
Moon Day, 28th of 12th Month, ZY1113
Finally, the evergreen foot hills gave way to a rolling forest of deciduous trees. Many of the trees had yellow-ish bark, and locals painted their faces with a yellow cream. Soon it was learned that this was the Yellow Forest. The region was named for its yellow-ish tanaka trees, the wood of which was ground on a stone and mixed with water to make a sunblock/cosmetic cream.
The party found the locals especially cold to Orcs and Thauma-Viruns (Bayar felt a bit self-conscious, no doubt).
Fire Day, 29th of 12th Month, ZY1113
Water Day, 29th of 12th Month, ZY1113
Wood Day, 30th of 12th Month, ZY1113 – New Year’s Eve
On the morning of the last day of the calendar year, the party came upon a gruesome sight: bodies littered across the road, with crows picking at their eyes. It appeared to have been some kind of stand-off between a band of Goblinoids and a handful of Orc riders.
Upon closer inspection, the group found that the leader of the Orcs had a tattoo of a horse on his neck. The Lau brothers’ hearts sunk: this was the very man to whom they were supposed to deliver their yaks. And the bodies had clearly been looted: their purse strings were cut, and some had fingers cut off and teeth cut out. Worst of all, the payment for the yaks was nowhere to be found.
But the discovery was not without benefit. In addition to a significant pile of equipment, the party found a number of clues.
First, on one of the Goblinoids was an odd cuff link: an onyx tortoise entwined by a silver serpent with one eye-jewel missing. It gave Bayar a start when he saw it, for he had seen it before. When he had undergone his initiation at the Abbey of the Black Tortoise in Xing Xiang, he saw the very same cuff link on the sleeve of the abbey’s vicar. Apparently, these Goblinoids had been to the abbey.
Second, a letter was found on the tattooed Orc leader. It was from Dugo, the Orc captain who had contracted the drover brothers in the first place. It read:
Friend Kuruk, Winter has come and soon shall arrive the 19th of First Moon, the birthday of your most excellent master, Pagwa, the Prefect of Shen Bei. A gift is surely due, none other than that gift of which we spoke earlier. Shortly, two Goblinoid drover brothers shall arrive in Po Keng, carrying the gift. They are promised 150 shu per yak for their trouble. Be assured the gift is indeed worthy. Should you doubt, remember these words:
Ordos odo a vianga Viru
Hube hos ek usutu ulam
Jianga jiangar esu elam
Ride swiftly, my friend, and deliver my gift to your master in time for his birthday.
In loyal service, Dugo
Bayar tried to read the Orcish poetry, but his language skills were not up to it. He only knew that it was a verse from an oral epic of Viru.
The letter was perplexing. It revealed that the yaks were intended as a present to a man in Shen Bei, but to drive a herd all the way to Shen Bei would be insane. The yaks would surely die from attrition before they arrived. Moreover, it could never be done in time for the 19th of First Moon. Such a long drive was unheard of, and the speed unthinkable. These facts, combined with the suspiciously high price promised for the drive, cast an aura of mystery over the yaks. The group began to suspect it was not the yaks themselves that was the gift. Had they been fed gems, treasures waiting in their bellies? What could this “gift” be?
In addition to these questions, there was also the peculiarity of the battle. Was it a simple case of bandits attacking travelers and getting slaughtered in the process? Or were the Goblinoids after something in particular? And why did one of them have the cuff link of the very vicar who had initiated Bayar into the ranks of the Thauma-Virun?
These questions weighed heavily on the minds of the party members as they trudged into town, finally about to reach their destination of Po Keng.