Chapter 5 The Lady of the Three Ways
On the auspicious first day of the new year, the group found their luck rising and falling as they got tangled up in local events in Po Keng. A sullen and despondent Bayar took temporary leave of the party to get his head straight, while Kanya dismissed herself to deal with issues of her own. The eventful day saw dance, rhyme, murder, cruel justice, rabid lynx kittens, the touch of a goddess, and a most surprising discovery about the yaks they had been driving since the start of their adventures.
Metal Day, 1st of 1st Month, ZY1114
Having sold the yaks to a local farmer only to learn that some secret treasure hid inside them, the group schemed how to get the yaks back. But before they could finalize their plot, they were accosted in the street by four local youths. The four had been a rival team contending to capture the Black Beast the night before, and they were angry that these outsiders had beat them to it.
“The Black Beast is sacred to the Lady of the Three Ways,” they said. “It deserves a noble death. Instead, these outsiders have handed it over alive to the very Orcs that brought upon us the interloping Thauma-Virun religion, which angered the Lady in the first place. It is no doubt meant to become burial goods for the late emperor, a fate we cannot accept. The Black Beast should have been given a noble death by the hands of a local tribesman!”
A crowd was gathering. It looked like the start of a fight, but just then the local constable stepped in.
“You’re not going to start some violence here on the south side, are you?” she said.
“We wouldn’t dream of it,” said the youths. “This isn’t a fight. This is a rut!”
The crowd cheered and chanted rut! rut! rut! Meanwhile, an old man, hunched over like a question mark, explained the meaning of the challenge.
“A rut is a dance contest, and no polite affair either!” said the old man. “It’s aggressive, rude, and even lewd. Oh, do I love a good rut! Rival teams take turns dancing, and the crowd decides the winner. In the first round, you dance to size each other up. In the second, you dance and perform the stag leap, which is as high and spectacular a jump as possible. And in the third and final round, you dance and say a rhyme. It can be any kind of rhyme, but it must end with ‘and that’s the way we rut!’”
The crowd cheered and moved to the Three-Way Inn for the dance contest.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, Kanya was dealing with a problem of her own. She had found a strange black discoloration on her thigh where the Black Beast had gored her. None of her herbal medicines seemed able to make it go away. Then, as she stepped into the street, she was approached by a local man carrying the dead corpse of a diseased hawk. It bore the distinctive black splotches on eye and tongue that had marked the wolves days before.
“Here’s what you asked for, your holiness,” said the man, offering the hawk. Kanya was confused at to why he called her your holiness, but an even worse problem present itself. As soon as the hawk came near, she felt searing pain in her thigh where the discoloration had appeared. It took all her mental effort to keep from doubling over in pain.
Though she had never seen the man before in her life, he seemed to believe he’d met her moments ago at the Three-Way Inn, when she had been wearing priestly robes. Befuddled, Kanya simply thanked the man, took the hawk, and went on her way.
Shortly, she encountered an Elven priestess with a most remarkable face. It was like staring into a mirror.
“Kanya?” asked the priestess. “Is it you? It is you! I haven’t seen you since you were a little girl! It’s me, Santhip!”
The priestess was none other than Kanya’s estranged aunt Santhip, the black sheep of the family who had gone off to live in Xing Xiang. This was the very person Kanya had been traveling to meet. She had apparently become a priestess of the Atmahan religion, and was on her way to a monastery near Kong Wan to investigate the strange new disease plaguing animals in the region. Kanya explained that the misfortune that befell the family, and that they were now the only survivors. Santhip was surprised, but happy to be with family once again. They proposed to travel together as far as Kong Wan. But Kanya kept a wary eye, hiding the hawk from her aunt until she could find out more about her motives.
Meanwhile, back at the Three-Way Inn, the dance contest was getting underway. First, the local challengers performed a stomping and snorting dance that got right up in the faces of their opponents. Then it was the adventurers’ turn. Tass balked at taking part in such a risque performance, but Mo-tse changed her mind with a quick cast of his Amorousness spell. The Elven lass went from demure to debauched in no time flat, and soon was lighting up the dance floor with alluring moves. Meanwhile, Tse-dong led Mo-tse around on by Wan-wan’s the dog’s leash. The second round saw the challengers make a poor showing at their leap, while Mo-tse and Wan-wan did startling flips in the air.
Finally, in the third round the challengers concluded with their rhyme:
Our enemies we cut cut cut
And pound them in the gut
Our hips and knees we strut strut strut
And that is how we rut!
The crowd approved until they heard what Mo-tse and Tass delivered:
We roll down from the mountains
And with our swords we cut
Bone, eye, gristle, labia, and nut
We’ll ream and grind your entrails
And rip apart your butt
With horn of yak and boar’s sharp tusk
We’ll make your mouth our mutt
We’ll burn your beds and have your dames
And bring down this sodden hut
Cuz where we’re from there is no fear
And that is how we rut!
The crowd roared and declared the outsiders the winners by far.
Just then, a local townsman broke into the inn shouting, “There’s been a fight! A gang fight!”
The mood went from jolly to serious as the truth came out. While everyone, including the constable, was distracted by the Rut, a pair of teen boys with bows opened fire on some southers, killing two and injuring three more. The survivors identified their attackers as Ko-u and To-shi, both norther gang hoodlums.
The constable immediately turned to the adventurers and said, “I need your help, as you are the only ones here without a bias toward the north or south side. Track down these two and bring them to justice, and you’ll not only have your names cleared of any suspicion regarding yesterday’s murders, but you’ll get a bounty of 100 shu per head.”
The group agreed and started off. They were informed that the youths would most likely flee to the vicinity of the Henge of Wu-Yu, for if they could make it to the henge they would be able to claim tribal justice and be tried by the shamans instead of the Alats. The shamans might declare banishment or even death, but the Alats would surely press them into forced military service, a fate considered far worse.
Riding on horses provided by the constable, the group quickly caught up with the boys in the woods near the Henge. They heard shouts, and found the boys beset by a lynx mother and her four kittens, all bearing diseased black splotches on eye and tongue. Dispatching the lynx family with their crossbows, the party captured the boys and returned them to justice.
At the trial that evening the party testified, and as predicted the boys were sentenced to forced military service.
Afterward, a funeral procession for the murdered youths led through the town. Shamans in deer pelts and antlers spun in trance to the beat of drums. Then, suddenly, one of them stopped and shouted, “Wait! We go to the Henge to commune with the Lady of the Three Ways, and yet she is already present. One here bears the mark!”
The old shaman pointed a bony finger at Kanya.
“It’s her. She bears the mark!”
All looked at Kanya with astonishment. An old shaman lady took her in indoors and inspected the discoloration on her thigh. Tass accompanied her for moral support. When Kanya told what had happened to her, the shaman nodded. She explained that it was indeed the mark of the Lady of the Three Ways. It meant the Lady was present within her. She must find out what it is the Lady wants her to do, and the pain in her thigh would not go away until she fulfilled the Lady’s wishes. Tass surmised that since the pain appeared whenever a diseased animal came near, the Lady must want Kanya to solve the problem of the plague. In any case, the Lady was present within Kanya, and the shaman explained that the townsmen of Po Keng would now follow her as the earthly incarnation of the Lady of the Three Ways.
When they emerged into the street once again, the crowd stared with eager anticipation. The shaman declared, “It is true. The Lady of the Three Ways is with her!”
They all bowed in deep reverence to Kanya.
“My most holy Lady,” asked the shaman. “We are on our way to a funeral. Would you do us the honor of officiating in this holy rite?”
Kanya, confused and overwhelmed, feeling the weight of responsibility weighing far too heavy on her, replied, “No. I won’t do it.”
The crowd gasped. The shamans consulted and then hastily declared, “The Lady is tired from her journey to this world! She desires solitude. Leave her be, and no one look at her while she takes her rest!”
The crowd, shocked and confused, then muddled on to the funeral without their beloved goddess.
At last, the group was left alone. They took the opportunity to take care of some business. Tass hired a storyteller to spread a story, an extremely well-written tale composed by her own hand, promoting the Thauma-Virun religion. But more importantly, the adventurers fulfilled their plot to get at the treasure that seemed to lie hidden inside the yaks. They bribed the constable to invent a reason to get them access to the yaks, and then they found what they were looking for. They found a strange bulge in the underbelly of each yak, hidden amidst the long belly fur. The bulge felt hard, almost metallic, and was about ten inches long and cylindrical. Kanya then sedated the yaks while Tass opened them up with her healer’s scalpels. Inside each yak, they found a leather bladder concealing a decorated bronze box. They healed the yaks with magic and quickly went on their way.
That night, secluded inside an out-of-the-way inn, the party gazed at the ten bronze boxes they had recovered. They were finely crafted, and decorated with taotie designs. Their locks could not withstand the determined efforts of Mo-tse and Kanya. In short time, they picked the locks and discovered paper scrolls inside.
Tse-dong and Tass gazed at the writing in astonishment. They recognized the language immediately: Gnomish.
Why could Tse-dong and Tass read this rare and feared language? That question was overshadowed by a still more enticing line of inquiry: What could be written in the tongue of that race feared for dabbling in the arts of sorcery?
Suddenly, it made sense why there had been so much ado about the yaks. It had been no ordinary yak drive. It seemed they had been hired as mules transporting highly illegal materials: sorcerous texts.
As they looked closer at the texts, it appeared they were written in some kind of code. Material seemed to be repeated, with slight variations. The title was written four different times, each time a little different:
Tass immediately set to work copying all the scrolls, while Tse-dong spent all night trying to decode them.
By morning, Tse-dong had worked out the code, which was written with every fourth character missing, starting with a different character each time, so that each copy was the key to the others.
The party stared at the title page. Their suspicions were confirmed. The decoded title read:
THE GRIMOIRE OF IMMORTALITY
There was no doubt about it. These were sorcerous texts, and no minor texts either. A quick perusal of the introduction revealed the author’s purpose was to teach the reader how to achieve personal immortality.
But the grimoire was incomplete. They had four copies of Book I, the introduction, four copies of Book II, which taught some minor spells, and two copies of Book X, which got into the heavy business of immortality. With only two copies of the latter, they could not completely decode the text, but could only be content with reasonable guesses.
Where was the rest of the grimoire? How many powerful nobles and priests coveted these texts, and what would they do to get them back? And how could the party hide the texts from authorities, lest they end up burned at the stake for sorcery? These questions weighed heavily as the cock crowed outside the inn, and dawn broke over the horizon.