Hugo Tuya’s guards have fled the Middlemarch, pursued by deepfolk, and arrived at Iruva on the western edge of the spine mountains. They have failed in their job as guards, losing Hugo Tuya to a deepfolk raid in the middle of their journey through the pass, then abandoning his wagon and losing the wagoneer as they fled the mountains. They have managed to save Hugo Tuya’s “niece” Selina and her maid Leia, but when they reached Iruva they collapsed into sleep disappointed in themselves and their failed mission. Now they must think about where to go and what to do next.

A purpose: Mystery and Revenge

They woke by midday and gathered in the dining room of their hostelry to discuss their failures and their next steps. They had no special reason to travel onward, but they could not return over the Middlemarch until the way was cleared, probably only as part of a large raiding party. Iruva’s bailiff had immediately sent word to the next town, Antika, of the gathering storm in the mountains but he would not receive aid sufficient to do anything better than defend his town. They were all aware that no raiding party would be unleashed on the Middlemarch until winter was over, and unless they wanted to spend several months in the small and boring town, they needed to consider heading down the river to Estona.

Over breakfast they discovered that this was everyone’s preference. They needed to find better armour and weapons, they wanted to meet Siladan the Elder and inquire as to the various members of his old adventuring group whose bodies they had found on their journey, and they wanted to investigate mysteries they had encountered on the road. Estona was Hadun’s second largest city and no doubt had large libraries and many wise folk who could answer their questions – not to mention Siladan, and better weapons dealers. So they would set off soon.

As this discussion unfolded they discovered Selina hanging in the shadows, waiting to talk to them. She interrupted and begged them to take her with them. Her true purpose in traveling with Tuya had not been love or money, but escape: her family had promised her to an older man in another town and she could not bear the thought, so had used her charms to negotiate her way onto Tuya’s caravan to Estona. She had an uncle in Estona with whom she had stayed for a year when she was younger, and since he doted on her she hoped he would look after her. However, she would need work in Estona, and now she offered the group a deal: if they would escort her to the city she would negotiate with her uncle to allow them to use a piece of land he held on the eastern edge of the city. It was a derelict tea merchant’s, which he had not been able to develop and could not sell for legal reasons. Then, if they promised her the chance to stay in the building and work for them, she would help them to enter into Estona society: she would be their representative in the town when they were adventuring, and her maidservant would work in the kitchen and bedrooms of the house. She would use her connections in the town and her charm to put them in contact with the right people, and negotiate for them when they needed things smoothed over with local businesses and petty officials. All they had to do was take her down the river and support her now that she was penniless and without a guardian. They agreed, and next day they set out for Estona.

Estona and the black cliffs

Later that day they were called to the walls of Iruva to witness the sad spectacle of the reanimated corpses of Hugo Tuya and his wagoneer shambling towards the town. They explained the situation to the bailiff and his men and, in a last sad chapter of their relationship with Hugo Tuya, sent Kyansei out to kill both the approaching zombies. When it was done they burnt the bodies and left town.

The journey to Estona was uneventful. They walked along the river bank from Iruva to Antika and after 3 days caught a boat from that small town down the river west to Estona. This journey took another 3 days, and they arrived in Estona on the 13th of the month of Travel. From the morning of the second day of this journey the land on the northern bank of the river began to rise, and it rose continuously over the remainder of the journey, revealing a huge cliff face of black stone that crept up and up until, as they approached Estona, the north bank became a wall of black stone 2-3 kms high, its uppermost reaches shrouded in clouds. The river widened rapidly as they traveled down it, becoming a sluggish 100m wide channel as they neared Estona. On that northern bank, at the foot of the vast cliff, stretched long beaches of black sand, interspersed with huge chunks of rock that had fallen from above. Ships navigated on the southern side of the river, passing close to each other to avoid the rocky shoals at that edge of the cliff, and they saw local workers labouring over fallen rocks, breaking them up and dragging them out of the channel to be shaped back at the city and shipped off to all corners of the Archipelago. This was their first time seeing the stupendous majesty of the black cliffs of Estona, and they stared at them in awe as they slipped by in their little riverboat.

Estona was a lively city, nearly 200,000 people living in comfortable stone and wood homes stretched along the black sand banks of the river and on higher hills inland. The land on the urban side of the river was flat and fertile, rising gently to a headland with a lighthouse looking out over the western sea. Riverboat docks jutted out from the raised banks some distance from the sea, where the river turned brown and sluggish with the estuarine tides. Here a throng of labourers and merchants unloaded and loaded the small ships and a busy throng of carts led along the sea wall to the maritime docks further around the harbour. They left their ship here and found a comfortable tavern on the saltroad, the main road that stretched from the town’s eastern extent to the ports at its western end. They took good rooms and dumped their gear, explored the town a little, and rested while Selina ventured out into the busy streets to find her uncle.

The next day they met her uncle, a man called Arvil, who explained to them that he had inherited a once-profitable tea merchant’s compound from his older sister before she died. This tea business had stopped being profitable some twenty years ago, when a larger merchant opened up on the coastal side of the river, and his sister had somehow managed to mismanage the business into ruin. When he inherited the business he discovered it was caught in a complex web of legal arrangements and a business in Rokun had a legal claim on it such that it could not be sold, though he could use it freely. With no experience or interest in tea he had allowed the land to become unoccupied and unused and now, some 20 years later, with three successful businesses already running and his retirement looming, Arvil no longer had an interest in the place. He and his husband were focused on settling into their retirement and handing over their successful businesses to their two adopted children, and they had no interest in starting new adventures. As far as he was concerned the group could occupy and use the land freely, though the legal claim meant there were limits to how much they could change the land, and he would not be able to sell it. He offered them a year of rent-free occupancy without interference provided they would employ his daughter as their local agent, and were willing to clear it of its current squatters.

They were surprised to hear this, but long since used to the idea that nothing they encountered would ever be simple. Apparently some small number of rural types had moved in some years ago and were now making use of the place. Its lack of neighbours and rural surrounds meant they did not really bother anyone, and so he had been unconcerned. But if the group wanted it they would need to clear it. He gave them a brief description of the land, and left them to it. The next day they headed to the property to clear it out.

The Hag

They approached the compound from the land side, but it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, repeatedly losing themselves in the loose forest and bogs of the area until finally, slightly worn out, they came into sight of a low wall that they guessed was the edge of the compound. They paused to rest and sent in various animals to investigate the area. These confirmed they were in the right place, and there were bad smelling non-human things living there. They slipped inside the nearest gate and moved into the compound itself.

Inside the gate they found a scrubby patch of land that may have been an abandoned herb garden, with a broken glasshouse and wooden shed on the side closest to them. Opposite that stood a long, single-story stone building connected to a wooden stucture from which steam rose into the grey sky, and which was in turn connected to a large longhouse-type central building. They had been told that the compound was centred around an onsen that provided hot clean water to both the main building and the tea preparation area, and they guessed that was it. They could see signs of people or things living in the main longhouse building, but they had no time to get a closer look because as they entered the compound a group of creatures came rushing through the grass of the herb garden to attack them.

When the creatures came closer they saw that they were large humanoid types, wearing nothing but loin cloths that revealed thickly-muscled bodies covered in fine dark brown fur. They ran upright but slightly stooped, and their heads were strangely animalistic, as if a human face had been merged with a boar and a lion. More came charging out of the longhouse, accompanied by a larger leader type, and the battle started.

It would have gone relatively smoothly except for the horrible, scaled humanoid thing that emerged from the longhouse after a few seconds of battle and started casting spells on them. It used a piercing scream attack to reduce Itzel to near unconsciousness, healed some of the beastmen that fought for it, and cast a fog spell that allowed it to disappear and move amongst them, using its screech again to try and knock the PCs unconscious. They managed to kill the majority of the beastmen but at the last, just as the scaly-skinned monstrosity melted into smoke and disappeared, the leader of the beastmen hit Quangbae with such a vicious tearing attack that it destroyed the former blacksmith’s left arm. They killed the beastman leader then, and drove off the rest, and the creature that had been leading them dissolved into mist and slunk away to the river, but their victory had exacted a steep price: Quangbae’s arm was permanently destroyed.

During the desperate battle to save his life they discovered that the onsen at the centre of the compound was actually a healing onsen, and by bathing him in its waters they were able to ease his pain. Perhaps the strange beast had been drawing on the magic of the onsen to support its own powers and control the beastmen as its soldiers. Was it a fey? They did not know, but now they did not care. Quangbae was safe despite his wounds, they had a new base of operations with a magic healing onsen, and now they were in a position to begin exploring the mysteries they had uncovered in their journey here. A new chapter was about to begin …