Cast of characters:
Ea: Having grown up in poverty, social outcasts because of the ‘unholy’ nature of their parents’ union, she and her sister mostly had to fend for themselves. At some point, Ea takes to larger crimes but after a particularly risky job goes south, she’s caught and thrown in a dungeon. While she’s in lockup, her younger sister takes to work in the mines and is never seen again. After being set free, to look for her sister, she takes up the job of a ranger and patrols the outlands, hoping to someday find some trace of her.
Chipak Dokra: All of 12 years old, this scheming delinquent dwarf is more demonic than the aforementioned half-demon. Borderline sociopathic, he uses his charming personality and beatific smile to convince adults of all stripes to do his bidding. And by his bidding, I mean specifically the creation of a radical utopia with him as its ultimate but benevolent ruler. And all of this before he discovers that he can tap into the chaotic magics that suffuse the world. And his obvious lack of control over his powers doesn’t seem to bother him at all.
Tuck: Orphaned and raised by monks, this middle-aged gnome’s peaceful visage and compassionate temperament belies a deep and abiding, almost mischievous curiosity in the ways of the world. His insatiable hunger for secret knowledge inevitably gets him into trouble when he’s found, eyes glazed over in front of one of the forbidden texts locked in the vault of the monastery library. Summarily dismissed, he wanders aimlessly for a while before joining paths with a manic young dwarf. Is he a mentor or a mark? Only time will tell.
Marlowe: The oldest of eight siblings, responsibility was thrust on Marlowe from an early age. He bore it without complaint till one day when, again without complaint, he packed a small bag, picked up his ukulele and left his family, not looking back once. He’s got a low opinion of the law but very strong opinions on loyalty and the price of betrayal. A serial adventurer, the half-elf collects stories like jam collects ants. Many of these tales revolve around his own daring exploits, some of them even true.
The four members of the Internal Revenue Department’s High Risk Transaction Unit find themselves entering the sleepy temple town of Ezakondapuram, a name that means a Town That Was Formerly Great. The size of the massive temple whose spire thrusts into the sky from the centre of town looks so incongruous among the dilapidating housing and the empty streets. Its night time and while in other towns lamps would be lit, this one lies sleeping. All they can hear as they trudge through the main thoroughfare is the sound of a tavern shutting down and one lone female voice drunkenly singing about how if her lover was a tree, his bark would be worse than his bite. They are here on business. The Baron owes the King about ten years’ worth of back taxes. It amounts to a pretty pile of coin and their commission would go a long way in setting them up for retirement. And from the looks of this town, how hard could this job be?
Such innocent thoughts are interrupted by a sharp cry. The party darts round the corner where they see a huge figure looming over a cowled form lying on the ground. They spring into action – one saying hark, one saying what’s happening, one telepathically messaging the looming figure and one waving her arms and screaming while charging forward. The hulking person turns around and swings a thick club. That’s how the fight started. It ended with the 12 year old casting a spell of sleep on, what now they can identify, as a seven foot simpleton. His breath reeks of alcohol and between his splitting headache and genuine confusion, the party deems him no threat and lets him go. He staggers off just as the cowled figure reveals herself to be the Baron’s daughter and legs it out of there.
Lots of questions need answering about what they just saw but business is business and the group heads towards the Baron’s mansion, just beyond the vast temple compound. Their arrival throws the guards off kilter as the arrival of taxmen is wont to do. They are ushered into the great hall where the dinner feast is being prepared. Soon the hall is filled with people – family members and servants of the Baron. The Baron arrives and picks up a goblet of wine. He greets the party but excuses himself, and as is traditional, informs himself of his daughters’ movements through the course of the day. The elder one is matter of fact and weary. The younger one, Iselda, whom the party recognizes, tells her father that she never left her rooms. Eyebrows crinkle at the sound of such a barefaced lie. The Baron is a cranky old man with no fondness for the king, his messengers, his complex tax code or anything else really. He tells them that he’ll see in them morning with the necessary payment but just as the words come out of his throat, he turns blue and collapses onto the table. He’s dead within seconds and the hall is in uproar. The older sister tries to enforce order, bundles the tax men off to their rooms as suspicious glances are thrown their way.
Did they kill him? They know they didn’t but who did?
The taxmen are escorted to their rooms – or rather room. It’s a large hall with beds thrown against the far wall and the rest of the room filled with furniture and ornamentation. Tuck wanders over to the painting of a woman, hair flowing behind her, riding a horse. He recognizes her as Nissa Ben Naga, a local folk hero. Other large paintings adorn the two other walls. One is a self-portrait of the Baron and the other is an arresting image, seemingly a religious painting. It contains a faceless figure with one hand behind his back, the other stretched out to the viewer, palm up. On the offered palm are his featureless face’s features.
It’s clear they aren’t done for the night when a knock on the door turns out to be Iselda. She apologizes for the events that have just transpired, assures them of their safety and accuses her sister of killing her father. A resounding AHA is heard and the grandfather clock swings open and the older sister, Maria, enters. She’s been waiting for her sister to try a stunt like this and tells the taxmen that Iselda must have been out getting the poison earlier the evening, the timing of the death allows for no other reasoning. Iselda accuses her of sending the dimwitting half-ogre after her but Maria changes the topic to the succession.
She invites one member of the party to be the arbitrator in a trident wager between her and her sister. Tuck, as the de facto old man of the party, steps up and volounteers. The wager is sealed – the task is the head of the temple priest and the prize is the kingdom. After Maria leaves, Chipak smiles sweetly at Iselda and pumps her for information. The painting is of Asavansi, the Baron’s favourite god and the deity of the temple in the town. They also find out that there is no one guarding the temple, that the priest is just an old man and that while he knows some magic, he’s going to be slaughtered.
Slightly shocked by that fact, the group leaves post-haste to the temple. Someone seems to be following them but they ignore it. The temple is a large spiral structure and as they enter it, they are met by a sweeper girl who introduces herself as Panna. She invites them for nightly prayers but they initially refuse, asking to see the priest. When told that no one has been allowed to see the priest for three months (as he is locked in meditation, trying to commune with his god) but she can answer their questions, they agree to the ritual. Panna asks each of them for a story. Ea talks about a mysterious benefactor that would give her sister and her thirteen gold coins whenever they acted out stories on the street. Marlowe tried to tempt Panna into giving her life story with his interpretation of it. Chipak tells them about his discovery of his powers and how it cost him a particularly meaningful plant. Tuck talks about a bird with a broken wing that healed but couldn’t fly and it was for the sake of teaching this bird to fly that he tried to access eldritch knowledge and was kicked out of the monastery. The bird died. In return for these, Panna tells them Asavansi offers a story in return. She tells them about how brother Kinjee was about to eat the world, how Asavansi gave him stories to eat while Bal-jabbar came up with a better plan, but after ten years and a day, when bal-jabbar finally arrives with his gift of numbers with no end, instead of celebration, it’s a time of bitterness. Asavansi had run out of stories and for the last day had been feeding Kinjee his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. This was how their friendship ended.
After the story, Panna rubs the ashes from the flame onto their left hand and they talk for a while. Suddenly, Panna snaps to attention and says people are coming. The taxmen agree to fight by her side. She disappears for a minute and returns fully-armoured from head to toe. She summons three ethereal figures that appear by their side. Together, they face down the attackers who turn out to be the first wave. There is the sound of drums and two groups enter the space – dalsanas and uckanas. The uckanas are dispatched with one of them writhing in pain from where he touched one of the statues that lined the temple walls. The dalsanas drum up a sonic storm that smashes into the group, destroying the three ethereal figures and knocking out Tuck and Marlowe. Chipak is horrified and turns to the group unleashing hellish flames that burn the three dalsanas to a crisp. Panna looks hurt but cries out and as she does, an ethereal hand reaches out from the roof and touches the party who are revived.
Chipak had summoned Iselda during the battle to get her to pull her soldiers back. She arrives after the carnage is complete. She realizes that the taxmen are fighting for the temple. They then inform her that the wager is over, the priest has been dead for three months and that Panna is the current priestess. She is enraged and runs out.
The taxmen retire after the fight and get a good night’s rest. When they awake, they see a bird made of paper sitting on the table, staring at them, head slightly cocked. As they watch, another paper bird sails in through an upper window, tears up the first bird, ripping at it with its claws and takes its place. They can recognize the birds as missives from HQ. When one of them approaches the new bird, it opens up into a flat sheet of paper carrying a simple message. Their mission has changed, they have to leave to the town of greenberry and a new operative is being put in charge of this mission. After a brief discussion in which Chipak argues for them to stay but can’t articulate exactly why, the group leaves for Greenberry.
On the way, they come across a merchant named Darius. Darius mistakes them for Dalsanas because of Ea and Marlowe’s instruments. He asks them for help. He says he’s a member of the Dalsana merchant guild and they had buried some cargo in the woods for safekeeping and now a man-eating plant called a Kykinium had grown over it. Kykinium aren’t found this far south normally so he’s as surprised as anyone. The group venture into the woods on the promise of a reward. They find the kykinium and with a combination of pure alcohol, magic fire and unseen servant manage to set it on fire. Then chipak uses mold earth to flip it over and bury it under a mound of mud. Under the kykinium is a chest with a small crack at the top. A bit of root still sticks out of there. They open the chest to find it full of gold coins, almost 600 pieces.
They go back to Darius and tell him very politely that they’re tax collectors and they’re keeping the gold. Darius cries a lot but after a shaking down, tells them that it was meant for Iselda at Baron Hammer’s mansion. They offer to take him to Greenberry but he’s crying too much so they just leave him there.
When they reach Greenberry, it’s market day. They try to ignore the market at first but a magic rope catches their eye and well, you know, it’s magic so they buy it. They report to the local tax officer and Brighur, the local boss, mocks them before giving them a note from inhuman resources. It says It says body count: 11, gold: 0, rating: DISAPPOINTED. He tells them that if their rating goes below 4, they'll be fired.
At which point to save their honour presumably, they point out that they have collected 200 gold from the dalsana guild. Brighur takes the gold and says he’ll write to head office about this connection between the dalsana guild and Iselda.
They go to the dalsana guild to investigate. After much debating, Marlowe disguises himself as Darius and waits for his cue. Chipak starts singing happy birthday to impress the receptionist who is duly impressed and tells him to pursue his dreams. Chipak then tells him that Darius was killed on the way by the god Uck. At which point he is dragged out and the whole plan is called off.
This whole session was spent in the market. Things were bought. Lots of things.
They first visited a book seller who gave them a children’s book on bal jabbar because Chipak gave him money for free. He is now a local informant, whatever that means. They visited a fortune teller where Marlowe got her fortune told. The teller spoke of an imminent offer that will leave her dancing the knife edge between a mouth and a snake. Needless, Marlowe asked for his money back but you don’t need a fortune teller to know she didn’t get it. Ea asks the parrot to tell her fortune and got some mumbo jumbo about how nobody asked 13 if it wanted to be an unlucky number. She didn’t even bother trying to get her money back. Chipak tried to get the parrot join them full time but couldn’t afford his rates. Cash flow problems, you understand, don’t you? They also tried to buy some invisible dust but ended up coughing a lot.They also went back to the magical rope lady and bought some fancier kit. That’s about it.