Here’s the third prelude of the second playtest session, covering the adventures of our soon-to-be Night Caste aristocrat-turned-smuggler. Things get a bit more interesting here, setting-wise. Rules-wise, we saw a few social influence rolls, though in at least one case we were able to gloss over the mechanics through mutual agreement, further demonstrating that the social rules can stay well out of the way when you don’t need them.
It was the dead of night. Amid warm, thick mist shot through with the buzz of insects and the croak of frogs, Zhao Yujen Merak and his man Rik—who normally served as bosun on Merak’s pleasure boat, the Dancing Water—sculled a sampan heavy with smuggled goods down the steep northern shore of the Changdao estuary.
“Hold,” said Merak. “I hear something.” The pair pulled the oars aboard and hunkered down to wait. Soon another fishing boat loomed in the mist. As it creaked alongside, they heard the slap of bare feet on the deck as a lunkish pair of peasant fishermen crossed over.
“Looks abandoned,” said one, poking at the boxes in the stern. “I guess we’re pulling in a good haul tonight!”
“I think not,” Merak replied, rising from behind the cargo heap, knife in hand. The bosun loomed behind him, his powerful arms flexing as he hefted an oar. Nonplussed, the fishermen fled, and once the frantic plash of their oars faded, Merak and Rik continued on their own route.
Then the harbor that was their destination emerged from the mist like a skull. The port once had another name, but for centuries had been known only as Gray Bone. Ancient pilings rose from the water like rotting teeth; sickly trees thrust up between paving stones like fleshless hands; lightless holes gaped in the facades of cracked and crumbling structures. Hungry ghosts crept across the old stone piers, their eyes black pits of hunger.
Mooring their boat to a dock free of the hungry dead, Merak and Rik scurried ashore, their arms laden with boxes and bags. Merak led the way toward their rendezvous, only to spot an approaching pair of cloaked figures with fiery eyes. He dragged his man down a side street and through a maze of alleys, pushing through thickets and clambering over heaps of rubble—for he had been to this part of Gray Bone more than once—to come upon their destination from another direction.
There, in the moldering ruin of a shop four hundred years old, they set down their burdens before the woman they’d come to meet, the muscular cobalt-haired Lintha captain Gajui Nei. She nodded curtly before examining the cargo, deftly sifting through packages of incense and rough ornamental stones, handing each over to her own man—an ugly silent fellow—to wrap in oiled leather and pack away in traveling cases. Only when she was done did she smile, revealing teeth filed to sharp points. “As usual, I like what I see,” she said, and handed over a sack heavy with coin. “Your share.”
Merak opened the sack and went through the contents. He nodded. “Deal’s done.”
“And now for the rest of your payment,” she said, pulling him toward a yawning hole in the wall that might once have been an interior door.
“I thought it was the rest of your payment,” he replied. She laughed. The two disappeared for a time, leaving the bosun and Nei’s man to watch for trouble while ignoring the sounds from within.
Their business concluded, Merak and Nei said their farewells. With Rik at his side carrying the sack of silver, Merak got partway back to the docks, only to find the cloaked figures they’d evaded earlier were waiting for them. “Are you Merak,” one hissed, its tone more statement than question. The face—such as could be seen beneath its hood—was pale and unwholesome.
“Zhao. Yujen. Merak,” croaked the other.
The smuggler edged backward. “You have me at a disadvantage.”
“Our master seeks you,” said the first. “He would bargain for your services.”
“Oh. Well, in that case.” Merak cast his eyes about, but found no salvation at hand; even if Gajui Nei were inclined to aid him, the meeting-place was no longer in sight—and calling for aid might bring worse perils upon him. “Lead on.”
They followed the speaker deeper into the ruins of Gray Bone, its companion silently falling in behind them. After turning down a broad avenue littered with trees, its flagstones torn apart by roots and sunk deep into tree trunks, they passed through a plaza that resembled a sickly forest. At the far edge, the greenery grew thin, then cut off abruptly. The streets beyond were gloomy and misty, lined by pale upright buildings and populated by ghostly figures. As they passed the line, Merak looked back and saw only blackness. “A shadowland,” he said, shivering.
Hollow faces turned as they wound their way through the ghostly crowd to an opulent many-gabled house. The place was lit within by a pale hearth-fire that failed to diminish the city’s deathly chill. Seated upon an ornate chair, awaiting Merak and his man, was a spectral figure in dark finery. The grin splitting his unnaturally wide face revealed teeth carved with sigils in some unknown tongue. “Welcome,” he said. “I am Seven Ivories. And you are Zhao Yujen Merak.”
“Just so.” Merak rubbed his hands on his sleeves; something about Seven Ivories’ voice made him feel unclean. “Your… servants said you had a business proposition.”
“Yes. You are a renowned smuggler. Your reputation has come to me. There is an object that I wish conveyed. In exchange, I can offer you enormous wealth.”
Merak nodded. “Where is the object?”
“And where do you want me to bring it?”
“Er.” Merak gave his host a questioning glance. “Perhaps you could clarify what you need from me.”
“I need a certain item isolated for a time,” he said. “I will require it again at the end of the year. Until then, it must enter neither shadowland nor Underworld. It must come back to me on the first day of Calibration.”
“And what are you offering me for this… courier service?”
The specter grinned. “Ten talents of fine black jade. Five now, the rest upon delivery.”
Merak fought to keep his face placid, lest his jaw slacken and his eyes bulge from his sockets. “That seems… a fair price. And the object?”
Seven Ivories rose from his seat and crossed to a tall wooden cabinet. Opening it, he brought forth a box of black stone, its edged sealed with corroded copper and stamped with the image of a squid. “This,” he said. One at a time, from a shelf set into the base of a different, glass-fronted cabinet, he extracted five massive bars of jade that gleamed like midnight. Though he carried them lightly, the table creaked beneath their weight each time he set one down. “I am sure that I need not be so crass as to emphasize the consequences of failing to adhere to your end of the bargain. After all, there are some things that no man can escape. And I will be waiting.”
“Yes,” Merak said. A chill flowed up his spine at the thought of the bargain he was making—and the creature he was making it with. But as he looked at the fortune in jade before him, he knew his decision had already been made. “Five more on Calibration… I think we have a deal.”
“Very well.” The ghost rose to depart. “You may wish to remain here until sunrise, to avoid difficulties in your return to the land of the living. My hospitality is yours.”
The air grew less tense once the shade withdrew, but Seven Ivories’ burning-eyed servants still watched from the foyer. Merak rubbed his forehead. “Well, there’s a thing. Got a deck of cards?”
Rik nodded and pulled out a pack of tattered pasteboards. “Sure thing, Zhao. But we’re gonna need something else even more.”
The bosun pointed at the massive jade blocks and grinned. “A wheelbarrow.”