It is the month of Ascending Water, Realm Year 766, and you are being led to a small village on the border of Rokan-Jin. This little village is quiet. No people wander its moonlit streets, no animals do more than snuffle softly in their pens, and the lone tavern has darkened windows. The only exception is the barn, nestled against a thick stand of white pine. Even from the edge of the village, you can see the light seeping from between its weathered slats, hear voices, and glimpse the shadowy figures standing guard near a side door. It is a wonder the Haltan patrols have not found it already.
Your guide leads you toward it in silence, and you see there are other such pairs, each one stopping before the guards and revealing their faces for recognition. It is your turn; the left-hand guard smiles and greets your guide by name, but is hushed by a stern look from his companion. You are waved inside, and pause momentarily to let your eyes adjust.
Now you understand why the village was so quiet. It seems as if every local adult, and more besides, are here, dancing and chatting in the lanternlight. And yet, the mood is wrong. More guards stand within the barn, and a look into their eyes shows wary determination. The revelers themselves seem muted, and there is a manic quality to their motions. It is as if this is the last party of their lives.
Your guide leads you towards an empty horse stall, and as you come around the wooden divider, you see that a wooden trapdoor leads down into the earth. Walking down the steps and through a narrow tunnel leads you into a large earthen room. Support beams are evenly spaced, each holding a glowing crystal that illuminates the place without leaving tell-tale smoke. The room feels like a mine.
Wooden stools have been set out on the packed dirt floor, facing towards a makeshift stage. Hard-eyed women and men sit in the back rows or stand along the side aisles, conversing in low tones. You can sense their desperation, even more pronounced than those above, but their expressions change as you and the other guests are led to the front row, where cushions have been laid upon the stools. Where a moment before the crowd reeked of the gallows, now you feel hushed whispers of hope.
Now seated, you wait only a minute before a man and woman enter from a side passage. She wears a worn military uniform, marking her as an officer in the army of Rokan-Jin. He is bedecked in cyan robes, with a tall hat that almost scrapes against the low ceiling. Both possess small gemstones on their clothing; she bears a square ruby as part of her rank insignia, and his hat is studded on four sides with garnet.
“Honored guests,” he speaks, “and faithful citizens of Rokan-Jin, I welcome you tonight. I am Hidden Jasper, former ambassador to the city of Whitewall. Beside me is Colonel Azurite Tetsun, commander of this region’s resistance cells. I apologize that someone more high-ranking couldn’t be present,” he receives a hateful glance from the Colonel, “but it seems that General Migda recently undertook a covert mission to seek additional aid from our foreign allies. Still, I’m sure that-”
He is cut off when the Colonel elbows him aside mid-gesture, using his own momentum to send him stumbling off the side of the stage. Taking Jasper’s place on the stage, she looks directly into your eyes. “I won’t lie to you.” She looks up to address the entire room. “I won’t lie to any of you. Migda did a runner. Far as I know, that means I’m in charge, for however much that’s worth. This is pretty much the end.”
Two guards hurry to Jasper’s side, making a show of dusting him off, while surreptitiously trying to stifle his outraged complaints. The audience seems unsteady, but Tetsun presses on. “Its been three years since the Icewalkers and the Haltans beat us. Three years of ineffectual guerrilla war. Fact is, our tactics were sound, and we might have been able to push them out, if we hadn’t lost so many people in the war. But they have the numbers and the training, and we have weary old folks and orphaned children. Some,” she tilts her head towards Jasper, “will put on a smile and tell you its only a matter of time until we take our country back. But that isn’t true. A conquered people, which is what we are, can be worn down eventually.”
“So we swallowed our pride and begged for help, because we can’t do it alone. This meeting represents the last dregs of defiance that our people have left. If we can’t make any progress from here, then we are nothing more than a Haltan puppet state.” She bows, stiffly and formally, to the guests in the front row. “You folks have come this far, and I thank you for that. But I must ask you: Will you help us?”