13th Voyage

31 - The Mirror With the Form of a Man

The tale of a bargain made for a merchant-queen's soul.

Attsu Tsarran’s tale has grown since he last parted with his comrades near the domicile of the river-giant Igwu. When examining the camp of Ubarid and his guides, Attsu recognized scraps of equipment belonging to Messarit the Ear-Cutter — a soldier of fortune who had pursued him before on behalf of Hayr Charike. He pursued the Ear-Cutter’s trail downriver, through a nest of sculptor wasps, until finally with the help of a pretty werejackal, he caught the bounty hunter. Upon interrogating Messarit, Attsu learned that Hayr Charike hired her to accompany Ubarid out of suspicion. The master thief seemed concerned that the Ascending Flame would pose a threat to the City of Thieves, and wanted to keep as many eyes on the wizards of Izir as possible.

From there, his travels led him to a clash between the forces of two old associates. A flight loyal to the Queen of Birds makes war against an ifrit, and Attsu was drafted to fight on the side of his former paramour. He was badly damaged during the conflict, but helped secure victory for the Queen’s forces. An azer smith from among the ifrit’s followers repaired his form as a concession, adding in more firebrass and even some adamantine.

The talons of a great owl carry Attsu back to Adwa, where the immense bird deposits him at night without so much as a sound. He returns to the Golden Venture compound in time to hear the fresh news of the attack on Mashaar the Golden-Fingered.

The Twist of Fate makes full sail back to Adwa. Barbafir Bloodmouth’s wives protest the abandonment of their husband and the Ascending Flame, however temporary, but Captain Tairasha firmly refuses to set the corsair’s priority over that of Mashaar. A small prize-crew takes over the Deathless Slave and sets a course for Adwa as well, though the bulky ship is clearly going to take longer without the help of Aya or any rowers.

The venturers reach Adwa in a day and a half. They see the Golden Venture’s two other famous ships, the Rich Man’s Despair and the Dracosphinx already in the harbor. When they reach the company compound, they find Mashaar lying unconscious in her bed, a number of her “orphans” protectively gathered around her. Several are surprised to see Captain Tairasha on land as if nothing were wrong, but he waves away the explanation for later.

Seyriida explains that she dispatched magical sendings to all of the Golden Venture captains, and one besides to the Fire-Eater — though it is not formally part of the trading company, the Orphans decided that Lightning Zan and his crew owe enough of a debt that they should be called on as a resource as well. With Tairasha, his crew, and especially Abd present, the others relate what they know.

Mashaar’s assistant Piah speaks up. She was the only witness to the event. She saw Abd storm into the compound and gain audience with Mashaar. He exchanged only a few words before drawing an odd, short, straight blade and driving it into the mistress’s belly. As Mashaar fell back, a strange silvery breath escaped her mouth. The Abd before her removed a small earthenware urn from his belt with an odd sigil on it. When he removed the stopper, the silver mist swirled into the urn, and he quickly sealed it again. Then he stormed out of the compound, striking Piah on his way out but not doing her any severe harm. Piah immediately ran to summon Blessed Lirin, who was able to heal Mashaar’s wound but not to restore her to consciousness.

“Did Abd seem different?” asks Attsu.

“He was… very harsh,” says Piah. “As if he had a great wrath within him.”

“So, no,” responds Aya.

As the other venturers state that they were unable to track the false Abd in time, a small crash sounds from outdoors. The orc ranger Ruzakh reenters the room, carrying with him a clay imp impaled by one of his arrows. The imp is carrying a note, which Abd takes.

I shall be brief: You possess something I require, and now I possess something you desire.

A simple exchange: The soul of Mashaar jin Unun al-Uzun for the Behemoth, the Crow, and the Dolphin. Then we need not cross paths again.

Bring the stones to the Shaitan’s Watchtower in the Mouth of Fevers. Plot against me to your — and her — peril.

The note is signed by a glyph that Abd recognizes as that of Nehedza the Shrouded Moon. Wind-of-Embers remembers poring over the map collection of a Sentinel of the Broken Wall, and begins to sketch out what she remembers of the map of the Shaitan’s Watchtower. The structure is an imposing one, built as a simple watchtower for a grander palace deeper in the swamp — but built by creatures twice as tall as a mortal.

The various venturers consider ways to go after the tower. Some even raise the question about going against the whole of the Ascending Flame — does the Golden Venture Company now declare war? The assembly is clearly torn: the Ascending Flame, through the Amir of Izir, has an entire city on their side. But the venturers would not fight fair…

Abd, Attsu, and Aya go out looking for information, and Wind-of-Embers follows her new comrades. Abd stops by Bubaas the Barber, a gossip on good terms with the Immortal Sage, who in turn drops the name of Haup the Houndmaster. He advises Abd to find Haup on the Street of Blue Silks, by the fountain bedecked with crabs.

Abd and the others follow the barber’s directions. In the fountain square, they find a grim and weathered man in desert nomad’s clothes, seated on a stoop under an awning’s shade, a large and splendidly furred sighthound reclining near his feet. “We have a friend in common,” says Abd, and when the man raises an eyebrow, he clarifies. “The Immortal Sage.”

“You seek Haup?” the man asks.

“Yes.”

The sighthound raises its head and a voice echoes in the venturers’ minds. “Then you have found him.”

Abd asks Haup to scout into the Mouth of Fevers and observe the Shaitan’s Watchtower. The dog seems displeased at the thought of running through the poisonous swamp. “If I do this for you,” he says, “then you must do something for me.” Abd simply nods.

Haup regards him, then says “Cat leaps down from up on high; dog comes barking by and by.”

The group of venturers consider the strange riddle. After some contemplation, they find the answer: “lightning and thunder.” Haup nods, says “All right, then,” stands, and races off, as swift as a cheetah.

Aya goes to Adwa’s nightlife district to meet with one of her own contacts. She picks up a bottle of a particularly fine fig brandy along the way. In one of the celebrant tents she finds Ilsissa, a lovely young woman decorated with tattoos like stained glass windows or a jewel adder’s hide. Ilsissa chats with her for a moment before Aya states she’s not here to gossip. She brings up the Shaitan’s Watchtower, and the woman muses. She confirms there’s a single person remaining there, alone — save for a small boat steered by a construct, and many bodies clinging to the tower’s sides that he might use.

“We are friends, Aya,” says Ilsissa at one point. “If you need it, I can offer you a gift of stealth that would suit the marsh. Or for your friends. But only half a dozen, at the very most.”

The question of numbers having been raised, the venturers discuss bringing others along on their errand. The note requires Abd to come alone — but if the enemy is likely to cheat, then it seems only prudent to cheat in return. They agree to raise the prospect with a few trusted others. At any rate, they must wait an evening — the Fire-Eater is not yet in harbor, and Zan carries the Crow Jewel that is part of the ransom demand.

A cold, wet nose wakes Abd the next morning. Haup, somewhat more marsh-smelling than he was before, reports that the quarry is alone in the tower. Abd asks about bodies on the sides of the tower, and Haup replied that he could not smell any corpses. Haup also warns Abd that the man talks to a ghostly woman who appears and disappears, and then the sighthound departs in search of breakfast.

The Fire-Eater reaches port around midday. The venturers explain the recent chain of events to Zan, and request the return of the Crow Jewel. Then they decide who else to smuggle to the meeting. They decide that the Fire-Eater crew is likely to be more surprising, as they are unattached to the Golden Venture, and Kismet vouches for trustworthy sorts from the Twist of Fate.

Late that afternoon, the group sets out. Abd, Aya, Kismet, Attsu, and Wind-of-Embers are joined by Lightning Zan, Katifa the Lucky Star, Ruska, and Notch. They take a boat from the Fire-Eater into the mangrove swamp. About three-quarters of a mile in, they meet Ilsissa, who wears a strangely mottled cloak. She peels off six “layers” of the cloak, one after the other, and hands them to the group. Each one appears to be made of finely shed snakeskin, and carries a pattern that matches the Mouth of Fevers’ own coloration. The group distributes them to Aya, Wind-of-Embers, Zan, Ruska, Notch, and Kismet — Attsu and Katifa promise to rely on their own stealth, and Abd must be visible.

So it is that Abd, seemingly alone in the large boat, comes to the Shaitan’s Watchtower. He docks at the stone quay at the front of the massive, devil-carved tower and proceeds through the courtyard as the rest of the group creeps quietly and hopefully unseen alongside him.

Within the tower itself, in a grand hall with thorny pillars, Abd finds his double on the dais of the tower commander’s throne. The contemptuous “Abd jan Abd” treats him with condescension and spite, to be matched with Abd’s wrath and contempt. Finally they stop exchanging threats. A clay eagle descends from above, and opens its beak so wide most of its torso opens as well. “Place the jewels within,” says Abd jan Abd.

Abd places one jewel — the Crow — within. Then he refuses to give up any others. “The others will be yours only when I have Mashaar’s soul again.” His double takes a clay urn marked with a necromantic glyph — something like the vessels that held Ubarid’s wives — and sets it on the floor. He demands to see the other Zodiac Jewels.

“I am not going to leave here without her soul,” says Abd. “I will die first, and you know it.”

Abd jan Abd steps carefully away from the urn on the floor. But as he gestures towards the eagle again, the phantom form of a woman materializes beside him. “There are more living spirits here!” cries the projection of Nehedza.

Abd’s double moves to draw his scimitar, and looks around. As he does, a camouflaged cloak opens behind him, and Kismet’s hand briefly appears, stealing away another urn at the man’s waist. He recoils with a curse, and the ghostly Nehedza speaks words in an old and troubling tongue. Abd races to engage his double, and the other venturers make their weapons ready, as the cracking and shifting of stone echoes through the hall — the shaitanic sculptures adorning the walls are coming to life!

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