13th Voyage

21 - The Serpents and the Philosopher
The tale of breaking two curses and one mediation.

Minutes after the death of the elven poison-farmer and his apes, a clattering draws near the tree that was meant to be forgotten. Ramjat dives through the branches as Kismet rides for the rest of the party, the remainder of the stony apes and monkeys pursuing her. Her companions draw steel and step to intercept.

Without true intelligence to guide them, the warped animals are swiftly defeated. Kismet vanishes into a shadow and reappears in an ape’s blind spot; Abd grounds one of the winged apes; Wind-of-Embers sends lances of fire before striking down another winged ape with her drakhan blade; Aya complements the fire with killing winds of ice.

With the apes now well and truly defeated, they turn their attention to the acorn. The entity within attempts to blandish Aya with talk of “gardens of delights, where every indulgence is grown.” Aya converses with the entity in return, but when it mentions strong and powerful roots, she loses interest. The entity turns its attention to Kismet almost instantly, speaking of the same gardens of delights.

“The acorn is trying to seduce me,” says the desert elf.

The group leaves the thing on the tree and returns to Moresha’s subterranean hollow. She weeps when she sees the bones, but she gathers them and takes them away, leaving the venturers among her various treasures. Nearly half an hour later she returns. If she knows that none of her guests have touched the various precious coins and objects heaped by the walls, she does not address it. Instead she gestures to the trove, telling them that she will grant them whatever it is they would like in exchange for the great favor.

Moresha seems surprised when the answer is a request to break her curse. The venturers express great sympathy for the wrong, but ask her to show mercy on the giants that they might restore the youths to their clan. Perhaps impressed, the Serpent Emir agrees. She leads them back up through the roots aboveground, and calls out. “Come,” she says. After a few breaths’ time, she says “Put away your shame, and come.”

The venturers hear the giant serpents before they see them — the massive bodies crushing the thin leaf-gravel under their scutes. The two draw cautiously near the Serpent Emir, and then lower their heads before her. Moresha reaches out and places a hand on each snout. A faint glow comes from between her fingers, and then the colossal snakes recoil. The two drive their snouts into huge stone trees, wearing at them as if attempting to scratch a terrible itch. As they do so, scales fall away, and their snake skins begin to peel. Hands emerge from the small gap, and then two youthful giants wriggle and pull their way free from the serpent’s skins.

The two — the male from the ivory-scaled serpent, the female from the darker — are wholly nude, and seem to have smoother skin and hair than any of their cousins. They stretch in wonder, looking about them, and then prostrate themselves before Moresha. Both rumble thanks in awkward but heartfelt terms, but the Emir waves them away, and tells them to thank the venturers who advocated for them. Then Moresha returns below.

Wind-of-Embers pauses, then follows the Serpent Emir. The other venturers greet the giants, who are effusive in their thanks. The brother introduces himself as Tarrikis, the sister as Ishurdar. The two gleefully test their limbs, then remember some form of modesty. They begin to fashion sarongs from their shed skins, and some leftover materials from Kismet’s magical bag. Aya aids them in adjusting the fit and cut, with a confidence as though aiding giants to dress is practically a familiar task.

Underground, Wind-of-Embers catches up with Moresha, who regards her patiently if not warmly. The Hakasarrean priest asks if there’s something to be done about the acorn, for its whispers could seduce another servant just as they seduced the elf. Moresha tells her that just as the acorn could be woken, it could also be returned to sleep. On her advice, Wind-of-Embers recruits the others to find certain fungi in the water-cavern below, and they build a fire from the most soporific examples below the acorn. The voice protests as they do so, but as the smoke rolls over it, the voice slurs and fades, until it falls silent.

With the party reunited, they discuss whether or not the giants should strike out across the western desert, travelling alone to follow their clan’s route, or if they should accompany the venturers on the road south to the Canyon of Kings. Isha and Tarr seem interested in following their liberators if they could be of any assistance. Abd states that their safety is the group’s responsibility, and he would not have them harmed by any dangers the group might encounter.

The seventeen-foot Tarrikis looks down at Abd with some puzzlement. “What sort of threat do you expect to face?”

Before Abd can reply, Aya responds with “A philosopher.”

Eventually, Abd concedes the point. The young giants shape weapons from stone — a spear for Tarr, a pair of knives for Isha — and promise not to take any unnecessary risks.

Travel with the giants is, for all its unfamiliarity, convenient enough. The two delight in stretching their legs, and run as swiftly as Wind-of-Embers’ scalemane. They call up a stone and crack it, producing a small stream, when they need water. They sing up a deep-burrowing worm the size of an orca and kill it for meat. As expected of a Hakasarrean priest, Wind-of-Embers insists on tje challenge of trying to prepare this newly encountered foodstuff. Sadly, it takes her several tries to make the oily worm meat palatable for “small one” tastes, but there is no shortage of the stuff.

After a few days’ travel, they reach Stone Kings Canyon. The reds and oranges and golds of the stone are broken up by large alcoves carved here and there, where petrified Kholos Sahar sit in eternal contemplation. They pass older monuments, thirty feet tall, carved in the likenesses of giant kings from ages past. Along the way, the young giants tell the story of the Curse of Taliah.

Halfway through the canyon, they find the philosopher Hashatur. The young giant sits quietly in a freshly shaped alcove, legs crossed and eyes closed. For all of his immobility, the petrifying curse has yet to reach above the soles of his feet. The venturers set up camp below his alcove, and Kismet and Abd start loudly discussing the futility of philosophy. Wind-of-Embers starts a small fire and begins preparing coffee and bacon, which she mistakenly burns. Between the harsh smell and the loud bickering, eventually the philosopher opens his eyes and glares at the newcomers.

Abd tells him to climb down and prepare for travel, for he’s needed. Hashatur scoffs and says it’s unlikely. The two begin to argue philosophy, with Kismet throwing in some support for Abd. Hashatur insists that inaction and inevitability are the natural end state of life; each of his ancestors in the surrounding alcoves decided the same. Abd utterly rejects the premise, arguing that absolutely nothing is truly inevitable.

The venturers intensify their argument with outright threats — of camping in the canyon and beleaguering the giant so that focused meditation will be a distant memory. Eventually, Isha and Tarr join in the conversation, also rejecting the philosopher’s viewpoint. The two point out that 66 years without speech, limbs, or tools has given them a singular perspective on the value of action versus inaction, having compared a life without the opportunity for meaningful action with what they’ve reclaimed.

At last, Hashatur concedes. He descends from his alcove and agrees to travel to meet the Kholos Sahar, though he makes no promises beyond that. He asks why the venturers are so persistent on the affair, and they tell him that they’ve given their word to bring back as many potential partners as possible. Over the course of the conversation (and some more expertly prepared bacon and coffee), the topic of the shifting pyramid arises. Hashatur raises an eyebrow and tells them that he’s visited the pyramid once. He mentions the story of the heroic Kabotol, and the rumor that he when he was cursed, he was laid to rest with a powerful jewel on his breast — a jewel taken from his adventures with the small people, when he stood with them against the Shadow Viziers. The venturers start: could it be that Kabotol was entombed with the Behemoth Jewel?

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20 - The Grieving Mother
The tale of the venom and the tree meant to be forgotten.

“I am Emir Moresha,” the serpent-woman begins, “once called the Maiden among the Roots, now called the Grieving Mother. I was here when the Kholos Bistan tended their trees, and when the Curse of Taliah fell on them and the orchard became as stone, I remained. I listened to them tread the lone path from south to west again and again, and I watched as they slowly forgot me.

“A Serpent Emir is patient. Though the Forest of Nok was silent, I was content. I called on my fellow emirs, and they called on me, and I attended the conclaves as the years rolled by. In time, I was no longer solitary. My son was more beautiful than me, and I taught him each hollow in my cavern, and he learned each tree above. He was always gentle when he caught the monkeys that still live in Nok, and he always apologized after.

“Then they slew him. A brother and sister of the Kholos Sahar, running ahead of their clan as youths do — as my son explored without me. They saw a beautiful, glittering serpent watching them from a tree, and they killed him for sport.

“I would have poisoned them in a moment. I would have given them venom that unravelled their veins like their crude tunics, and spilled their blackening blood throughout their bodies. But they were young and ignorant, and it is forbidden to us to slay for that slight. So I cursed them to know the serpent, to hunt the monkeys for their food and to be driven from their clan. Perhaps they have learned remorse. I do not know. I laid my son to rest in a fine tomb, and I looked on his slayers no more.

“Sixty-six years have I remained here since then. And now vandals have opened my wounds anew. They tore open my son’s tomb and extracted his bones. I pursued them, but these apes are as much stone as the orchard, and resist both my venom and my curse. I cannot return my son to his rest, and so I weep afresh.”

The venturers digest the tale, and then ask a few questions. Moresha relates that the vandals at her tomb were apes with stony hides, somehow changed to be more like the trees. They have a master — “like these two,” she says, gesturing at Kismet and Wind-of-Embers — but he holds the bones hostage, and has threatened to grind them to powder if he sees so much as a golden scale. He camps at a place that Emir Moresha calls “the tree that was meant to be forgotten.” She says that something was bound within the tree, before the Curse of Taliah bound it further in stone, but it was rarely spoken of. The elf has been there for a year, and travelers have come to visit him twice, roughly four moons apart.

During the conversation, Aya notes something peculiar. Moresha has been weeping for a year, she says, and yet Aya sees no sign of so much venom damaging the objects in her hollow. She examines the dais, and sees that small grooves run through the stone, stained black and still faintly wet. The channels lead to a small basin set unobtrusively by the dais’ edge, half-full of venom and with a thin carrying chain such as a flying creature might use. Aya thinks of various birds, then briefly of mephits.

When they show the basin to Moresha, she does not recognize it, or even know how long it might have been there. The venturers tell her they will do what they can to set things right. “If you bring my son’s bones back to me,” she says, “a Serpent Emir will be in your debt.”

The venturers ask her to guide them to a surface exit nearest the tree, and she complies. They clamber out of the chamber and Attsu shifts into his smaller cat form. He moves off to scout the tree and the elf’s camp.

While the cat’s away, the monkeys play — a pack of stone-throwing devils begin hurling rock leaves and fruits at the party from the trees above. Aya has little patience for the monkeys, and freezes two with a spell. Abd, even more irritated, clambers up into the tree among the monkeys, managing to strike one down. Wind-of-Embers conjures a lance of sacred fire to blast down another. The last surviving monkey hurls a particularly large stone at Kismet, and it breaks open at her feet — a pomegranate the size of her head, like a geode, each seed a glimmering deep red crystal. The elven gambler hastily gathers up the treasure and starts working out the best and safest way to carry it.

Some distance away, Attsu hears the shrieks of the monkey attack. He simply shrugs and continues. The “tree that was meant to be forgotten” seems more poetically than practically named — the giants built a wall around it, creating a small-from-their-perspective garden with iron gates that seem to be largely unrusted in the arid stone forest. A number of stone apes idle atop the wall and in the tree’s branches, and Attsu notes that a few of them have batlike wings growing from their backs.

The tree itself is unlike the others in the orchard. Its trunk sports a large hollow, which seems to be half-filled with a blackish liquid. The branch above the hollow is the only one that bears fruit — a smattering of smooth apple-sized growths that seem quite unlike the fruits of the rest of the orchard. A ragged-looking elf talks to himself as he ladles some of the liquid into a dish — liquid that seems very like the tears of Moresha — and drizzles it over a single acorn that hangs from the tree. Attsu looks over his campsite and deems that the elf is alone apart from the monkeys, though there are a few crates that speak to his visitors either leaving off supplies, or something he is preparing for them. Attsu also notes with distaste that many vertebrae with long, slim ribs have been strung like chimes over the campsite — the serpent child’s bones, a warning and a hostage.

Attsu returns to the party without the apes taking notice. He tells them what he saw, and they devise a plan. Most of the group will head directly to challenge the elf, while Attsu retrieves the bones. The number of stone apes and monkeys does pose a problem, and then an unexpected volunteer speaks up. “Mistress,” Ramjat says to Aya in the language of birds. “Give me your swiftest warrior and your swiftest steed. I will draw away your enemies.” Aya translates, and after a few words, Kismet cautiously swings into the saddle of Wind-of-Embers’ brassmane.

Kismet rides for the tree, and Ramjat begins to shriek — horrible high-pitched noises like a tortured beast or terrified elf-child. They draw the attention of many of the stone monkeys, including a pair of the winged rock apes. The two of them ride away from the tree, pursued. The others waste no time. Abd leads Aya and Wind-of-Embers in a attack through the gates, while Attsu scales the wall and heads for the bones.

The frontal attack draws out the remaining apes, as well as the frantic elf. Abd and a winged rock ape slam into one another, while Wind-of-Embers pits her drakhan blade against a stony baboon. Aya arcs a magnificent bolt of lightning through the foes, searing most of the apes and slaying all of the stone-throwing devils. The elf hurls one of the small rocky fruits growing from the venom-infused bough. It misses Wind-of-Embers, splashing a greenish-blackish fluid across the garden wall — and where it hits, the stone steams and pits.

Attsu, for his part, manages to take down one of the strings of bones. But just as he finishes placing it in the magical bag, a small creature drops down into him, raking at him with claws. The imp is less than half his height, but Attsu can sense the danger all the same — the thing is no elemental mephit, but rather a tiny shaitan’s kin.

Abd and Wind-of-Embers lash out at the rock beasts, doing their deities proud. As Abd draws back for another strike, he feels a strange voice coil through his skull. It pronounces unclean blandishments, encouraging him to be a obedient mortal and turn on his comrades — but its suggestions fail to take hold, as Abd has no soul where they might root.

The elf throws a second acidic grenade, this time splashing Aya. She bites down the pain and retaliates with a boreal wind. The elf’s teeth are chattering as he leaps into the melee, driving a knife through a weak spot in Abd’s armor and searing him with more acid. Aya allows Abd to focus on retribution when she exhales another arctic blast, and the winged ape freezes into motionless stone for good. Wind-of-Embers strikes down her baboon attacker, and Abd focuses on the mortal at the heart of it all. The will of Jalisa runs through his scimitar arm, and the elf falls. No sooner does the frail body strike the ground than Attsu finally gets the upper hand in his brawl, tearing the imp into gouts of quickly-dissolving infernal immanence.

Ramjat’s shrieks still echo in the distance as the venturers quickly finish gathering the serpent’s bones. A quick search of the elf’s corpse finds a small ape-formed icon anointed with odd sigils — its age and craftsmanship very like the great hyena-idol at the Laughing Waters — another of the strange grenade-fruits, and most interestingly, a harbor pass allowing free transit through the harbors of Izir, City of Flame. The venturers secure the valuables, and then Abd turns his attention to the source of the voice that tried to subvert him — the acorn on the tree that was meant to be forgotten.

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19 - The Orchards of Stone
The tale of a new companion and a cursed forest.

As the sun reaches the western horizon and the Al-Bazra discuss trade with the Kholos Sahar, two more travelers reach the Laughing Waters. They could scarcely be more different. One is a dark-skinned son of the Eight Snakes desert clan, the tips of his tattoos visible behind his veil. The other is a pale-skinned, flame-haired elf woman from across the Jadesea, riding a strange copper-scaled steed, and bearing armor and weapons that appear to be of drakhan make. Syi hails the male elf, and the two exchange terse pleasantries. She then introduces the male, Zekya, who in turn introduces his traveling companion as the holy warrior Wind-of-Embers. His business was to bring her here safely, as she has business with the Kholos Sahar.

Wind-of-Embers is more sociable than either of the desert elves, and converses easily with the venturers. She describes herself as an initiate of Hakasarre, a fire-god known more to the drakha than to any elven clan. When the Golden Venture blades ask her what brought her here, she says that there is an item in the giants’ possession, and she has been charged with keeping it from falling into dangerous hands. Abd asks for more direct clarification. “The Behemoth Stone,” she replies.

The priestess admits that she cares less for possessing the Behemoth Stone than in simply ensuring that it is kept from the hands of those who seek it. The venturers, finding that their aims align, agree to cooperate with her. They tell her of the matchmaking task posed by the Kholos Sahar chieftain, and she offers her aid in the endeavor.

Evening falls at the oasis, as many hyenas now doze with full bellies while others still work at the immense carcass. Wind-of-Embers offers to cook for the party, and produces an entertainingly spicy stew. Aya pores over the scroll of wind steeds they still possess, intent on mastering the ritual with her own air magic. After dinner, one of the Al-Bazra’s party, a humble groom, approaches Attsu with the professed interest in examining the party’s wind steeds. By a few probing questions, he reveals that he is of the City of Thieves. Attsu tenses, but the groom states that Hayr Charike has many rivals, and the room’s “neighbors” are among them. He bids Attsu a good evening, and returns to the merchants’ camp.

The adventurers set out the next morning, those of the Golden Venture checking the natural speed of their wind steeds so that Wind-of-Embers’ brassmane can keep pace. It takes three days to sight the Petrified Forest of Nok, and even longer to reach it, for the forest is immense. The trees are no worn stumps — they are large enough that the Kholos Sahar could walk among them and reach up to pluck colossal fruit. Spreading branches and broad leaves and even round fruits are all preserved in stone, a tremendous orchard for giants without a trace of green. The wide road passes through the heart of the forest, with thin sheets of petrified fallen leaves beneath the trees where they haven’t been crushed into gravel by the footfalls of those who leave the path. Monkeys shriek in the distance, the familiar cry of stone-throwing devils.

Attsu transforms into his scouting-cat form and clambers up into one of the taller trees. Far into the forest, one on either side of the road, the two giant serpents come to his attention, each one as large around as a wagon. The ivory serpent with dark markings slides through the leaves, but the dark serpent with ivory markings raises its head in the direction of the road, its bedroll of a tongue tasting the air.

Attsu descends and warns the other venturers. They hastily move out of the scent distance, and split apart to search the orchard. At first there seems to be no sign of what the monkeys eat, and the few stone structures they see are colossal but simple huts, empty for centuries. But before long, Wind-of-Embers finds a natural tunnel among the immense roots of a tree, with the smell of fresh water rising from below. Attsu and Kismet cautiously move down the tunnel, quietly walking on one of the stone roots. Below they find an immense cavern half-filled with a lake, a natural cistern that once nourished the Forest of Nok.

Above, Aya, Wind-of-Embers, and Abd hear a steady crunching, as of something massive rolling over the fallen petrified leaves. They spy the dark serpent headed their way. Wind-of-Embers struggles to persuade her brassmane to enter the tunnel, but all three are safely below before the entrance is filled with the serpent’s massive snout. Its tongue flicks out once more in their direction as they descend into the water-cave.

Attsu and Kismet continue to explore ahead, taking note of the monkeys who creep down from other entry holes to eat the cavern’s fungi and sip from the lake. In one of the central columns earth, almost a quarter-mile across, they find a large hollow decorated with mosaics depicting coiled forms. A light shines from farther in the hollow, and the two quietly creep within.

The hollow leads to a large chamber, walled with more mosaics, dominated by a great dais with many cushions thrown about it. Glittering metal treasures wink at them from the corners, lit by the pale shining gems set into a chandelier. Upon the dais, a massive serpent, scales like great tiger’s eye gems, lies coiled, hissing to itself in a strange staccato. Kismet and Attsu whisper to one another about the snake and its nature, but then it raises its head. Black streaks run down from the corners of its eyes, glistening in the light. Its hiss becomes perfectly formed words: “Who disturbs me in my time of grief?”

Kismet and Attsu adopt their most diplomatic behavior. The serpent regards them with glittering opal eyes. “Sixty-six years have I mourned my son,” it says. “Now vandals have taken his bones, and I am powerless. Are you here to join them?” The two assure the serpent that they are not.

Unbeknownst to the two scouts, Aya had quickly become bored. She set off to follow the others almost immediately. Wind-of-Embers had considered, then tied her mount’s reins to a smaller root and joined the sorceress. The two arrive not long into the conversation. Looking at one of the Serpent Emirs, Aya immediately drops into an exquisite curtsy. She addresses the great snake with flawless etiquette and a seemingly uncharacteristic focus.

The serpent listens to her words, then draws itself up. Its scales seem to shift and fall away, becoming a richly patterned mantle and cloak around the shoulders of an elegant, beautiful woman. The same black, wet streaks run from the corners of her eyes to her chin.

“I am Emir Moresha, and this has been my domain since the orchard above was green.” She gestures at the cushions about the base of the dais. “Sit, and I will tell you my tale.”

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18 - The Giants' Request
The tale of a heroic task for matchmakers.

The Laughing Waters looks at first to be empty of all but the dozens of hyenas. But Abd notes a small camp in the shade of some bushes, enough for only a single person. He quickly spies someone in one of the trees, watching the newcomers. When she notices Abd staring at her, she slides down and approaches the venturers.

The woman is a lone desert elf wearing the azure paint designs of the Blue Sands clan. She gives her name as Syi. Kismet introduces herself in turn, and Syi comments that she knows Kismet already — she is, after all, betrothed to Kismet’s brother. Kismet laughs away the surprise. “Oh, I’m so glad he’s finally making a commitment!”

Syi, it turns out, has come to the oasis on her own in order to make a trade with the giants. She guardedly admits that she has a clockwork seamstress that the giants would surely value, and with luck, the giants will give her a particular stone in return. The venturers share a few worried glances at this, but Syi does not seem to view them as her rivals.

When the venturers wake after their first night at the oasis, they discover that the number of hyenas has grown during the night. They discuss the politics of leaving some sort of offering for the beasts or the stone idols that guards them. Attsu goes hunting in his cat form, and returns after a few hours dragging a large flatland wild goat. He leaves the carcass before the stone, and the matriarchs of the assembled hyena clans come to feed on it. Before long his offering is completely gone. But the animals seem to recognize Attsu’s role, and as time goes by, several hyenas slip up near him and leave small shiny odds and ends nearby — coins, bits of glass, even a few cogs.

That night, the Al-Bazra caravan they passed a day ago reaches the Laughing Waters. The merchants offer to share a meal with the venturers, though they seem more wary than Syi was. Abd and Aya convince the caravan matriarch that they are here for a simple request, once only, and that they do not plan to return to trade with the giants a second time. The matriarch is satisfied with the response, and another member of the caravan becomes actively cheerful. Ubarid, a jolly fellow with blue streaks in his beard, goes out of his way to treat the venturers as new friends.

More hyenas arrive during the second night, and more leave shiny presents for Attsu as well. The venturers and Al-Bazra keep mostly to themselves as the morning wears on. Then, during the heat of the day, the Kholos Sahar appear. The giant nomads stand roughly the height of three human men, with dark and craggy skin and thick, stony ropes of hair. They wear elaborate yet travel-worn clothing, but only two of them — a young woman and a particularly tall and strong young man — wear veils. The only pack beasts among the giants are a pair of six-legged reptilian behemoths with shrouds covering their eyes.

As half of the Kholos Sahar go about setting up camp in the oasis, others begin a song. Their deep, rumbling voices seem to conjure a similar tremor in the earth itself. A stone the size of two elephants pushes its way out of the ground, and as the giants begin to sing, it shapes itself like clay. In a minute’s time, the stone has become an excellent replica of a colossal antelope lying on its side — and then the song intensifies, and the stone softens into flesh. The giants finish their song, and the host of hyenas descends on the transmuted carcass to feast.

By right of first arrival, Syi is the first to approach the Kholos Sahar once their camp is made. She presents them with a clockwork spider the size of a large buckler, and the giants seem most impressed with its cunning manufacture. In return, they give her a jade-seeming stone as large as a full wineskin. She returns, satisfied, and tells the others that it is the eye of an elemental — her dowry present for having Kismet’s brother leave his clan and join the Blue Sands.

“Very nice,” says Kismet. “You could get two of them for something like that.”

Syi evaluates her carefully. “Ah, so you say I should ask for more? It is good of you to tell me this. Thank you.”

“Well,” says Kismet. “I mean, you could maybe get a cousin on the side. They’re kind of cheap.”

After a few minutes’ disagreement over the proper etiquette when addressing the Kholos Sahar, Kismet approaches the camp. She chooses the veiled younger female, and adapts the most respectful elven greeting she can remember. The seated giant sets a hand, palm up, near her own breast and then lowers it near the ground. Kismet interprets the gesture as a good sign.

She introduces the rest of her party, and they produce their gifts from the magical bag. More giants join the conversation in earnest. One the Kholos Sahar seem properly interested, Kismet humbly presents two requests. The first request is a carefully worded hope that the Kholos Sahar might help lift the curse of someone dear to her, even if he had earned that curse by his actions. The giants muse over the question for a minute, then the eldest asks what the second request is.

Abd steps forward and asks that they be allowed to take ownership of the Behemoth Jewel. He describes the threat of the Ascending Flame, and how the other people pursuing the Zodiac Gems are likely to do grave harm with them. The giant chieftain seems amused. “And you think it would be safer with you than with us? That is not what the man who gave this to us assumed.”

Abd looks back into the giant’s eyes. “It would. We have captured a ship and given it away. We have freed crews and given them treasures. We have stood before enemies not our own, because we will not let the Ascending Flame win.”

Aya smiles. “Test our intentions, if you will.”

The giants murmur among themselves, their language like stones rolling through the desert. Finally the chieftain turns to them again. “Very well. Look on us, and tell us: what would you say is our greatest weakness?”

The venturers consider the question for a few moments. Kismet says softly, “You have no children.”

The Kholos Sahar chieftain nods. “We need fresh blood. I wish to see my daughter Aninat married,” and he nods toward the veiled young giantess, “or Assurdanum,” with a gesture to the tall, veiled warrior. The surprised venturers contemplate a moment, but then agree that they’re willing to do what the giants require — if the giants can help them understand how they can help.

The chieftain names three potential prospects:

  • A giant from below the southern mountains, Hashatur, who at present resides in the Canyon of Kings. He is young and clever, but according to the chieftain’s wife, he has been afflicted both with the curse of stone and with philosophy. Now he meditates in inaction and waits to become stone.
  • A fog giant, Igwu, who keeps a home by the Silken River. He keeps the door to his palace hidden, and does not speak often with the Kholos Sahar. He is reputed to be handsome and very wise.
  • A hero of their people who is stone, but whose soul has not left his body. The warrior Kabotol lies at rest in a pyramid, which moves from one place to another when the moon rises.

The venturers promise to bring a potential marriage prospect to the clan, and close the negotiations respectfully. As they return to their camp and begin discussing the situation, Ramjat flies away, mingling with the carrion-birds watching the hyenas eat.

Attsu mentions an old memory that might serve. One of the jann, the jinn of earth, was imprisoned below the stones of the city of Tegwali. The giants still march through the ruined city, but probably have no idea that Burunizha Ten Bronze Mirrors lies imprisoned there. Though not a giant herself, there are many old tales of giant and jinn marriages that lasted long enough, and ended amicably enough, and the children of such unions held great magic.

Ramjat returns from his conference with the crows to mention a fifth potential prospect. In the Petrified Forest of Nok, a pair of colossal snakes move through the stone trees. They follow the Kholos Sahar from a distance as the giants pass through, but the giants always drive them away. Ramjat says that the two serpents are giants cursed into their animal forms long ago.

With five prospects, the question of what to do is not an easy one. Kismet is sympathetic to the two giants in snake form, and most of the group agree that curse-breaking would perhaps be easier than convincing a philosopher to set aside meditation. Aya insists that they should seek out more than one — at the very least, both the cursed serpents and the stone warrior deserve to be freed.

Finally the decision is made as they look at the map given to them by Zufar al-Calsir. With four of the prospects at various points around the Kholos Sahar’s route, and the fifth in the center, they determine that they will attempt to collect all of the potential suitors. They settle on the plan to travel clockwise around the route, starting by riding east to the Petrified Forest of Nok, where the serpent behemoths abide.

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17 - The Sorcerer and His Three Children
The tale of a famed conjurer's hospitality.

While the venturers are still discussing their next action, in light of the recent rewards posted for their capture, Lightning Zan arrives at their table. He announces that he’s arranged for an audience with his reputed father, Zufar al-Calsir, and that the group should come along with him. In particular, Zan points out that Akhman al-Ifrim was formerly Zufar’s apprentice, and if anyone could give the venturers useful information about their Ascending Flame enemy, the summoner of Hamaji would be the one. The possibility is enough to convince Abd, Kismet, and Aya to agree.

They visit the sorcerer’s estate the next morning. The front gate to his grounds features four scowling jinn faces worked into the metal, and one of them demands to know the visitors’ business. Zan proclaims himself, and the gates grudgingly open. Beyond the outer wall, they find a stately home surrounded by lush gardens and running water, with a plume of smoke rising from a small kiln towards the rear. A young woman, dressed in a conservative dark robe, walks down the main path to greet them.

The young lady politely introduces herself as Jisiri jin Zufar. Her soothing demeanor lightly offsets her long, obsidian-like nails which look capable of scoring stone. As she brings them indoors, she tells them that her father is currently at work on a chapter of his book. She encourages them to make themselves comfortable in the excellently appointed sitting room, and calls for drinks. Platters bearing cool juices, icy water, and sweet, light wines flit about at her command, carried by what appear to be invisible servants of pure air.

As the venturers sip at their drinks, another person enters — a strikingly handsome young man with a swimmer’s build and bare chest, his skin glistening and his hair wet. He aims a dismissive comment at Zan, who prickles with tiny lightning bolts as he retorts, before introducing himself as Jassan jan Zufar. He settles onto a cushion, which grows damp under him, and focuses most of his attention and charm on Aya and Kismet.

After a few minutes of idle chat, their host appears, accompanied by a young woman. Zufar al-Calsir turns out to be a dapper gentleman in casual robes, still in fine trim but with pure white hair. The girl with blazing red hair, Khajeira, is his youngest daughter, still smelling of smoke fresh from the kiln. Zufar welcomes the group and apologizes for his tardiness. Lightning Zan offers a guest-gift of a pair of candelabras, which Zufar carefully accepts, and then the group sets to conversation.

Akhman al-Ifrim seems to be a particular sore point where Zufar is concerned; at one point the summoner says “His existence offends me.” Zufar describes Akhman as skilled but ambitious, with a desire for domination that was destined to lead him into trouble if he trafficked with jinn. They had a falling-out, but some time afterwards a now-masked Akhman approached Zufar and attempted to recruit him into the Ascending Flame. Zufar declined, and although the two parted on polite terms, it seems likely that Akhman still holds resentment. Zufar says that al-Ifrim holds a tower in Izir, and is reputedly one of Emir Jadafira’s favorites. He prefers to use elemental janissaries as his minions, and his two most trusted lieutenants are Uzan the Brass Juggernaut and Sakisa Flametongue. Finally, Zufar theorizes that Akhman’s greatest flaw is likely his sensitivity to failure — he would rather burn the sand to glass than allow some trace of his mistakes to remain.

Zan then tells the story of Thunder’s Crown, and the group’s conflict with Akhman’s underlings there. He magnanimously plays up the heroism of his companions along the way. The venturers take the opportunity to bring up the Zodiac Jewels, and al-Ifrim’s pursuit of them. Zufar offers what extra knowledge he has of the Ascending Flame, though it seems that the venturers’ recent exploits have given them the advantage knowledge on the Zodiac Jewels.

They explain their intention to send Lightning Zan and his group after the Crow Jewel, while they pursue the Behemoth. Zufar is already passingly familiar with the Kholos Sahar desert giants, and mentions their arrangement to trade metals for cloths with the al-Bazra tribes. He offers the group a map detailing the giants’ pilgrimage route. Kizmet asks if he knows any way to undo the curse of slow petrification that afflicts some who cross the giants, but Zufar has only a folktale remedy to offer — the tear of a giant princess.

After a fine lunch, Zufar offers one more piece of assistance to his guests. He gives Aya a pair of scrolls to summon wind-steeds, which will remain with the group for a week’s time and allow them to cross the desert much more swiftly. Zan brings up that he has a long desert ride as well, if they’re to find the dried-out oasis where Pergu dwells, and Zufar resignedly hands him a third scroll. The group thanks their host and then departs, with Zan claiming he’s sure to make Zufar acknowledge him.

The venturers begin making preparations for their trip. While Kismet is shopping in the market, she notes a particularly arrogant man wearing the garb of a wealthy merchant of Izir, purchasing a variety of goods and placing them in a fine leather bag that seems far too small for the contents. She finds it difficult to resist, and one subtle bit of pickpocketing later, she is leaving the market with the magical bag and the Izir merchant no wiser. She seeks out the help of Abd and Aya, and the three of them deduce how to safely retrieve items from the bag. They purchase a few extra presents that the Kholos Sahar might appreciate, adding them to the bag.

The following morning, they gather outside Hamaji. Aya reads from one of the scrolls, and coursers of wind and cloud coalesce from the air around them. The wind-steeds carry them at great speed across the desert, making a journey of what might have been weeks into a matter of days. They skip several caravanserais and enjoy peaceful nights; on the third day, farther from the beaten trails, they pass first a lone wanderer and then a small caravan of Al-Bazra traveling in the same direction.

That third night, they arrive at the Laughing Waters. The oasis is certainly a sight to behold, and marked by the chuckling and giggling of dozens of hyenas loitering around its trees and waters. A stone monolith stands not far from the oasis’ central pool. The ancient stone is carved into the worn shape of a sitting hyena, watching over the others — one of the Beasts of Stone, and the guardian spirit of the oasis. With the giants nowhere yet in sight, the venturers settle down to wait.

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16 - The City of Blades
The tale of the first steps in the tracks of a Behemoth.

Abd waits at the foot of the cliff for the others. Not long after they began their ascent, a ghul plummets from above, smashing through one of the ramshackle structures of the port town. Abd checks on the undead monster, but its form has been torn apart and impaled, and it lies very still. He nods to himself and waits patiently. Eventually, Aya and Kismet descend with the kidnapped Savandra, with Attsu carefully picking out a path downwards after them.

Widow’s Harbor erupts in celebration soon afterward. Razira and her daughters excitedly reunite with Savandra, while the crew of the Twist of Fate and the venturers of the forthcoming Fire-Eater honor their comrades by amplifying the festivities.

The venturers opt to spend a week in the port town and wait for the Fire-Eater refit to be complete. Razira’s daughter Yashti sets her workers to focus on the ship to speed the conversion. She also helps show the family’s gratitude by delivering extra supplies to the Twist of Fate and throwing in more for the Fire-Eater. Ramjat, now plumed in hues of orange and purple, spends much of his time puffed out indignantly on Aya’s shoulder, fixing passerby — and Attsu and Kismet in particular — with a surly eye.

The first day, they turn their attention to the youth they found in the ghul’s zaratan vessel. Abd examines the glass coffin in detail. The coffin is sealed with wax that gives off a smell of certain soporific concoctions. Deciding that the occupant must be sealed under an enchantment of slumber, he takes a knife, cuts away the wax, and opens the coffin. The youth’s eyes open, and he sits up.

The odd youth has no memory of the ghuls. He gives his name as Gemel, and tells the venturers that he was dispatched by his “father” — the Immortal Sage himself — to gather information and lore. He ventured first to Hamaji, where he overindulged in local pleasures, and fell into a dead sleep. He surmises that he was mistaken for dead, as he does not quite have to breathe, and that the ghuls must have captured him while he slept at the morgue.

Aya notes that the youth has no navel, and with a few meaningful glances in that direction draws Abd’s attention. Abd’s careful eye had also discerned that the youth seemed to take a breath only to speak — it appears that Gemel is a homunculus.

Gemel also nonchalantly shares what he knows of the four Ascending Flame sorcerers who are searching for the Zodiac Jewels. In return, he asks that the venturers return him to Hamaji if they are able, so that he might reclaim the armor and weapons his father gave him.

Once the venturers are satisfied with the homunculus’ report, they discuss which jewel to pursue next, and which to designate the target of the Fire-Eater and its crew. They settle on the Behemoth jewel, reputedly in the deep desert in the hands of giants, given the potential ties to Captain Tairasha’s curse. Perhaps having had their fill of ghuls, they ask Zan and Katifa to pursue the Crow stone, which seems to lie in a parched oasis under the control of the ghul Pergu. Zan displays no particular enthusiasm for the task, but accepts the duty. Jisan adds that he knows the Beasts of Stone that likely have sway there, which may give them an advantage. That settled, Abd hands the jade death-mask taken from Tabruz to Zan, as its enchantment to disguise oneself as one of the undead might prove useful for their quest.

Not long after that conversation, Kismet drops by the cabin of Captain Tairasha. She relates their plans to visit the desert giants, and inquires if his curse and theirs might be tied together. Tairasha admits that in his youth, he once ventured into the deep deserts where the giants’ tracks lie. When there, he rashly plundered one of the offering-shrines that he discovered, and was afflicted with a form of the giants’ curse. He had no choice but to seek out the sea, where the curse could be held in check if not broken. Kismet promises that if they find a way to lift his curse, they will do so. She says that she’s lucky that way, and Tairasha says that’s why he worries about her — she is too aware of her luck.

No sooner does Kismet leave than Abd stops to speak with the captain. Tairasha offers him wine, and he accepts, before he tells Tairasha that he should not let his personal relationship with Kismet affect his judgment. The captain seems a little confused as to the “personal relationship” Abd describes, but assures the paladin that he does not intend to act irrationally towards the detriment of either the crew nor Kismet. Abd nods, and excuses himself — walking past Kismet, who had been eavesdropping on the whole conversation.

Kismet follows Abd, and begins to take him to task for speaking to Tairasha about her like that. Abd responds curtly, and soon the two are exchanging harsh words, Abd claiming that he doesn’t care about the others while Kismet lambastes him as cold-hearted. The two part in an uneasy, angry truce.

The week winds on and the venturers keep busy. An incautious ship falls victim to the sharpened rocks of the Cape of the Fatted Ghul, and the Twist of Fate crew witnesses for themselves how the Widow’s Harbor natives play at both rescuers and salvagers. They take the opportunity to find some of the rescued sailors a new home, recruiting extra hands for the Fire-Eater. Kismet enjoys excellent fortune in a card game that week, and winds up the owner of a select piece of goods taken from an elven crypt — a fine suit of light armor, still as sturdy as the day it was entombed and perfectly crafted to suit her speed and agility.

Aya notices at one point that Ramjat has gone missing. She scans the harbor for him, and sees him fluttering up and down by a stall in the market, making agitated motions at her. As she walks over to him, he drops down and sets his claws on the handle of a small valise, and tries to take off, but is not strong enough to lift it. When she takes it for him, she discovers a pair of potions inside. The huffy Ramjat settles back on her shoulder, his payload of emergency healing delivered, and the merchant at the nearby booth smiles in some bemusement.

At the end of the week, Yashti summons the venturers. The transformation of the Scorn is complete — it still has the lines of the fire-ship, but even they have had some extraneous woodwork added to modify the silhouette. The figurehead of the rechristened Fire-Eater shows a fierce marida, holding half of a broken torch in either hand. Zan crackles with intense excitement at the sight, and immediately begins gathering the crew.

Finally both the Twist of Fate and Fire-Eater sail to Hamaji, the City of Blades. The city greets them as gladly as it would any band of adventurers or mercenaries. Gemel thanks the crew and heads off in search of his bequest. Kismet wanders in the market until she’s seduced by book stalls, and purchases fine copies of the astrological and philosophical treatise Fifteen Oracles and the famed love manual, the Suran al-Qalir.

Abd seeks out the Mosque of Bright Steel, a grand temple dedicated to the triple war gods Jalisa, Koread, and Mahazach. Dust rises from the sparring grounds outside, but Abd enters the main hall and visits the wing dedicated to the Defender. He kneels before the statue of the armored maiden and meditates on his path.

The walls of the temple slowly fall away into darkness. Abd senses nothing, then feels warmth. A pair of swords hang before him, but the bright shining sword of Honor is much farther, and the bloodslicked, notched blade of Necessity much closer. Past the swords, he sees the back of a humanoid figure. The figure turns, and Abd sees his own face, twisted in anger, and a hand falls on his shoulder—

Abd snaps back into the waking world. A woman with a scarred face and twin scimitars on her waist, wearing the vestments of Jalisa, looks down on him and removes her hand from his shoulder. “Your pardon, brother,” she says, “but you seemed troubled.”

Abd speaks with the priestess, who names herself as Tassani al-Jalisa. He tells her something of his struggle, and admits that he seems to need conflict to understand himself. She asks him if a practice bout would help, and he accepts.

The two exchange several passes in the training yard. Abd comports himself very well, impressing the Jalisan priestess. Now that he seems to be “fresh from the forge,” he offers his ongoing support to the temple, however she might need it. She accepts his offer, and tells him to return when he needs to hone himself again.

On her way back to the inn, Kismet notes a pair of rugged-looking sorts who appear to be following her. She quietly sets herself at a streetside cafe and keeps an eye on them, pretending to read the Suran al-Qalir until she becomes too embarrassed and has to exchange it for her other book. The two eventually give up and leave.

Kismet rejoins the Abd over a fine meal. She mentions her would-be “admirers,” in time for Aya to arrive and overhear. Aya presents her companions with a sheaf of posters, collected from all over Hamaji — posters bearing rough images of Abd, Kismet, Aya, and Attsu. The posters offer a comfortable reward for their capture: the hiring party, the government of Izir, City of Flame.

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15 - The Ghuls and the Harpy's Tomb
The tale of the desperate crypt-scholar.

Kismet willingly takes to the task to distract Tabruz while the others search his quarters. She finds him in the Monkey and the Pearl wineshop, introduces herself, and offers to tell him a variety of stories about the drowned for his census. The scholar assents, and soon finds he has completely failed to anticipate the amount of stories contained in the elven sailor, or even to determine which of them are true and which are spontaneous. She confuses him and corrects him until finally he sets down his quill and declares he’s out of ink.

Tabruz attempts to excuse himself to get more supplies from his home, but Kismet insists on coming along with him. She shifts to more comical stories of death at sea during the stroll. “And the baboon remained wrapped around his head as he sank beneath the waves, its hips still moving—”

Kismet’s story halts abruptly as sharp nails rake across her lower back. A cold numbness locks up her muscles and she falls forward, only to be caught by a lean and powerful arm. She feels herself lifted across the shoulder of a thin creature that smells of the tomb, and then it clambers up the cliff with her dangling helpless in its grasp. She hears the chains rattle as Tabruz climbs up after them.

After far too great a height, Kismet feels her captor clamber over a ledge and drop her face-down onto a rough stone floor. The cliffside cavern is lit by a few candles, and it smells faintly of cinnamon and myrrh. Tabruz and the ghul exchange a brief conversation — they are aware that intruders have found the zaratan, and Hagwaan is dead. Tabruz insists he needs to make preparations, and he and the ghul Vekmeer head deeper into the cavern. But Kismet still hears the scrape of nails on stone as two other ghuls take up a sentinel position at the cavern opening.

The numbness begins to leave Kismet’s limbs. She slowly uncoils, quiet enough that the ghul sentries don’t notice. The two carrion-eating beasts continue to keep watch out the cave opening, talking about the distant fire in grating whispers. Kismet scans the cavern opening — long-disused, but with mosaics of a harpy queen picked out in seashell on the walls and tunnels leading further in. Her attention snaps back to the ghuls — they’ve noticed that someone is climbing the cliff from below.

The ghuls discuss dropping something from above, or cutting the chain, before Kismet cries out. The two corpse-eaters immediately whirl around to her. She backs away, making a grand show of being terrified and pleading for her life. The ghuls creep closer to her as she continues to crawl backward, pleading for her life with the same garrulous excess that she used to distract Tabruz.

“Perhaps… we will spare you if you give us a taste.” The ghul that speaks licks its fangs with a long, strong tongue, the sort that scrapes marrow from cracked bones. “Give us a finger. You will survive the loss of a finger or two…”

Kismet’s quailing rivets the ghuls, who are still staring at her like hungry cobras when the mechanical cat-form of Attsu climbs over the edge and slinks into the cavern. Then the wind changes, and Aya flies in on a blast of sea air that overpowers the musty smell of the cavern.

Attsu shifts back into his humanoid shape, detaching his tail into its whip form and lashing out at the ghul with it. An old memory surfaces of his escape from the collection of Hayr Charike, when he caught one of her minions and pulled him from a balcony with his whip. But the ghul drops to all fours and digs in its claws with a hiss. Aya sends an arctic bolt into the other ghul, and Kismet takes the opportunity to draw a blade and strike.

Attsu shifts again into his beast form to attack, and draws long bloodless rents in a ghul’s torso. One of the ghuls rushes for Aya, but she lifts the storm orb and calls on the winds trapped within. A sudden gale blasts the ghul out of the cavern and into the night sky, where it’s visible for just a moment before it plummets to the timber buildings a hundred feet below. The other ghul dodges away from Attsu’s claws and flees into the tunnels.

The three venturers quickly pursue. The tunnels smell even more strongly of cinnamon and myrrh, and for good reason — the mummified corpses of harpies rest in niches carved into the wall, adorned in funeral decorations. As the three round a corner in pursuit, Aya sees the telltale traces of a magical glyph drawn onto the stone floor. She cries out for Attsu to halt, but the clockwork warrior is a trace too slow. He skids to a halt just atop the glyph. A spectral, wild keening erupts from the harpy corpses, and for a moment Attsu is overcome by the impulses of the offended dead. He straightens up, and as Aya and Kismet draw near, he turns and rakes Aya across the torso. Aya shrieks in surprise and pain, and Ramjat flies in quick, panicked circles shouting in alarm. Like that, the possessing force is gone, and Attsu recoils. He apologizes heavily, and the three take a moment to rest while Aya binds her wounds and Ramjat scouts quietly ahead. “And don’t step on any more glyphs,” says Aya.

The genasi’s familiar returns in a few minutes, and guides them through the funerary tunnels to an opening in the floor, large enough for a harpy to fly in and out. They drop down into a tomb chamber, with a particularly well-adorned and splendid-seeming mummy in the far wall. Vekmeer and the wounded ghul hunch near a woman with white-streaked hair who lies curled like a child, bound in a few flimsy strips of linen adorned with odd calligraphy. Tabruz holds a perfumed cloth over his mouth with one hand and with the other brandishes a bone wand honeycombed with small holes. “There is no reason that this must end in violence!” he cries.

The three venturers disagree entirely. Tabruz insists that he would be happy to vanish and never trouble them again, and even offers grand riches looted from tombs forgotten to all but the Ghul Queen. But Attsu and Kismet are in no temper to bargain with kidnappers and ghuls. Even Aya is in a bad temper, and when Tabruz draws on a jade funeral mask in frustration, she is first to attack with another bolt of frost.

Vekmeer lunges at Attsu, who matches him claw for claw. Kismet joins the struggle, and the wounded ghul leaps in and attempts to rend her elven flesh. Tabruz, like Aya, keeps well away from the melee. He waves his wand through the air, and the wind passing through the holes in the bone magnifies into a cacophony of voices from the crypt. Kismet feels herself strangely affected by the voices, her senses blurring and suggesting a frightening new world to her.

Aya freezes the wounded ghul solid. Attsu drops away from Vekmeer, and corners Tabruz against a wall. And in the confusion, the enspelled Kismet lunges in a panic at Aya, striking her with an expert slash. Like the scavenger he is, Vekmeer leaps to the wounded genasi and strikes her down.

Attsu pays little attention to the sudden blow. He claws Tabruz again and again, keeping the desperate mage in a corner of the harpy’s tomb while Ramjat flies in tight circles above his fallen mistress, screaming alarm. Kismet returns to her senses, and before Vekmeer can lean down to finish Aya off, she strikes with elven swiftness. Her first cut opens the front of his neck, and with a quick pirouette, she slashes again at the back of his neck, completing the strike that severs the ghul’s head. At the same time, Tabruz screams as Attsu forces him to the floor, and with a rake of steely talons, opens the mage’s ribcage.

Vekmeer’s head is still rolling across the floor as Kismet drops to her knees. She immediately reaches into one of Aya’s pouches and withdraws a potion. Kismet pours the potion into Aya’s mouth, and suddenly the bleeding genasi’s wounds draw together. She coughs and sits up, much to Kismet and particularly Ramjat’s relief. Attsu rummages through the belongings of Tabruz’s corpse, and sets a small skeletal mole in Aya’s lap with an abashed metallic purr.

Attsu also claims the jade funerary mask from Tabruz’s body. The group break the thin linen straps on the corpse-skinned woman, and she comes awake. She snatches up an antique bronze mace that was lying by her person and rolls to her feet in a fighting stance, then pauses as she surveys the scene. The butchered ghuls and remains of Tabruz help clarify the situation. After a few hasty introductions, Savandra offers her thanks. Once Aya’s strength has returned and she’s walking again without any light-headedness, the group returns to the cavern mouth to descend, leaving Tabruz and the ghuls in the tomb of the harpy queen.

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14 - The Belly of the Zaratan
The tale of the ghuls' secret conveyance.

A peculiar letter emerges from among Tabruz’s papers. The venturers examine the crabbed writing:

Favored Servant Tabruz:

Commendations from the Court on your recent success in collecting Abn-Kha’s Lantern. Remain in the Harbor, for our Queen has further interests there. We require two more items:

The figurehead of the Sultana’s Remorse
The oldest daughter Savadra

The bearers of this missive, Hagwaan and Vekmeer, will aid you in this. In return you will act as their hand among the living. Savadra is not to be slain — but pacified, that she may come to accept her rightful Queen.

May your senses be keen and your belly full!
—Pergu

The three take the letter and the map and exit Tabruz’s apartment. They quickly hunt down an authority and find Zalil, the youngest daughter of the Widow Razira. They give her Tabruz’s letter, and the girl is immediately alarmed to see the reference to abducting her older sister. She gives the letter to one of her men, ordering him to run it to her mother. She then agrees to take the venturers out to the edge of the cove, where the turtle emblem is marked on Tabruz’s map.

Zalil recruits a pair of rowers, and loads the three aboard. She takes a single lantern at the prow of the boat and finds the way through the dark. As the craft is nearly free of the jagged stone teeth, Zalil aims a thin beam of light at a large shape like a small mountain, the farthest of the spars.

“There,” she says. “That rock. That shouldn’t be there.”

Flute music rises above the sound of the surf. They spy a pale figure crouched on a small spar near the unfamiliar rock. The venturers brace as the boat draws nearer. Suddenly, the already nervous rowers cry out — something has taken hold of the oars. Drowned men emerge from the water, pulling themselves up over the rim of the launch.

Aya immediately blasts two of the corpses with lightning. Abd calls on the sacred wards of Jalisa, and two more are disintegrated in a pulse of light. Attsu leaps wholly from the boat, changing in midair, and lands on the spar next to the pale flutist. His claws tear cold flesh from the musician’s torso, and he recognizes the bestial frame and talons of a ghul. It scampers away from him and plays a strange series of notes on its bone flute, but the hypnotic tones fail to entrance any of the venturers. With a hiss, the ghul dives into the sea, Attsu’s claw just missing it.

Attsu dives into the water after it, shifted into his cat’s form. Beneath the ocean’s surface, the nature of the foreign “rock” is revealed — it is a portion of the shell of an unliving zaratan. The immense turtle is the size of a warship, and flesh has clearly fallen away from much of its bones; what skin remains on the flippers appears to have been preserved and stitched in place. A handful of humanoid forms float in the water around it. Attsu spots the ghul musician swimming into the skeletal beak and down the zaratan’s throat. He surfaces to warn the others, then dives below and follows the ghul inside.

The interior of the zaratan is more like a vehicle, or even a residence, than the guts of an undead beast. The flesh of the giant turtle is mostly gone, and what remains is taut and preserved. A ship’s steering wheel has been lashed to the “floor” near where the heart might once have been, tied into some peculiar pulley system with ropes that go running away. An ocean chart stretched on a framework stands by the wheel, a plumb hanging by a thin chain over it. The rear part of the cavernous chamber is taken up more with living quarters and storage, lit by lanterns of curious make.

Attsu spends little time examining the details. He scans for the ghul musician, and quickly spots it above. The creature has taken refuge on one of the detached ribs that serve almost as rafters. As Attsu scans for the best way to reach it, it cuts a line — and a mass of flesh hung in a net drops from the ceiling. The decaying bulk bounces once, then uncoils limbs and staggers to its feet. Attsu stares up into the filmed-over eyes of an undead ogre.

With the last of the animated corpses cut apart and thrown back into the sea, Aya and Abd make to follow Attsu. Abd takes the Dolphin Jewel in hand, and swims as naturally as a fish. They find their way through the zaratan’s throat and emerge into the stale, preservative-scented air of the hollow. They ready their weapons as they see Attsu leaping up to rake at the ghul.

Aya and Abd focus on the animated ogre carcass. He closes with it, drawing its attention with a scimitar slash. Aya also lashes out with her aeromancy, but as she does, the water in the zaratan’s throat churns behind her. More of the drowned men pull themselves out of the sea and stumble toward her.

Attsu runs to the side where the ribs of the shell meet the floor, and begins climbing up one of the ribs after the ghul musician. Abd cuts again into the undead ogre, but his shield arm isn’t strong enough to deflect its massive swing. He staggers and nearly drops to a knee from the impact. Aya freezes several of the drowned men, and rolls with their blows as best she can.

The ghul flutist scrabbles farther up, attempting to flatten itself against the shell. It whistles, and Abd feels the unsettling presence caress his mind. But the paladin’s will is far too strong, particularly with the distraction of the pain. He shakes it away as Aya sends another freezing wind into the ogre, stiffening its flesh. The power of Jalisa fills him a second time, renewing his flesh and strengthening his arm. His strike severs half of the ogre’s torso, and the immense cadaver crashes to the floor.

Abd and Aya then turn their attention to the remaining drowned sailors. Just as they are cutting the last apart, the ghul drops down behind Abd. But the shapeshifted Attsu is right behind it. The mechanical cat-monster leaps, and when it lands on all fours, it has the ghul’s severed head in its jaws. Attsu spits out the noisome morsel, and the venturers make short work of the remaining undead minions.

After a brief discussion about the importance of setting the undead hulk on fire, the venturers check for objects of interest. They find a coffer of valuable currency, even if many of the coins seem a little antique. A pot of enspelled grave earth comes to their attention, and Abd and Aya deduce that it is likely a transportation device for one to reach through to another tomb — or the inhabitant of said tomb to reach through. With no sign of the lantern mentioned in Pergu’s letter, it seems likely that the ghuls used the pot to send it away.

Also among the various goods is an egg the size of Aya’s torso. Its shell is whorled and striated, seeming as much a precious stone as anything. They determine that this is likely the zaratan’s egg that Sessuun requested, albeit magically altered to a more portable size. More curious is a glass coffin, containing a strikingly beautiful young person that is perhaps asleep, dead, or somewhere between the two. Abd notes a glyph on the sleeper’s skin that he has seen before — a token of the Immortal Sage himself.

The venturers take the coffer of money, the egg, the coffin, and the pot, moving them to Zalil’s boat before they set the remainder of the goods on fire. They then row back to the docks, where they find a commotion has enlivened the evening.

An agitated local tells them that The residents are hunting Tabruz. He vanished from sight not long ago, and both Kismet and the Widow’s daughter Savadra have gone missing along with him. The three are about to split apart to aid the search when Ramjat Azmeil Hashaban Fazim Omnibus Prismatica jin Ramjat jin Ramjat puffs out, and tells Aya that an ally is close at hand who might know more.

The gentleman in question is a dark-skinned man with proud and slightly cruel features, with a tassel of feathers attached to his fine cloak. Aya recognizes him as one of the shrike officers in the Queen’s service, and he reintroduces himself as Impalement of Glory. He informs Aya that their prey has gone above, taking refuge in the abandoned eyrie of the harpies that once plagued the cape. He wishes them luck in rescuing the captives and taking fine trophies.

They find the headwoman Razira and tell her that they know where her daughter has been taken. The three volunteer to lead the charge to the harpy eyrie, if there’s a way up. Razira points out an old pulley system that was used to move goods out of the cliffside lair during the town’s founding, and intermittently by the occasional group needing to temporarily place goods somewhere out of the way.

A light comes over the water — the hollow zaratan’s shell has cracked, and the fires set by the three are now venting into the night sky. The venturers brace themselves to scale the cliff in the dark.

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13 - Widow's Harbor
The tale of ventures launched in a dead man’s port.

Two ships sail for Widow’s Harbor. The Twist of Fate, scorched but still proud, leads the captured Scorn and its prize crew. Captain Tairasha exercises caution as they approach the Cape of the Fatted Ghul. Both ships pass a more luckless wreck among the stone “teeth” of the cape, already being picked over by the salvagers from town.

A pair of pilot boats row out to meet the ships. The lead pilot, a young girl with a touch of elven blood in her features, takes command to see the Twist of Fate safely to the docks. The Scorn berths in the settlement’s surprisingly expansive shipyard instead. Tairasha presents the venturers with a letter of introduction to the headwoman Razira, telling them that if the Scorn is theirs, then they should see to its outfitting and remodel personally.

Aya, Abd, and Attsu take charge of the operation; Kismet still intends to stay with the Twist of Fate. The three go to the drydock and begin the initial conversation with the head shipbuilder, an older man accompanied by a goblin that carries a selection of replacement prostheses for his missing arm and leg. They tell him that the ship should betray as little of its Izir origins as possible, and that its new name will be the Fire-Eater.

Razira the Widow arrives during the negotiations. She tabulates the venturers’ needs and offers them an initial quote for the modifications, with the note that the fireship’s flame cannons will likely help finance part of the work if they’re willing to sell. The group accepts her terms. Abd then subtly encourages Kismet to find the local gambling houses and procure a little extra coin to help with the shipbuilder’s bill.

The next step is to visit the weapons merchant Yashti, the red-headed middle daughter of Razira. Her establishment is filled with both personal armaments and shipboard weaponry, representative of at least a dozen cultures that touch the Jadesea. Attsu and Abd take to a pair of trebuchet-like weapons that hurl chain-linked weights from above. After some deliberation, the venturers choose to trade the Scorn’s firethrowers for a pair of the chain-smashers to be set in the rearward emplacements, a harpoon-thrower for the port bow and an alchemical catapult for the starboard. They also require a new figurehead to match the Fire-Eater’s new name. They leave it to the carvers to decide, though Lightning Zan suggests a few improbably ornate scenes for their inspiration.

Once the ship’s refit plans are settled, the next step is acquiring a full crew. Widow’s Harbor provides enough human flotsam that the venturers are able to pick and choose a reasonably trustworthy complement of sailors. The presence of the shipboard weapons does require more specialists as well, though — preferably an alchemist to provide ammunition for the catapult, and an artificer or carpenter to keep things in fine working order.

That evening, Aya discovers a lead to the former. She reunites with a distant colleague by the name of Sessuun, a charming young alchemist with diamond-like tattoos across her back and shoulders. Sessuun displays interest in the enterprise; her focus is on antitoxins, medicines, and other such philtres, but she has a solid grounding in other alchemical concoctions. The price for her services is commensurate, though — she requires a refined zaratan egg.

Sessuun explains that the egg in question is more petrified than anything, and indeed much smaller than a viable egg would be; it would be only the size of a cauldron, rather than the eggs of fable that would rival a sailing ship. She has attempted to purchase one from the scholar Tabruz, who has spent his days in Widow’s Harbor conducting a census of the dead, but the man has refused to barter with her. The venturers dispatch Kismet to the House of Salt where he holds court, with instructions to distract him to the best of her loquacity.

Under the cover of darkness, the three go to investigate the cliffside building that Tabruz has rented for his personal use. Aya sets her avian familiar, Ramjat Azmeil Hashaban Fazim Omnibus Prismatica jin Ramjat jin Ramjat, to stand watch. They investigate the exterior for traps, and the thing of note they discover is a faint magical aura by the door that Aya determines is necromantic.

Attsu folds down into his scouting-cat form, and leaps through a window. He glances over the scholar’s personal effects, notes that the object by the door is a dried, severed tongue, and finally discovers a trap door in the floor that is somewhat discolored by salt stains and small scrape marks. He returns to the others to inform them. They decide to continue avoiding the odd dead fetish by the door. Attsu moves a level down and finds the section of alleyway where the trap door in the floor leads. The three then use the trap door to enter Tabruz’s quarters.

Most of the personal effects are what one might expect from a traveling scholar, but one item in particular catches their interest — a detailed chart of the waters around Widow’s Harbor, with one section of sea marked with a pictogram in the shape of a turtle.

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12 - The Vengeful Fireship
The tale of the confrontation with the Scorn.

The Scorn bears down on the Twist of Fate, and it is clear that the privateer fireship is the source of the gale keeping the venturers’ ship pinned and helpless in the cover. Aya, Abd, and Kismet race for the boat, followed by Katifa and Lightning Zan. With the Fatted Swan’s abandoned sailors crowding the launch, it takes Aya’s own mastery of the winds to bring the boat alongside the Twist of Fate. They quickly climb aboard to assess the situation.

The Twist of Fate’s crew have already drawn weapons, though the winds are keeping them from maneuvering into place. The gnoll Notch snarls into the gale with an arrow on his bow, but has nothing close to a shot. The Scorn continues to draw closer, close enough that the burn-scars on most of its crew are visible. Captain Shagadiz stands near its prow, one hand on a large ceramic pot that continuously exhales the winds racing before it.

The wind carries Shagadiz’s voice, amplified somehow among the rush. “You have in your holding the Zodiac gem. Send it to us, in the hand of your wind priestess, and we will spare your vessel. If you do not, we will burn your ship to the last and dive for the jewel among its sunken ashes.”

Captain Tairasha glances back to the venturers, and shakes his head. Abd pulls the Dolphin gem from his sash, and focuses his will into it for the first time. An eddy of power spirals out into the sea, and a portion of the water rises up near the prow of the fireship. The water forms half-choate limbs and surges onto the deck of the Scorn. Abd wills the elemental to flood the nearest fire cannon, and it pours into the piping. Shagadiz turns to regard the glowing gem in Abd’s hand, and his face lights up with a mixture of covetousness and dread.

At that moment Aya focuses her power and directs a wind of her own directly into the gale. She splits it open, creating a small tunnel of less turbulent air from the Twist of Fate to Shagadiz. The storm winds roar to left and right, with a gap of less than five feet width.

“Shoot the pot, Notch,” she says.

The gnoll sights along the length of his arrow, and growls a low promise.

“I am Chaniwhur. I am Iokani, the people who have always hunted, who crack bones and devour poison. If my sheikh tells me to hunt the west wind — then I will kill it and eat it.”

Notch looses his arrow, and it strikes the ceramic pot of winds dead-on.

The explosion is like loosing a tornado. Shagadiz flies half the length of the deck. The winds tear apart the jib, snap a number of lines, and hurl a pair of hapless crewmen into the cove’s waters. A moment of pure calm descends before Aya conjures more winds to fill the Twist of Fate’s sails.

“What will it be?” asks Tairasha from the helm. “Do we flee or do we fight?”

Aya shrugs, and Abd says “I am tired of fleeing.”

The Twist of Fate leaps in the water towards the Scorn. Several of the scarred crewmen run for the flame cannons on the near side, but the closer cannon suddenly erupts in seawater as the elemental forces its way free. Abd directs the waveling to run wild on the fireship’s deck, and then lowers the jewel and prepares to board. Aya sends a protective wind to coil around the paladin and ward away fire, and the ships pull alongside one another.

Shagadiz pulls himself to his feet and spits out a word of power. A nearby pot, marked with sigils, explodes. A bonfire shaped roughly like a man emerges, and the Scorn captain directs it to attack all boarders.

Abd hands the Dolphin jewel to Katifa as the ships grind against one another. “Keep it safe,” he says, and then he leaps aboard the fireship. Aya follows, sending a wintry blast at the newly loosed fire elemental. Kismet stays aboard the Twist of Fate, keeping near Captain Tairasha to help ward off enemy boarders.

Abd immediately locks his blade with the rods of the Scorn half-orc master of discipline. The burly, scarred sailor fights in a particularly honorless fashion, striking for the most debilitating and painful shots at joints and vitals. Abd keeps his shield in place, though, and gradually shows himself the superior swordsman.

Aya dodges the firebolts from the loosed flame elemental, retaliating with icy bolts of her own. A small knot of sailors charges her, and freeze in their tracks when she exhales a killing winter wind over them. By the confused looks on their faces, they perish feeling the very unfamiliar sensation of true, deep cold.

Shagadiz finds himself beset by Lightning Zan, whose quick, nimble footwork keeps him always a step ahead of the fireship captain’s blazing flail. Shagadiz lets loose an arc of fire from the trail of his flail’s head, and Zan nimbly evades it, letting it wash instead over nearby sailors of the Scorn. The storm genasi offers a few taunts, following them with steelier jabs, before Shagadiz manages to strike a more solid blow.

The Scorn crew may have been sorely out of practice dealing with enemies who refuse to wisely surrender in the face of potential incineration. The fireship’s sailors are largely overwhelmed by the infuriated crew of the Twist of Fate, and Notch’s arrows have a tendency to find the flesh of their officers. But the survivors rally when they fire the surviving port-side firecannon directly into the Twist of Fate, and several of the Fate crew must give up the battle to fight the flames..

Aya’s wind sorcery overmatches the elemental, extinguishing its conjured form. She turns her attention to Shagadiz, buffeting him with cutting winds and purchasing some reprieve for the staggered Zan. At the same time, Abd knocks the half-orc senseless and leaves the unconscious enforcer on the deck, charging the Scorn captain as well. Shagadiz is quickly set on the defensive. He manages another attack before Aya’s winds frost over his weapon arm. Abd takes the opening and cuts the rival captain down.

A wave of panic sweeps through the crew of the Scorn. Aya calls out for them to surrender, and they begin to comply.

The Twist of Fate crew begin the process of commandeering the Scorn. While the crew carry off a portion of the fireship’s supplies, particularly some of the incendiary containers, Abd and Aya investigate Shagadiz’s cabin. They find a number of books and charts, and leaf through his personal log, which contains a litany of expected frustration.

…This is a gift worthy of the tales. Eight fine white cows and not a black hair on one of them! I have been dreading the thought of the marid’s wrath, but I shall be proud indeed to delight it…

…Where could the cows have gone? The hatch was sealed until we left the port! We cannot face the marid without an offering! We must turn back…

…Truly my first offering was irreplacable, and I am infuriated by it. Nonetheless, now I have fine grey cows as tribute to this jinn, and surely they will be pleasing. They are not perfect, though, and I still wish a terrible fate on the trickster who vanished my white cows into nothing…

…A thousand thousand damnations on the curs! Those venturers who approached me at the temple. They are the ones who gave an offering to the marid, and visited Vorun Tsaa, and stole away the Dolphin jewel! No doubt they are the ones responsible for the loss of the cows! But Shahzada Warralash has accepted the grey cows, and named these Twist of Fate mongrels for me. I must return to Izir. Lord Akhmal will not be happy…

…My redemption is upon me. If I have the genasi strumpet as well as the Dolphin jewel, all will be forgiven. The diviner says the Crown of Thunder, and so that is where we will travel. We are making excellent time. I shall avenge these humiliations….

Among the captain’s paraphernalia, the two also find a chart listing the fifteen Zodiac Jewels, with notations of particular interest. According to the handwriting, the Thunderbolt and Phoenix jewels are already in the hands of Akhmal al-Ifrim, the Antelope stone is held by Hadlaq the All-Seeing, and the Hunter gem is marked with the unfamiliar name of Abd jin Abd.

The two venturers reconvene with Kismet, Captain Tairasha, and Lightning Zan. They decide to take the Scorn as a proper prize. Once repainted, refitted and renamed, it might make an excellent second hunter to join in the search for the celestial jewels. Abd offers the captaincy to Lightning Zan, for the duration of the hunt. The genasi zigs and zags through the offer, until Abd finally says, “You are taking a long time to say yes or no.”

“Well, it’s flattering….”

“Yes or no?”

“…Yes.”

They transfer the surviving crew from the Fatted Swan over to the Scorn, along with a few spare sailors from the Twist of Fate to round out the prize crew. Both ships make ready to sail, to find a port disreputable enough to disguise a former Izir privateer and more sailors brave enough to crew it.

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