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.”