13th Voyage

28 - The Corsair's Third Wife
The tale of the Crocodile Jewel begins.

When she arrives in Hamaji, Wind-of-Embers excuses herself from her new companions. She travels to Tovok’s Post, the agreed-upon meeting place for her talon. She finds two of her comrades there: Breskhancha Hammer-of-the-Wall, and Tikhalcha Net-Cutter. The two warmly greet her, and exchange tales of their quests for the jewels; Breskh and Tikha had successfully gained an audience with the Enlightened Caliph’s vizier in Saramanda, and spoken with the sage Rabeyah the Quill. From the former, they learned that the Chariot Jewel was still in the Caliph’s possession; from the latter, they increased their knowledge of the empyreal gems as a whole.

The other two — Kaistron and Zilyazha Clouded-Heaven — left a note. They returned from their inquiries in Izir, City of Flame, before Breskh and Tikha did, and left almost immediately. The two have begun searching for the Crocodile jewel among the corsairs.

Breskh and Tikha listen with great interest to Wind-of-Embers’ tale. Breskh seems satisfied that that the Behemoth and Dolphin jewels have found trustworthy bearers, and notes that they should meet Wind-of-Embers’ new companions. The Hakasarrean priest offers to make introductions. Breskh says she intends to travel next to the tower of the Prophetess to see what she might tell them. She recommends that if Wind-of-Embers is still willing to split up to continue the search, her partnership with the Khavayish venturers seems to be a promising one.

That evening, Aya wanders Hamaji to look for Prince Taskasha. Unfortunately, she has no more luck than her familiar did. She meets with no Serpent Emirs at all, though she does have an interesting conversation with Zezin the Viper, a snake-tattooed warrior of some repute in the Hamaji arenas. He mentions that Taskasha is a friend of his own patron, and asks if the affair is vital. When Aya tells him that it is not an urgent matter, he says “Then I’m not going to drop everything to contact my patron, and we should spend some time drinking.” Aya accepts.

The following day, the venturers stake out a table under an awning by the harbor to await the Twist of Fate. Wind-of-Embers, Breskh, and Tikha find them there. Wind-of-Embers makes introductions, and the two drakha express their thanks for looking after their talon-mate and securing the jewels. The two groups exchange their information on the Zodiac Jewels, and are still conversing when the Twist of Fate makes harbor.

The ship unloads its passengers, a pair of jewel merchants, still talking about the excitement of a closely averted corsair attack, before the Righteous Wheel say their farewells and the venturers make their way back on. The crew greets them with enthusiasm. “We were so slow and clumsy without you, Aya,” says one sailor. “The corsairs actually got within bowshot range!”

“Well, Notch needs something to do.”

Abd, who has been silent for most of the day, moves into a small cabin for some privacy. Aya makes her way up the rigging to feel more of the sea wind. Kismet greets Captain Tairasha and asks him to speak privately. The two adjourn to his cabin, where she awkwardly explains their journey among the Kholos-Sahar. As her tale draws to a climax, she brings out the jann’s tear. She pauses, realizes she has no idea how to use it, and quickly excuses herself.

After a short and somewhat obscure conversation with Aya, Kismet returns. She takes the crystalline tear and hurls it at Tairasha’s stone foot, shattering it. The captain stares at his foot in some confusion before he cries out and drops to one knee. He clutches his cursed shin, grimacing… and the stone begins to shift. In less than a minute, Captain Tairasha is entirely flesh again.

The captain stammers a few incomplete words, then embraces Kismet. He holds her close for a moment before putting his hands on her shoulders and pushing back, clearly aware of the less than professional action. She responds by taking his face in her hands, drawing him in, and kissing him. Tairasha tenses for a moment, then leans in and returns the kiss.

Kismet leaves the cabin a few minutes later, a swagger in her step.

That afternoon, the venturers meet with Tairasha. The conversation moves to Barbafir Bloodmouth, a corsair of gruesome repute who has tenuous ties with the Free Brethren. Tairasha tells them that Barbafir is a hard one to trace, but he does have three wives who might know more. The closest and youngest lives at Plum Wine Isle, an island in the Necklace not too far from Hamaji. Aya and Kismet agree that it seems prudent to visit her and see if she might be able to help them.

The group spends the rest of the day preparing for the trip. They purchase an attractive book with numerous illustrations as a present for Barbafir’s youngest wife, assuming that even if she’s illiterate she might enjoy the pictures. They then seek out Lightning Zan to settle on the next move for the Fire-Eater and its crew.

They find Zan participating in the festival arena-fighting. The genasi swordsman is making a fine showing for himself, and afterwards even has a few admirers. Aya and Kismet talk to him about. After a short discussion, he grudgingly agrees to sail for Uur Iblim in search of the Maiden Jewel. Kismet adds some encouragement; “Honestly, I’d like to meet an ogre princess myself.”

Zan cocks an eyebrow. “It’s been two hundred years. Her beauty might have faded by now.”

The next day sees the Twist of Fate departing before sunrise, fully stocked. Wind-of-Embers joins the venturers for the jaunt. The ship reaches the Necklace by sundown. There’s still color in the western reaches of sky and sea as they reach Plum Wine Isle. The island is mostly hidden in the deepening dark as they sail around the coast. As they near the village cove, they see orange light on the water — the village is ablaze!

As they draw nearer, they see a ship is at anchor in the harbor — a sturdy and swift vessel, flying no flags to indicate its allegiance. Aya and Wind-of-Embers note a longboat still on the beach, and that the ship has oddly knotted rigging much like that of the Twist of Fate. The ship fills its sails and begins to sail away. Tairasha shouts “Pursue or go ashore?” The venturers quickly agree to let the ship go and go ashore to aid the village.

Kismet calls on the Dolphin Jewel as the landing boat carries her, Aya, and Wind-of-Embers to the shore. Half a dozen reavers of the other ship’s landing party, swords drawn, wade into the surf to meet them. The sailors quickly discover they have heavily underestimated their opponents. One dies to frost, four more are blasted by fire and cut apart by Kismet’s blades, and the lone survivor drops with one of Notch’s arrows through his neck before he can withdraw.

The women move into the town. The largest building, the winery, is one of the buildings on fire, with a group of halflings attempting to fight the flames. A badly wounded youth stands before a young woman, trying to hold off one of the invading corsairs — a corsair who very quickly dies as the venturers turn their attention to him. Kismet sends the Dolphin Jewel’s summoned water elemental off with the vague instruction to douse fires; the elemental responds enthusiastically to the command.

As the women make their way farther into the town, they meet the rest of the landing party. A scarred marine leads a pair of tattooed, frenzied raiders wielding great two-handed scimitars, with a few more sailors backing them up. The assailants meet the venturers with great ferocity, and a gruesome melee erupts. Aya, Kismet, and Wind-of-Embers all find themselves fighting for their lives — though they are still very well-equipped for the task.

During the battle, Wind-of-Embers takes a massive strike from one of the great scimitars, wounding her to the bone. As she reels back, a strange metallic voice whispers “No. Not like this.” Suddenly a cloud of dark smoke explodes into the eyes of her attacker. As he reels back, a blast of Aya’s thunder sends him to the ground.

Wind-of-Embers calls on the Curved Flame’s power to bind her wound, and sends a blast of fire completely through the torso of the other great scimitar-wielding warrior. Kismet’s blades do their work, and quickly the last attackers lie dead on the ground. The three survey the village, see no more attackers, and then begin looking for the home of Barbafir Bloodmouth’s wife.

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27 - The Reunion, the Wager, and the Vision
The tale of the return to Hamaji.

The venturers ride through the gates of Hamaji on steeds made of wind. Wind-of-Embers promises to meet her new friends later, and excuses herself to go see if any of her drakhan comrades have also returned to the City of Blades.

The young Raisho, still marveling at the ride, wonders aloud about his future. Aya, Kismet, and Abd promise to take him to meet Zufar first thing. After a brief stop to clean away some of the road dust, they pay a call on the sorcerer’s estate. The talking gate lets them through, and Zufar’s elder daughter Jisiri greets the venturers. She escorts them into a parlor and has refreshments brought, and soon Zufar appears. He is glad to see the venturers safe and most interested in their story.

Aya tells the tale of the Kholos-Sahar and the Behemoth Jewel from the beginning. Kismet occasionally leaps in to embellish the narrative. Zufar is an attentive listener, asking intelligent questions at relevant points through the story. His children Dasaan and Khajeira also wander in during the tale, and settle in to listen.

At the close of the tale Aya formally introduces Raisho and Zufar. Zufar regards the young man, and confesses that he will not be able to take on an apprentice at the time, but he might be able to recommend another teacher. He asks if Raisho is skilled at mathematics; the youth admits he has no experience. “A pity,” says Zufar. “A wizard of my acquaintance, Danafid the Anvil, tends to have more use for potential students if they can assist with her bookkeeping. Of course, she can be… tectonic.” He pauses and thinks for a moment, and then asks Jisiri to try Raisho on a few sums to see if he might have the talent. She nods in assent, and guides the young man out of the parlor. The departing Raisho cannot help but notice the warning stare of Jisiri’s father, and he bobs his head nervously on his way through the doorway.

The venturers share a few more pleasantries with their host and his children before a voice announces another visitor — Lightning Zan. Soon the storm genasi swordsman joins the group, delighted to see his fellow venturers as well as his presumed father. He talks idly about the difficulties of travel, then reaches into a pouch and produces a pale, triangular gemstone — the Crow Jewel.

Lightning Zan’s tale is not as elaborate as the quest to find brides and grooms for the Kholos-Sahar. He describes arriving at the parched oasis, where they scouted about until nightfall. When the night came, the ghuls emerged. Zan and his band — Katifa, Jisan, and Seshuun — slew the ghuls, and tracked them to a hidden crevice that led to a great cavern below. There they found the signs of a Serpent Emir’s court, long abandoned. A strange creature, a ghul that may have once been a snake-blood in the court, taunted them and led them on a chase through the caverns. The chase led to the bones of the perished Emir, where the ghul Pergu had built his workshop. The battle was fierce, and they set the ghul’s workshop on fire in the process. They pursued the fleeing Pergu to a natural bridge across a chasm, where the ghul threatened to drop the Crow Jewel into the abyss. But Jisan invoked an ancient snake-spirit to snap away Pergu’s withered arm, and the ghul was hurled below while the others seized the gem. They escaped the cavern as water began to rise through old, dry channels. Then they returned to Hamaji, bearing the Crow Jewel and a Serpent Emir’s diadem — the symbol of office for that oasis’ realm, no doubt something that would be of great interest to the other Emirs.

At the close of his tale, Zan bows politely at his audience’s congratulations. “I hope that if anything, this has proven that boldness and capability run in my bloodline.”

“Zan,” sighs Zufar, “if you were my son, I would be proud indeed. But… I did have liaisons in the Court of Sky, but only one with a djinn. She was changeable, but she was wind, not storm. Your parent would be thunder, casting sparks from their teeth. But the Opal of the Southern Skies, Taya-Wuurashi… I do not see her in you.”

Zan looks somewhat crestfallen, but raises his head and nods. He politely thanks Zufar for the friendship that he’s shown, and begs his pardon for overstepping. The venturers choose to rise and depart at that time, giving Zan the opportunity to leave without any further embarassment. Zufar asks them to keep him informed as to their progress with the Zodiac Jewels. They promise to return if his door is open, and he assures them it always will be.

They make the decision to go drinking as a group. Katifa meets them in the streets and lets them know that the Twist of Fate is not yet in harbor, to Kismet’s disappointment. She gives Abd an enthusiastic hug, and the group makes for a wineshop.

Zan is uncharacteristically philosophical as he puts away several cups of a rich local red. He says that while some part of him suspected it wasn’t true, Zufar and his children seemed such an interesting and impressive family that it would have been nice to belong. As the wine lifts his spirits, the talk turns to the next steps in the Zodiac pursuit. Aya, with unusual focus, argues that the group should chase the more loosely guarded stones first, not those in the keepings of powerful figures. She recommends the Crocodile and the Maiden, both of which are likely somewhere in the Necklace archipelago.

This leads to talk of Uur Iblim, the island kingdom of ogres where reputedly the Maiden Jewel was given to an ogrish princess. It is suggested that perhaps Zan could seduce the princess, should she even be alive at the current date. The Crocodile Jewel, however, was said to be in the hands of Barbafir Bloodmouth, one of the more “traditional” corsairs. And while the Dragon Turtle Jewel may be safer if it remains among the Serpent Emirs, it’s true that the diadem Zan retrieved might help provide a great advantage in negotiating with them. Aya contemplates aloud the possibility of contacting Mirza Taskasha to discuss matters.

At that point a small argument breaks out between Ramjat Azmeil Hashaban Fazim Omnibus Prismatica jan Ramjat jan Ramjat and Abd al-Rashid. The two grow more dismissive of one another, particularly when Abd criticizes the utility of Aya’s familiar. “I am of aristocratic lineage in aristocratic plumage,” huffs Ramjat, “and I serve my mistress with all of the strength in each feather, in whatever ambitions she has.” He pauses. “If she had any.”

“My ambition right now,” Aya says sweetly, “is to find Prince Taskasha.”

The bickering continues for another round or two, but Ramjat heads away as dispatched to locate the Serpent Emir. The venturers likewise separate for the evening.

Kismet goes to explore the notion of some games of chance; a number of wealthy individuals have arrived in Hamaji to observe and bet on a current arena festival, and it stands to reason that they would continue their gameplay into the evening. She finds her way into a few games, inevitably winning a few games of chance and deliberately losing some games of skill.

Eventually she finds herself at a table with Kirazta, sister to the sultana of Hamaji, who once wagered a clockwork instructor against Kismet at the Moon of a Thousand Horses and lost. Kirazta certainly remembers Kismet, and seems to have no hard feelings. Kismet inquires about a game, and reveals the petrified gem-pomegranate she took from the Petrified Forest of Nok. Kirazta agrees that she might buy her way into one of the more exclusive games with such a stake, and agrees to make introductions.

And so eventually Kismet finds herself at a piwazta table, a complicated game of cards and tiles, across from a veiled spider-mage of Naas, attended by two veiled lessers of his order. She plays carefully in their first game, making poor enough decisions with her tile play that her inevitable victory seems closer than it was. The spider-mage asks for a rematch, at higher stakes. She wagers the pomegranate, and the Naasi offers a pair of enchanted silk-thonged sandals.

Regrettably, Kismet fails to conceal her excitement and confidence during the second game, and falls into outright smugness. The spider-mages seem perturbed as she wins cleanly, and whisper behind their veils to one another. But they seem to find no trace of cheating. They stiffly congratulate her, offering her the sandals, and depart. Kirazta also gives Kismet a slyly evaluating look, congratulates her in friendly fashion, and then the two part ways.

In great contrast, Abd meditates that evening at the Mosque of Bright Steel, attempting to shut out all forms of frivolity and seek a vision. He has extreme difficulty in attaining the receptive state of mind. Finally the darkness behind his closed eyes resolves into the image of Mashaar, sitting at her desk, working at figures. Suddenly Abd draws forth a knife and stabs her in the chest. She falls back, a look of great surprise on her face, and Abd glances to one side to see — himself, Abd al-Rashid, in the mirror that stands in her office.

Greatly troubled, Abd wakes.

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26 - The Jann and the Matchmakers
The tale of a jinn liberated and a giants' celebration.

When Abd was inspecting the salt-harvesters’ camp in Tegwali, he suddenly received a visitation — the image of an abstracted, hooded older man, not unlike other sendings dispatched by the Immortal Sage. The spectral image spoke to him, telling him that he should find the city’s shrine to Jalisa and meditate there for a vision from the Defending Maiden. Abd set out immediately to discover the abandoned shrine.

The streets of Tegwali are unfamiliar. It takes Abd nearly two hours to navigate the peculiarities of the former City of Lotuses and locate the Jalisan shrine. He enters into the dusty hall, kneels before the altar, and focuses. Many hours pass, indeed much of the night, before something stirs. The spectral form of a robed young girl appears above the altar, beckoning to him.

The vision speaks. The girl charges him with taking the Behemoth Jewel and departing Tegwali alone, returning to Hamaji apart from his companions. Abd pauses, and says “I of course would do your bidding, but.. Why must I travel alone?”

The Jalisan image warns Abd that his companions are a grave danger to his cause. They will turn on him, even if they do not intend to, and they will cause him to lose the Zodiac jewel. Abd absorbs the warning, then stares grimly at the vision.

“Who are you?”

The apparition pauses, then smirks. Her form grows and fills out, becoming a mature and lovely woman. “You should know me, Abd al-Rashid,” she says. “I am Nehedza the Shrouded Moon. And I will make you the offer fairly: leave the Behemoth Jewel here, on the altar, and leave Tegwali.”

Abd refuses her immediately. The ghostly woman’s face distorts into a cold, mirthless grin. “You think that you are a wall that protects your friends. But you are the door through which I will strike.” The apparition then fades as Abd stalks from the shrine.

Abd returns to the camp and quickly falls asleep. He wakes again around noon, to the sound of thunder. He arms himself and follows the sound, meeting with his companions and the giants by the river. Kismet explains the fruits of their incursion — that they sighted the bell, but that the tower was guarded by air elementals, and the Crawling Storm was not so docile at noon as they had hoped. Her tale is punctuated by the sound of the bell pealing, as if being rung by a panicked sentry or a madman.

The group crosses the river again, the giants keeping careful watch for the behir. Kismet produces a great length of rope from the enchanted sack, and Hashatur is nominated to be the one lowering the bell to the ground. The venturers climb the tower stairs and finally reach the bell’s level. The floor that the bell hangs over has been carved with a complicated glyph of air magic, which seems to leak winds elemental winds.

A swirl of wind manifests into a more humanoid form, something like a four-winged male harpy. The elemental — what Aya recognizes as one of the piratical gale reavers — rings the bronze bell with some delight. It then turns to the venturers with a broad smile on its face. “Are you here to torment this wretched earth creature as well? She is so angry!”

Aya attempts to pacify the gale reaver, but it shows no particular interest in doing anything but following its own whims. As it pays more and more attention to the venturers, it begins to ask if they can fly — and if they are not afraid of falling. With that, it lunges for Abd.

Aya calls up a wind from the storm orb in her hand, and blasts the gale reaver back. But it resumes the attack, trapping Abd in a dust devil. The venturers fight back with blade and fire and ice. The whirlwind pulls more of the air from Abd’s lungs, and the paladin fights free.

The gale reaver turns its attention to Aya. It wraps its wings about her, engulfing her in another small whirlwind. But Kismet drives her compass sword through it, and its face manifests in the gale, bleeding small dark tufts of cloud that spin away on the winds and dissipate. The gale reaver’s expression of surprise is still on its face as Wind-of-Embers finishes it off.

They attach the rope to the bell, throw the other end to Hashatur, and help the philosopher-giant lower the bell to the ground. Aya also disables the glyph carved into the stone, severing the connection with the realm of elemental air.

As they return to the bridge, the sounds of storm and battle reach them. They find Kabotol leading the fight against the Crawling Storm, backed up by the hunter siblings. The immense behir pulls free of the giant champion and flanks the others — and then a huge fist made of water rises up from the river and strikes the drake. For the second time, it flees. The venturers turn to see a huge gondola on the river, an grand parasol protecting it from the sun, with a crocodile-headed ogre at the rudder and Igwu standing in its center. As the other giants return to the bridge, Igwu looks over the newcomer Kabotol, and then shifts into her womanly form.

The venturers make introductions between Igwu and Kabotol. They then take the bronze bell to a plaza, safely on the other side of the river, where the cobblestones have peeled away and the bell can rest on bare earth. Aya and Wind-of-Embers both coach Abd in the practices of etiquette when mortals address jinn. Thus prepared, the paladin recites a respectful address, and invokes the power of the Behemoth Jewel. The earth shakes and buckles around the bell, coating it in fresh soil.

As the tremor dies down, the metal-covered skull clapper falls free of the bell proper. It crumples inward for a moment and then explodes. An eight-foot woman appears, sturdily built, with deep brown skin with bronzelike highights and nails of polished bronze. She looks about, swells up to the same size as the giants, and then kicks the bell, hard. It flies into the wall of a nearby building with a resounding crash.

That done, the jann exults that she is finally free — afflicted with something of a headache from all the ringing, but free. She turns her attention down to the small mortals, and gives a respectful gesture. “You have freed me, and you have been polite, and that is worth three tasks that I may perform for you.”

They tell her that the first task is that they would have her attend the celebration with the Kholos-Sahar and their other guests. The jann shrugs; it seems a pleasant and painless enough way to expiate the a task, and she agrees.

For the second task, they ask what she can tell them of the Zodiac Jewels. The jann flexes her clawed toes in the earth, then stoops to rest her palm on the soil. She closes her eyes, and listens.

“I hear the Fox jewel, in a vault below the earth, in a city of locks. I hear the Dragon Turtle, kept company by a blind old serpent. I hear the Crow, recently ripped from a grave. I hear the Mourner, in a city of tombs and sand and echoes.” She then opens her eyes. “The rest do not lie on or in the earth.” The venturers thank her, and promise to ask for the third task after the celebration.

A short time passes. Aya continues to have no idea how to instruct Raisho, lacking as he does her instincts or elemental connection. Abd keeps a close eye on Kismet, who in turn goes wandering about the ruins. Wind-of-Embers spends time with the salt-camp’s guardian, the Sentinel Palif. She accepts the task of retrieving the body of Palif’s apprentice from northern Tegwali, and in return Palif gives her a pair of enchanted earrings, which allow one wearer to communicate with the other over great distances. The giants also wait and converse, and the women are amused to note that Kabotol seems to be about as vulnerable to Igwu’s sorceress charms as he was to the sea witch of long ago.

When the Kholos-Sahar arrive, they are astonished to see that the venturers have managed to free or retrieve three young giants and the legendary hero Kabotol, as well as convince the hermit Igwu to attend, to say nothing of arranging for Burunizha Ten Bronze Mirrors’ presence. The celebration is far more joyful than one might have expected, watching the stoic desert giants before. The siblings Ishurdur and Tarrikis are effusively welcomed home, young as ever and seemingly free of the curse. The giants immediately set about seeing them introduced to the chieftain’s daughter Aninat and the tribal champion Assurdanum. Igwu seems rather protective of Kabotol throughout the festivities, and although the Kholos-Sahar keep a small, respectful distance between themselves and the jann, the philosopher Hashatur cannot help but ask many questions of her. All in all, the venturers are quite proud of their matchmaking efforts.

Deep into the night, they ask for the third task: a means to break the Curse of Taliyah, as it was passed on to an incautious mortal thief some time ago. Burunizha Ten Bronze Mirrors smiles, and then she weeps a single tear. As it rolls from her cheek, she catches it — a diamond, with almost countless facets. “Give that to him,” she says, “and he should be free.” Kismet takes it in hand, and keenly anticipates the trip back to Hamaji.

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25 - The Ruins of Tegwali
The tale of salt and storms.

The march out of the desert is as featureless as the march in, but the journey gains a new perspective in the form of Kabotol. The Kholos-Sahar hero has many interesting tales of the centuries-past war against the Shadow Viziers. And if he is disconcerted by the new world he has awakened into, at least the timeless nature of the desert is familiar. He asks about the affairs of the small people as well during the journey.

The journey is also a time to speak about the final prospective marriage match: the jann Burunizha Ten Bronze Mirrors. According to Hashatur, she was bound almost four and a half centuries ago, when she cheated on a bargain with an elven sorcerer-matriarch. The matriarch sealed her into a bronze bell and hung her in a tower in Tegwali, and when the city was abandoned, the jann’s prison was all but forgotten. Burunizha is a possible marriage candidate because she seems to have a fondness for mortals; reputedly she was disowned or ostracized by her household for bearing the child of a fleshly servant. Hashatur hopes that the time spent imprisoned will not have twisted the jann’s feelings into hatred.

The bleached buildings of Tegwali are visible as the group reaches the Silken River. Peculiarly, a few plumes of smoke rise from the southern bank, raising the question of why the ruins are not so abandoned. At Hashatur’s insistence, the travelers cross the river as well before approaching the city. The north side, he explains is not safe — it has become the hunting ground of a great lightning-drake, a behir, known as the Crawling Storm. As they enter the city outskirts, he gestures at two building corners to describe its length — over 80 feet long.

They follow the smoke to one of the many plazas within the ruins. They find a camp of perhaps a hundred people, full of workers — some of them lizardfolk — engaged in harvesting the twisted trees that grow within the saltwater pools and feeding the briny wood into distilling equipment. The camp workers notice the four giants immediately, and the group of camp guards nervously takes up defensive positions. The venturers offer peaceful greeting. After a moment, a scarred and hooded woman looks them over, and focuses her gaze on Wind-of-Embers. “Let them in,” she says.

A squat, bearded man in finer dress than the others nods nervously after a moment. “You heard the Sentinel! These are our guests.” He introduces himself as Ruftal, the head of the camp’s enterprise. Ruftal invites the group to a meal, and is spared when the giants politely excuse themselves and leave to set up their own camp. The venturers accept, with the exception of Abd. The paladin steps aside, lost in conversation with a man in sorcerous robes who does not seem to be a member of the camp. The man fades at the end of their conversation — a sending from the Immortal Sage. Abd excuses himself with four words, and leaves the camp without further explanation.

The women join Ruftal at his table for a midday meal. Over the modest offerings of river fish, rice, and pickles, Ruftal grudges a brief explanation of the camp’s purpose. The camp cuts down the trees that manage to flourish in the salt pools, and distills the salt from the wood. The resulting “lotus salt” is a rare delicacy, one that Aya recognizes. Ruftal offers a touch to each of his guests, but only Wind-of-Embers has the trained palate to pick out its earthen, faintly spicy notes. In return for the gracious hospitality, Wind-of-Embers offers their host a taste of hratzal, a dried pepper carried from the Dragonskull Isles. Raftul accepts with gusto, but the pepper seems to immediately disagree with him. The stricken camp leader politely and vigorously excuses himself, and he does not return to the table before the end of the meal.

The three women find themselves with some free time in the afternoon. Aya tells the others what she knows of jann — the earth-jinn are dour by compare, prone to being very literal in their wording and interpretations. Wind-of-Embers knows mostly of ifrit, and mentions that they can be safely freed by an offering of fire to their metal vessel while speaking the appropriate courtesies. The three reason that the bell where the jann is bound is likely kept from the earth for similar reasons.

Kismet goes scouting through the ruins for the bell tower, and hears it ring dolefully. From the roof of a building she spots a spire in the right place — across the river, on the northern bank where the Crawling Storm hunts.

Aya remains in the camp, where a young man strikes up an interesting conversation with her. The youth, named Raisho, identifies her as a sorceress, and explains that he is waiting for a master who discovered his own talent. He has been following his master on these trade routes, and is waiting for his master’s return so that they will travel together back to a city where he will find an instructor in the arcane. He confirms Aya’s suspicions soon enough — the man who promised him an apprenticeship is Ubarid. Raisho speaks very highly of the Ascending Flame, and paints a picture of Ubarid as a kind fellow who is very interested in his welfare. He even brandishes a diplomatic pouch that will see him into Izir with full privileges.

Aya promptly announces that it’s a trap. She goes into some detail regarding the iniquities of the Flame that the venturers have previously encountered firsthand. Raisho is disbelieving at first, but gradually Aya’s utter guilelessness overcomes him. The young man becomes agitated that he has so nearly entered into the service of cruel tyrants, and he casts down his diplomatic pouch as if it contained vipers. Aya promises that she will introduce him to a wizard in Hamaji who will be able to provide an introduction to a more ethical mentor. She also quietly pockets the diplomatic pouch before it returns to Raisho’s mind.

Wind-of-Embers approaches the lizardmen, who are expectedly standoffish at first. She greets them first in their own language, then adds a turn of phrase in the Serpent’s Tongue, which one of the workers recognizes. The lizardman asks if she is an ally to “the viper who guards the river.” With that opening, she converses with the workers until one of the dwarven overseers becomes irritated and demands that the reptiles return to their labors. The lizardmen regard the overseer with a cold patience until Wind-of-Embers thanks them and promises to return later. That evening, she shares a meal with them and prepares a few dishes that please their reptilian palates.

Also that evening, Aya attempts to give Raisho some basic tutoring in how to use his magic. She is a spectacularly poor teacher.

Abd has still not returned by nightfall, and Attsu has not yet rejoined his companions. Even so, Kismet, Aya, and Wind-of-Embers decide that they can make a move for the bell tomorrow at noon, when the behir will theoretically be asleep.

They find their way across a bridge to northern Tegwali at the following midday. Kismet guides them quickly through the salt-crusted streets to the plaza overlooked by the bell tower. A large section of the tower wall is staved in, but from a distance, the stairs winding around its interior seem to be intact. Also visible is the bell itself — and the three note with some regret that it is the size of a cauldron, rather than a small hand-sized vessel.

Kismet is the first to enter the tower — and as she bounds up the stairs, the first to trigger its guardians. Two elf-sized tornadoes coalesce out of the air about her. Aya recognizes them as minor elementals, no doubt bound to the tower for their impulsive aggression. The two dust devils begin to buffet at Kismet, attempting to entertain themselves by hurling Kismet out of the tower.

A blast of arctic wind and a javelin of fire strike at one of the elementals to aid Kismet. The agitated mini-storm descends to the ground to pursue Aya instead. Kismet takes the opportunity to vault away from the other, marking it as she goes.

Suddenly invisible claws tear across Aya’s back. She twists, and all she sees is a faint shimmering outline, vaguely humanoid but with too many arms — an invisible stalker, assassin to the courts of the djinn. She inhales, and breathes out an explosively cold gale that dissipates the wounded air elemental entirely. But the stalker is scarcely hurt, and it claws at her again and again.

In the tower, Kismet is having a slightly better time of it — another fire javelin from WInd-of-Embers has rattled the dust devil still attempting to throw her to the stones. It whirls her way, erratic and over extended. Kismet darts past it and with a flash of her compass scimitar, cuts it in half.

Wind-of-Embers and Aya manage to wound the invisible stalker, but not before Aya is battered and bleeding. The genasi sorceress tightens her grip on the storm orb, and a freezing cyclone forms around her fist. She throws a strike to the center of the stalker’s torso. The winds explode into a focused twister, disintegrating the stalker’s form and coating the side of the nearby building in ice.

The three women rest for a few minutes. The ruins are still again — and then a new sound echoes through the streets, an electric crackling. The venturers brace themselves just before the azure scales become visible. The monstrous behir erupts into a street and looks down at them.

The three dive into the alleys and race for the river. The Crawling Storm charges after them, a wave of static electricity lifting the hairs on the backs of the women’s necks. A lightning bolt snaps out after them, but Fate is with them, and the bolt collapses part of a stone wall. Kismet helps Wind-of-Embers race up the temporary ramp, and they leap to a new alley.

The river is in sight, and the Crawling Storm drawing close again. Then a massive shape races past them from the south. Kabotol, a massive metal shield in one hand and his spear in the other, slams into the immense behir. He drives his shield into its jaws and flinches as electricity crawls across him. Then Ishurdur and Tarrikis run to his side, with great stone vessels in their hands. The two swing the vessels in the behir’s direction, splashing it with huge gouts of river water. Lightning crackles in all directions. From the safety of the bridge, the venturers and Hashatur — the philosopher-giant nervously holding a filled vessel of his own — watch the Crawling Storm releases its grip on Kabotol’s shield and retreats among the buildings. The giants wait to be sure it’s gone, and then they rejoin their companions.

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24 - The Pyramid With Four Masks
The tale of the sleeping giant and his mad tomb.

When the venturers and their three giant companions emerge into the open sky again, Attsu is nowhere to be seen. Abd discovers a short note written by the road — Friends, this hunt has become personal. I shall rejoin you when it is completed. Trusting in their companion to rejoin them when Fate allows, they set out into the desert.

Hashatur guides the group, listening for the shifting patterns in the earth that herald the pyramid’s movement. Again the giants aid their smaller fellow travelers with food and drink and shelter. During a sandstorm, they call up a wall of rock to protect the party. Kismet sees the silhouettes of desert elves moving camp during the storm, and courteously hails one. The elf, one of the Pale Scorpion tribe, exchanges a few succinct pleasantries. When she tells them of their destination, the nomad tells her to be cautious — “The masks are alive.”

Two days later, the group sees the sun rise in a featureless stretch of desert. As the sun warms the sands around them, the earth trembles. A huge stone point pushes itself out of the sand, and the pyramid rises up. The structure reaches nearly 350 feet high before it stops and settles, with a colossal mask near the summit of the pyramid glaring down at them — a mask worked in the form of a furious shaitan.

The group circles the pyramid clockwise. The mask on the next face is a horned cyclops with an expression of confusion; on the face after that, a solemn bearded and turbaned vizier, high above an opening at the pyramid’s base, a corridor that leads to a door tall enough to admit a Kholos-Sahar. Wind-of-Embers and Hashatur indulge their curiosity and go to look at the fourth face — a serene woman wearing a seashell tiara, who Hashatur proposes may be the sea witch who cursed Kabotol and diminished him.

The entry is flanked by two caryatids in the form of chained female shaitans. The door itself is an immense slab of stone, twenty feet tall, with no handles or rings to guide it. Beside the door stands a giant-sized bust of a lovely Kholos-Sahar woman; an ugly iron and lead mallet, sized for the hand of a desert giant, hangs from a hook on its pedestal. Hashatur recognizes the sculpture as a portrait of Taliyah, the legendary binder-chieftain. After some examination of the bust and the mallet, Aya recommends that one of the giants strike the former with the latter. Hashatur muses that if the pyramid was built by jann, then perhaps their loathing of Taliyah’s deeds might have led them to create such a key — and Tarrikis takes up the mallet while the philsopher is still contemplating, and strikes the face of Taliyah with it. The metallic sound vibrates through the group, and the stone door rises.

The entire party enters cautiously. A short corridor leads to an entry hall lit by old sorcerous lamps, with strangely twisted columns and walls painted with images of the war against the Shadow Viziers. Two hallways lead out — to the left, a hall at a human’s scale, to the right, a hallway sized for Kholos-Sahar. A great mask, the likeness of the vizier’s mask on the pyramid’s exterior, hangs on the far wall above a painting of the battle of the Zodiac Orrery. As the group approaches, the mask animates. “It has been such a long time,” it sighs, “since there have been visitors.”

The Vizier speaks with the group, its voice resigned and its answers sometimes enigmatic. It knows of the giant entombed within, though its knowledge seems somewhat hazy. It also tells them that the pyramid is not entirely safe for them. “I am not on speaking terms with I or I or I,” it says. “I can be… temperamental.” When the venturers and giants agree that they must press on, the Vizier mask says, “I will remain here. If I do not overwhelm you or drive you off, perhaps I can assist you.”

The group decides not to split the party. They choose the giant corridor to the right, which is decorated with elemental motifs and flanked with veiled statues of colossal height. The passage turns sharply after a moment and leads to another huge room, this one dominated by six massive statues dressed in ancient piecemeal armor and other odd garb. Reliefs along both walls show what appear to be two giant families or lineages, one Kholos-Sahar and the other a line of sea or storm giants. Hashatur notes that these are likely the two ancestral lines of Kabotol.

As they continue to look about the room, the stone on one of the statues’ faces shifts and spreads, forming the mask of a horned cyclops with an expression of despond. The mouth moves, and a deep voice rolls through the hall. “Why do I bear this on my back? Who was I? Who am I when I am not I? Why do others come… to laugh at I?” The statue lurches forward, and begins to strike out at the mortals around it.

The venturers attack the immense statue without hesitation. Abd strikes at its legs while Kismet rides one of its feet. Aya and Wind-of-Embers strike it with alternating frozen winds and javelins of fire, weakening the stone further for Abd and Kismet’s swords. The younger giant siblings move to assist with their stone spears as well. Ishurdur fights more fiercely than her brother, who seems to have difficulty striking at a bipedal target with no true vitals.

A stone backhand strikes Abd, sending the paladin skidding back. He remains standing despite the force of the blow, and a prayer from Wind-of-Embers floods his muscles with healing fire. He darts back into the brawl, and soon the giant statue is toppled. The cyclops mask cracks away from the statue’s head and rolls free. The venturers advise Hashatur to carry it with them, just in case.

The passageway forward corridor leads around a second turn to the left, into another large hall where life-sized statues of desert giants kneel in the four corners, heads bowed. Another human-sized corridor leads into the room from the far wall, mirroring the two corridors in the entry hall. A ten-foot-high archway marks a third wall, but it is wholly blocked by a featureless worked stone slab like the pyramid’s entrance. A smooth blue gem the size of a grown man’s torso is set into the stone above the arch’s keystone.

The venturers investigate the stone, and a giant lifts Kismet up for a closer look. Unfortunately, she doesn’t see the signs of a mechanical trap, and can’t tell if there might be a magical effect. Finally an impatient Tarrikis places his palm against the gem and pushes. Two things happen: the slab grinds upwards to reveal stairs going down, and Tarrikis seems almost to fall downward as he shrinks to the size of an ordinary human.

The venturers move down the stairs, followed by a much-chastened Tarrikis. Ishurdur and Hashatur crouch down and squeeze through the opening after them. They find another hall sized for humans — another twenty-foot ceiling, supported by four simple pillars and lit with phantom fires. The walls are hung with vellum scrolls listing a variety of proverbs and riddles of contemplation in almost every language Wind-of-Embers and Aya recognize. The far door is sized more for the Kholos-Sahar, and a recess in the center of the floor is filled with sand sifted in the patterns appropriate for a meditation garden.

Dust drifts from above to the sound of grinding stone. The venturers look up to see a third mask protruding from the ceiling — that of the wrathful shaitan. “Too much for I to bear!” it shouts. “Too long have I been imprisoned! I must be free! I am forgetting I!”

Two stone hands, each one the size of a sultan’s throne, erupt from the floor. Abd, Kismet, and the giants battle the animated hands as Wind-of-Embers and Aya throw elemental spells against the mask. One of the hands seizes Abd and slams him against the floor, the impact dulled enough by the sand to prevent actual broken bones. Tarrikis is badly battered by the other hand, and falls back to let his full-sized sister engage it.

The mask is the first enemy to perish, exploding into stone shards from the alternating assault of fire and ice. Abd draws on the strength granted by Jalisa to rally. They focus on one hand, breaking it with steel and spells, and then destroy the other. The broken mask shows no more signs of vitality, and the pyramid is still again.

They rest some minutes to bind and heal their wounds. The venturers decide to be thorough examine the human-sized corridors on the other side of the tomb. They find a room decorated with mosaics, the ceiling only twenty feet high. The mosiacs show more of the war against the Shadow Viziers, with Kabotol both as a giant and as a human-sized warrior. Another mask of the distraught cyclops hangs over the exit, but it does not stir. Their investigation is abruptly disturbed when a great shout echoes through the hall. “Something is happening!”

They return through the door of humility and down the stairs, where the odd slab has now risen, revealing another corridor beyond. The giants explain that Hashatur had settled down to contemplate the door, and once he had properly cleared his mind, the slab raised. “Your contemplation is useful for the first time,” says Abd.

They enter a room a simple crypt with a single bier, a twenty-foot slab of unmarked stone. Atop the bier rests a tall Kholos-Sahar man of powerful build with thick hair and a dark beard. One hand rests on the weapon laid down his body, a metal spear with a spade-like blade at its other end. The other hand guards a greenish gem. The only other feature in the room is the large mask on the far wall — the Sea Witch. As its fellows did, the mask animates as the venturers approach.

“I am fragmented,” the mask says. “I am resigned. Confused. Frustrated. And hopeful… that someday I would be free.”

The Sea Witch counsels the venturers to take Kabotol with them. “Take the stone. Ask him to come. He will awaken.” Tarrikis asks abashedly about the pyramid’s magic, and the mask tells him that his reduction will end when he leaves these walls.

Kismet is the one to invite Kabotol to wake up. The giant hero stirs awake, and sits up. He still grasps his weapon as he studies his liberators. They explain that some time has passed, and that although there has been peace with the fall of the Shadow Viziers, now a new cabal of wizards plans to seize similar power. Kabotol solemnly absorbs the tale, and respectfully places the Behemoth Jewel in Abd’s hand.

As the venturers and the giants depart the pyramid, the masks watch them pass quietly — the Shaitan mask reformed in the hall of meditation, the Cyclops in the hall of ancestors, the Vizier in the entry. None of them speak. The group walks free of the pyramid, and the sands begin to tremble beneath their feet. Once a distance from the tomb, they turn to watch as the structure rises up even further. An immense stone form, carrying the pyramid on its back, pulls itself free of the earth. Four crudely hewn faces about its head slowly merge into one, and with a sigh like a landslide, the elemental colossus and the pyramid vanish once again beneath the desert. Wind-of-Embers’ brassmane nuzzles her shoulder in the quiet.

Ishurdur glances down at her brother, who is still the size of the venturers. “Give it time,” she says.

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23 - The Three Wives and the Statue
The tale of how wine became a necromancer's undoing.

While the three women were partaking of Igwu’s hospitality, Abd and Attsu sought out the isolated campsite they had spotted, where they discovered peril. The men there immediately drew blades, and one called out Abd’s name before they attempted to kill the two. The strangers were skilled with their blades, but the paladin and the ancient clockwork warrior slew two and routed a third. Attsu shifted into his cat form and pursued the fleeing scout over the crags, while Abd searched the campsite. Abd quickly deduced that the camp held supplies for a larger number. Among the bags, he noticed signs of the merchant Ubarid from the oasis, and an enchanted candle of cascading flame — with the marks on it suggesting manufacture in Izir.

Before Attsu returned, Abd looked back into the river valley and saw a large figure marching toward the waterfall. The individual seemed to be seven feet tall, cloaked and veiled against the desert wind. Abd remembered riding past a similar figure in the desert, when taking the wind-steeds to the oasis. He moved down the mountainside to follow, as the large individual marched up the conjured stairs to the parted waterfall.

Abd followed the strange wanderer up into the manse of Igwu. Though clearly built like a man, the figure’s footfalls crunched against the floors like stone on stone. The otter servants tried to catch the attention of the large visitor, but were utterly ignored as it marched through the halls as if knowing its destination. Then they turned to Abd, and guided him to his companions.

Abd exchanges his story with the women, who in turn tell him everything they’ve discovered, from the hospitality of Igwu to the treachery of Ubarid. Aya explains the nature of his sorcery, and Abd recognizes her description of the glyph-adorned urns at his belt. He tells them that he recalls the words to stopper and unstopper such vessels, knowledge hard-won against a prior battle with a necromancer. But Aya reminds the others that even if they free Ubarid’s wives, he will still be able to control them unless they find his focus item.

A small voice from below speaks up, saying “His wedding rings still have binding force.” Aya glances down to see the small white snake lying across a curved portion of the ivory molding, and nods. “His beard,” she says. “He wears rings in his beard.”

The group decide to pin down Bwuup and extract his assistance. Abd, Kismet, and Aya find him lazing in the kitchen with a hookah, and instruct him to attend them in the giants’ guest suite. The ogrish steward is taken aback by their forceful demand, but complies.

Once they have Bwuup back at the giants’ guest suite, the four launch a barrage of intimidation on the massive ogre. “Who do you serve?” “We know what you did.” “Was that not a betrayal of Igwu?” Before the steward can answer any one charge, another comes from a different direction.

“No, no!” protests the frog-headed ogre at last. “The giants and my master were always safe. Ubarid’s business was with you.”

The venturers are not a whit fazed by this revelation. Bwuup helped violate the bond of salt, they point out. Igwu is not bound to protect his servant after that. And Ubarid has no reason to trust Bwuup, who clearly is not honorable.

“Also,” says Abd, “you must remember that I am not a guest here. I have eaten no salt and taken no drink.” His hand rests on his scimitar hilt. “I am not bound by the laws of hospitality to refrain from violence.”

“If… if all of this were true…” Bwuup croaks, “then what do you want of me?”

“Drug Ubarid. As you did your master and his guests.”

Bwuup’s throat sac flutters. “…Agreed.”

They let the steward free, and he cautiously vanishes down the corridor. The four wait quietly, unsure how long Bwuup might take, or even if it will work. Then one of the lamps in the suite flares up, its flame expanding into a ball of white fire two feet across. A face manifests in the pale fire, and regards them — a keen-eyed man with rings in his beard.

“Ah,” says the image of Ubarid. “Here you are. And I see you have rejoined them, Abd Al-Rashid.” Abd steps forward, and the fire-sending smirks. “My words are not for you, however.” Ubarid’s fingers appear briefly in a dismissive gesture, as he turns to face the three women.

“I felt it was only fair to warn you,” he says. “I am charged to deliver those who oppose me to my mistress Nehedza. My mistress’s attentions are unkind. This is true. You would no doubt be separated from your own bodies, though such a waste that would be, and given other flesh.” He smiles in an ingratiating manner. “But she has agreed to spare anyone who would become my wife, and I think you are clever enough to at least consider the offer.”

“And what do your current wives think about that?” asks Wind-of-Embers.

The image smiles thinly. “My previous wives have nothing to say on the subject. But no matter. I merely wished to make a civil offer, before the inevitable shrieking and violence begins.” Ubarid’s smile vanishes. “To move against one of the Uncrowned is dangerous. You know that— oh, thank you—” and the image turns for a moment, and lifts a cup to his lips, then resumes— “but I should—”

And then the image’s eyes slam shut, and it falls forward out of sight, and the white flame puffs and gutters away, leaving only the lamp’s flame again.

The four quickly set out for Ubarid’s guest quarters. They arrive in time to see Ubarid’s two bald servants carrying their unconscious master back from the library. The seven-foot figure stands motionless by the door to the suite, fists at its sides. The venturers slip quietly into the rooms nearby, where Kismet muses that there would likely be a secret passage between the guest rooms in such a palace, in order to facilitate liaisons. She examines the walls, contemplates where the most likely place would be, and then opens a secret door with a confident flourish. The desert elf slips into the hidden corridor with a confident smirk.

The door into Ubarid’s quarters does not open as easily, jostling a nearby chair. But Fate smiles on Kismet, for the two servants are absent — speaking with the otters in the hallway, requesting some remedy to wake their master — and only Ubarid lies snoring on a bed. She neatly snips away the lower third of his beard, rings and all, before she slips back through the secret door and rejoins her companions.

The four decide to wait, reasoning that it would be most fitting for the necromancer to be awake when his wives are freed. They watch as the liveried otters return to his suite bearing towels and ice water. Not long after, Ubarid’s voice echoes from his quarters, clearly aggravated. He emerges into the hall, still sputtering.

Then Abd steps into the hall as well, leveling a stony glare at the necromancer. Ubarid returns a more puzzled stare, then his eyes light up with recognition. “You!” he shouts. He gestures behind him for the seven-foot guard, and then points at Abd. “Crush him! Now!” The massive figure raises its fists, and as it steps forward, Abd notes that his suspicions were correct, and he faces a living statue.

“I have only one word for you,” intones Abd in return, holding the braids and rings aloft in one hand. As Ubarid focuses on them and reaches in surprise for his truncated beard, Abd speaks the command word, and the stoppers at the necromancer’s belt fly free. Ubarid fumbles after the falling corks, but three unholy voices keen through the corridors as three ghostly women come spiraling out from the small urns.

The living statue strides forward, heedless of its master’s shrieks as his wives fall upon him. Wind-of-Embers strengthens Abd with a blessing of fiery strength, and the two stand against the statue. It shrugs away their initial strikes, but when Aya strikes it with a bolt of terrible cold, Wind-of-Embers follows with a lance of flame. Another cold blast, and the statue’s torso begins to crack and split. Abd widens the flaw with an imposing strike. A final fire javelin splits away its arm and shoulder and part of its torso, and the statue falls in two inert pieces.

After rising from the corpse of Ubarid, inhaling the remnants of his dying breath, the wraiths fell upon his homunculi. The venturers turn their attention to the ghostly wives, seeing that both of the vat-grown servants lie dead, their flesh melting like wax under a noonday sun. Abd and Wind-of-Embers step forward, speaking words of propitiation from the rites of their faiths. Abd offers them their wedding rings as part of the appeasement. As each wraith accepts her ring, her features become less ghastly, and she resembles the woman she once. All three return quietly to their urns, and Abd quickly speaks the word to reseal the vessels.

The venturers go about the pragmatic business of looting Ubarid and his room. They find letters to his mistress Nehedza and another carefully sealed small wineskin. Some of his personal wealth was clearly in the form of jewels and rings, which they confiscate. Wind-of-Embers disposes of his body with flame, and a chastened Bwuup oversees the remainder of the cleanup.

They take their rest for the remainder of the day. That evening, they wake their Kholos-Sahar traveling companions, reassuring them that nothing untoward happened — it was merely strong drink, and nobody embarrassed themselves. They then proceed to Igwu’s chambers to wake their host. They allow Bwuup to explain what happened, and if the steward plays down his own self-serving actions, he makes amends by praising the venturers’ perspicacity and courage.

Igwu offers his formal apology over dinner, to both the venturers and the giants. He apologizes for the bad behavior of a guest he had admitted, and asks how he might make amends for the insult of failed hospitality. The venturers respond by asking Igwu to attend the gathering that they are organizing, at which the young giants in their care — who seem somewhat bashful as the topic is raised — will be circulating with the Kholos Sahar to see if any potential love-matches might arise.

Igwu strokes his mustache. “I prefer my seclusion,” he says carefully, “…but that seems a pleasant enough way to repay a debt of honor. I will attend.”

After the assembled party has returned to the pleasant business of eating and drinking, Igwu focuses on Wind-of-Embers for a moment. He asks if she was one of those who stood alongside the Sentinels of the Broken Wall. She affirms that such was her honor. The mist giant nods, and calls for Bwuup to bring him an article — a cloak of cloth woven from fog, which he presents to her as a sign of respect. The Hakasarrean priest accepts most humbly.

The venturers sleep lightly that night. In the morning, they speak with their host, who promises to attend the gathering at the ruins of Tegwali. He opens the waterfall door for them, and the venturers and the three giants with them depart.

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22 - The House of Igwu
The tale of the man with his wives at his belt.

Abd immediately latches onto the possibility that the Behemoth Jewel may rest in the ever-moving pyramid. He holds forth that the group should make the pyramid their next objective. However, Hashatur clarifies that it is unlikely to appear in a convenient location over the next few days. The venturers decide that they should continue around the Kholos Sahar’s circuit, and reach the house of the mist giant Igwu as planned. Abd goes along with the decision, though he clearly resents the potentially “wasted” time.

The giant-trodden path leads up through the mountains and along the rocks where the Silken River has its source. In a matter of days, the venturers are riding alongside the river itself, watching rust-colored herons fish in the water. Hashatur keeps up with them well enough — he lacks the enthusiastic vigor of Isha & Tarr, but he is still young and strong. By mid-afternoon one day, the group hears an echoing roar ahead that leads them to a sharp cliff. The group walks down a winding path and finally find themselves on a small low stretch of riverbank looking at the massive pool at the bottom of a hundred-foot waterfall. The water throws up a perpetual cloud of mist that refracts rainbows where the sun strikes it. “There,” says Hashatur, pointing to the waterfall. “This is where Igwu lives.”

But there seems to be no sign of a door. Kismet goes diving to see if there might be a opening under the waterfall, but the current is far too strong at the base for her to swim through. She does find a silver bell the size of a cauldron on the floor of a pool. A careful eye reveals a spar of rock jutting from the waterfall, perhaps large enough to have supported the bell. Kismet takes a length of hawser rope from her magical bag and attaches it to the bell. The giants help pull it from the river, and then Aya flies up with the rope to loop it around the spar. Tarrikis pulls the bell into position, and Aya rings it once before drifting back down.

At the sound of the bell, the waterfall parts. A set of slick, pale stairs rises up from the water to a shadowed entrance. The central stairs seem giant-sized, but to either side runs a narrow band of steps cut more to the venturers’ size. Aya, Kismet, and Wind-of-Embers prepare to ascend the stairs when Abd interrupts. The holy knight had spent less time looking at the falls and mist and more time scanning the nearby mountains, and he tells them that he has spotted signs of a camp high up. He and Attsu plan to scout it in case their enemies are near. The women wish Abd and Attsu luck, and then they and the three giants climb the stair. The wet steps would be very troubling for most people, but the trio of venturers have all spent plenty of time keeping their balance on wet deckboards. They pass through the open gates of blue-green stone and pale filigree with no difficulty.

The first they see of the house is the entry hall, which is made of more smooth, whorled, blue and green stone with more ivory or alabaster inlay and furnishings. Two large otters wearing livery, four feet high when rearing, approach and bow quickly and repetitively. The otters move down the hall, looking back in invitation, and the venturers and giants follow.

The hall ends in a rather fine foyer with far too many hallways and stairs branching away to comfortably fit within the cliff. A lumbering bulk emerges from one corridor, a ten-foot frog-headed ogre in full livery. The steward asks the three women and the three giants who has sent them here, and Kismet responds that they are here of their own accord, to invite Igwu to a party.

The frog-headed ogre swells his throat sac for a sigh, and tells them he will inform the master. He turns and departs, muttering under his breath about two bands of guests in as many days. More otter servants attend the guests during his absence, setting out drinks and bowls of spiced snails.

Finally a beautiful giant descends the stairs. Her hair and skin are as alabaster as the details of the house, and she wears a blue and green gown. She greets the giants, and regards the three small venturers. With a smile, she transforms into a male form, as handsome as she was formerly beautiful, with a word about how it would be more hospitable for such lovely women. “I am Igwu,” he says. “Welcome to my home.”

Kismet begins to repeat the invitation, but Igwu waves it off as something to be discussed over dinner. He tells them to consider themselves his guests; “After all,” he says, “my lunarium is already hosting small ones.” He turns to the batrachian steward. “Bwuup?”

With a dismissive wave, Igwu departs. The steward, Bwuup, gives instructions to the otters to lead the guests to their quarters. Some of the mustelid servants take Hashatur, Tarakiss and Ishurtur down one immense corridor, while others guide Aya, Kismet, and Wind-of-Embers down another. The venturers enter a suite of circular rooms, neatly sized for their use. The servants leave more refreshments for them on tables, and the three women discover a pool-sized bath set about with serpent carvings, with an amphisbaena fountain that pours hot water from one mouth and cold from the other.

The three women take advantage of the opportunity to bathe. As they do so, otter servants collect their clothing and return it cleaned and folded. Kismet and Wind-of-Embers dress and decide to explore the manse, perhaps to meet their fellow houseguest; Aya chooses to remain and enjoy the bath longer.

The other two wander the halls for a bit. They pass by various other fountains and pools with other animal or bird motifs, and discover a library where shelves and scroll racks fill thirty-foot-high walls. Another hall leads to a room with great windows set into its walls, showing the base of the waterfall, the river, and the mountains around it — but the scene is lit by full moonlight, even though both women are certain it is still daytime.

A man stirs from one of the couches and greets them. They recognize him as one of the fellow-travelers with the Al-Bazra who visited the Laughing Waters, and he reintroduces himself as Ubarid. The cheerful merchant is attended by a man and a woman, both hairless and silent; he says that he and his two servants are the extent of his retinue. Wind-of-Embers and Kismet are evasive, in a friendly fashion, as he asks them about their travels. He laughs the limited conversation away with a promise to talk more at dinner.

And as Aya continues to relax, she notes a small, pale snake curled atop one of the stone serpent carvings adorning the bath. The snake lifts its head, regards her, and says “He keeps his wives at his belt.” Then it slips down from the carving and vanishes into a shadowy recess of the room.

When the other two return to their quarters to prepare for dinner, Aya tells them of the serpent’s warning. The three immediately worry that Igwu’s romantic attentions will mean danger for Ishurdar, and that they must find some way to protect her.

The three attend the evening feast, as do their three giantish companions. A cunningly designed table allows the giants to sit comfortably at the table on one side, and the various smaller folk on one side. Their host provides them with a splendid feast — great steaks of flaky white fish, rice with water chestnuts and pickled lotus root, giant crayfish tails steamed in their shells, tea flavored with nectar and smoke — even if the three women are somewhat reticent to indulge in every delicacy. Bwuup keeps a sweet, almost colorless wine flowing into the giants’ cups, and Igwu and his Kholos Sahar guests quickly become tipsy. Ubarid, for his part, resumes his social niceties with the women on his side of the table, with the occasional admiring glance toward the beautiful and energetic Ishurdar.

Kismet and Aya steal glances at Igwu throughout the dinner, glancing at the mist giant’s belt. Their host wears a large, shining bronze girdle that neatly complements his bracers and jewelry, but unless something behind the metallic plates hides the secret of his wives, there seems to be no sign of their presence.

On a hunch, Aya changes targets. While Ubarid laughs and offers his cup to an otter for a refill, his cloak falls away from his body, and she sees a small ceramic urn tied to his belt. The vessel has a complicated sigil across the wax of its stopper, and another painted on its side — and Aya recognizes them as necromantic magic.

While Ubarid is distracted by the lovely and increasingly intoxicated Isha, Aya covertly notifies her friends that Ubarid is likely the one with his wives at his belt. When he returns his attention to them, they ask about the tale of his arrival at Igwu’s manse. The cheerful fellow states that he is merely a trader, if an ambitious one, and that he has been pursuing an opportunity to strike up friendly trade relations with a personage of Igwu’s stature for some time.

At that point the philosopher Hashatur falls forward into his candied lotus-petal sherbet. Igwu follows suit, passing out in a drunken stupor that seems quite excessive for the modest amount of libations he’d consumed. The steward Bwuup does his best to lever his master out of the dessert, while the women enlist the woozy giant twins to help Hashatur back to their quarters. Ubarid remains to finish his dessert, bidding the others a good night.

The twins succumb to unconsciousness not long after reaching their guest rooms, passing out almost on top of Hashatur. Remembering Ubarid’s open admiration of Isha, the three women worry that the young giantess might be his next target. The three agree to stand watch over the dreaming giants. But Ubarid does not appear. Not too long past midnight, Bwuup appears instead. He looks curiously at the three, and says that the servants told him they weren’t in their quarters.

“She’s had too much to drink,” smiles Kismet, “and it takes three of us to hold her hair.”

With some mortification crossing his batrachian features, Bwuup makes his apologies, bows, and departs. From Aya’s shoulder, Ramjat fluffs up and voices a grave suspicion regarding the night’s events. Aya tells him to follow Bwuup if it will put him at ease, and her familiar flies quietly down the hall after the steward.

Before long Ramjat returns in an even greater state of agitation. The polychromatic bird reports that Ubarid sought out Bwuup, and the two spoke as if conspirators. Ubarid wished to know why the three women were not in their quarters, and Bwuup explained what the three had told them. Ubarid promised that thanks to Bwuup’s assistance in serving the drugged wine, the steward would have a week’s worth of idleness before Igwu would wake again, but also maintained that the night was not over yet.

Kismet, Wind-of-Embers and Aya consider their options. They agree that Ubarid must be stopped, for he is likely a threat to the giants as well as to the three of them. Kismet muses on the pleasures of gutting Bwuup, but Aya reminds her that they are Igwu’s guests, and to attack his steward — however well-deserved — would be a breach of the bond of salt. The three consider the poetic justice of feeding Ubarid to his undead wives — but as delightful as the thought may be, they would first need to discover and steal the focus that controls them. And Ubarid is unlikely to treat them as friends….

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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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