13th Voyage

31 - The Mirror With the Form of a Man
The tale of a bargain made for a merchant-queen's soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Abd seem different?” asks Attsu.

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

“So, no,” responds Aya.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You seek Haup?” the man asks.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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30 - Sons of the Deathless Slave
The tale of the salt-cursed necromancer.

The venturers plunge into the battle on the Iron Triangle docks. The brine-dripping undead spread out in a line across the harbor, striking down some of the islanders who resist. Beyond them, a pair of enemies works to secure each slagthrower. Each of these duos is dominated by a nine-foot zombie, like a drowned ogre, under the command of a living sailor. The sailors, also soaked with seawater, seem to have gills on their necks — feathery on the half-elf, shark-like on the human.

Aya starts a push to the southern dock and its slagthrower, backed by Kismet and Wind-of-Embers. Abd moves to the north, catching the zombies there in a pincer as several of the Twist of Fate warriors join in from the ship’s side. Wind-of-Embers sends an errant flame javelin that nearly catches Aya, but follows up with a second that blasts a hole through two drowned men. With the undead now badly scattered on the south side, Aya takes advantage of the opening to send a chilling wind at the slagthrower. The half-elf curses and leaps back as the slag he’d been loading suddenly cools, and ice creeps up to halt the engine’s mechanisms in place.

The women close with the half-elf and his hulking minion. He drinks a reddish fluid from a flask at his belt and belches out fire over Aya and Kismet. It does not save him. The half-elven raider is swiftly cut down, just before Kismet leaps into a lethal sword dance and hews the drowned ogre limb from limb.

The islanders continue to struggle with the undead, but the pearl-diver Ruska closes to distract the enemies at the other slagthrower while Notch places arrows in the unliving ogre. Aya lifts into the air, gliding onto the Twist of Fate and again onto the opposing quay to assist. Kismet follows suit, using the chain of a dock crane to quickly reach the ship’s yardarm, swing down, and slice up the remaining ogre even further. Wind-of-Embers changes tack to triage, saving what lives she can as the others finish the remaining opponents.

The Iron Triangle’s villagers cautiously thank the venturers for their intercession, but the orc leader asks bluntly if the invaders came in pursuit of them. Tiyesha speaks up from behind Abd, saying that it was actually Hajuda they came for, just as they’d come for her. The two women were targets to reach their husband Barbafir. The orc snorts. “I warned you about that piece of shit,” he says to Hajuda. She nods ruefully.

Captain Tairasha asks if they are to pursue the Deathless Slave, and swiftly thereafter the Twist of Fate unfurls its sails and departs the dock. The Izir ship is already pulling out to sea, with its oars out for added speed. But with much of its drowned crew dispatched, the Deathless Slave has only ten oars — no match for a ship with the wind at its beck and call. Aya recalls a similar Izir vessel’s evasive maneuvers, and easily anticipates their prey’s movements. Soon enough, the Twist of Fate is within boarding range.

The venturers are first to leap aboard. With the remaining undead still belowdecks on the rowing benches, a paltry eight living deckhands and the wizard-captain are the only ones able to resist. Rhanud the Salt-Cursed pulls away his veils to reveal graying skin and crystallized, sharp spurs of salt growing from about his joints.

Kismet and Abd leap into the fray and begin cutting down the Izir sailors. Rhanud flexes his arms, and the cobra-engraved bracers on his forearms spray a green poison into the salt crystals on his hands. Aya catches him with a freezing wind, and he retaliates by conjuring a small cyclone of salt to cut at Kismet. Then he falls back and pulls away the canvas from a large form on the deck — revealing an undead crab the size of a lifeboat, which rises at his command and attacks.

The hulking creature snips at Kismet with claws as long as scimitars. It wounds her badly as the others come to her aid. Abd slices down two of the remaining deckhands and pushes into the fray beside her. Rhanud takes advantage of the chaos to strike Wind-of-Embers with a desiccating bolt.

Abd channels the power of Jalisa and strikes the crab with full force, shearing away one of its foreclaws. The undead crustacean lurches, spraying necrotic fluid from the stump; some of the fluid falls on Aya and Abd, seeping away at their vitality. A horrified Aya sends a bolt of cold into one of the cracks in its shell, freezing it solid from the inside.

The furious Rhanud smashes into Kismet with his knuckle-spurs. Her wounds pulse with the agony of both salt and poison. She dances back, her compass scimitar a glittering flash of light. Rhanud takes another step, pauses, and then blood pours down his neck, crystallizing into rose-colored spikes across his chest before he crumples to the deck. With that, the Deathless Slave is taken.

Abd moves belowdecks to destroy the undead rowers, while Kismet leads Wind-of-Embers and Aya to Rhanud’s cabin in search of plunder. They spot a chest that seems to be marked with a curse and ample coffers of coin. They also take the cobra-engraved bracers from Rhanud’s corpse, chipping away the salt to get them free. The bracers seem to be of the Serpent Emirs’ crafting, and are certainly enchanted.

While the process of searching the Deathless Slave is still playing out, and the venturers are still deciding what to do with the captured ship, Captain Tairasha moves across to join them. His face is ashen as he reports that he’s just received a magical sending. Mashaar the Golden-Fingered has been stabbed in her own offices — and according to the witnesses, the would-be murderer was Abd.

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29 - The Iron Triangle
The tale of the corsair's second wife.

Aboard the Twist of Fate, Abd stands ready until the foreign ship has vanished around the coast. Tairasha gives the all-clear, and Abd moves to the second launch. He follows the trail left by the three women through the village, noting that the firefighting is now gaining the upper hand. He rejoins them at a small house on the inland edge of the village.

Kismet, Aya, and Wind-of-Embers made their way to Tiyesha’s house to find the corsair’s third wife curled on the floor, bleeding. Wind-of-Embers calls down the power of Hakasarre to heal her and bring her to consciousness while the other two douse the fires. Once the young woman has regained an understanding of the situation, she describes the envoys from the strange ship that came to her. The leader was a bald woman with arcane tattoos on her scalp, loose blue clothing and a bright red sash; her second was a grim-looking man with a spear.

Tiyesha pauses, and asks the group if they are with the Free Brethren. The response is “No, but we stand against one of their new enemies.” She accepts the explanation, and continues. She informs them that the intruders interrogated her about the potential whereabouts of her husband Barbafir; she told them she didn’t know, and the irritated bald woman stabbed her in the gut. The venturers tell her that he has a valuable treasure that multiple sides are searching for, and that they’re determined not to let the woman her allies have it.

Tiyesha tells them that although she doesn’t know where Barbafir might be at any given time, she does know the location of her senior sister wives, who might be better informed. His second wife Hajuda lives on the Iron Triangle, and his first wife stays aboard the moving corsair city of Zarat.

She follows the venturers as they return out to the village square. With the fires under control, several of the people of Plum Wine Island gather to thank them. They give the group several fine bottles of the local vintage; Abd passes his to Wind-of-Embers.

As the celebration continues, a ship moves around the southern coast of the island. The venturers recognize it as the same vessel rigged like their own, likely returning to see if the visitors had left. The enemy ship changes course and sets out to high sea. The group returns to the Twist of Fate, though not before Tiyesha insists on coming with them — she dislikes the thought of being targeted again, and Plum Wine Island has no defenders as doughty as the venturers.

Captain Tairasha hails the four as they board. Once he’s been quickly introduced to Tiyesha, he asks if the ship should pursue the windrigger or make for the home of Barbafir’s next wife. The venturers quickly decide on the latter. With Zarat likely much better-defended against an Ascending Flame ship, they set course for the Iron Triangle. Aya shows remarkable fortitude in calling the winds through the night, supported by Wind-of-Embers, who brings her various blends of tea every couple of hours. The Twist of Fate easily reaches the Iron Triangle before midday.

The island easily stands out from its neighbors. A wedge-like mountain dominates the majority of its surface, with a scattering of vegetation around the coast. A forge-town sits on one of the island’s three “points.” A pair of metal fences running out to two large rocks offshore protect the harbor, allowing only one path in between the rocks. Tairasha notes that in times of danger, the town can raise a chain to close off the entryway. He also points out the slagthrowers on the quays, catapults that can be loaded with burning forge refuse to use against a trapped vessel.

As the Twist of Fate moves towards the entry, they note another ship at anchor near one of the two large rocks. The squatter vessel seems to have hatches for oars — a sailing ship with the capacity to act as a galley. With the use of Tairasha’s spyglass, Kismet notes the figurehead of a burly chained humanoid, and recognizes the ship immediately: the Deathless Slave, a ship from Izir’s fleet. She tells the others to be on their guard. But the Iziran vessel seems lightly manned, and the veiled figure watching them gives no signs of hostility.

The Twist of Fate sails into the passage and docks at one of the three open quays. Tairasha gives Kismet the order to buy some nails and chain as cover for their purpose. The group disembarks, and Kismet begins negotiating with the orcish spokemsan. Abd, Aya, and Wind-of-Embers take Tiyesha with them to the foundry, where Tiyesha says that Hajuda works as an overseer.

They find the strapping, tattooed orc Hajuda inside, yelling at a worker about the danger of burning another to off. She initally assumes they’re here to look at the ironworks; they reveal that they actually wish to speak about her husband. As she tenses, Tiyesha steps forward and introduces herself as another of Barbafir’s wives. She relates the tale of how the bald woman stabbed her and left her for dead, but the fire-priest — with a gesture to Wind-of-Embers — healed her and saved her life. Hajuda gives the elf priestess a look of respect, then embraces Tiyesha.

Abd and Wind-of-Embers stress that Hajuda may also be in danger. A mere moment after their observation that the Iron Triangle does seem well-defended, cries of alarm echo from the docks. “Or not,” sighs Aya.

The venturers race from the foundry, where they see a chaotic brawl breaking out. The Iron Triangle’s workers seize what weapons or deadly tools they may, as they fight against what appear to be drowned men, still sloughing seawater onto the docks. As the group races to join in, they see an even more alarming sight — each of the slagthrower mounts is under attack, with a nine-foot undead monster attempting to wrest control of each one under the direction of what seems to be a living corsair. And with the slagthrowers under the invaders’ control, the Twist of Fate would be a duck on the water…

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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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