13th Voyage

35 - The Necromancer's Crematorium
The tale of the ashen golem and the burglary of souls.

The first target, the venturers decide, is the crematorium. If they know Nehedza is likely to be in her tower by eleven, then it seems safer to break into her workplace then. Kismet takes Aya with her to go find a source among the City of Thieves, who would be most likely to collect information useful to an aspiring burglar. She asks a likely barber, who sends her to a humble beggar, who passes her on to a seamstress’s shop. Before they go in, Aya tells Ramjat to “stand watch” during the interview, not mentioning that she doesn’t particularly trust him not to speak up during one of his talkative phases.

The seamstress in question is a girl possibly still in her teens, who politely says that locally she is known by the name of “Needles.” She mentions that she grew up not far from the Twinemaker’s Row, a tell Kismet recognizes as an acknowledgement of her status as a dealer in information and connections.

“When I visit,” replies Kismet, “I stay in Ivory Tail Square.”

The young tailor offers them refreshments, and they settle in to talk business over tea and dates. Kismet proposes the challenge of breaking into a crematorium, and Needles says that they must know who they’re dealing with. Kismet inquires what the charge would be for information. “If you’re inconveniencing her, my information is free of charge,” the girl replies, “though of course gratuities are appreciated.”

The seamstress “Needles” tells the two that there are two levels to the crematorium and kiln: one at ground level, and one below. She hazards that the structure is almost certainly magically warded at its entrances. The safest way in might be vents used to bring fresh air into the lower level; the volcanic island of Izir has some sea caves, which are often used to ventilate subterranean chambers. The vents aren’t very large, though, so they might be difficult going for a bulky or claustrophobic burglar. The girl also tells the two that Nehedza usually visits the crematorium after lunch, and stays until 10, with a social hour before dinner. Her apprentice, the halfling dustbinder Yud nir-Momul ka-Hothaz, typically arrives at 11 and departs around midnight; the kiln workers keep normal hours.

Kismet thanks the seamstress, and she and Aya leave, mulling over the opening stages of a plan. They nominate sending a shapeshifted Attsu through the vents to open up the corpse dock. The others can pose as a funeral group to infiltrate the outer corpse dock. Kismet pauses, then runs back into the fabric shop to purchase a winding sheet, tipping Needles handsomely in the process.

They meet with Attsu and Khosa to enlist them for the crematorium heist. Kismet insists on Khosa coming with them; she plans to pose as the corpse, and he is strong enough to carry her there without having to rent a cart. The Constrictor agrees readily, though he insists on finding some clothing to conceal his identity. It would be very poor for his reputation to be recognized carrying a corpse through the streets at midnight, especially the corpse of a shapely lady. “He thinks I’m shapely,” Kismet murmurs to Aya.

The group waits and drinks at the Burning Belly until midnight, and Wind-of-Embers has not yet arrived. Attsu shifts into his small feline scouting form, and slips away to infiltrate via the vents.
Khosa and Aya and Abd dress in dark veils that would be suitable for mourning, and they wrap Kismet in the winding sheet. Once it seems that Attsu has had enough time, they set out.

But as they enter the streets, Attsu appears in an alley near them. He tells the group that he managed to enter the lower level, but there were no stairs, only a mechanical lift. He could not activate the lift and get up to the upper level — a golem animated and began to pursue him. He was forced to fall back to the vents, and it seems likely they will have to break through the corpse dock the hard way.

Along the way to the crematorium, a small group of city guards stops the band of “mourners.” Abd does not mitigate the guards’ suspicion, as his idea of a misleading untruth is a grim-faced “There is no problem.” With the venturers’ most skilled silver tongue wrapped in a winding sheet, the situation becomes rather tense until Aya breaks into false tears and wails that her grandmother had a weak heart. Between the intimidating presence of Abd and the sobs of a lovely young woman, the guards relent. They helpfully escort the venturers to the crematorium, and then leave them for a few final moments to say goodbye to the deceased.

With the outer doors of the corpse dock closed, the venturers are free to examine the door into the crematorium proper. Once the others have freed her from her shroud, Kismet recognizes the necromantic ward protecting the entry, a sigil to summon unbound spirits. She takes from her pouch a small bit of lead taken from the lining of a coffin and expertly grounds out the ward. The lock is easily defeated, and they enter the crematorium.

The corpse dock leads into the building’s main room, with three ovens that seem to be powered by beds of never-cooling lava and runes to magnify the fire’s power. The group finds the mechanical lift and quickly deduce how to operate it. They descend to the lower level, where a single, more powerful primal furnace and a large work table speak to more magical use. Before they have time to investigate more carefully, though, the golem Attsu warned them about lumbers toward them. The construct stands taller than Attsu, a ceramic statue with an imposing hippopotamus head and a round belly. As it draws near, they feel heat radiating from the thing, and its belly begins to grow red.

Abd, Attsu, and Kismet all fearlessly engage the crematory golem, though none manage to land a telling blow on it. The hippo-headed golem’s immense mouth opens, revealing a glow in its throat, and it breathes a cone of burning cremation ash on Attsu. Seeing this, Aya casts a spell to protect Khosa the Constrictor from fire, and anoints his hands with an enchanted oil. The wrestler then leaps forward and valiantly attempts to place the immense ceramic construct in an armlock.

As the battle heats up, so does the golem. Its fists become searingly hot, forcing the venturers to go on the defensive. Aya sends a chilling blast at the construct’s belly to harden and weaken it, and Khosa follows up with a vicious elbow strike that fractures the golem’s stomach — and the belly explodes, sending ceramic shards and heated ash among the group, leaving them cut, scorched, and choking.

Kismet pulls her scarf around her face and carves into the broken gap in the construct’s torso, cutting away a larger chunk. Attsu and Abd rain blows on it as well, Abd still coughing. A brutal, heated fist knocks Attsu sprawling, and Abd moves to heal him.

Finally Aya sends another howling arctic wind into the golem’s cavity, scattering the ashes and breaking out the back half of its torso. The hippo head and heavy shoulders fall forward and smash against the stone floor, leaving the now-immobile legs frozen in place, the bowl of the lower torso still cooling.

With the golem destroyed and Attsu on his feet again, the venturers begin searching the outer lab. A workbench features a broken Kheran ushabti, apparently in the process of being mended with molten gold, and Kismet rakes the gold bars of raw materials into her sack. Another door leads into the inner laboratory, where they find more worktables and a peculiar sarcophagus-like structure. On one of the tables lies a clay figure in the process of being sculpted to resemble Abd, and Aya theorizes the sarcophagus is meant to be filled with fluids that could convert the animated clay to a semblance of flesh. Abd vandalizes the incomplete simulacrum just in case, then turns his attention to the shelves featuring a number of small jars labeled with names.

Kismet safely opens the warded storage room, and finds a number of materials and operating funds within. Sadly, the Dysian implements are not present. The venturers decide it would be convenient to make the break-in look like a traditional robbery, and that it would be best to take anything that a thief would find valuable and easily fenced. She pushes the coffer of coins into her bag, as well as a tiara with an obsidian eye as its forepiece, a pristine set of Jalisan clerical robes, a chunk of elemental basalt (that Aya says she has no use for, but doesn’t care to let Nehedza have, either), and oddly enough, a set of Northern silverware.

With the valuables secured, the others go to collect Abd and make their escape. They find the Jalisan paladin still by the shelves of named jars — holding a small urn with his own name upon it.

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34 - The City of Flame
The tale of a magical and perilous port.

Harida brings the venturers to a dock where a two-masted xebec awaits, the Educated Virgin. “A common enough fantasy, I suppose,” says the elven broker. She describes it as the inheritance of a second son, whose fortune turned for the worse, and who had to give up the ship and his business. “Not exactly a fable… but perhaps the moral to one.”

The venturers gather their crew, scarred and loyal to Mashaar, selected from the three principal ships of the Golden Venture Company. After a short period of negotiating seniority, the mixed crew agrees on a command, a half-northern sailor from the Dracosphinx, named Zinta. The crew easily adapts to the new xebec — temporarily rechristened the Petulant Parrot — but has difficulties adapting to one another. Those from the Twist of Fate complain that the others are insufficiently respectful, the Dracosphinx sailors call the others undisciplined, and the all-but-corsairs from the Rich Man’s Fear find their associates insufficiently flexible of mind.

Despite the minor sparks of dissension, the ship makes good time, especially with Aya directing the winds. She notes three clouds, like spearheads, coming together in a triangle on the second day, and marks it as a fine omen. By the third day, they come to the island of Izir.

The City of Flame sits on the edge of a great volcanic island, mostly mountain slope and coastal jungle. A perpetual cloud of smoke blots out the sun overhead, and slender towers topped with gemlike beacons jut from the harbor’s waters. Aya warns the others that the beacons are likely weapons as well as lamps, equipped to sear any intruding ships with hostile intent. Beyond they see the city itself, from the sooty lower districts to the finer neighborhoods higher on the mountain slope, marked with magical lampposts and the occasional tower topped with the sculpted sigil of a noted Ascending Flame wizard.

As they pass the outer beacons, a glowing will-o-wisp sails over the water and hovers aboard the deck. A voice comes from it, demanding that the vessel heave to and prepare to receive the harbor warden. Shortly thereafter, a small sailboat arrives alongside the Petulant Parrot. The harbor warden, a fussily groomed man with a perpetual sneer who is announced as Jairut al-Fedwar al-Izir, clearly expects both deferential fawning and a palm crossed with gold. He discovers a reservoir of humility when “Raisho” presents him with her diplomatic pouch. Jairut obligingly sees the Petulant Parrot to a swift docking, and asks “Raisho” to deliver his compliments to Nehedza the Shrouded Moon.

The venturers divide once on the Izirian streets. Wind-of-Embers notes flyers posted by the harbor speaking of a “Prismatic Flame,” in particular that they prominently feature a rune of her god Hakasarre. She splits away to investigate as the others pursue a rumor passed on from Captain Mara-Set. According to the Dracosphinx captain, a man called Khosa the Constrictor would be very sympathetic to their cause, and he can be found at the Burning Belly.

Attsu calls on the Hunter Jewel, naming Nehedza as his quarry. The jewel points him toward the lower-class Char district, and the venturers decide that she must be at her crematorium presently. They choose to visit the Char, where Attsu splits away and scouts the exterior of the one-level building in his metallic cat form. If any locals spot him, they seem to take him for a wizard’s familiar or servitor, and ignore him completely.

The others take a more leisurely tour of the Char district. Along the way, they recognize a pair of bickering voices — Siyeka and Rhuduum, the genasi last seen pursued by a storm-spirit and very likely dropped into the ocean. The two lackeys of Akhman al-Ifrim are arguing about a personage of the Prismatic Flame, and whether or not Siyeka should try to seduce him for his knowledge — or if she even could. The venturers carefully opt to avoid contact with the two genasi, and maneuver well past them.

After Attsu’s return and an exchange of information, they head for the Burning Belly. The parlor of entertainments offers wine, gambling, and a number of shows — including some exhibition wrestling matches. The house champion turns out to be Khosa the Constrictor, whom Aya and Kismet remember rescuing from transformation during the tale of the Emerald Monkey.

They meet with Khosa after the show, and he is most grateful to have the opportunity to be of use to his liberators. He says that he has no love for the wizards who govern Izir, and has many friends among the lower classes. He also notes that he has come to the attention of Nehedza, who gave him a pass-token to her tower and instructions to come by and visit some night after the eleventh hour. He offers the token to the venturers, if they are so inclined to use it. Noting that this likely indicates the necromancer’s hours in her crematorium, the venturers begin to work out their plan to rob her of the Dysian implements, and — if Abd has his way — her head.

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33 - The Immortal Sage
The tale of an ancient's counsel and a fence's bargain.

The Immortal Sage greets the venturers politely without rising. Abd relates the very skeleton of their current situation, clearly expecting his master to already know more of the particulars. The ancient nods, pauses for a moment, and then says that perhaps the crisis at hand would be more easily understood if Abd were to tell his own story. Abd hesitates, and complies.

“I was not always a servant of Jalisa,” he begins. “Formerly, I was a magician myself… and an inquisitor. I did many things, hurt many people, in my pursuit of justice. The time came when I had a prisoner under my care, and I attempted to conjure a spirit to injure him — to pull away part of his spirit until he confessed. I made a mistake in the ritual. And it took my soul instead.”

Abd continues, explaining that he became determined not to let magic do such injury to others. He set himself to opposing wizards and sorcerers of all sorts. Since that day, he has since relented on some practices of magic that do good rather than ill, but he is still dedicated to combating the Ascending Flame and their dreams of magocracy.

The Immortal Sage speaks again as Abd’s tale draws to an end. He observes that this is why the Prophetess seems to be of two minds about Abd. “She sees two fates for you, and is not certain which is the troublesome one — the evil soul, or a man without a soul.” He smiles, and elaborates that he sees something different. In his view, he sees a man who has lost hope of eternity, who cannot expect to be rewarded for his virtue in Heaven, and who still risks pain and death to try to do good. It speaks well for Abd, and to be philosophical, it speaks well for humanity in turn.

Abd responds calmly, “I am not that good.”

“Well, and that is true,” says the ancient. “But you still try.”

The Immortal Sage gestures, conjuring a large book. The book opens, and its pages turn rapidly until it stands open on cramped text surrounding an illustration of three objects. The venturers recognize the soul-cutting knife, but the spindle-like tool and the singular lantern are unknown to them.

“These are implements forged long ago across the Jadesea by the empire of Dys. They are the tools of psychopomps and necromancers. The knife you hold is an athanax, which severs the soul from the body. The spindle is a lachystrix, which can sew a soul back into a body, or perhaps into a new vessel. The lantern is an orpharos, which calls wayward souls to it. Together, they could be used for great works of healing. But they can also be used for ill purposes, and I believe Nehedza proves this. I suspect she holds all three.”

The Immortal Sage rises to his feet, and his body begins to shine and expand. His form swells and shifts into a massive bull the color of the moon in a blue sky, with a human head crowned by an elegant diadem and with elaborately braided hair and beard. Great moonlight-pinioned wings spread from his back. Companions of Abd al-Rashid, he intones, and the voice seems to thrum in the venturers’ chests. As thanks for your aid, I grant you each the answer to a question..

An awkward pause lingers as the lammasu’s gaze passes over each of the women. Wind-of-Embers is the first to speak. “I have no questions,” she says, “but I would appreciate any advice you may have to offer me.”

The lammasu smiles. Wind-of-Embers. Two of your comrades are going to be in danger. You will see them again, but it will be in a time of peril.

“Thank you,” she says, bowing, and internally quite certain which of her two comrades the Immortal Sage means.

Kismet fidgets under the celestial gaze. “Wind-of-Embers seems wise,” she says. “I’ll take advice if you have any.”

Kismet. You have friends where your comrade has enemies. The tangles of your connections will come together in the City of Locks. The lammasu nods its head, and Kismet bows in return.

Aya says nothing as the celestial’s eyes fall on her; she merely shrugs. Aya, booms the voice. You are very like your mother. She has come to realize this, and has noticed that you are beautiful, intelligent, and now of marriageable age. Your life will become more interesting, given the potential suitors among the company she keeps.

The lammasu’s form dims and dwindles, and then the old man lowers himself back down onto the stone platform. “Stay the evening if you like,” he says. The venturers thank him for his hospitality. He wishes them good luck in turn, and the venturers leave the Immortal Sage to his meditations.

They stay the evening in the Sage’s tower, guided by the drakaina to elegant baths and comfortable sleeping quarters. As customary, they evaluate their next plans over breakfast. They settle on sailing to Izir covertly, by trading the Deathless Slave for a less recognizable ship. Thus decided, they return to the City of Sails.

By the time they reach the Adwa docks, the Deathless Slave is in port, its prize crew running back and forth to the Twist of Fate. They proceed to the Golden Venture compound and propose their plan to their fellows. The other venturers approve: if anything, Tairasha seems relieved to be rid of the incriminating Izirian corpse-galley as soon as possible. Tairasha, Mara-Set, and Navaad each volunteer a few members of their respective crews to sail the covert ship to the City of Flame. The only question is how best to handle such a remarkably large transaction as a ship for a ship. Kismet volunteers to arrange things, as her local contacts include a very good fence, an elven woman by the name of Harida.

Kismet visits Harida shortly after. The fence is found smoking a cigarillo in a streetside cafe, her pair of hired bruisers close at hand. She greets Kismet cheerily and engages in some small talk before Kismet asks if they can have a more private word. Harida agrees, and once they have adjourned to a more discreet location, Kismet makes the proposal. The magnitude of the offer takes Harida only lightly by surprise, and the fence agrees to send some appraisers to look over Kismet’s proffered vessel to make certain it’s worth what Kismet would want for it.

Harida’s appraisers, a pair of halflings, arrive at the docks within an hour and go discreetly about their task. The two recoil when reaching the part of the deck where the rotting undead crab was slain; “We just couldn’t get the smell completely out,” says one of the crew. The rowing decks seem similarly noisome. Finally the halflings conclude their survey and return to Harida.

Kismet follows shortly thereafter. This time Harida’s welcome is somewhat more reserved than her previous greeting. “Was there something you were going to tell me?” she asks.

Kismet smiles apologetically. “About the smell?”

“No.” Harida does not seem amused. “That it’s Izirian.”

“Oh. Well, yes.”

Harida sighs the particular sigh commonly used to signify that things are likely to become more expensive. “Are you planning to fight wizards?”

“Well, yes.”

“Very well, then. I have two offers for you. First, I can give you a straight trade for a little fishing vessel that can go beyond sight of land without sinking. Or… you get me a spellbook as part of the bargain, and I fit you up with a nice little two-masted xebec.”

Kismet considers. “All right. Fine. I’ll get you a spellbook.” She smiles. “Are you sure you don’t want to play for it?”

“Yes,” says Harida. “I’m sure.” She pours a splash of water in her palm and offers it to Kismet; the two elves shake hands on the bargain. “All right, then,” says Harida. “Let’s go see the ship.”

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32 - The Two Severed Souls
The tale of a clay man and a strange knife.

Among the sound of grinding and cracking stone, the false Abd strikes without warning. His blow scores hard across Abd’s breastplate, with more than physical force behind it. Then the tower guardians begin dropping down into the hall. They are statues of shaitan — horned, maned, with bulging eyes and lolling tongues — pulled free from the walls and animated by some eldritch force. Four of them, each as large as Notch, land at the four corners of the fight — and then a fifth one, fully ten feet tall and half as broad, lands at the center.

Wind-of-Embers tunes out the battlefield, praying to the Curved Flame. The power of the god of battle and feasting answers her call, and her comrades’ limbs flood with heat and strength. Both sides crash into each other. Notch and Ruska isolate one of the shaitan statues, while Zan and Katifa double up on a second. A third lunges at Wind-of-Embers, and a fourth at Aya. Attsu shifts into his felid battle form and moves to flank the largest.

Aya’s first spell goes awry as the statue claws at her. Ramjat jan Ramjat strikes at the animated stone, improbably scoring a deep mark in it. Aya follows up by exhaling an icy gust, as Wind-of-Embers’ opponent pins the elven priest down.

Katifa and Lightning Zan display excellent teamwork, carving away at their opponent and badly damaging it. But the huge statue takes the opportunity to seize the distracted and wounded Zan, sinking its claws into him, lifting him above its head, and then slamming him into the stone floor. The storm genasi lies still, and Katifa lets out a furious shriek.

Attsu lunges at the hulking statue from behind. The reprisal is fierce — his refitted firebrass talons tear out a massive chunk of the animate’s torso, staggering it badly. Across the room, Aya invokes the power of the captive storm in her hand. The orb’s winds howl through the grand hall, pushing several of the statues away. She then focuses a bolt of lightning on the stone beast before her, sending electricity running through the ice that had formed in its cracks. The statue shivers apart, its animating spirit lost. Notch carries through the momentum by sending an arrow into the splintering entity that Zan and Katifa had flanked, finishing it off just as Rusks slips a knife into the right joint and does the same for their mutual opponent. Wind-of-Embers falls back from the sole remaining human-sized statue, sending a healing prayer through Zan’s prone form and throwing another lance of fire.

Abd and his duplicate ignore all else in the hall and rain blow after blow on the other. But the duel is not as even as one might expect. The “false” Abd, the one who cut free and stole Mashaar’s soul, cannot manage to penetrate Abd al-Rashid’s guard, while the soulless paladin lands multiple powerful blows on his counterpart. Soon they are distinct not only by their dress, but by the greater amount of blood staining the assassin’s garments — and the fear in his eyes.

The largest statue is the last one standing, and crumbling away at the center of the melee. Attsu crushes it further under his firebrass claws, leaving a large gash through the center of its torso. Katifa slides her blade through that gash, and the spirit holding the stone upright dissipates. The massive stone shaitan comes crashing down into so much hideous rubble.

The sound is enough to decide the false Abd. He unstoppers one of the urns at his belt, and out pours a spirit. It seems to be a wraithly woman, not unlike the wives of Ubarid, an upper-class and once-handsome lady withered by death. The false Abd attempts to use the opportunity to escape, but Abd keeps him from disengaging. The duplicate snarls and attempts one last time to strike Abd down, but a lance of fire from Wind-of-Embers’ hand strikes him full in the face, toppling him to the old stone.

Though Zan is still wobbly and wounded, he lunges at the wraith without hesitation. Between his crackling saber and the now-burning claws of Attsu, the spectral woman is swiftly cut to fading ectoplasm. The thunder of the now-finished battle still echoes in the upper rafters of the hall as a coiling wisp of silver mist emerges from the fallen Abid’s mouth and nostrils. It slides to the west as if driven by a noiseless wind, and although Aya tries to counter with a gale of her own, the mist passes harmlessly through the wall.

Attsu’s clockwork form instantly shifts into its quadrupedal configuration, and he goes bounding out into the swamp after it. He chases it through the trees until he finally comes upon the High Wall of Adwa, where the presumed soul continues to drift westward. Attsu pursues it through the city, and finally watches it drift away along the coast and out to sea. He makes a note of the direction and lopes back to the Golden Venture compound.

The others remove a few items of interest from the false Abd’s corpse, including the sharp knife that Piah described and a scimitar which appears to be a weapon of the Jalisan faith. As they do so, they watch the dead man stiffen and then crumble away into dried clay. Abd takes one of the fingers, then reaches into the pulverized chest cavity to pull out a ragged cloth with an old, dried bloodstain. The group returns to the boat, where they find Kismet wrapped in her camouflage cloak; she explains that she didn’t want to risk losing the soul jar she stole. The venturers then row back to Adwa.

They meet Attsu again at the Golden Venture compound. They recount their tale to their fellows, and Tairasha speculates that given the direction, the soul — or whatever it might have been — that Attsu pursued may have been returning to Izir, and likely thus to Nehedza the Shrouded Moon. The other jar that presumably holds Mashaar’s soul is more of a quandary. They determine to ask a priest of the death-goddess Tajat for advice, and Seyriida departs for the local shrine.

Despite the late hour, she returns soon, followed by a remarkably handsome priest, who she introduces as Rizazh. The somber death-priest listens to the tale and then confesses he is uncertain how to proceed. The magic that Nehedza used to sever Mashaar’s soul while preserving the body is unfamiliar to him, and likely quite old. He does, however, recognize the soul knife as an artifact of the ancient northern empire of Dys.

With no clear way forward, Blessed Lirin demands that the venturers get some rest. They retire for the evening, and Abd spends time meditating with the Jalisan scimitar Balance of Mercy.

The next morning, Abd heads to visit Haup once more. He buys the talking hound a pastry, and is spared the price of a riddle. Haup tells him that the Immortal Sage’s tower will appear to the south, along the river, on a hill where the flowers will open in the moonlight.

Wind-of-Embers devours a large brunch, and then explores Adwa for a potential altar to perform her offerings. She finds that the City of Sails has many sanctified temples for the use of travelers or sailors who choose to propitiate foreign gods. She discovers the shrine to the drakhan pantheon, overseen by a machkha priest, and performs the proper ritual offerings to Hakasarre.

Aya takes the tall mirror they found in the Shaitan’s Watchtower to Ilsissa. She relates the evening’s tale to the Serpent Emir, who is appreciative. As she makes her way back, she notices that Ramjat is missing, and cannot recall seeing him recently. She looks about for him, even climbing a minaret to look for his splash of color below, but has no luck. Finally, as she returns to the compound, Ramjat appears carrying a small package. He bows particularly deeply as he offers it to her. Within the bundle is a closed lotus carved of ice, and as she holds it in her palm, its petals open, and she hears the voice of her mother.

The message from Taya-Wuurashi is somewhat reproachful: the djinn says she visited the court of the Queen of Birds, expecting to find her daughter there. She hopes that Aya is not embarrassing her at the moment, and expects to have some family business to attend to soon. When the message ends, the lotus disintegrates into diamond-like dust, which Aya recognizes and carefully tucks away as an enhancement for her orb of storms.

When the group gathers again, Abd tells them of his intention to visit the Immortal Sage for advice. His companions agree to accompany him, and they set out for the tower that day. They ride south along the river until the sun sets. A short distance from a nearby village they find a hill where white flowers open in the moonlight and crystalline-winged moths flutter from bloom to bloom. The tower appears before them as they watch, pale and slender with an azure, translucent minaret. Abd approaches the doors, flanked by statues of owl-headed men, and they open before them.

The lowest level of the tower is an elegant salon in blue and gold, larger than the walls of the tower would have suggested from the outside. A serpent-bodied woman, a drakaina in the elaborate armor befitting a royal guard, greets the travelers and offers them an escort upward. They ascend a tall combination of ramp and staircase through several other floors. Each one is larger than the one below it: a library where a small child sits on a table reading a book larger than their own body; a garden where hounds like Haup recline and watch the venturers pass; a gallery of statues and paintings; and more.

At last the drakaina shows them to the top floor. Sands stretch out on all sides with a night sky overhead, and it is unclear if there are walls cunningly painted to resemble a horizon or not. A stone platform, the crumbled remnants of pillars adorning it, is the only structure. An old man sits crosslegged in the middle of the stone. His clothing is humble; his only adornment a single ring gathering his beard. As the venturers approach and the drakaina withdraws, the old man opens his eyes.

Abd bows. “Master,” he says.

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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 Mirin, 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 Babaas 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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