13th Voyage

38 - The Feast of the Returned Souls
The tale of a splendid feast and mysterious gifts.

The return of Mashaar the Golden-Fingered occasions celebration. Her captains make plans for a feast, and even Abd is persuaded to say the quest for the Zodiac Jewels for an evening. The venturers disperse into Adwa to spend the evening and the next day in more pleasant pastimes before the festivities.

Aya notes that Tiyesha and Hajuda, the wives of Barbafir Bloodmouth, were likely growing very anxious as the venturers were diverted to rescue Mashaar’s soul instead of pursuing the corsair. The two are unlikely to be reassured by the further delay of a celebration. She visits the two, and convinces them to be patient just a little longer. Tiyesha sulkily agrees. With a little more grace, Hajuda says, “Barbafir is not a great man. …He’s not even a good man. But we would miss him.” Aya promises the two that they will do what they can as soon as they are able.

Kismet takes Nehedza’s spellbook and pays a visit on Harira, whom she finds enjoying a hookah in a small lounge dedicated to exotic smoke. After the requisite pleasantries, she presents the elven broker with the spellbook. One of Harira’s halfling aides examines the book through an odd pince-nez, and nods vigorously and wide-eyed. “That is certainly more than I had even hoped for,” says Harira with satisfaction. “I believe I should sweeten our deal.” Kismet declines to name an additional benefit, asking instead to think on it for a time. She does, however, accept a pull on Harira’s hookah, and is quite surprised when the world becomes painted in various shades of reflective gold.

The following day, Aya decides to visit Ilsissa, and invite her to the feast. She finds the Serpent Emir basking on a favorite stretch of wall. Ilsissa graciously accepts the invitation, and she and Aya spend some time chatting in the morning sun and turning the heads of passerby.

Wind-of-Embers visits the shrine to the drakhan deities to perform a necessary devotion: if there is to be a feast, a priest of Hakasarre must cook. She purchases an entire young bullock from a butcher, and has it brought to the shrine’s adjoining kitchen. Partway through the morning, she is surprised by Breskh and Tikha, who bring her the latest gossip, listen to the tale of her errand to the City of Flame, and sample the meat. They recognize the name “Baklasha of the Iron Spiral,” the ifrita that Axos mentioned as having an interest in Wind-of-Embers, or at least they recognize the Iron Spiral. After companions telll her what they know about the trading house, Wind-of-Embers invites them to the feast as well.

The feast begins that afternoon, with lavish amounts of food from fine delicacies to hearty dishes, many of which speak to the personality of the venturer who brought it. The group enjoys the opportunity to socialize with their fellows, guessing at who might have provided which dish. The orc ranger Ruzakh develops a friendship with the magical hound Haup, who was invited by Abd. Ilsissa makes the rounds graciously, and those venturers who guess at the true nature of the coral viper in woman’s form are particularly polite. The al-Tajat priest Rizazh is another guest of honor, and seems somewhat overwhelmed when both captains Navaad and Mara-Set flirt openly with him. Barbafir’s wives are also in attendance, and although they have enough drink over the afternoon to begin being disruptive, again Aya is able to smooth their ruffled feathers.

As the sun sets and the feast reaches one of its lulls, Mashaar has two giant-blooded assistants bring out a massive chest of dark wood and firebrass. She stands before the chest and begins to speak. “O my beloved children of my heart,” she says, “I would say that this day is the finest I have yet experienced, but each day I spend among you competes as the finest, for you are all such splendid persons and you fill my heart with pride. Yet it would be dishonest to pretend that something exceptional did not just happen; that we are not feasting because some among you dared so very much. It would be insulting to downplay the valor of these heroes.” She takes a set of keys, and unlocks the three dangerous-looking locks on the chest. “I owe you a thousand thousand thanks, and perhaps this may at least dull the edge of my debt.”

She opens the chest lid, and reaches deep within. She draws forth a bridle of braided metal and bright jewels. “Abd,” she says, and the paladin rises. “I believe you would cut a dashing figure on a steed of smokeless fire. And,” she smiles, “it would tweak the beards of the ifrit to see a man of virtue riding it.” Abd humbly takes the bridle, bows to Mashaar as she bows to him, and thanks her as she thanks him in turn.

Mashaar reaches into the chest again. “Kismet,” she says, and the elf sailor starts. Mashaar holds up a ring of dark silver wrought in geometric patterns, set with a large black stone. As Kismet approaches and takes the ring from Mashaar, she notes that the stone is set on a hinge, much as a ring that contains poison might. “This ring holds darkness,” says Mashaar. “It will cloud areas that must be clouded, and it will bring night when day will not do.” Kismet flushes and thanks Mashaar, and again Mashaar thanks her in turn.

“Aya,” she says, and the next item from the chest is a rich cloak the color of the sky on a winter morning, set about with feathers. Aya recognizes it at once — a bird maiden’s cloak. “This was given to my by bird maidens on my third voyage. I believe it would suit you well.” Aya takes the cloak, and as she does, Ramjat hops on the feather ruff. To the bird’s immense delight, the cloak’s plumage shifts colors to match his own. “Thank you,” says Aya, and “Thank you,” says Mashaar.

“Attsu.” Mashaar takes another garment from the chest, a rich violet kaftan. “You already have many forms. But as impressive as you are in each one, sometimes it might help to look like someone else.” She helps Attsu into the kaftan, then whispers a word, and like that, the mechanical man is gone, replaced by a dark-skinned dwarf in a kaftan. Attsu bows deeply and thanks her, and she thanks him in kind.

“Wind-of-Embers.” The elven priest looks surprised, and is cut off mid-protest. “Yes. Please, come up. You are not one of mine, but you aided my children in this dangerous gambit.” Breskh nudges Wind-of-Embers in the side, and rumbles “Don’t offend her” under her breath. Wind-of-Embers concedes, and approaches Mashaar. “Kuraakta,” she says, a drakhan word signifying grateful acceptance. Mashaar removes from the chest an elaborate gauntlet of steel and brass, fashioned in the likeness of a dragon’s claw. As Wind-of-Embers takes the gauntlet, Mashaar says, “When it is ready, this gauntlet will crush even stone or metal beneath its claws.”

“Things that fire cannot burn,” murmurs Wind-of-Embers. “Thank you so much.” “And thank you,” says Mashaar.

The feast breaks out into more boisterous celebration again, as the five venturers are exuberantly honored by their peers. Tiyesha and Hajuda seem more sober after the gifts, and an astute observer would deduce that the corsair’s wives are genuinely realizing the caliber of adventurer that surrounds them.

Wind-of-Embers introduces Tikha to Kismet at one point during the evening. They play a game of skill together, despite Tikha’s skepticism that Kismet would not lose at a game of chance, and become great friends over the course of the evening. The two discover they have much in common philosophically, and go on at length about the pleasure of playing by the rules from time to time in order to experience a challenge. Wind-of-Embers also introduces Breskh to Abd and Blessed Lirin. The three also find some commonality, although in much less outrageous fashion — certainly not to the point where Kismet and Tikha drunkenly plot to write a book.

The feast thus runs its length as a great success. In the small hours of the night, Tairasha asks the venturers if they still intend to leave tomorrow. “We should,” is the answer.

“And where do we sail?”

“Zarat.”

“Hmm. And how do you plan to find the City of Corsairs?”

“Zan says he knows someone,” says Aya, gesturing over to where Katifa is struggling to lever up a very drunken Lightning Zan and take him somewhere to rest.

“Ah,” says Tairasha. “Then I suppose we are in the hands of Fate.”

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37 - The Lantern and the Spindle
The tale of audacious theft and deathly hope.

As the cook cowers by the stone oven, the alarm bell ringing through the tower, Attsu leaves the kitchen behind and quickly returns to the stairs. From below, the venturers hear the tramp of heavy stone footfalls — certainly the two stone statues guarding Nehedza’s door have come to life. Abd turns to his comrades and says, “Find the lantern!” He then moves down the stairs towards the statues. Wind-of-Embers adds, “We will do our best. Move quickly,” and turns to follow Abd.

Kismet, Aya, and Abd make good use of their companions’ valor. They race up to the next floor, a collection of salons and a fine music room furnished in shades of yellow. There a pair of short clay servants move to attack the invaders, joined by more clay servants closing from above and below. Attsu shifts into his feline war form and smashes three of them, and Aya and Kismet finish the stragglers.

They advance another level, to a floor hung with various jade and emerald hues. Most of the floor is dominated by a library. The venturers handily dispatch another pair of aggressive clay servants, and scan the various titles in iron bookcases, held fast by iron skeletal hands. Aya tells the others that the library holds only mundane works, and they abandon the search there.

Kismet leads the way to the next level, only to be met by a beautiful young man who could pass for a particularly perfect Kheran pharaoh. The young man, wearing only a loosely wrapped cloth around his nethers, inhales sharply at the sight of the intruders. Kismet boggles a moment, then attempts to shush him. He screams and falls backwards, trying to crabwalk away from the menacing form of Attsu. Attsu pounces on the kept man, and ties him up gently but firmly. Aya looks for a spellbook in the various blue-hued chambers — parlors and an amply furnished love nest — but has no luck. “It was worth a try,” she says lightly as they proceed upwards.

The indigo floor above them is mostly baths, dressing chambers, and an exhaustive wardrobe; above that, hung in rich purples, is Nehedza’s personal quarters. Kismet is quick to notice an impressive-seeming tome on a reading stand by a hookah, and quickly darts for it. “Wait!” shouts Aya. The desert elf pauses and looks back at the genasi sorceress. “You should perhaps make certain it isn’t warded,” Aya explains. Kismet nods, and more carefully examines the book’s stand. She realizes that the nearby hookah is not a hookah at all — almost certainly a spirit vessel that serves as another ugly surprise for unauthorized readers. She makes a note to secure the book for Harira on the way back down, and with a few clay servants still pursuing them, the venturers move up to the final interior floor.

The last floor is a large single room, decorated simply with pale hues of white and bone against the black stone walls. The entire room is a workshop, with stairs up to the roof against a far wall, several tables and workbenches, a decorative statue of a woman, and the armored skeleton of a drakh. The last, standing free of any furniture, raises its sword to salute Attsu, and drops into a battle stance.

Attsu doesn’t bother to return the salute. He attacks, and is surprised when the skeleton moves quickly enough to block his claws. But Kismet takes the opportunity to strike upwards into its ribcage, shattering much of its torso. Aya conjures a blast from her orb of storms and knocks the pursuing clay servants back downstairs.

The workshop turns cold as the Underworld as the spectral form of a woman emerges from the statue. A deathly presence surrounds the venturers, sapping their vitality. Kismet quickly finishes the drakh skeleton and Aya dashes the servants to bits as Attsu claws vainly at the spectre.

The ghosty woman reaches through Attsu, and he feels her glacial fingers questing about for his soul. Kismet rallies strikes through it with her compass scimitar, doing grievous damage. As the other venturers focus on the spectre, it waves its fingertips through Kismet, clawing away at her life force. She staggers back but keeps her feet, and she slices it again as Attus tears into its form with blazing firebrass talons. Aya draws a deep breath and gathers the sum of her power, and throws a powerful ball of wind into the spectre’s torso. It explodes with raw elemental force, blasting the phantom into wisps that quickly dissipate.

They quickly find the Dysian lantern hanging on a hook by the stairs to the roof. Kismet quickly exchanges it for the replica crafted by Jasenta, tucks it into her band, and races back down a flight. She hurriedly but expertly disarms the wards on Nehedza’s spellbook and pulls it from the stand. “Do you think this will be enough to justify a robbery?” she asks. “Is it believable that this is valuable enough that it’s the only thing thieves would stay long enough to take?”

Aya nods firmly. “Absolutely.”

They move back downstairs a few flights, and meet Abd and Wind-of-Embers, battered but whole, on the music room’s level. Almost on whim, Kismet looks out the window, and in the far distance, she sees a ghostly form floating above the rooftops of Izir — on a trajectory with the tower. She glances down, and as Fate would have it, a cart of many ripe figs and dates and melons lies directly below the window. She tells the others of the shortcut, and they agree to move quickly out of the window. Kismet activates her spider-slippers and runs down the side of the wall; Aya conjures a minor wind to slow her fall; and Attsu takes his scouting cat form and bounds easily down the columnar basalt. Sadly, the bloodied Abd and Wind-of-Embers have no option but to leap for it, and they both land safely amid the fragrant fruits in a glorious mess.

Kismet carefully smuggles the group across the street when nobody is looking, bundling them into an alley. She conjures a water elemental using the Dolphin Jewel and bids it to wash the pulp and juice from her comrades. As Abd and Wind-of-Embers submit to the crude ablution, Attsu focuses on the Hunter Jewel to discern Nehedza’s location. The jewel gives him the peculiar indication that she is in two places at once: both in the direction of the crematorium, and in her tower. With a start, the venturers realize that they have a singular opportunity. While Nehedza projects her spirit to investigate her tower, they can steal the lachystrix from her body!

They waste no time at all. Attsu takes the mock spindle from Kismet, places it in one of the compartments within his body, and darts into a storm drain to find the sea cave again. While the other venturers race to the harbor, Attsu moves to find the vents that led into the crematorium’s basement once more.

He finds his way to the crematorium’s lower level as quickly as possible. The larger workshop is much as they’d left it, though he notices that the lift is currently down, despite nobody being actively visible. He quietly enters the inner laboratory where the simulacra were sculpted. There, on the stone slab where the clay Abd had rested, lies a handsome older woman in dark clothing, hands neatly folded and utterly unconscious. Attsu quickly removes the spindle-like tool from her belt, places the replica in its stead, and turns to leave. He pauses for a moment, remembering the stories of magi unable to return to their bodies. He knocks Nehedza’s unoccupied body to the floor, and bolts to the vents.

In the meantime, the other venturers arrive in the harbor, breathing heavily after their run. The crew of the Petulant Parrot sits idly on deck, betting on a three-way dice game. Kismet bellows at them to get underway, and they hurriedly gather their coins and obey. As Aya moves belowdecks to remove her “Raisho” disguise, Kismet notes that the fickle hand of Fate has moved against her again, as the unctuous harbor warden Jairut al-Fedwar al-Izir and several of his men are departing the coffee vendor where they’d had their lunch. The harbor warden notes the crew moving hurriedly, and he beckons his men to follow him.

Kismet hisses at the sailors to slow down and look less agitated, then strolls innocently down the gangplank. Fate favors her once again, as she glances over to a nearby stall where she sees a familiar teenage girl purchasing imported cloth. She mock-idly wanders to the cloth vendor, and asks Needles if she might purchase a distraction.

The young girl says calmly that she’ll do what she can, but it depends on what she gets out of it. Kismet responds by reaching into her magical bag and withdrawing one of the gold bars stolen from the crematorium. The young thief’s eyes briefly widen, and then she tucks it neatly away and clicks her tongue. A nearby bundle of rags unfolds from the wall, and a tattered halfling races past her and away. “Thief!” shrieks Needles. “Thief! In front of the very harbor warden? How dare you! Audacious criminal!”

Jairut al-Fedwar al-Izir gapes at the vanishing halfling, back at the still-cursing girl, and spares one final glance at the ship before he beckons for his men to pursue the halfling. Kismet slips back up the gangplank with a final wink for Needles, and bids the crew cast off before the harbor warden changes his mind.

Attsu, small and cat-form, emerges from a storm drain. He spies the Petulant Parrot moving through the water, and dashes to intercept, He bounds from pier to ship, from ship to ship, and clambers up a mast. He runs at full speed down the spar, and leaps for the departing ship — but his claw hooks ever so slightly on a line, and he plunges into the ocean a yard from the Parrot deck. The metal cat, and the lachystrix and Hunter Jewel within him, sink toward the bottom of the Izir harbor. But Kismet dives after him, and with the Dolphin Jewel granting her speed and breath, she takes hold of her companion and brings him back up to the ship. With all the venturers safely aboard, lacystrix and orpharos with them, the ship carefully threads past the Izir beacons and out to sea.

They return to Adwa without sighting any Izir sails. There a large group of Mashaar’s Orphans greet their return — grimly at first, then with delight when Kismet presents the Dysian necromantic tools. Captain Tairasha takes her and kisses her fully, to the amusement of his fellow captain.

Blessed Lirin at onces sends for Rizazh al-Tajat to come and offer counsel. Once he arrives, he and Lirin are required to send some of the Orphans out of Mashaar’s room so they have peace and quiet to work. Unfortunately, even with all three tools at hand, the process of using them to bind a soul into a body is still somewhat theoretical. Rizazh says he has read extensively about Dysian necromancy, but he could not guarantee that he can perfectly recreate the ceremony.

“Why not test it on Abd?” asks Aya. The assembled Orphans stare back at her, and Abd speaks up. “I agree. If it fails, the thing of least value is lost.”

Blessed Lirin, Rizazh, and Aya collaborate then to recreate the soul-binding ceremony. Lirin and Rizazh quickly concur on several steps. Aya, who has not spent any time at all researching the business, at one point stretches out an experimental hand. Lirin slaps her on the wrist. “Don’t do that.”

They set the orpharos behind Abd’s torso, and unstopper the urn with his name on it. As the wisp within drifts into Abd’s body, Rizazh begins chanting as he makes sewing motions with the lachystrix. He and Lirin look anxiously at the Abd as the ceremony closes.

“I feel… different,” is all that Abd can say. But he nods, and falls into contemplation.

Much heartened, Blessed Lirin and Rizazh (but not Aya) turn their attention to Mashaar. Again they place the orpharos, open a soul urn, and pass the lachystrix in sewing motions. More of the Orphans quietly cram into the room as the ceremony concludes. Mashaar’s eyes finally flutter open, and she weakly sits up. She regards the room, and smiles. “Oh, my beloved children of my heart,” she says.

“Welcome back,” says Attsu, before the room explodes into laughter and cheers.

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36 - The Living Jewel's Offer
The tale of a reunited soul and a bejeweled bargain.

Upon the arrival of the “Petulant Parrot”, Wind-of-Embers found her attention drawn to odd posters hung around the harbor. They advertised meetings of a religious sect called the Prismatic Flame, and were marked with the writing of many languages. But most notably, she saw her own name picked out in drakhan runes. Excusing herself from her comrades, she went off in search of the house advertised on the posters.

She discovered not a proper mosque, but rather a small shrine built into a warehouse. There she met Axos, the enthusiastic half-elven priest of the Prismatic Flame. Axos and his drakhan acolyte described their faith as honoring all gods of flame, from the Mad Devourer to the dwarven gods Skeorn and Skalda, and of course Hakasarre.

Wind-of-Embers asked just why her name was on the posters. Axos explained that he was encouraged to advertise for her. He revealed that he has received a vision from a patron of hers — an ifrita, Baklasha by name, who has taken an interest in Wind-of-Embers’ future for unexplained reasons. Axos offered whatever help he could, and when Wind-of-Embers told him Nehedza’s name, he did not quail. He presented her with a few small glass marbles that seemed to hold fire inside — weapons that would soften stone and metal, rendering Nehedza’s constructs vulnerable.

Axos invited Wind-of-Embers to stay, and assist with a ritual blessing that night. The elven priest agreed. She then sent word of her decision to the Burning Belly, accounting for her evening.

As Abd tucks away the small vessel with his name, the other venturers examine the shelves of urns. Kismet selects an urn at random, and gives it a vigorous shake; when she hears a faint sigh emit from the stoppered vessel, she carefully puts it back. Attsu pauses and realizes he recognizes a name — Tairuda, an elemental sorceress who was also present at the Queen of Birds’ court an age ago. He quietly takes the urn and places it into one of the carrying cavities in his torso.

After a brief discussion, Kismet shrugs and sweeps the soul urns from one of the shelves. They shatter on the stone floor, and spectral coils of mist unfurl from the shards, whispering, before dissipating on a phantom wind. Kismet shudders, and before she can decide whether or not she’s brought bad luck on herself, Abd dashes the other shelf of urns to the ground.

The venturers slip out of the crematorium and return to the Burning Belly. Wind-of-Embers greets them from one of the low tables. Khosa offers the proprietor a pouch of coin, and the house master sends the straggling customers out into the warm Izir night. The venturers tell Wind-of-Embers what they found in the crematorium, what they still lack, and the group discusses potential next moves. They reach a general accord to speak to Jasenta the Living Jewel — if she is truly Nehedza’s rival, then perhaps she might gladly assist.

Abd grows more serious as he removes the soul urn from his tunic. He tells his companions that he is at a crossroads, that he intends to resolve when Mashaar is safe. “Before I lost my soul,” he says, “I was not a good man. I do not think I am a good man now. You have seen who I was when Nehedza gave this soul false flesh: I was cruel and unrelenting. I have attempted to do good, for the sake of others, but I have done so without a soul to redeem. And though I abide by the law of Jalisa the Ever-Vigilant, the mind of a goddess is beyond all of us.

“Prophets have said that a man’s actions can be judged only by his family and his enemies, not by himself.” He pauses. “You are the closest thing to a family that I possess, and you have seen me as I am and as I was. You must be the ones to judge. Am I a better man without my soul, and is this—” he displays the urn— “best consigned to oblivion? Or if I were to reclaim this darkness, would I be strong enough that I would not fall again to wickedness?”

He sets the urn on the table. “I believe I already know the answer to this question. You have all shown me that I prefer myself as I am now. But as I say — I cannot know myself. I ask you to speak truly with me, and I will accept your wisdom.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” says Kismet, and she seems genuinely puzzled. “Take the soul back. We trust you.”

Abd seems unconvinced, but as the others speak, they provide a united front. Wind-of-Embers tells him that she has faith in him. Aya says it would be a great loss if his soul were simply lost, not redeemed. Attsu praises the strength and character of his brother-in-arms. Finally, Abd nods.

“Thank you,” he says, and he returns the soul urn to his tunic. And then, quite exhausted, the venturers find their way to their beds.

The following morning, the group travels to the wealthiest district of Izir, where the towers of the wizards stand. Aya reclaims her persona of Raisho, haughty sorceress, and the others fall into place as her entourage. They arrive at the polished stone tower of Jasenta the Living Jewel at the hour of a late breakfast. A dwarf in fine servant’s clothing answers the bell, and deferentially allows the band inside at Khosa’s entreaty.

The interior of Jasenta’s tower is adorned in rich blues and greens. The dwarf escorts the party into a stylish parlor with a bubbling fountain, where shortly they are joined by the Living Jewel herself. Jasenta is a middle-aged woman leaning slightly to the heavy side, her fine begemmed gold jewelry and rich red robes and turban offsetting skin of an almost translucent sapphire blue. Though she might seem to be a genasi, Aya quietly sees the tells of a cosmetic magic at play.

The venturers open negotations by establishing their vaguely defined opposition to the Shrouded Moon, and leaving out their opposition to the Ascending Flame as a whole. When they disclose that they hope to steal the Dysian implements from her, Jasenta seems amused, and offers some small help. She says that she can likely make replicas, and swiftly, that could be substituted. They would have no power, of course, but they might fool Nehedza.

Then Jasenta makes a larger offer. She tells the venturers that she could offer much more help — aid fleeing the island, more resources — if they were to give her one of the Zodiac Jewels in return. The lapidary wizard is fascinated by the legendary gems, and would give much to possess one.

The venturers are reluctant to make that offer. They confer privately to discuss it, and agree that though some of the jewels could be spared, they do not feel comfortable leaving any more in Izir. Jasenta veils her disappointment with courtesy, and tells them that the offer will remain open should they change their minds. Then she bids them make themselves comfortable, and withdraws to fashion the replicas.

A little over an hour later, the Living Jewel returns. The servant accompanying her offers a tray, bearing the convincingly tarnished orpharos lantern and lachystrix spindle, their lines showing the peculiarities of Dysian craftsmanship. The venturers accept the gift and thank her profusely. Jasenta wishes them luck, and hopes that later they may return to accept her offer.

The group then settles into a small garden park to sip excellent coffee from a nearby stall and wait. An hour before noon, Attsu feels the tug of the Hunter Jewel on his senses. Nehedza is on the move. They give her enough time to get most of the way to her crematorium, and then move on her tower. There are few enough passerby in the wealthy district that they are able to slip into a servants’ entrance with little trouble.

The halls of the lowest floor are worked in dark stone, with hangings and furnishings in a variety of rich reds. Attsu and Kismet slip into the entry foyer, where they note a pair of seven-foot statues flanking the door — statues very like the stone man who accompanied Ubarid to the house of Igwu. They also see what seems to be a levitating disc elevator to one side, but decide it would be most prudent to use the stairs.

They move up to the second story, where the furnishings change to a series of opulent hues of orange. Attsu scouts ahead in his small cat form, finding first a fine banquet room and second a kitchen. But he is careless, and the cook trips over his metal shape. The cook reacts with immediate suspicion. Attsu feigns the innocence of an ordinary cat, but something in his demeanor outright frightens the cook. She dashes for a cord, and although Attsu pursues, he cannot stop her before she pulls the cord and a great alarm gong sounds through the tower.

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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 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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