13th Voyage

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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