Dark Sun: Call of the Desert

Chapter 9: The Gray Tower
...Wherein the heroes hunt another defiler, and acquire tongs, shears, etc.

21st Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The Dead Legion, the silt skimmer captained by Zentoth and carrying the party, returns to Balic in the evening from the village of Last Port.

The heroes go to the Tzant estate office, where they receive their successful trade expedition pay of 150 GP, plus an extra 50 GP for the unanticipated difficulties.

Sihaya needs to get an armor adjustment and subsequently gets herself a hot date with a minotaur soldier. Savrina completes paperwork for the House and templarate that frees Maia from slavery, as agreed in the tomb. Fenwryk and Maia wander off to… Well, be Fenwryk and Maia.

Savrina invites the others to meet her the following afternoon at a certain linen-seller’s booth in the Agora market to discuss another job.

22nd Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The next morning, the heroes have time for some shopping. Khayal buys and stables a crodlu. Markos buys a nice yellow silk robe to wear over his armor. While he stands back to examine himself in a dingy half-length mirror the merchant holds, an elf passes inconspicuously through the market crowds and pickpockets him. Cammet, the elf, makes off with some gold and the Amulet of Health that the heroes took from the defiler they killed for the Tamwar.

Cammet moves on to another mark in the crowd, but the next theft attempt is witnessed by Roz of the White, the templar with whom the heroes have been working from time to time. Roz arrests the elf, who hurriedly swallows the amulet when her head is turned. She confiscates the gold for the city-state. Then, instead of taking Cammet to the Balican prison, Roz takes him to a linen-seller’s booth in the Agora, where they find a conversation already in progress…

Savrina and Tet-cho-tet, a thri-kreen warlock of the Veiled Alliance, meet the heroes just after midday at the linen-seller’s booth. Savrina says that she learned some more about the rumor of chained slaves on the march that the party heard when they last passed through Last Port. Supposedly, the Dragon of Tyr collects a levy of 100 slaves every year from the city-state of Balic. Templars and minotaur soldiers march the levy to somewhere east of Last Port, destination and purpose unknown.

Savrina says that news has come of a defiler living alone in a place called the Gray Tower, a day and a half north of Other Port, a village north of Balic on the estuary shore. The pay is 200 GP, and any stray goods found there may be kept.

Savrina says that House Tzant has dutifully notified the templarate about the news of the defiler, and Roz, the templar contact for the house, wishes to send a helping hand. On cue, Roz and her half-giant soldiers enter the booth with Cammet in tow. Roz introduces the elf as a petty criminal who is going along to work some community service for Balic in lieu of prison time. Later Markos asks what the elf’s crime was, and in response Cammet steals his pants’ tied-on groin flap and presents it back to him.

Before the party leaves, Savrina tells them there are rumors of odd happenings from around the city. Should anything happen she will send them a mental image of it from afar, for this is a natural talent she has.

The next morning the heroes meet with the Dead Legion crew once again and set out north.

Day One – Crossing the Estuary to Other Port
23rd Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
It’s windy and Pmumble and the rest of the crew are needed to pilot the skimmer, though the extra work has no effect on the chattiness of Jabber. In the late afternoon, the silt skimmer is attacked by eight silt stirges. Although the stirges are individually much weaker than any party member, in greater numbers they prove to be a challenge. Cammet, from his unfortunate “king of the world” position on the bow, is immediately latched onto by three of the things, and shortly takes a nap on the deck. Markos steps in as healer and saves him, and eventually the party is victorious.

They stay the night at a poor-quality inn in Other Port, which is a wretched village much like Last Port, its mirror village on the southern shore.

Day Two – Traveling from Other Port toward the Gray Tower
23rd Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
Travel is uneventful on this day, as the GM tables the intended encounter due to the late game start and lack of remaining time. The party makes camp at night and finds the tower in the middle of the next day.

Day Three – The Gray Tower
24th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The tower has been constructed from an unusual gray stone and is three block-shaped levels set off center from each other, like stairs. The sight of this strange construction is unnerving from the outside. As the GM has had little time with which to put this adventure together, the interior is uncomplicated and populated with an abundance of crates and barrels filled with yarn, tongs, calipers… We have been playing Oblivion here lately.

Groups of hejkin populate the bottom and top levels. Since Khadija spent her last hejkin quality time facedown on the floor of a tomb, she is less than ecstatic to see them again. But I am determined to better hit the challenge sweet-spot for this adventure than the last one, so here they are again – and this time, they’re working with the defiler.

However, the hunted defiler is not on this floor, and the battle passes without much trouble.

The middle level is sparse furnishings and personal belongings, but not much of interest. Khayal finds there a sack with 2 pounds of crystals worth 4 GP/pound.

The top level has a 5-foot wall toward the back of the room that hides anything behind it from this distance. Overhead, the ceiling has partially crumbled away to reveal the parched sky, and crimson sunlight slants down into the space. Water-fat cacti and other succulent plants dot the room.

Toward the back corner of the room, standing in a doorway in the 5-foot wall, is a tall, human male, with sun-bronzed skin and long black hair pulled back with a leather tie. He appears comely, healthy and amenable. At odds with his approachable demeanor are the four demented-looking hejkin allies that surround him.

He says, with a quizzical look, “Can I help you?” His accent reminds Khayal, Khadija and Markos of the Tamwar nomads.

Tet-cho-tet the thri-kreen recognizes the man as Hanuran, a member of the Veiled Alliance who has been on intimate terms with Savrina Tzant. During the conversation that follows, Savrina’s motives are once again cast into doubt. Hanuran reveals that he came to the Gray Tower after being smuggled out of Balic on a House Tzant trade wagon filled with textiles and pottery. Apparently, she had attempted to save him after his talents were discovered, or at least in suspicion. However, the trade wagon was waylaid by a sandstorm and subsequently looted. Markos realizes that Hanuran’s description of this wagon matches the one that the Jarko Gang sent the party to recover a magic item from.

In suspicion, Markos makes a surprise psionic attack, which misses and passes unnoticed. But when he begins to load his sling, Hanuran reacts in kind, triggering an initiative roll.

Cammet begins the fight. He runs across the side of the room, vaults over the 5-foot wall – and discovers almost too late that behind the wall is a 5-foot open trench to the desert ground two stories down. His acrobatics save him from an embarrassing and possibly lethal drop into sand and cactus, and he catches the 10-foot ledge behind the trench. Hanuran defiles the earth, and all in the party witness the cacti in the room wither into black husks. With his energy drawn from this life source, the defiler attempts to put Cammet to sleep, but Cammet shakes the effect off.

A critical hit from Tet-cho-tet takes care of most of the defiler’s health, and Khayal finishes the work. Over the course of the fight, Markos and Khayal pass out from damage taken, mostly from the hejkins. Markos, failing two death saves, stands at the door to a new character when he is saved by a healing potion fruit from Khadija. Another potion fruit is given to Khayal after the fight.

Not surprisingly, Cammet is the loot ninja on the scene, taking Hanuran’s level 2 Cloak of Resistance and 13 GP.

The heroes return without trouble to Other Port, and home to Balic for their payment of 200 GP. Instead of receiving a payment, Cammet is now free of debt to the city-state.

Before he returns to his life of petty crime, Cammet returns the (rather dirty) Amulet of Health to Markos.

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Chapter 8: The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away, part 3
...Wherein the heroes deal with a defiler and take drugs

Day Five – Unknown Ruins
18th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
We left the party in the center of an unknown tomb, readying their weapons to fight a sickly-looking human woman who appears to be the defiler they’ve been hunting.

The woman extends her arms and spreads her hands, palms down toward the earth. Each member of the party then feels a sickening pulling on their stomachs, and perhaps on their spirits, as the woman draws power from the life force around her. They realize this is what defiling feels like; and though all have an incomplete understanding of what it means, Fenwryk knows enough of the arcane practice to realize that the woman is drawing power for a spell.

Behind and around the sarcophagi, piles of sand draw together and begin to harden into six humanoid shapes, which then lurch like zombies towards the party. The defiler flees down the open hatch and closes it behind her.

After the party dispatches the sand zombies, they explore the chamber. They are able to pry up the lids of the sarcophagi to find some coin, and an obsidian-bladed, bone-hilted dagger imbued with primal magic.

Savrina finds a stone tablet on the shelves that has been inscribed with an ancient language she can’t read. She keeps the tablet, hoping to get it translated later in Balic. On the table the party finds a lot of useless broken glass, but also two healing potion fruits.

With the room duly investigated and looted, the party resolves to chase down and finish the defiler. They open the hatch to find a completely darkened space below, into which they cast a lit torch.

The torch lands on a raised platform. There’s a damp smell to the air that stands out against the customary desert dryness. Stairs lead down to a long pool of fetid water. The floor of the pool seems to be decorated with golden tiles at the edges, but the water is too murky to see more.

The defiler makes her stand here. When the party descends into the room they see humanoid corpses stacked by both front corners of the pool. The defiler is standing in the pool at the far end of the room.

As before, the defiler extends her arms, with palms facing downward toward the water. Each member of the party feels the nauseating pull in the pit of his or her stomach as dark, hazy tendrils spread out from the defiler’s feet into the water. Two zombies of decayed flesh rise from the piles of corpses.

In facing down the defiler, Savrina panics, going white in the face. For the first time since the expedition left Balic, she doesn’t retreat to cover or to a corner, but instead stretches out her arms before her: lightning arcs in forked lines from her fingertips, striking and damaging the defiler.

Since the party has only seen Savrina act as a noble and amateur scholar, they enjoy a collective WTF. Arcane magic – everyone knows – was the means by which the once-lush world of Athas became a grim wasteland. Maia aims her bow briefly at Savrina before turning back toward the defiler and firing. Sihaya grabs Savrina in a grapple, but Khadija persuades her to let Savrina go. Savrina, with a readiness that borders on fanaticism, continues flinging lightning and fire at the defiler.

The party takes the defiler down with ease, and they turned to their two other interest in the room: loot, and the other potential defiler.

Maia confronts Savrina about her spellcasting. She calls Savrina out as a defiler, nocks two arrows, and threatens to put one of them through each of Savrina’s eyes.

Savrina says, “I’m not a defiler. Please hear me out.”

Khayal and Markos would rather finish mauling and looting the defiler corpse before getting into the Savrina question. Khayal cuts the head off the defiler to take to the Tamwar nomads, and carries it by its unhealthily long hair. Markos rifles through the rags on the corpse, and comes away with an arcane amulet of beautifully polished agafari wood with a dull grey stone, and amulet of health. (At this point I turned on a digital voice recorder to help with transcribing events.)

Sihaya interposes her large half-giant self between Maia’s longbow and Savrina. “Someone told me to let Savrina go,” Sihaya says. “I don’t know why – but we’re gonna wait until they all come back. And then we’ll figure it out.”

Maia lowers her bow, but the arrows are still knocked. She says, “I’m waiting.”

Fenwryk suggests hearing Savrina out. Khadija is convinced that Savrina became magically corrupted when she picked up the stone tablet from the bookshelves. “I’m telling you,” she says in a gruff voice, “it was the tablet.”

Markos says that the group didn’t see Savrina defile – only the other woman – and they have never seen Savrina use magic before.

“It was the tablet,” repeats Khadija. “She was fine when she came in, she picked up the tablet, she went down in the hole, then…”

“That’th fine, I want to hear it from her mouth,” says Markos in his lisp, pointing at Savrina.

Khadija continues. “She had ample opportunity to do bad things to us all the way up here, and she didn’t. I’m telling you it was the tablet.”

Savrina says, “There are many kinds of magic in the world. There are many sources of magic, and also different ways to practice magic. Not everyone who uses arcane magic is a defiler. There are those of us – and we number more than you may think – who practice a slow, less powerful route in our casting, drawing on our own life energy, instead of on the life energy of plants and other living things. We’re called preservers.” She pauses, and takes a breath. “Some of us make it our life’s work to oppose defilers. I’m one of those.”

“I have heard of dees,” says Fenwryk. (Matt asks here where Fenwryk got the sudden Apu accent. I say, “It was the stone tablet.”)

Savrina says, “Although I didn’t expect to find a defiler on our trade journey, I wouldn’t have missed the chance to disable or stop this woman. If you would, before you do anything…” and she looks at Maia and Sihaya, “Rash… consider joining me in this task of opposing defilers wherever they are found."

“That doesthn’t theem like a very thelf-therving occupation,” says Markos.

“This is the gift or curse I was born with,” says Savrina. “Defilers make life harder for me. I oppose them wherever they may be found, including those in positions of great power.”

“We thertainly oppoth all defilerth in whatever form they may take,” says Markos.

“You realize this would include sorcerer kings and queens.”

“They are powerful enough that they are above our meanth,” answers Markos.

Maia interrupts the deliberations. “I think we should shoot her head off.”

“I have heard of this,” says Fenwryk again.

“Shooting people’s heads off?” asks Maia.

“Yes, but also this preserving that Savrina speaks of.”

Eventually, Maia is talked down from shooting heads off, and the group decides to spare Savrina’s life. They agree to consider helping her against defilers in the future, dependent on the gain.

A single wall torch dimly lights the room up the stairs. Two sarcophagi are closed with locks that the party discovers are enchanted to resist physical force. The locks have no protection against magic, however, and Savrina breaks them with a spell. Inside, they find an obsidian-bladed, bone-hilted carrikal (Carnage Weapon), which Khadija keeps, and a pair of large-sized black bone armbands (Bracers of Mighty Striking) for Sihaya.

In the center of the west wall is another stone golem. This one is missing the other half of his head (from the one in the earlier room), but the rest of him is intact. His surviving eye glitters faintly with a golden-tinted diamond.

This golem, unlike the other, comes to life when the party removes its diamond – but he proves to be no challenge.

The party enters the tomb’s last room, which is strangely lit by an ambient golden glow of no obvious source. Double golden rings, with elaborate sigils inside all the way around, mark the floor of the chamber. Ancient writing marks the back wall, which Savrina can read: “May you walk in his light, never knowing his heat.”

After some intra-party messing, in which Markos uses a psionic power to position Maia inside the rings, and Maia reacts by firing a warning arrow near him (and rolling a natural 20), the party moves on, uncomfortable with the strange, magical place.

The Tamwar aren’t in sight when the party emerges from the tomb, but some strangers are.

On stepping into the light, the adventurers find themselves surrounded by a ragtag group of humans, and a couple half-elves. Their faces and hair have been smeared with ochre-colored paint. They carry spears, which they’ve leveled at the party as it emerges from the dark tomb’s interior.

A man among them says, “Tomb robbers, stop and pay tribute to Herumar, the timeless sand scourge of the desert.”

Although they’re not exactly daunted by this greeting party, the heroes opt for the more diplomatic route (for a change). They convince the cultists of Herumar that the Tamwar have sent them to the tomb, not to loot but to eliminate a defiler. This seems to satisfy the cultists, who ask for a paper cut and drop of blood into the sands to keep their patron spirit happy, and are on their way.

The party meets the Tamwar again at the oasis edge as evening comes. Shakti al Tamwar, warlord and priest of the Annodar, meets them at the guard perimeter with seven warriors. Shakti identifies the defiler head and and escorts the party to see Ashuradi, the Tamwar chieftain. There, Ashuradi is pleased, and insists that the party initiates into the trust of the Tamwar tribe that very night by drinking the blood of the Annodar. He tells the party that the Tamwar will not ask the party to share their visions, but will be honored if the party chooses to do so.

That evening the party is escorted to what is evidently a sacred yurt. A small cauldron simmering with water and herbs fills the tent with steam from its center. After the drinking of the blood of the Annodar from a gourd, each member of the party relives vivid memories from the past. A memory is interrupted for each by these unsettling visions:

Khadija sees: It’s night, and the enormous, golden half-moon of Guthay fills your vision. Its beauty is intoxicating. You become aware of the soft, cool sands beneath your feet and the tops of zaal trees all around you.

Abruptly, a shimmering doorway opens on the sands before you. The doorway seems to have no substance beyond a golden light, and silvery frame. Two elves step out of the opening, and stand to either side of it on vigilant watch.

Fenwryk sees: In a crowded square, a balding, older human stands on the back of a sculpture. He’s shouting and drawing much attention to himself. His cracking voice reaches you: “Hear my words! Hear my tellings! I am the prophet Jejjereth, and I’ve seen that a shadow will cover you!”

“The winds will rock the earth, the stone shall quake and the silt shall rise a thousand feet! Giants of the sea will stand and walk the streets and slaughter the sons and daughters of Balic! You are doomed! A shadow will cover you! And you are doomed! And you and… you!”

The older man pauses and stares into empty space. An elf girl takes advantage of the quieter moment to loudly hawk her goods.

“Rock candy!” she calls. “Get rock candy here!”

Khayal sees: Beside the fire in a dusty inn, a woman claps her hands to her ears, complaining of the howling winds of silt storm outside. “Help,” she says to an old woman, in an anguished voice. “Since I drank from that gourd, I’m seeing and hearing impossible things…”

The old woman starts to question her, but the woman turns instead toward the door and runs out into the storm, hands still to her ears. Some from the inn follow her.

The woman starts screaming about seeing giants rising from the sea and crushing bodies beneath their toes as they walk the streets of Balic, and night itself following them, swallowing everything up. Whenever another tries to calm her, the woman shakes them away wildly. All that night, the wind blows feral over her.

In the morning, the silt has settled, and the woman lies just outside the village, choking, and dying, from silt lung.

Markos sees: A massive white tower, its golden dome colored rosy from the light of the crimson sun, rises above the thin layer of airborne silt hovering over the city streets. You recognize this as the Tower of Balic, residence of Ozymandias the Sun King and his templarate.

As you watch, the tower starts to glow, and then burns brightly as though filled with unseen flames.

Sihaya sees: A woman is trapped under fallen bricks on a city street, yelling, reaching her hand out. People run past, but no one stops. A darkness like a fast approach of nightfall reaches her, and she opens her mouth to scream, but is silent. Her body dries out and collapses into black dust, which begins to scatter in the first wind.

(Sihaya sufficiently traumatized by this to be unwilling to discuss it with anyone but Markos.)

Maia sees Saranas, the chieftain of her old people, the Sun Runners, apparently meeting with the Cult of Herumar, refusing something from them, and fighting them.

Day Six – Return to Balic
19th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The next morning, their initiation done, the party is treated to a bountiful breakfast from the Tamwar. The tribe concludes trade negotiations with Savrina, and see the party off at the Zaal Hand.

On the return north, the party encounters with a group of 30 east-roaming Sun Runners. Maia, spotting them, raises her arms to them in a signal. When the Sun Runners approach, there’s a silence as they recognize Maia, then look away. A golden-haired child among them blurts out, “Maianar!” An adult elf woman says, “Be quiet, Baezi. That woman is dead to us and we don’t remember her or speak her name.”

Maia answers, “You keep the traditions and it’s right that you not greet me. But I remember you, and you’re alive to me. Nothing says that the dead must deny what their eyes see.”

Ignoring Maia, Kallah says to Baezi, “We accept in this life what will be true after. Maia will be absent from the Golden Lands. She will not run with the ancestors in the afterlife. She can find peace on whatever other road carries her on its back.”

The Sun Runners, disinclined to raid now, move on from Maia’s group, saying nothing more.

That night while most of the party sleeps, Khayal wakes to see the wedge-shaped head of an enormous mantis, or thri-kreen, staring into her own with its glossy black eyes. To the mantis’s surprise, Khayal greets it in its native language. In the discussion that follows, the mantis introduces itself as T’Chako and persuades the party to allow it to join them for travel safety.

T’Chako, who discloses that she is female, is on her way to Balic. She is trying to contact the Jade Order, an order of monks and psions who seek serenity through balance. She had snuck in under cover to more closely examine one of the sleepers in the party. Like most thri-kreen, she doesn’t understand sleeping, and regards it with bemusement. Still, it appears that the habits of civilized humanoids fascinate her, and she asks many questions about them as the group travels. Sihaya and Khayal seem to take to the mantis, and indulge her questions about dreams and other strange humanoid habits.

Day Seven – Through the Stony Barrens
20th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
This day is uneventful and the party comes to Last Port in the late evening.

The old woman is still at the fire, braiding cord. For a small gratuity, she tells the party about the groups of slaves that have come through the port in the last few days, estimating 8-10 groups of 8-10 chained slaves, along with templars and minotaur soldiers. She says they crossed the silt from the north, and traveled east. She doesn’t know where they’re going, but they come through every year, and those who follow tend not to return.

Since they are at this point returning to Balic, the party notes this for future reference.

Day Eight –Crossing the Estuary to Balic
21st Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The Dead Legion, the silt skimmer captained by Zentoth, arrives at the port in the morning, and the party hires Zentoth to ferry them back to Balic. Pmumble is there, still mumbling, and the other crew are there as well.

Zentoth complains that they’ve seen two other cloud rays since they dropped the party off, and asks if the party is cursed. Jabber comments on the increase of the rare cloud rays. “And we saw a giant trompin’ around! Hardly ever see those this far west.”

In the evening, the Dead Legion arrives in Balic.

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Chapter 7: The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away, part 2
...Wherein different nomads betray and befriend the heroes

Day Three – Through the Stony Barrens to Shur-a-Tamwa
16th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
Travel again starts at dawn for the party on their way to the oasis of Shur-a-Tamwa to try to establish trade relations between House Tzant of Balic and the Tamwar nomads. The morning passes in a dead-quiet peace, aside from the occasional shrieking of kestrekels in the distance.

In the early afternoon, they notice a silt storm heading their direction from the southwest. Djao al Seik, their nomadic guide, points out what looks like a shelter among the rocks, which turns out to be a cave. The party enters the cave to wait out the storm.

As the storm draws near, four human raiders with red silks tied to their spears come up to the cave entrance. Savrina Tzant, recognizing the tribe, says they’re Benjari—which is one of the tribes the old woman in Last Port warned the party about. One of the Benjari appraises the group, smiles bleakly, and says, “Welcome to the land of pure living. You should have stayed in your soft beds, khaja.” To his friends, he adds something in their native language, which most in the party don’t know.

The ambush starts with Khayal and Maia (the elf slave of House Tzant) noticing Djao turning his weapons toward Markos in preparation for attack, rather than toward the nomads. Perhaps Djao isn’t quite the reliable guide he was hired to be. He may belong to the Benjari tribe rather than the Seik. He may have even guided the party toward the ambush.

Outside, the storm draws near and the wind howls as it snakes into the cave mouth. Maia misses her shot at Djao, but Khayal’s aim is true. The party drops Djao easily. Meanwhile, Markos unnerves the Benjari with a well-placed flameburst from his primal magic sling. They realize they’re outmatched, and vanish out the cave entrance into the storm.

Savrina passes out meat to eat while the outside storm rages. Maia tells Fenwryk that she’ll tell him a story from her people, but then leans in close and says, privately, something completely different. “If I wear this chain too long,” she says, “I’ll get the confinement madness. It can come to elves who are held against their will. If that happens, I’ll kill anyone who comes near. What if, in the madness, I kill someone in the group? And the rest want retribution on me. What would you do?”

Fenwryk has sufficient insight to realize she’s testing his loyalty, as elves do when considering whether to give their full trust to an outsider. He answers that he’ll work again on getting her out of the chain.

The sandstorm passes in around 10 minutes. “We’ve lost the house guard and been betrayed by the guide,” Savrina says. Fenwryk assures her that he can find the way to Shur-a-Tamwa from there. She says, “We need to meet the Tamwar at someplace called ‘the Hand’—four zaal trees that rise from the sand like fingers.”

In early evening, they come to Mehat al Tamwar and 10 other Tamwar on inix-back at the Hand. When the party sees them, Savrina says, “This is it,” and reiterates it should go well, especially since House Tzant lost a trade wagon to a storm recently.

The Tamwar touch their closed fingertips to their foreheads in greeting, and after some exchanged words in faltering bendune and common, lead the party to Shur-a-Tamwa.

High zaal trees rise into the evening light all around, lush bushes laiden with fruit crowd the trees, and the party can see the glistening oasis waters up ahead. “This is Shur-a-Tamwa, blessed of the desert,” Mehat says in faltering common. The nomads give the party cups of water to drink, and take them to a small tent for Savrina and larger tent for the PCs. Sihaya and Khadija take guard shifts in the door of Savrina’s tent overnight.

During the night, Fenwryk talks Sihaya into smashing Maia’s chain with her maul. The blow doesn’t succeed, but it makes enough noise to wake Savrina, who comes in to investigate. Fenwryk botches a bluff, then tells her the truth, and about the risk of Maia going mad. Savrina warns Fenwryk not to break the slave’s chain, or the party won’t get paid. This settles things for the night.

Day Four – At Shur-a-Tamwa
17th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
Savrina spends the whole day in the company of the Tamwar, part of establishing diplomatic ties for trade. In the morning the tribe shares a lush oasis breakfast of dates, milk and honey, blue juya fruits, peppered inix meat, and grain beer. Afterward, the party is taken before chieftain Ashuradi and five gauze-veiled women, who are his wives and advisors.

Ashuradi the chieftain is very tall, almost 7 feet, with lean muscles and a bald head around a top black tail that has never been cut. He carries two decorated bone swords.

He speaks to them in common. “Please make of Shur-a-Tamwa a home for now. Have you fed well this morning?”

“Quite well, with your generosity, mahdi,” answers Savrina.

“My wives will take you on a tour of the oasis, and you can meet our traders. After, you will join me for a meal in my shade and we may trade our first questions. This evening, another meal in my shade, and you will meet the wise woman Mehura.”

One of the wives whispers something in Ashuradi’s ear, and he nods. “Please go. May you walk in shade.”

Savrina requests of the party two guards at a time for the day. They can work out three shifts of three hours each and have the rest of the day to do as they wish, but they should not leave the oasis. Savrina encourages them to seek trade for anything they wish to take back. Whatever they do, they must not give offense, or their diplomatic task could be on danger, to say nothing of their lives. She also pulls Fenwryk aside and says she’s thought about Maia’s madness risk, and doesn’t want to risk a diplomatic problem over a crazy elf. They chain Maia to Fenwryk instead, certain that this will be easier for the elf to accept.

Khayal and Khadija escort Savrina for Shift 1, which is the oasis tour, and then trade. The Tamwar have similar weapons and armor to Balic, but less selection.

Unique souvenirs include:
Puchik with red or orange-dyed bone hilt – 2 gp
Singing stick with red-dyed patterns – 30 gp
Carrikal wrapped in red or white leather – 8 gp
Dejada – 7 gp
Juvenile inix – 400 gp
Blue juya fruits – 15 cp each
Richly spiced oil – 2 gp flask
Red and orange dyed, braided rope – 1 gp per coil
Red and orange dyes – 5 cp little jar

Khadija trades her carrikal for a white-leather-wrapped one and a lesson in weapons upkeep. She also buys some spiced oil.

Meanwhile, Markos shoots the breeze talking with herders about the inix. They also tell him a bit about the cult of Herumar, also called the Sand Scourge, an earth spirit of the deep desert. The herders tell that attacks from Herumar cultists have stopped since Mehura, the wise woman, started sharing the blood of the annodar with the tribe, and that the blood is a sacred gift from the desert spirits of wind and earth.

Sihaya and Markos join Savrina for Shift 2, with lunch in the chieftain’s shade, including peppered inix meat, kestrekel eggs, figs, crickets coated with kank honey, and fermented carru milk. Savrina presents gifts of incense and silks. Ashuradi looks slightly baffled at the incense but glad at the silks.

Markos asks Ashuradi about the rumors of attacks from the cult of Herumar. The chieftain confirms that there were attacks, but the wise woman Mehura has smoothed things over with the followers of Herumar through their common communion with different desert spirits: the Tamwar with the Annodar, and the cultists with Herumar.

Fenwryk and Maia work Shift 3, which is dinner in the chieftain’s shade. Dinner is evidently the Tamwar’s lightest meal of the day, mainly fruit and sweetened tubers, but they serve spiced kaf afterward. During the kaf, Mehura the shaman comes and sits.

Mehura the shaman is sharp-eyed, middle-aged and wiry, with many bone loops in her left ear and around her neck. She carries a bone staff tied with odd triangles of leather that dangle and clack together softly in the wind.

Without courtesies or preamble, Mehura questions the city-dwellers critically, asking each question of all three guests in attendance.

She asks each in turn:
“Who are you?”
“Who birthed you?”
_ “Who do you serve?”_
“Who have you betrayed in your life?”
“What is magic?”

Mehura seems content with Maia’s response that she was raised in a tribe that honored the sun spirits, but she’s clearly dissatisfied with the other answers. It’s obvious that she’s looking for ways to end the trade negotiations and eject the party from the oasis. But Ashuradi seems to say something placating to her in bendune. After Mehura storms off, he insists on the Water-Sharing Ritual of First Trust, with desert wind poetry. He says, “Our tribe is very old. This poem speaks of having long memories.”

Ashuradi shares cups of water with the Savrina, Fenwryk and Maia while a nomad recites:

A first look at earth
In its most temperate weather
Can instill long hopes
And mold gentle temperament:
But these died in the Green Age.
__
Though heat and sandstorms
Came before us to the world,
And will come after,
You and I can remember
The mild time from which we came.

Ashuradi explains that the tribe has been there since the earth was mud with moisture, and green plants covered the ground, and the fronds and leaves of trees shivered overhead.

Savrina and the chieftain start initial trade discussions, which run late into the night.

Meanwhile, beside the oasis waters in the evening, Sihaya tries to learn a game of “sandysack” from some Tamwar youths. The youths kick a ball of sand stiched together in leather, trying to keep it aloft as long as possible. They are so amused at the half-giant’s attempts that they dub her Sihaya al Tamwar, a name suitable for a tribe member. Sihaya, in her boundless naivete, doesn’t realize they’re joking, and is pleased to have become a member of the Tamwar.

Elsewhere at the oasis, Khadija learns weapons care from one of the Tamwar craftsmen. He asks her about her silt crossing, and for news of Ul-Athra. At her confusion, he explains, “I think you khaja call him the Dust Kraken. Some other peoples of the estuary call him the God in the Dust.” He tells her that the fearsome silt horrors that hunt in the sea are the spawn of Ul-Athra. He had heard that those who follow Ul-Athra had been increasing, or maybe just gathering, of late, but he didn’t know if that was true.

It’s late, when full Guthay is high in the sky, when Savrina and guards return from Shift 3. The wives accompany, and one of the wives says, “Sleep well and ready yourselves for travel early. We will show you something.”

Day Five – Unnamed Ruins
18th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
At dawn the party is served “sacred animal” meat, which has a sort of rubbery, uncooked texture and bland flavor. No one asks or mentions what animal it came from.

After this lean breakfast, Mehat and a few swordsmen Tamwar take the party on two-hour ride to the sand dunes to the east, doubling up on inixes (except Sihaya, who must walk due to her size, and Maia, who won’t ride). When they reach the edge of the stony barrens, he says to Savrina, “I think of your gift of incense now,” and inhales deeply of the clean desert air. “That,” he says. “That is the sweetest scent of all.”

Mehat brings them to see what the Tamwar call “the Fallen Man,” an ancient and enormous golden stone statue, of which survive only the broken legs upright, and the head fallen, half-sunken, in the nearby sand. The muscular, sandalled legs are 50 feet and 38 feet high to their broken points. The head is 15 feet and shows a regal, but arrogant and cruel-looking, human male face, crowned in an ancient style.

To the right of the legs is a golden stone pedestal with the words of a poem inscribed in ancient common, which only Savrina can read among those present. She reads aloud (and now I steal from Percy Bysshe Shelley, but with love):

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
__
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.
__
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

After reading the poem aloud, Savrina is amazed to note that the statue is done in a Red-Age style, at least in her understanding. She says, “Sources for study of such old times are rare—but some scholars call our age the Desert Age. The Red Age, a long time of wars, came before it. Some say the Desert Age began a few centuries ago, while others claim it is three thousand years old. I think the truth is in the middle… But the statue is clearly a Red-Age style, and this pedestal, though in the same stone, is written in an early Desert-Age hand.”

She says that if that’s true, Ozymandias, sorcerer-king of Balic, could have been born in the Red Age—and possibly be over three thousand years old. She guesses that this mocking poem of the Sun King was added much later than the statue and pedestal—possibly the original inscription surface of the pedestal was sanded down, and this new inscription made upon the new surface.

When Savrina examines the crown on the fallen head, she finds an ancient sigil for sun or fire primal spirits. “Why is there a primal …” she mutturs, but doesn’t finish the thought aloud. She walks away confused and troubled from seeing this.

Mehat al Tamwar finally speaks. “We were wondering: is this site sacred to you?”

Fenwryk and Maia answer in a dismissive “No.”

“Not sacred,” says Savrina, choosing her words with care. “But interesting. Thank you for showing us.”

“You are welcome. Now for your test.” The Tamwar re-mount their inixes. “Follow.”

The Tamwar lead the party another two hours north, within sight of a broken zaal tree of petrified (mineralized) wood. Mehat points at the tree. “There. You’ll find a stone door, perhaps under a thin blow of sand. It leads to a ruin for the dead. A defiler has made this place her home. Bring us her head, and you show that your hearts are aligned with ours, and we will pledge our trade lines to you.”

“If you succeed, the wise woman Mehura will invite you to partake of the blood of the annodar,” says Mehat. “If you don’t see us here when you are done, just return to the oasis. Come back with the head. If you come back without it, the result will be different than if you have it.” The party dismounts the inixes, and the Tamwar ride off.

The party tries to persuade Savrina to stay outside the tomb; but she’s resolute in joining them, saying it’s part of her life’s work to chronicle history, and understanding the nature of defilers is part of that. She points out that outside and alone, she would be easy prey for predators.

As the party approaches the petrified tree, they see a patch of black sand, which they can tell is unnatural. Savrina knows that it comes from defiling magic used to slaughter innocents. She becomes very afraid at this point, but forces herself to move on.

The party finds the stone slab door beneath a thin blow of sand, and clears it easily. It’s around mid-morning when they enter the tomb.

Ancient, time-pitted stairs lead down to a gently sloping walkway, and down a second set of stairs, steeper than the first. The stone of the passage is hard yellow sandstone, unornamented and plain.

At the bottom of the stairs is a wall, and an arched opening with a large golden-colored glyph on the floor that resembles a blazing sun. They can see that, unlike the other surfaces, the glyph looks unmarked by time. On the upper arch of the doorway is a sigil that looks a little like a blazing sun surrounded by seven stars. On the wall beside the doorway is the same sigil that troubled Savrina on the statue crown of Ozymandias.

Savrina says, “I remember that sun-and-stars sigil from a tome on the long-dead noble houses of Balic, but I don’t remember which house it was. I’ll have to research it later.”

Over the talking, Maia hears the faint echo of eating sounds from within the room past the bottom of the stairs. The party prepares and Sihaya advances first to the arched opening.

In doing so, she activates the sun glyph trap, and is hit with a blast of magical fire. Luckily, the fire doesn’t linger to burn her, but instead vanishes into colorful sparks after the hit.

Sihaya is thus first to see the next room. Its spacious floor shows an aged but still breathtaking mosaic in black, white, green and golden tiles. It depicts the moons Ral and Guthay surrounded by familiar constellations of stars. On the northeast wall is another glyph, just like the entrance sun glyph, but smaller. To the east the wall is lined with white alcoves housing low stone benches suitable for kneeling. In the south wall is a large alcove. Double doors are in the west wall. In the southern alcove, a floor mosaic shows what appears to be a white sun, with outreaching blazes of glory. A partly broken statue to the east shows a whirling sandstorm-like creature. The western statue shows what seems to be a heavy stone golem is remarkably good shape. The crushed blocks of stone pillars lie in a mess along the south wall.

Of note, five hejkins are also in the room, eating a half-devoured anakore corpse.

The hejkins—which are of three different types—prove to be a non-trivial challenge for the party. Khadija is knocked unconscious, but healed by the ardent powers of Markos. We discover that Khadija, even while unconscious, is capable of having surly, mullish thoughts.

During the fight, Fenwryk says to Maia, “Don’t forget your promise to me,” and fey-steps (an eladrin teleport), snapping the slave chain that binds her to him. Both take minor damage and are knocked prone from the chain’s breaking tension, but Maia is heard to giggle. Only Savrina stands between her and the door out of the tomb, and freedom—but Maia keeps to her word and stays on to fight with the group.

In the end the party triumphs and searches the room. There follows an amusing bit where Khayal talks Sihaya into smashing a golem statue half to pieces before prying the golden diamond out of its eye. Savrina unlocks the slave cuffs from Fenwryk’s and Maia’s ankles without a word.

Sihaya and Markos together manage to smash through the barred double doors to west, and the party follows a short passage to a tomb chamber.

Four sarcophagi of heavy yellow granite are arranged in the tomb. Two have been opened (one completely, with the lid dumped on the side, and the other with the lid opened a crack), and these appear empty. The other two appear unopened. Ancient stone shelves covered in dust line the south wall. Against the north wall is a long wooden table that was perhaps added more recently. In the northwest corner of the room is a wooden hatch in the floor.

What mainly draws the party’s attention is the human woman standing in the room, behind a sarcophagus. Her black hair falls very long – to her knees – and she has a wan, unusually pale face. She was probably once beautiful, but now looks frightened and sickly. She appears to be alone in the room.

“Why have you come?” she asks in a breaking voice, a voice long unused.

The party tells her that they’ve come to slay the defiler. She responds with a “Defiler? What defiler?” act, which most of the party see through. She seems to be as out of practice with lying as she is with speaking.

She tenses to bolt. The party raises their weapons.

And we stop there, until next time.

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Chapter 6: The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away, part 1
...Wherein the heroes schmooze and skim the silt

12th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
Izid, House Tzant’s human messenger, delivers an invitation to Khadija and Sihaya for the celebrated “Kanks” arena team to attend a party at the Tzant main estate that evening, beginning just before sundown. Savrina Tzant would like to toast their victory against the anakores and kestrekels at the opening of the Dritan Games.

When the group arrives at the party, a man-servant at the door lets them in to the spacious entrance courtyard, which is decorated in white tiles with black flax plant mosaics, and has a clear water pool in the center. The group finds performers (drums, pipes, dancers) in the courtyard entertaining other guests, who seem to be wealthy merchants and nobles and their attendants. Servers with polished bone trays walk around offering sweet breads, candied and fresh fruits, and drinks. One such server passes the group as they enter the courtyard, and Sihaya, with a hunger only half-giants can achieve, follows in his wake. Markos—looking after Sihaya since their Freedom Fight days—follows after to keep her out of trouble. During her quest to devour the contents of as many trays as possible, Sihaya sees Dorio, her handler from when she was a slave in House Tzant. He’s there overseeing the underlings and they trade a few friendly words.

A dark-haired human woman, dressed as one of the moneyed guests, levels an admiring and appraising look at Khadija, and approaches the party. Having picked out Fenwryk as the most likely authority in the group, she introduces herself to him as Khaleesi Aliah Jarko. The party is familiar with the name of House Jarko, for they are a Balic-based merchant slaver house. The woman asks how much Fenwryk would ask for a purchase of Khadija. Khadija purses her lips but says nothing.

“Lease or own?” asks Fenwryk, without hesitation.

“She looks like she can hold her own,” answers the Jarko.

“She looks like she can hold a lot of things,” says Fenwryk.

Khaleesi takes a closer look at Khadija, and recognizes her as the mul who won her freedom some time ago. “You’re Khadija, then?”

“I am,” says Khadija. Muls excel at surly and Khadija rolls critical surliness.

The Jarko apologizes for the misread and politely drifts off.

Looking around the courtyard, the party sees two elves, apparently slaves, who seem to be part of the courtyard décor for the occasion. To the right of the central water pool, a male elf crouches on a stone platform carved to look like a desert scene. He has his hand on a staff as if to use it as a weapon, but the staff, on closer inspection, is bolted to the platform floor. Likewise his ankles and wrists are short-chained to the platform and staff respectively, forcing him to crouch. The elf is wearing only a black loin cloth. He has short-cropped black hair, and a large, filled-in black circle surrounded by swirly lines tattooed on his back. His pose, forced by the placement of short chains, and carved rock platform suggest a portrait of a hunting desert elf in his native habitat—a piece of living art.

Khayal recognizes the tattoo on the elf’s back as being the same she remembers her elven mother having many years ago. She asks the elf about it, but his scowl and short, snide responses show his seething anger and unwillingness to satisfy any curiosity she may have about him.

To the left of the water pool is the golden-haired elven “quick” from the team the Kanks fought in the githball game. She stands beside the pool stoically, also part of the guest entertainment. She still has the black flax plant tattooed across her face, a mark of her slavery to House Tzant. She’s dressed in golden leathers and wears yellow bone teeth around her neck and arm. She is chained with bone links to a golden stone statue that has been carved to look exactly like her. The party realizes this is also meant to be art, showing a wild elf of the desert linked directly to her likeness in a harmless carved statue. A juxtaposition of wild and tame elements?

The elf catches Fenwryk’s eye and beckons him over with a movement of her head. She tells him in elven, “I remember you. Do you speak elven, Desert Walker?”

Fenwryk remembers that she called him “Desert Walker” during the githball game. She has recognized him as an eladrin. When he confirms that he speaks her language, she says, “You’re far from home, as am I. I am—I was part of a tribe that honors your people. Tell me about the world outside. I have been held here too long.”

After a brief conversation, she tells him, “You’re about to be asked to join an expedition.”

Izid interrupts the scene. “Admiring the art?” he says. He leads the party to an office. Savrina comes in, pleasant but brisk, for she has guests to entertain.

Patrician Savrina Tzant, human noble of the House Tzant, has green eyes and long, yellow hair coiled around her head. As hostess, she is dressed richly in black silks, with a white gauzy wrap around her head and shoulders. Black and white are the colors of House Tzant.

Fenwryk (alone rolling well in History) has learned in his work for the templar Roz that House Tzant is originally from the city-state of Tyr, and has expanded to Balic. Roz mentioned once that they’d like to expand to Urik.

Savrina says, “I’m pleased you could come,” and congratulates the Kanks team on their high-profile victory in the opening of the Dritan Games. She inquires after Khadija’s health after her near-death to the anakore.

Then: “Well, I must be a bit brisk, for I have guests still arriving, but I have a proposition for you. Would you be interested in serving as guards to my person on a diplomatic trade expedition?”

Savrina explains that there’s a tribe of nomadic humans living on the edge of the Southern Wastes with whom she would like to establish regular trade for House Tzant. The tribe is called the Tamwar, and they herd inix and hunt. House Tzant, as a textiles house, wants the Tamwar decorative braided rope, and red and orange dyes. Savrina believes the nomads may want the House Tzant’s more finely woven desert-wear, and perhaps their blue and purple dyes.

She has arranged for a meeting with the Tamwar at the Shur-a-Tamwa oasis, and has hired a guide to lead them there. The oasis is 75 miles southeast of Balic, across the lower Silt Sea Estuary, on the edge of the Endless Sand Dunes. The journey should take 3-4 days each way; the expedition will leave at dawn on the 14th day of the Month of Haze (in two days). They will meet at Dock 4 in the Harbor Precinct. For payment, she offers 300 gp plus meals and drinks – 50 gp before leaving, 100 when she arrives at Shur-a-Tamwa, 150 gp when she returns safely home in Balic.

She cautions that this is a diplomatic mission, and they must not give offense to the nomads. “The memories of the nomads are longer than time, they say. It’s important that this go well.”

Fenwryk has some knowledge of the Tamwar. They look much like the typical humans of Balic: golden-brown skin, black hair and black eyes. Before Fenwryk’s home Feywild portal vanished mysteriously, cutting him off from his world and people, it had opened near the Shur-a-Tamwa oasis during any full moon of Guthay. He remembers part of the way to the oasis, which he mentions to Savrina, but suggests she not drop the hired guide. She agrees and asks him not to reveal his knowledge to the guide, since she has never worked with this guide before.

The party agrees to the job, but they have questions on other matters. First, the golden-haired slave in the courtyard has drawn Fenwryk’s curiosity. He mentions to Savrina that he was admiring the art, and how much would she ask for it? After some banter about whether the price should include the statue, Savrina sobers and gives him a price of 2,000 gp. “The elf Maia,” she says, “is a skilled ranged combatant and useful in the arena.”

Fenwryk suggests that a useful in-house combatant would be a cost-efficient guard for the expedition, but he doesn’t quite convince her that Maia should join them. Savrina notes that long-legged, speedy wild elves do not make the most reliable guards in the open desert, so Fenwryk promises to try to secure her loyalty. Savrina agrees that they can have a private room for such “conversation” if Maia consents.

Khayal then inquires about the tattoo on the other elf slave. Savrina admits she doesn’t know anything about it yet, because Fulk, the tattooed elf, is a new capture and hasn’t been free with his information. She understands he was the last of his group and was taken while he was delirious with sun sickness in the wastes. Even so he fought ferociously and killed two men before the rest took him. Without knowing more, she couldn’t set a real price, but it might be in the range of 1,500 gp.

With the group nowhere close to having such funds, Savrina departs to play host. Izid leads in a clerk with parchment and quill. As routine procedure for longer-term hires, the clerk takes down all their names and sketches their faces for house records. Khayal relents and removes her obscuring headwear so she can be sketched; but only after Sihaya and Fenwryk leave the office, since they haven’t seen her face before.

Khayal speaks with Fulk again, saying that she’s trying to get Fulk freed, but needs to know what the tattoo on his back means. Fulk, convinced that Khayal is just trying to indulge city-girl fantasies about desert life, sneers: “If you want to connect with the desert, I suggest you not do it at a nobility party, talking to an elf chained to a rock. If you want to connect with the desert, go out to the desert.” At first Fulk refuses to give up his only bargaining-stone by telling Khayal about his past. Eventually Khayal’s persistence and diplomacy pay off.

“What does the tattoo mean?”

“Kinship.” Fulk relents. “It’s the mark of the Black Moon Raiders, my people. We’re from a distant land and I’m the last survivor of my group. You have your answer. Now go get me out of these chains.”

Fenwryk also returns to Maia. The elf woman, surprised that a slave is allowed the choice, agrees to talk privately with Fenwryk. Izid unlocks her from the statue and locks her by a longer ankle-chain in a guest room. “Strictly to protect our investment,” he mutters, and departs.

Alone in the room, Fenwryk tells Maia he wants an ally and can’t confide in the others of his group, who aren’t of the desert races. He feels she may be key to helping him find a new door to his people in the vast wastelands, and wants to free her. He hopes she will join him, and offers her a place among his people in the Feywild when he finds them. He promises her half of his treasure portion toward her slave price.

Maia admits that she was exiled from her tribe, the Sun Runners, because of their taboo against riding. When she was captured, she was tied to kank-back. Her tribe saw this and banished her, even though it wasn’t her choice. She appears to accept this as the right decision from them; but it means she needs to find a new place and people, and an eladrin ally is more acceptable than most alternatives.

Because of this, Maia agrees to relative loyalty toward the expedition goals. When Fenwryk suggests she give this promise to Savrina, Maia says, “She’d never believe a promise that came to her from an elf, but she might believe one from you that I agreed not to betray you.” Maia also comments on Fulk: “You’ve heard of the Black Moon Raiders, haven’t you? They’re a vicious tribe from up north. You won’t see them except when they send out a far-ranging scouting party looking for wealth in other lands. They’re never good news for anyone. Don’t touch that one with your longest spear.”

So Fenwryk returns to Savrina and seals the bargain, using this info about Fulk’s tribe as a pledge of good faith from Maia. Savrina agrees that Maia will join the expedition. In return, she makes him swear to keep Maia from escaping or otherwise harming the group if she tries.

The party stretches into the late hours. Sihaya in her new custom-fit, skin-tight red leather outfit is a smash (“Sihaya smash”) with those noble youths with a taste for novelty.

The next day the party shops in preparation. Markos is able to score some healing potion fruits under the table from Nara and Wadi, the Shade Hunters the party rescued from Sun Runner elves during their mad kank adventure. He gets their promised discounted rate of 45 gp per fruit.

Fenwryk buys a lockbox with two keys. He later shows it to Maia as the start of his savings to set her free. He gives her one key and shows her the contents of the box. Inside is 5 gp.

Day One – Crossing the Estuary to Last Port
14th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
At dawn the party meets Savrina at Dock 4 in the Harbor Precinct. Her waiting party includes Toz, a House Tzant half-giant elite guard; Djao al Seik, hired as a nomad guide; and Maia the elf, who’s chained by one ankle to Toz. Savrina also has three kanks: one for Savrina and her things, and two as pack-beasts carrying food, water, and two tents.

She has chartered a silt skimmer for the journey, and they meet the crew. Captain Zentoth, a bald human male, introduces his craft, called the “Dead Legion,” and her crew: Pilot Pmumble and the deck hands Dunk, Swank, and Jabber. Jabber jabbers at them that Pmumble’s name is “Pememuthen, or something,” but no one can understand it because he mumbles.

Zentoth says, “Pilot Pmumble was the only survivor on the maiden voyage of the Dead Legion, when the entire rest of the crew was slaughtered by giants out by the ‘Palate. Pmumble somehow rolled this thing home, corpses and all, and has mumbled ever since. Nobody knows a fucking thing he says, but he steers the skiff right. Doncha, P?” Pmumble mumbles.

The expedition sets out; the city-state of Balic recedes slowly behind them. The silt skimmer creaks along on its outsized wheels. Silt obscures their vision whenever the wind stirs it. During the mid-morning, the party is attacked by a silt wyrm (which graciously appears as a pink pony on the minis map). A few catch sight of the wyrm’s slithering stealth-form as it boards the skimmer, but then it bites Toz, catching him by surprise. The wyrm uses psionic dread and silk strands to try to drive off other enemies while sinking its poison into Toz.

Although crewman Swank nearly dies, everyone survives the fight. As the day wears on, though, it becomes clear that Toz is sickening from the bite. His arm swells up like a balloon. Jabber suggests that maybe he’s allergic to the bite. Maia tactlessly suggests that she not be chained to the dying half-giant. Fenwryk persuades Savrina to chain Maia to a ranged guard (implying himself) since she’s an archer. Savrina says, “I see the logic in what you say,” and turns to Markos.

“Do you have any interest in seeing this elf free?”

“No,” replies Markos.

“Good. I’ll chain her to you.” Fenwryk looks suitably crestfallen. Markos and Maia also show disappointment, but the change is made.

As the sun dips below the horizon, a few spot a massive creature—25 feet from nose to tail and between wingtips—soaring high in the evening light. The creature resembles a giant manta ray. The crew is astonished; Zentoth calls frantically for everyone to drop down and cease movement. The skimmer creaks to a stop. After a few moments that seem to drag into an hour, the creature finishes circling on the updrafts from the silt and soars on. Captain Zentoth explains that it was a cloud ray, one of the silt’s most dangerous creatures, and very rare. At that size, it was just a pup.

Just after dark the skimmer reaches Last Port, a silt-covered village of one dock and storage building, a guardhouse, the Sinking Inn, a store, and four houses, surrounded by a stone wall. By this time Toz is swollen, sluggish and having trouble swallowing. Savrina arranges for an inn tab for her group and a healer for Toz. Toz goes to bed early; so does Savrina. For 1 gp, Khadija buys a bottle of sweet “Last Port” wine.

The villagers gather in the inn that night. An old woman sits by the fire in the inn, cord braiding and telling about “a traveling woman, from a month before, who went mad in the inn from the cursed sirocco, the constant howling of the wind, until she began seeing visions. She ran out into the silt storm and some followed her. She started screaming about seeing giants rising from the sea and crushing bodies beneath their toes as they walk the streets of Balic, and a great tide of silt following them, swallowing everything up. The woman would listen to no one and kept on her ravings, and all that night the wind blew feral. After that night, she was not long for the world, for she died of the silt lung.”

Khayal and Fenwryk question the old woman about nomad tribes in the area. They hear that the Benjari are aggressive and dangerous looters, but the Tamwar aren’t so bad. She mentions that the Tamwar dislike city-folk and especially city magics, the “defilin’ kind.” The Seik are thought to be weak by some, “but the truth is, they’re just about the killin’ and the lootin’ as the rest of ‘em. They just like to talk about it first.”

Day Two – Through the Stony Barrens
15th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The first thing the party learns on rising the next morning is that Toz the elite guard died overnight. Undeterred, they set out at dawn to cross the stony barrens on their journey south to Shur-a-Tamwa oasis.

In the late afternoon, when everyone’s drowsy in the heat and monotony of travel in a sand-filled, high-walled canyon, Fenwryk and Maia spot the faint edges of a dangerous silt sink just ahead. Since it spans the narrow pass between rock walls, the party must jump across. Everyone makes the firm sand on the far side, except for Markos and one of the pack-kanks.

At this point, luckily, the party spots the silt runners that are stealthing in for the ambush, trying to take advantage of the natural silt sink and choke point.

Since Markos is chained to Maia, she spends her turn hoisting him out. She looks about as happy to do this for the half-elf as one might guess, but she voices no complaint. Savrina seeks cover behind some creosote brush. Djao the guide shows great mobility in the field, to no effect whatsoever.

One of the silt runners shows psionic attacks, which the party has never seen from this race. (Hello, level 2.) Sihaya takes a lot of damage in the initial special attacks from two of the other runners, and retreats behind Khadija—who, with better armor and a shiny new level, starts to shine as a tank.

Overall the fight goes much better than it would have if the party had been surprised by the silt sink and/or silt runners. However, one of the pack kanks and all its supplies are a loss. Attempts to recover the supplies after the fight (rope and breath-holding) find that the kank, in its dying panic, has turned over onto its supplies, leaving them inaccessible.

Down to one tent and half their survival supplies, Savrina says they still have enough to make it to the oasis, but will need to resupply when they get there to avoid trouble.

The party makes camp again that evening in the remaining tent. As they eat dried meats and fruits, Savrina asks Djao to say some of the desert tanka, poetry for which the Seik are well-known. Djao politely refuses: “I do not wish to spoil the works of the masters with my poor recitations.” Savrina looks puzzled by this, but says nothing.

Savrina offers good green honey mead to the party before sleep. She says the mead is called “Ral’s Blood,” referring to the green moon. The conversation rambles. As she gets drunk, she holds the cup up and says, “Ral’s Blood. It’s interesting how the blood affects the mind. Bloodlines, too.” She gives a discreet hiccup. “Did you know that Balican templars are bred for their roles? Like kanks.”

She says, “Templars are creatures created for a simple purpose, one from which they’re never likely to emerge. They’re stagnant. Each one was bred only to do what she does—generations upon generations of humans bred to lead slaves and indentured soldiers into war. So they’re good at it. But there’s no side view for any of them—only forward. The only measurements they know are their counts of secrets and live or dead bodies.”

“It’s no different from slaves,” she goes on, drinking again. “Broad-backed, strong laborers bred to want to please… keeps them stable. Not rebelling. That’s why I pulled you from the flax fields, Sihaya, to try your hand in the arena. It’s also why I invited you, Khadija, bred as you were for brutality, out of your pens to society as an evening companion. These aren’t places either of you would have otherwise ever seen. And here I am, out in the desert badlands, where surely I do not belong.”

She seems to find an understanding ear in Markos before she starts to fade from the booze, and falls asleep.

Tomorrow begins another day’s journey.

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Chapter 5: Fallen off the Wagon
… Wherein the Jarko Gang gives the heroes the poor end of a deal

10th Night, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
When we last saw the heroes, they had just won the opening match of the Dritan Games, and the herald Mahamud had announced: “By the venerable charity of Ozymandius the Sun King will bread and water be served free in the arena square at midnight! Welcome to the Dritan Games!”

The group takes the injured Khadija to the arena healers for sorcerous care, and to the arena office to receive their prize of 125 gp.

As they leave the arena, they are accosted by Asenn, their number-one fan from the kank ranch, who has evidently been waiting for them outside. He waves the teddy kank that Sihaya gave him.

“Whoa,” he bursts. “That was amazing! She went… like… psh… and then he was like poof, and then she went, whoa, and—oh uh h-hey, you’re not dead.” This last he stutters at Khadija. “Wow, you got killed out there! You were crushed… like an erdlu egg! You were goners!” At this reminder to Khadija of her recent defeat, the others point out to Asenn that he might be treading on sensitive mul nerves.

After a bit of nervous monologuing from Asenn, he manages to talk the group into going with him to get bread in the arena square. It’s clear that he regards being seen with the winning gladiator team as a status boost to make him look good to the one friend he has made in Balic.

As the group approaches the crowded arena square they note the start of what seems to be a commotion. There is yelling and people seem to start gathering around something.

Khadija, Markos and Val go to investigate the commotion while Sihaya, Khayal and Asenn head toward the bread distribution in the center of the square. As Khadija, Markos and Val draw nearer to the noise, they hear: “I am the prophet Jejjereth! Hear my words! Hear my tellings! A shadow will cover you!”

They see an older human man, balding with random surviving gray strands, standing on the back of a bent-over mul sculpture, part of the square’s gladiatorial sculptures. From this vantage, he’s shouting dark prophecies to anyone bemused enough to stand and listen.

“The winds will rock the earth, the stone shall quake and the silt shall rise a thousand feet! Giants of the sea will stand and walk the streets and slaughter the sons and daughters of Balic! You are doomed! A shadow will cover you! And you are doomed! Doomed! And you and you and you!” Jejjereth points at seemingly random people in the crowd, the last one of which is Khadija. “I am the prophet Jejjereth! Hear my words! A shadow will cover you!”

Periodically the mad prophet pauses and stares into empty space. An elf girl standing on another mul gladiatorial sculpture takes advantage of the dead time to loudly hawk rock candy to the crowd. “Rock candy! Get yer candy rocks here!” Then the prophet perks up and starts raving again.

Khadija wanders over to the elf girl and buys some blue rock candy. Then she spends some quality time taunting the others in the party with her blue-black tongue.

Meanwhile, a white-robed templar with a half-giant soldier wander over to the self-styled prophet’s crown from the bread distribution. He is lean, with a pinched face set in a thin sneer, and long black hair tied at his neck. He wears around his neck a circle of finely woven white sandcloth, a silt mask, which most residents wear to ward against sudden silt storms. Markos recognizes the templar as Sutekh of the White, a low-ranking templar with a reputation for active persecution of primal magic.

Sutekh stands silent behind the crowd for a moment, watching with cold black eyes while the prophet rants. A few in the crowd who notice him subtly find reasons to be elsewhere. When the prophet shouts, “And the fires will burn! The lord of the sun will summon the flames down from the sky and bury the streets in ash! A shadow will cover you!” the templar and half-giant push through the crowd and he responds in a loud, clear voice, “Commoner, by order of Sutekh the White on behalf of the Sun King, you are under arrest.”

The prophet hunkers down and is subdued by the half-giant. He seems to cooperate until they get to the edge of the crowd, then he shouts, “’Ware the cinders of oppression, lest they fan into flames!” and is cuffed on the head by the half-giant. The templar and his charges leave in the direction of the Tower of Balic.

Taking advantage of the distraction, Anso of the Jarko Gang approaches Val, the city eladrin who has never known the Feywild and works for the gang. Anso tells Val that a cargo wagon’s been reported lost off the Road of Legions on its way to South Ledopolus. He wants Val to take a group and recover one crucially important item from the cargo wagon: a small amber stone, shaped like a globe. He says the group can have any other riches they may find.

Meanwhile, Sihaya, Khayal and Asenn have elbowed their way through the crowds to get their shares of bread and water. The dung-baked bread is pretty good—not completely hardened, still soft in the center.

Val discusses the proposition with the group when they gather, and they agree. Val asks Anso how much the gang would pay for the stone alone, and he agrees to find out; though he’s clear that the gang wants the stone and nothing else.

11th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The group finds the wagon, true to the directions, a couple hours outside the city. Unfortunately, they’re ambushed (surprise) by a group of silt runners while crossing the sand patches and dry orchards off the Road of Legions. They’ve faced silt runners before, in all their draconic-gibbering goodness, but perhaps not quite in this fury. Khadija becomes over-engaged and is taken down to lie unconscious (and blue-tongued) on the sands. But she is revived and the party has no further significant trouble against the silt runners, or against the scavenging kruthiks that are picking over the lost wagon when they arrive.

The wagon is partly-buried in the remnants of the last sandstorm. After dealing with the kruthiks, the group finds only a couple red linens and a roll of red silk that haven’t been destroyed or carried away. They are also able, with a bit of hunting, to find the globe-shaped amber stone that the gang wants. Val keeps the red silk.

The group sells kruthik plates for 4 gp each. Val orders a custom-made red silk robe.

Markos, through some bumpy dealings in the shady elven market, gets the stone appraised, and its illicit magical properties identified. The elves tell him the stone enhances attacks and is worth 200 gp.

Since there was little loot besides the stone, the group comes to the question of how to conclude their business with the Jarko Gang. They meet with Anso and some of his thugs at a dive in the House Jarko quarter. Tensions peak in the ensuing conversation as Anso holds firmly to his gang’s demand for the stone and Markos pushes toward selling the stone to the gang for its appraised value because the other loot left at the wagon was small. Anso concedes that he is authorized to give 30 gp for the stone if needed, but points out that the group has otherwise received the precious directions to the wagon and its loot for free. That won’t do.

Just as it seems likely there will be a fight, the party opts not to choose this battle. They accept 30 gp for the stone and are allowed to leave the bar without incident, and without any blood-bounties from the Jarko Gang.

Once more they walk the streets of Balic free and clear, and a little wiser from each experience.

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Chapter 4: As Above, So Below
… Wherein the heroes open the Dritan Games, and Khadija takes a sand nap

9th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
It’s a few days after the githball game, which took place on the 6th. The companions have enjoyed some notoriety as a result of their recent big win in the arena. They notice that the popular talk amongst Balic’s arena enthusiasts has shortened their team name to “the Foamy Kanks” from the “Foamy Kank Killers.” A few fans who remember Sihaya’s kills in the arena have given her gifts of kank honey and kank bacon.

On the night of the 9th, a mangy boy messenger finds Khadija and Khayal in the Black Jug. He tells Khadija that Akbar has a broken leg and needs to see her urgently. Having taken little time to give his message, he spends much more working a tip, with eventual success.

When Khadija and Khayal arrive at Akbar’s hovel, he isn’t alone. An eladrin with silver hair and purple eyes stands in the corner (there being few places to sit). Although Akbar is sitting with his splinted leg propped up, he greets Khadija in his usual way: with a booming voice and an exchange of friendly punches. He tells her, “Not everything has been shiny for Akbar of late,” but doesn’t elaborate on the broken leg or any other conceivable low fortunes. “But,” he says, “the good news! The big Dritan Games are opening tomorrow night!”

Well-known to all gladiators and arena fans, the Dritan Games are elaborate arena stagings, with terrain hauled in to create various desert scenes. The terrain set up in the arena for the games is a secret until the opening game. Due to their expense, the Dritan Games are played as a series, usually with a noble or big mercantile sponsor.

Akbar reveals that he had scored a spot on the team scheduled to fight in the opening game, but with the broken leg, his team had decided to cancel. So there is an opening for a team of five for the first Dritan match. “Very big exposure for you!” Akbar beams. Besides the opportunity to play in a high-profile game, the game offers 150 gp to its winners. Akbar adds in his customary joyous voice that while there is technically a “losers” prize of 100 gp for fighting, the game is still “win or death.”

Akbar says he can get Khadija’s team a booking for the high-profile match due to their recent popularity, provided they include the eladrin as their fifth member. He introduces her as “Val, who has a name with too many syllables for Akbar to remember!” Khadija gives in to Akbar’s high-beam enthusiasm and accepts the new eladrin as a teammate. Akbar agrees to make the booking arrangement for the team.

Val, Khadija and Khayal return to the Black Jug, where they find Markos and Sihaya. Markos is working the bartender’s nerve by drunkenly singing and dancing on the bar. The burly mul bartender—the same one the party encountered when Khadija broke a bar stool—is still uninclined to take shit from customers, and shouts Markos off the bartop.

Khadija talks the rest of the group into entering the arena fight with Val as their new fifth, since Fenwryk is off doing a thief-catching job for the templar Roz (AKA away from the game for work). As the guest star replacing Fenwryk, Val seems a suitable “stunt eladrin.” Even Khayal, who had sworn never again to fight in the arena, is eventually persuaded to fight. “Let’s fight in the arena,” insists Khadija. “It’ll be fun!” Meanwhile, Sihaya admires Val’s red leather outfit.

Khayal and Khadija take advantage of Markos’s vanishing sobriety to have a little fun. They hire a bald, snaggle-toothed elf with no shirt and a concave chest to be Markos’s night companion. Snaggle-tooth is happy to oblige, and strides up to Markos. “What can I call you?” he asks suggestively. “A cab,” slurs Markos.

Markos rolls to see if he is sober enough to read the elf’s gender. Although I mean to give him a bonus since the elf is shirtless, I drop it when Markos rolls a spectacular 1. Fail! Markos decides to leave with the elf, and wakes in the morning in a shanty that makes Akbar’s place look like a palace. He escapes as quickly as he can, and cleanses vigorously in sand.

10th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The next day, Val takes Sihaya to the spike-decorated tent in the Agora marketplace where she had her leather custom-made. They are greeted by a portly, capable merchant who seems immensely charmed with the idea of custom-fitting a leather-armor domsuit to a half-giant (cue the Wade and Herren references). The merchant promises a custom-fitted suit for 25 gp down payment and 30 gp on completion. Sihaya agrees to return when she has the down payment money.

Meanwhile, Khayal tries to illicitly bet on her own game with Mendacious, their Siltfoot tribe contact from the githball game. But Mendacious is having wagering problems because of the last-minute team change, is unable to offer the service.

At sundown the team meets at the arena for their match. As is tradition, the opening match of the Dritan Games is a night-time torchlight game. For this series, the arena floor has been heaped high with soft, treacherous sand dunes. The fight begins with the lighting of torches all around the ring to illuminate the night fight. The gladiators can hear the crowd, but can’t see at all into the shouting blackness beyond the tall torches.

Disturbing or using the torches in the fight is forbidden. As before, the companions are to fight the games in their own gear, and no potion-fruits allowed.

Mahamud, the famous psionically projected herald, announces the team and explains the goal of the match: the team must get the capsules that are tied to the legs of each of eight kestrekels (an Athas version of buzzards), and turn them into the gamekeepers unopened.

When the game starts, the kestrekels are flying in two groups of four in different corners of the arena. Psionic handlers prevent the buzzards from flying away. The high constructed dunes of soft, deep sand slow movement by half, and obstruct long-range vision to a degree. The game begins well enough, with the team advancing forward and Valeriana knocking a kestrekel from the air at long range with her crossbow. As the team draws closer, Markos is able to burn down a whole group of the birds with the flameburst sling he acquired from the raiding Sun Runner elves during the kank-ranch job.

However, two anakores lurk unseen under the sands.

Fortune favors the team: it’s their two meat shields who attract the anakores. With a queasy feeling, Sihaya and Khadija each realize that the sand underneath is shifting violently, and enormous gray claws emerge from the soft powder to slash and take hold in surprise attacks. Sihaya fares well in her fight, but Khadija is grabbed, injured to -1, and dragged under the sands to suffocate and die. She makes her saves and in a couple rounds is rescued by Markos, who uses a psionic power to teleport the anakore (with grabbed and dying victim) above the sands. Markos is then able to stabilize Khadija with a heal check, saving her life. The team is successful (though their reward to reduced to 125 gp for the post-game arena healer’s work on Khadija).

Inside the capsules are rolled strips of vellum, with writing. No one in the team can read, but the herald Mahamud puts the written messages together and reads to the crowd:

“By the venerable charity of Ozymandias the Sun King will bread and water be served free in the arena square at midnight! Welcome to the Dritan Games!”

Whereupon the arena crowd goes, “Yay, free munchies,” and rushes for the stand exits—maybe resulting in a few fights, but what are a few arena brawls to the Sun King?

So concludes another victorious match in the arena.

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Chapter 3: It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt
… Wherein the heroes play githball, and do a templar's dirty work

4th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
In the morning, there is shopping. Sihaya and Markos visit a toymaker, where Markos persuades Sihaya to bully an elderly woman into selling a stuffed teddy-kank at cost. In another part of the market, Khadija and Khayal visit a medicine stand, where Khadija spends half of her new earnings on much coveted and treasured skin moisturizer. Khadija and Khayal also buy some laxative, intending to indulge their grudge against Sihaya. When Sihaya next sees Khadija, the half-giant excitedly presents the teddy-kank to the surly mul as a reparation gift, but Khadija brusquely rejects the toy.

In the afternoon, as Fenwryk hunts the elven market for a bargain meal, he bumps into Mendacious, his elven contact for psionic meditation (ritual) components. Mendacious, who is lean even for an elf, has scraggly light brown hair and eyes and skin the same shade. His eyes squint and his skin always seems to have an oily sheen despite the desert dryness. From previous dealings, Fenwryk knows that Mendacious belongs to the Siltfoot tribe, elves of Balic and other settlements along the Estuary. The Siltfoot elves adopt various ironic adjectives for names, never sharing their real names outside the tribe.

Mendacious knows of an arena game of githball in need of a five-player team. He invites Fenwryk to meet him with four fighters at his market lean-to in an hour. At the lean-to, Mendacious gives the party the details: the githball game will take place in the morning of the 6th day of the Month of Haze in the Balican arena. The other team is called the “Meks,” and they’re from “some slave-pit village up the Road of Legions.” The arena pay is 100 gp to the team for play and an additional 50 gp if they win the match. Mendacious says the PCs can win because the other team has a new member who’s completely green (“not sure, some mul,”) and because the Meks’ thri-kreen player lost a leg in the last match and needs to be replaced. “They should be little problem for you,” Mendacious says, with an unctuous smile.

The name of the other team sparks a memory for Khadija, based on her gladiatorial past: “Meks” is short for mekillots, gargantuan creatures occasionally domesticated to pull dynastic house argosies; the Mekillots are well-traveled, originally from the northern city-state of Urik; the team has a rep for brutality. Khadija relays her memories to the party, who decide to sign up for the fight, but do some street research. Mendacious suggests he handle the details as acting team agent/bookie, and asks the party’s names for the arena roster. The party also chooses their team name, the “Foamy Kank Killers.”

After leaving Mendacious, Khadija visits her previous owners, House Tomblador, merchant house specializing in slaves and armor. There she meets Gidjah, who was her main handler. Gidjah tells her that a human gladiator named Olmek leads the Meks, that the team has just picked up a fast elven archer to replace their lost thri-kreen, and that the “green” recruit whom Mendacious mentioned is probably Akbar—Khadija’s former arena partner from her days as a Tomblador slave. Khadija gives Gidjah some coins for the information. In response, Gidjah sends a messenger to her at the Black Jug that night with directions to where Akbar is living.

Markos chats up a couple humans at the bar of the Black Jug, and finds out that—despite Mendacious’s assurances that the PCs were sure to win—a bookie of that elf’s description is giving 3-to-1 odds on the Meks winning the fight.

Afterward, a long party debate ensues (during which the GM struggles mightily to keep quiet, and mostly succeeds :-)). Fenwryk initially advocates borrowing large sums of cash (on short notice, with no collateral, in a world without credit ratings) to bet on themselves to win the fight. The others point out that losing the fight in this case would incur the risk of getting their legs broken. The party considers investing enough money to throw the odds versus just betting the money they currently have, without a loan. Fenwryk eventually abandons the outrageous-loan idea. The party considers killing Akbar, damaging Akbar, buying Akbar out, and merely hitting Akbar up for an inside look at the opponent team. At some point I mentioned that the party had all of the following day to consider their options. The truth was that while the deliberating entertained me, I knew that what was coming the next morning would change the variables. At some point you got to get cooking, you know?

Khadija and Markos, with Khayal skulking behind, visit Akbar that night. “Little Sister!” Akbar booms, beaming at Khadija his enormous, white-toothed grin. “It is so good to see you, little Sister! You look beautiful—what bounty is this, sweeping in from the desert on the night wind?” He gestures expansively, like a king in his palace, at a run-down straw mat. “Please! Sit down and be comfortable! Enjoy the sumptuous delights of Akbar’s home!”

On the visit, Khadija and Markos hint extensively at buying Akbar out, but Akbar is a little too dense (and too loud) for subtlety to be productive. Markos comes out with the good diplomacy roll, finally offering bluntly to pay Akbar to throw the fight. Akbar is silent for a moment, a rare thing. Then he says, “Actually, it is interesting you should offer this. I will tell you something I think you do not know. The brains behind the team have told me to not win until the other three brutes are taken out of the game, to the healers. The first fight is fixed this way. Some interesting betting going on, they say.” He grins. “The second game, though, I will fight.”

After considering this, Markos tries to buy Akbar out for the remaining games, for githball is usually fought as a best of three. Akbar, however, refuses to give the second and third game less than 100 percent, as a matter of pride. This is a motivation Khadija can understand. In fact, during the visit Akbar spares no feelings of Khadija’s in reminding her of her overwhelming arena loss to Sihaya a month before (resulting in white knuckles and shaky fists from Khadija, but no punches).

Khadija, Markos and Khayal return to the Black Jug, and the group calls it a night.

5th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The following morning, Fenwryk gets a visit from a half-giant soldier he recognizes as working for the templar Roz. “Roz sends greetings, half-elf.” The soldier says Roz wants to see Fenwryk, the two gladiators, and their friends at the red and orange fortune-teller’s stall in the Agora in two hours.

In the stall is Arazza al-Arabet, a fortune-teller of the Arabet nomads. Roz dismisses the fortune-teller from her own booth, for privacy. She says she’s glad the party is fighting the Meks the following day, because a task is needed there. She says the Meks are known for smuggling rare poisons into different city-states, and Roz wants to shut them down in Balic before they build up. She needs the PCs to kill three of the Meks during the arena game, if possible: the two half-giants Hukhuk and Tutan, and especially the human, Olmek, who leads the team. “The other two players are new recruits and their knowledge of this is unlikely, though we’re unsure about the mul.” Roz wants a public death in the arena for the three, to send a message to any team backers. She will pay an additional 30 gp per kill from these three (no payment for killing Akbar or the elf).

But, she warns, the team is experienced and not easy to beat. “In an ordinary circumstance against this team, killing any of them would be unlikely, but I can create an extraordinary circumstance.” Roz gives the group four doses of a rare drug, melek, to enhance physical strength. The melek will wear off four hours after ingestion and leave the PCs sick, and with much-depleted strength, for eight hours. “I trust you understand that this drug is our private business,” says Roz. “If that changes, there will be nothing to connect me with your extraordinary circumstance.” Fenwryk asks what would happen if they gave all four doses to one player. Roz answers that the half-giant Sihaya might have the weight to handle two doses, but she doubted it of anyone else. With that, though, she shrugs. “I’m a templar, not a doctor.”

When the idea of weakening the other team through other drugs comes up, Khadija clears her throat and offers up the laxative (purchased earlier to torment Sihaya). “Why do you have a laxative?” asks Sihaya. “Don’t worry about it,” say Khadija and Khayal together.

Roz says the party should give her the laxative to have one of her people poison the three targets prior to the match. (This statement immediately followed the joking, and created an amusing pause with the beat change.) When Khayal protests that the party should do this, Roz says that poisoning the opposing team isn’t a job for the arena team—it isn’t where their skills lie, and the risk of alerting the other team is too great. Although the party is unsure that Roz isn’t simply confiscating the drug for some other reason, they hand the item over.

When Roz leaves and Arazza returns, she offers to tell the party’s fortunes for a discount price of 5 cp since they are friends of Roz. Markos and Khayal flatly refuse the offer, but Sihaya, Khadija and Fenwryk are curious. The fortune-teller seats them one by one, digs her strong, needle-thin thumbs painfully into the pressure points on their palms, and gives these fortunes:

To Sihaya: “The moon Ral brings you good fortune. Do not journey during that moon’s darkness. Let your instincts guide you. Comfort is the greatest gift.”
To Khadija: “The moon Guthay brings good fortune for you. Do not journey during that moon’s darkness. Fortune favors those who do not forsake their brothers and sisters.”
To Fenwryk: “There is nought in the sky that brings you fortune, but in the sands, yes. Seek there for your spirit’s desire.”

Khayal removes her mask and goggles and returns to the bookie, Mendacious. He doesn’t recognize her. She has pooled 100 gp from the team, and with this places a bet on their team under the false name of Minaramal.

6th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The day of the game has come. The PCs dutifully take their melek (two doses for Sihaya) and, on the way to the arena, are accosted by Asenn, the half-elf herder from the Guthay Crescent Ranch. He is very happy to see them. (Me: “He’s your own Conrad Verner, you know.” Matt: “Great, can I shoot him in the foot?”)

Asenn stutters out, “We came in early mornin’ on a deal—sold a coupla my favorite bugs to them templars—and I thought, uh, I heard you was fightin’ and… I asked fer them as pay me to make my one gift of the year to pay my way to seeya in the fightin’ ring. ‘Cause it’s my birthday.” Markos and Sihaya are sufficiently moved by this pitiful speech to give Asenn things. Markos buys him a front-row seat for 1 gp, and Sihaya gives him the teddy-kank that Khadija turned down. Asenn looks at Markos and Sihaya with eyes of wonder. He does manage to stop staring, though, and make it by himself into the game.

Since the PCs are freelance now, they fight arena games in their own gear. No potion-fruits allowed. They are let into the gladiator service doors and held in a room with enough room to warm up. An arena-hand brings them up a corridor to the ring and they’re announced first, as the home team, by the famous, psionically projected herald, Mahamud, whom most of them remember from the freedom fight.

Then the Mekillots are announced as the Urikite team. The elven replacement, who is playing the field position of the quick, looks like a Sun Runner elf, but is tattooed across her face with the black flax-plant mark of House Tzant’s slaves. (This is Maia, who will join the heroes later for a time, but they don’t learn her name at this point.)

The githball match was the game-within-a-game of the session. I got the idea of it from the dog-skull game in the movie Blood of Heroes—the “githball” is a gith skull, and a player called the “quick” uses it to score. I don’t know if the rules for the movie game are written anywhere, so I needed to invent them for 4e DnD. Luckily, this sort of thing entertains me. It came out pretty well, though I added an outside circumstance (the one Akbar alluded to) to make sure the game didn’t end too soon. I can send the rules out if anyone cares.

In addition to the regular rules, the PCs were trying to kill three of the opposing team, which was no easy task because players are called off the field psionically as they become bloodied. Thus a killing blow would have to take over half of an opponent’s hit points. I added the melek and its strength bonus to the story to make this more doable.

The game begins with the Meks’ fast elven replacement winning both the initiative and the dexterity check and getting control of the skull. The laxative seems to be affecting the three targets on the opposing team, so Roz’s people got the job done. Sihaya utterly demolishes Hukhuk, one of the half-giants on the opposing team, with a good hit and drug enhancements. Sihaya has the sense that Hukhuk tried to block with the unarmored part of his arm, and had specifically positioned his arm for Sihaya to hit near a fresh scar there. This is odd, but it leaves her mind quickly, occupied as she is with fighting. One of the three targets is dead. Meanwhile, Khayal is hit hard and taken out in the first round to the medicine stand on a platform just out of the ring. As she is treated, Khayal recalls a similar hit from Sihaya in the arena game where the party originally met, and declares that she really hates the arena.

The following round, Sihaya (still drugged to the teeth) sends the other half-giant, Tutan, to the medicine stand. Khayal (still being treated) rolls sufficiently well in perception and notices something a little off. One of the two healers on the medicine stand, using bone tweezers, pulls a small pill-shaped object directly out of the muscle tissue of Tutan’s arm during his treatment. The healer, a dark-haired human male, pockets the item somewhere in his robe. The golden-haired Mekillots elf, aiming a shot at Fenwryk, pauses for a second as she squints at his face. “Desert Walker?” she asks. Then she re-focuses and fires at him.

The match continues. Olmek, the Meks’ leader, is taken down to 1 hp and removed from the field, to much lamenting from the PCs aiming for an extra 30 gp. Markos motions for Asenn, in the front row, to throw a rock at Olmek and kill him as he leaves the field, but without success.

Khayal calls the suspicious healer over under false pretense and tries to pickpocket the pill-shaped item. She doesn’t fail so deeply as to alert the healer.

Ultimately, with some creative use of Fenwryk’s telekinetic powers, the “Foamy Kank Killers” win the match and, also, their bet. The team gets 150 gp from the arena and 30 gp from Roz for killing Hukhuk, and Khayal collects 300 gp from Mendacious–quite a haul.

When Khayal offers the news of the healer and the pill-shaped item to Roz, she is immediately interested, pays 10 gp to Khayal for it and sends one of her soldiers ahead to arrest the healer, wasting no time. Khayal asks what the item was. Roz says, “I mentioned what it was: it was one of the first things I said when I came to you.” Sihaya recalls aloud that Roz was hunting rare poisons that the Mekillots team was smuggling in their travels.

“Yes,” says Roz. “The Meks must have known we were watching them, waiting for a transfer. What better place to do it, then—if we’re watching them in the alleys and dark places—than fully in the public eye, while that attention is actually on the arena game and not on the medicine stand? A healer inspecting the injured flesh of a gladiator is utterly routine. They must have placed the drug in a metal capsule and sewn it under the skin, then aimed to get that spot cut in arena. It’s a technique I haven’t heard of for… many years now. We’ll arrest the healer immediately.”

So ends the second job for the Balican templarate.

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Chapter 2: Mad Kank Disease
… Wherein the heroes stop an epidemic of bad bacon

1st Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
After working together to win Sihaya’s freedom from slavery in the arena, Sihaya and Markos enjoy a few days of fame as word of their amazingly one-sided victory gets around over mugs. They start off well with some fair-paying escort jobs, but lately they’ve fallen on hard luck. Sihaya starts work as a half-giant rickshaw for the Silt Runner Rickshaw Company, while Markos takes a job clearing a bug infestation from the rickshaw house. On this particular morning, the two are paid with the typical Balican wage for laborers: a meal. The rickshaw company gives them each a token to turn in at the back window of a local food joint for their meal. They are given water and a choice of typical Balican breakfast fare: erdlu eggs, bread and oil, or sizzling-hot kank bacon. Sihaya asks for eggs; Markos chooses the bread and oil.

Meanwhile, Khadija and Khayal have been working together at the Caravansary in the Agora (the open-air market of Balic), loading and unloading carts for merchants. They are also usually paid with a meal. On this morning they are given a choice of cactus fruit and rock tubers, warm grain gruel, or sizzling-hot kank bacon. Both choose the bacon.

Also on this morning, across town, Fenwryk has finished a job helping capture a runaway thief for Roz, a templar of the White, which is the lowest of the three templar ranks. Roz has sent Fenwryk to another hole in the wall for his meal payment. He is given a choice of bone marrow soup or sizzling-hot kank bacon: he chooses the soup.

After breakfast, Sihaya and Markos shuffle back to the rickshaw house and sit outside, under an awning: the half-giant on a big crate and half-elf on a small one. Sihaya recognizes Izid, a messenger of House Tzant, as he approaches her, and she waves. “Hi!”

Izid offers Sihaya a job from her former owner, the patrician Savrina Tzant, to eliminate some diseased kanks that have broken away from their handlers at a Tzant-owned kank ranch about a half-day’s walk west of Balic. When Markos suggests to Sihaya how she should respond (half-giants not being known for independent thought), Izid asks Sihaya who he is. “That’s Markoth,” answers Sihaya, knowing only the name that Markos calls himself with his lisp. Markos introduces himself, his lisp quite pronounced. “I see,” says Izid. “Markoth.”

Izid shrugs and says Markos might also find employment in the job. He suggests that Sihaya and Markos meet with the white-robed templar Roz at the Black Jug at sundown for a deal and meal. Roz will discuss other details, including pay. Sihaya and Markos agree.

Izid next finds Khadija and Khayal at the Caravansary. He invites Khadija to visit the patrician Savrina at the Rain Pavillion, a sumptuous dining place for the nobility, located at the second fork in the road when going toward the Villa Precinct. Khadija was there once before, when acting as a paid companion for Savrina at a nobility function. Khadija agrees to meet her former patron, provided that her friend Khayal is allowed to go as well. As with Markos, Izid reluctantly tolerates the addition of the half-elf. He leads the pair to the pavillion.

The Rain Pavillion is a large open-walled dome with gauzy grey drapes, which are usually gathered with dark grey silken rope at each pillar. The whole place has its lightest colors at the top and becomes darker moving down: white roof, pale grey pillars, grey drapes, dark grey silk rope and tablecloths, basalt flooring. Most stone in Balic is either golden, hard sandstone or white granite, so it’s clear this was likely imported. In the center of the black flooring, a small fountain trickles water continuously, making a “rain” sound. For a city-state that receives rain only a few times a year, the place is a ludicrous display of wealth. Khayal has never seen anything like it.

As she looks around, however, Khayal feels the first unpleasant tugs of sickness in her gut from the bacon she’d eaten for the morning meal. Sweating and dizziness accompany the nausea.

Savrina (there with a half-giant guard) exchanges pleasantries with Khadija. She asks her guard to search Khayal (who is dressed somewhat shadily for the venue), but calls the guard off when Khadija vouches for her. Savrina offers them the job: eliminate some diseased kanks that have broken away from their handlers at a Tzant-owned kank ranch, the Guthay Crescent Ranch, four hours’ walk west of Balic. The ranch supplies the Balican templarate with riding beasts, so the job is being handled through a templar named Roz. Savrina says she doesn’t know anything about the disease itself, only that the cure is expensive and oh, by the way, don’t eat any kank meat, because some strains are bad. (The sickened Khayal nods sarcastic thanks at this advice.)

Savrina says that the templar Roz will meet them at the Black Jug at sundown to discuss other details, including pay. She tells her guard to advance the pair an expensive medicine ball to cure Khayal’s sickness. The half-giant guard looks immensely relieved when Khayal says she will administer the medicine herself.

That evening Sihaya and Markos arrive early at the Black Jug, a dark, dome-shaped tavern in the Harbor District. Fenwryk is seated alone. The templar hasn’t yet arrived. A couple humans hunch over mugs at another table, and a pair of dwarves sit at the bar drinking firebreathers and seemingly taking turns shouting “Grarrr!” at each other.

When Khadija and Khayal walk in the door, Khadija recognizes Markos and Sihaya, the rivals who had beaten Khadija and Khayal so soundly in Khadija’s first attempt to win her freedom. Khadija’s response to the vivid flashback of this experience is to pick up a chair, intending to crack Sihaya on the head with it from behind. Markos, seeing this, warns Sihaya to duck.

Fenwryk wins the initiative game and exerts a little psionic tug on the upraised chair. Khadija, startled by the invisible pull, drops the chair, which breaks apart on hitting the floor. Now the bartender has looked up. He’s a burly mul who seems to not need a bouncer. He yells at Khadija to pay up for the broken chair, and she complies.

Khadija’s actions confuse Khayal, who didn’t recognize Sihaya from behind. While Khadija explains, Sihaya makes her way over, taps Khadija on the arm, waves, and smiles. “Hi!” she says. Khadija punches Sihaya in the face.

Back to initiative. Fenwryk gives Khadija a psionic push—right through the swinging front doors, which swing with a couple decreasing “thump-thumps” on her departure. Khadija is now out on the street. Markos steps into the fray and tries to cool the tempers by buying everyone firebreathers at 5 cp apiece. “Firewaterth!” he calls.

Out on the street the sun is lowering and shining its red glare in Khadija’s eyes, but she makes out the white robes of a figure flanked by two half-giant soldiers approaching her. It’s Roz of the White, templar of Balic’s sorcerer-king, Ozymandias, the Sun King. Roz has the honey-brown skin and eyes typical of Balican natives, and wears her dense black hair in the local style: a pony-tail wrapped in a band of leather on the top of her head. She seems well-connected, for its rare that a templar of her rank commands two soldiers on routine business.

“Khadija,” says Roz to the mul, as a confirmation of her identity.

“Yes,” says Khadija. She notices Sihaya peeking through the crack between the swinging doors.

“If you are Khadija, we have business within, not in the street. So let’s go in.”

“Right away, ma’am,” says Khadija as she shoves open the swinging door for the templar, striking the peeping Sihaya in the face.

Roz enters the tavern with the soldiers and Khadija in tow. She has the soldiers put two tables together and invites the others to sit. Now all five characters realize they’re being hired to work together. Some of them aren’t happy.

Roz secures for the party a generous meal of cactus meat, tubers and bone soup, and a pitcher of broy. Markos, serving firebreathers, notices that Fenwryk probably isn’t a half-elf as Markos had first thought, but he keeps his observation to himself.

Roz gives details on the job: the head rancher at the Guthay Crescent Ranch is Naz Gebbas; his brother Nog is a psion who handles the kanks. Of the disease, she knows it causes the kanks to attack or run wildly as in madness, and one of the signs of the disease is yellow foam around the mandibles. The pay will be 150 gp (total) from Roz, and meals and lodging at the kank ranch. The current meal at the Black Jug is just for listening to her offer.

The party agrees to take the job and meets back at the Black Jug in the morning.

2nd Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
In the morning, on the way out of the city, Khadija runs into Akbar, her old sparring partner, who had won his freedom the previous year. Akbar is, like her, a coal-black mul who often wears white. They were both bred by House Tomblador and it’s possible they’re related, but they don’t know, or really care. Even so, he calls her Little Sister. The two often fought in the arena in matched-pair duels. He greets her in his old way, by punching her in the arm. She responds by punching him in his new little paunch. He tells her he’s gotten a new job, but won’t elaborate. “I wouldn’t want you to hear about it and enter the field in competition, Little Sister. Might get hurt.” He laughs loudly, in his big white-toothed way, and walks on.

On the Road of Legions going to the ranch, the party comes upon two dark-haired elves being hounded by three golden-haired elves. Markos recognizes the black viney tattooes on the dark-haired elves as belonging to the tribe of his mother, the Shade Hunters. He knows them to be a trade-oriented tribe. Khayal recognizes the other elves as belonging to the Sun Runners, for no other tribe has such elaborate golden braids. She knows the Sun Runners have a reputation as ruthless raiders.

The discussion between the party and the elves is short and ends when one of the Sun Runners threatens to rob the party of their things. The elves are brutal in their initial attacks. Not intending to kill the party in their first fight not against each other, I use these attacks less often than I could have, and dumb down the elves’ tactics. The Shade Hunters also turn out to be less useful as allies than I’d imagined, since the one throwing chatchkas has trouble striking any target with a pulse.

The party sustains injuries, but defeats the Sun Runners. The Shade Hunters introduce themselves as Wadi and Nara. Though they have the arrogance common to desert elves, they have the grace to not try to claim any of the loot, which includes a flameburst sling (claimed by Markos). When Markos engages the elves in conversation, they do not warm to him, but in thanks they offer him a discount with their Balican traders in the elven market.

The party arrives at the Guthay Crescent Ranch in the afternoon. The ranchers, Naz and Nog Gebbas, hope the party can put down the kanks soon, because each kank bears the half-moon ranch mark and is thus a threat to ranch reputation. They could harass travellers on the road and hurt business. The party sets out to follow the kanks, delayed only by Asenn, a hired half-elf herder with little social calibration or experience off the ranch. Asenn is afraid that he’ll be blamed for the disease somehow and kicked off the ranch. The party brushes him off and sets out on the hunt.

The party has no trouble following the trail of the infected kanks, particularly since one of the disease symptoms is loose bowels. They catch up with the kanks at some large rocks in mud, where the dehydrated kanks are trying to forage for water. All four kanks have yellow foam at their mandibles. One of the kanks is running in circles.

Although each member of the party takes some infected foam in the face from the kanks’ spit attacks, no one is seriously infected. The party gives some free hits whenever the crazed kanks take off in a random direction during the fight. This is an easier encounter than the elves and the party has no problems. Markos is able to salvage from kank plate from the kank soldier’s corpse, and the party returns to the ranch.

Naz Gebbas, kank breeder and head rancher of the Guthay Crescent Ranch, is very grateful to the party for taking care of his embarassing kank problem so expediently. Although the templar Roz had agreed to foot the bill (courtesy of the city-state of Balic), Naz gifts the party with a couple rare, sweet blue juya fruits—which are also infused with primal magic for healing. Markos takes charge of the valuable potion-fruits.

The half-elf rancher, Asenn, also heaps his awkward admiration on the party. Markos remarks that Sihaya and Khadija are famous gladiators, and benevolently invites Asenn to catch a game in the Balican arena sometime. Asenn, whose experience with invitations has been limited to “Come clean out this feed trough,” is bewildered and awed at the idea.

3rd Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The party spends the night and leaves at dawn to return to Balic. At around high sun, they find a bulky jhakar trapjaw and a few smaller jhakar sunning themselves along the road. The wild trapjaw charges at Khayal when the party draws too close for its liking. The beast and its pack would prove a challenge for the group, with more than one PC getting caught in its jaws with nasty results. The GM’s 20-sided Pink Die of Death continues to roll well. I may have overlooked a couple of the creatures’ secondary attacks out of pure sloth: death means more paperwork. My death shyness may wear off with experience. We had a couple near-deaths to go around, at least.

Markos is able to salvage jhakar leather and meat from the carcasses, and the party meets no further trouble on the road. The gate soldiers charge them the Sun King’s levy of 5 cp to enter the city because, you know, Balic is like New Jersey in that way. In the evening, Roz meets the party at the Black Jug and pays their fee (100 gp). She has no further immediate work for them.

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Chapter 1: The Freedom Fight
… Wherein there is an ass-kicking of biblical proportions

5th Day, Month of Breezes, Season of Sun Descending, Year of Desert’s Slumber
Slavery is common in this harsh desert world, and two of the PCs have been arena slaves as part of their backgrounds. Freedom from slavery in this world is usually won by completing a dangerous task or winning a fight for freedom.

We start in the city-state of Balic, on the shore of the Silt Sea, where the natives have a fanaticism for arena fights that’s in proportion to their daily woe in living under a ruthless, defiling sorcerer-king. In Balic, slaves win freedom by paying a non-trivial fee and winning the traditional Balican freedom fight: win six encounters, each representing a fight against another city-state’s champion, and then win a seventh fight against a “rival champion” of Balic. Often this rival is just another slave trying to win her freedom. In this scenario, Khadija and Sihaya fought each other to win their freedom, and one prevailed.

Our fifth player still being in New Mexico for work training, we had:

Khadija, a gruff yet surprisingly high-maintenance mul fighter and slave, with gladiator training and an addiction to moisturizers
Sihaya, a cheerful half-giant barbarian and slave, also with gladiator training
Khayal, an independent and surly half-elf ranger and nomadic wanderer
Markos, a congenial half-elf ardent wilder (a sort of psionic warrior)

Yes, in this party, the women players are the meat shields and the men supply the finesse.

The Story
By mutual agreement, the owners of Khadija and Sihaya (the Houses Tomblador and Tzant, respectively) each hired a partner for their slave gladiator in the arena. For this purpose I split up the strikers (the damage dealers, in 4e terms), so Khayal was hired to fight with Khadija, and Markos with Sihaya.

The arena maintenance crew then raised a wall that divided the arena battlefield in half. Neither team could see what was taking place on the other side of the wall. On each side of the wall, the pairs separately fought their six fights against the (blatantly satirical) “Champions” of other city-states. (That’s the story: in practice we played out three of these fights and then skipped to the end.)

Having defeated old, grizzled, and maybe even guilty human criminals, and silt runners, and swarms of flying kestrekels, the intrepid pairs were bandaged and made ready to face each other. A heavy, under-the-sand mechanism rumbled and lowered the center arena wall, and the combatants got a look at each other.

Khadija and Sihaya, each being gladiators of some experience, recognized each other. Their reactions differed. Sihaya, the half-giant, waved. Khadija realized that her main patron, who was also Sihaya’s owner, probably set up this fight, pitting her favorite gladiators against each other. “Uh huh.”

Anyway, time to fight.

This was a glorious thing for a GM. Freed from running NPCs, I could hang out and answer questions. Actually, I went upstairs for a drink, and didn’t see Khadija miss on her big daily power. I did come back to see Sihaya roll her first nasty barbarian critical, which launched Khayal backwards in one 41-point hit from a two-handed maul. Khayal never had a chance to attack. (I decided that this just rendered Khayal “unconscious”—‘cause, no death. Practice game. :-))

Khadija made a valiant attempt (where valiant equals “the mul is surly and beginning to chafe”), but her fighter abilities couldn’t stand up to the combined psionic manipulation of Markos and chipper brutality of Sihaya. Due in large part to the amazingly lopsided dice rolls of each team, this was an assing done with biblical style.

Victorious, Sihaya and Markos enjoyed the cheering from the (really blitzed, by now) arena crowd, and Sihaya publically won her freedom. It was a moment of glory which established the start of a strong reputation for the pair.

Immediately following this, out on the streets, Sihaya realized she needed to get a job. “Uh, now what?” She looked to her new companion, Markos, and they began to work odd jobs together.

Khadija and Khayal, meanwhile, also continued in contact. Khadija continued to fight in the arena for her owners, House Tomblador, and Khayal took mercenary jobs from them. The following month, Khadija fought a second time to win her freedom—again with Khayal as her partner—and this time they succeeded. Khadija was at last free.

But still they smolder in shared resentment and a keen sense of injury. This isn’t because they lost a high-profile fight, but because they were beaten so overwhelmingly as to suffer humiliation. They wouldn’t be happy to see Sihaya again, let alone to work alongside her. Life in Athas, though, is hard, and rarely gives us what we want.

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