Dark Sun: Call of the Desert

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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Goldie

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