Dark Sun: Call of the Desert

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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