Dark Sun: Call of the Desert

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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Goldie

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