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A few notes.
The campaign has been running PbP for nearly three years now and we're close to wrapping up. The message board is actually where a large group of us that have known each other online for nearly fifteen years come to commiserate. Many of us are writers, either pro, semi-pro or amateur, so we focus a lot more on story and PC interaction than most. Being play by post, this lends itself well.
The campaign started with one friend doing an old school 1E feel campaign set in the world of Monte Cook's Ptolus, although not in the city itself. A couple years later, I decided to run my own campaign within Ptolus (a police procedural, which some day I may get to archiving. It's... gotten enormously twisty and complicated.) Not long after that, I decided to give Legacy of Fire a shot set within the same world. Many of the gods and country names have been changed in order to fit the world, and to keep within continuity of the shared universe we have going on. I'll probably post stuff in spoiler boxes that diverge greatly.
There's a LOT of PM's that go on that the players never see. This is a group of PC's that often play against each other, to very entertaining results.
Let's meet our cast.
Jadid Ahad: Monk
Jadid is not particularly tall nor handsome. His face, along with ritual scarring, shows the effects of hundreds of hours of sparring, fighting, and broken bones. His grey eyes are penetrating, especially offset by his deep, golden-brown skin. He is wide, though not quite stocky. A lifetime of training has led his body to be quite fit and muscular.
Jadid is customarily clad in his ceremonial temple clothing. he wears loose white pants tucked into taped-up soft boots on his feet. A white sash serves as a rudimentary belt. His torso is often unclad, displaying the ritual scarring through burns that adorn his chest and back (serpents on the back, sun imagery on the front). When training or expecting combat, he often wraps his forearms in white linen tightly, but otherwise more burned tattoos show there. As is traditional for his order, scarves also cover his mouth and nose in all but the most intimate settings. His hair is kept long, as he is only to cut it when defeated in combat. It is a huge disgrace to see one of his order with short hair.
The man now known as Jadid Ahad was the son of Bedouin pilgrims lost in the Wastes. They stumbled up on the fabled Bayt Min Uf"uwan min Raml, the home of an ancient order of mystical desert fighters. While the parents did not survive much longer, the ascetics raised the infant in the ways of their order. He has since been trained in their unique fighting style that relies much on both acrobatics, devastating quick strikes, and painful grapples. He was taught from a very early age where weak joints are, what parts of the body can be easily exploited or hurt, etc.
Though those that find this temple on their own often live the rest of their lives there, it is customary for someone raised there to be sent into the world in order to learn what life outside is like. It is desired, but not required, for them to return at some time to update the temple on the ways of the outside world.
Training in the arcane is often common for these monks, but while Jadid has learned of magic, he has displayed no ability to produce it on his own. Now 17, a man of his order, he was sent out with his first name (which means "New One," as all other such orphans are named when they first leave the temple) in order to find his path. He knows of good and of evil, he knows of many things intellectually, but it is now his time to experience them. He seeks knowledge, experience, and to further his abilities.
Gerber Loewe: Knight
Gerber was born to a pair of travelling Prustan merchants in the town of Kartare under somewhat mysterious circumstances, in that his mother was not known to have been with child. His parents tended not to stay in one place very long, though they seemed to be well-known with certain elements wherever they went.
Gerber was treated well by the Loewes, and by their friends, but their bustling lifestyle left the boy with a feeling of inconstancy. He took an early interest in religion, much to his family's chagrin. He left them at 15 and became a page boy for a knight of Lothian he'd met in Tarsis.
The knight insisted that (the physically adept and strong of heart) Gerber train to someday join the order. And so he did train. And so he did join. At age 22, his initiation was the proudest day of his short life.
Surprising to Gerber, knighthood was mostly uneventful. It was ninety-nine percent training and tedium punctuated with brief moments of excitement and terror. Still, he enjoyed his life and his work...he remained physically adept and remained strong of heart. Until the politics crept in.
Control of Gerber's order fell to a new liege, Commander Rajali, and a new group of knights assumed leadership. His mentor vanished suddenly in the night one summer, and no actions were taken to look for him. Those who spoke up were punished and eventually fell in line or quit to be replaced by new recruits. Naive young Gerber kept quiet, hoping for the whole thing to blow over.
It did not blow over. Eventually, during a quest that was morally dubious to begin with, Gerber was given an order so distasteful that he could not in good conscience comply. He was ejected from the order and banished from the Empire to the land of Uraq over the sea to the south, where he lived in poverty and drunkenness until Garavel recruited him to help liberate and reestablish the city of Kelmarane.
Gerber is 6'3" and 220 lbs., but most people don't realize it because of the way he carries himself, usually hunched over in tattered robes. His dark brown hair has grown to his shoulders and his beard is embarrassingly unkempt.
Mahjub Mutawalli: Rogue
Mahjub stands at 5'10", tanned of skin despite his life in the city, and is on the thinner side but not without his fair share of muscle. He has a handsome face, one that barely betrays his half-elven ancestry but for his slightly pointed ears. He is often clean shaven, both on his face and head, and those few close to him judge how busy he's been by the length of stubble he's grown, as he's become accustomed to spoiling himself with the comfort of a paid shave by a trusted hand whenever he can. Those who've met and/or employed Mahjub consider him charming and witty, the quintessential city man. He makes a decently profitable living offering himself out as a guide to city newcomers, a go-between among the traders, a bargainer/procurer of items ranging from the mundane to the rare, as well as a man connected with the shady underbelly of the city.
Mahjub grew up orphan-like on the streets of the city, and despite most people assuming a human man raped an elven woman when noticing his features, the truth was his mother was a human whore used and paid for by an elven noble (or so his mother claimed, but few believed.) She considered the child a burden and rarely cared for him, which left him no choice but to fend for himself on the streets, spending many of his formative years in and around the city and its most infamous market, begging and stealing to survive. The strange and often horrific sights he saw there forced him to grow up fast.
Once Mahjub reached his teenage years he often liked to offer his services out merchants, facilitating deals and offering up protection. It was in this capacity that he was often beheld as the de facto leader of a group of young rogues angrily referred to as "Karam's Street Rats", most assuming that he himself was the elusive Karam and posing as his own spokesman. Though he has never admitted to such an identity or affiliation, most merchants in the city would not deny that a kind word and a few coins slipped into Mahjub's palm seemed to uncannily protect their goods from ceaseless minor thefts that can wear away at profits. Mahjub even claims to have been employed on occasion by Lucky Farouq himself, one of the most popular and reputable merchants in the city.
A man of young (half-elven) age and experience, Mahjub makes a decent living offering these same services and more to all visitors and residents of the city. His mother, long since retired from whoring once word of Mahjub's successes as an essential contact about town reached her ears, lives in a modest home and wants for little, though it could hardly be said that her son spoils her, to her own chagrin.
Abud al-Jabiri: Beguiler
Abud is 45 years old, 5'7 inches and weighs 130 pounds. His pale skin is always covered by a robe that has been harshly punished by the sun. His eyes are green, his smile ingratiating and his manners composite and fine. His skin sports several scars and tattoos, but that does not mean they are real.
A 45 year old desert half-elf, Abud likes to live a fine life. The harsh, punishing desert only intrigues him, as he wonders how many secrets ths silent sands hold.
He left his family several years ago and travelled the deserts until he found Uraqi. He has a gift for languages and for arcane magic. He believes an honest day's pay for another day's work is something that should happen to other people. He likes a good story, a great tale and to see how far he can take a lie.
He's been passing himself as a sorcerer and is always on the look-out for adventuring parties going to the desert, so he can get his share of gold without too much trouble.
He's friendly, easy-going and always manages to duck out of any heavy labor. Folks never seem to mind.
Dima Ughruda al'Badiya: Sorceress
While her parents are well established in Rashadar, Dima's family come from a tribe that settled at a large oasis on a desert trading route. Her Grandfather is still there as the current patriarch of a permanent community. There's a favourite story they love to tell from many, many generations back; of a Djinn, an Efreet, and a Marid who found the oasis during a sandstorm and blessed it and the family for their hospitality. The tradition of welcoming travellers and trading goods continues, with the proceeds sent to town and sold at the family's market stalls. The suspicion of jinn ancestry might have something to do with the occasional appearance of a child with magical abilities; Dima was the only one currently known in the tribe, but her sister Mehri has now discovered her own abilities as well. When the twins were born, Mehri came first, and then as Dima was delivered the heavens opened with the annual rains. Grandfather has indulged the girls perhaps a bit too much after such an auspicious beginning; they're the apples of his eyes and he hasn't been as quick as he might to try and arrange husbands. He knows they'd never agree to it anyway.
Dima left Rashadar to search for her twin who had vanished. Rumours of a girl fighting in the battle markets led her to joining an expedition for the Pactmasters to retake Kelmarane.
Dima and her twin, Mehri were well known in the markets of Rashadar and now Kelmarane; identical brunettes with large dark eyes, prone to impromptu dancing outside their family perfume and silks stalls bringing traffic to a standstill. Unwanted attention is quickly rebuffed, as Dima is a sorceress of some ability and not afraid of enforcing a "back off!" She exudes a very outgoing girlie-girl demeanor.
Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad bin Is'haq al-Nadim: Cleric of Hannan
Abu'l is a quiet, stern imam of Hanan, coming to spread the word of his lord.
Let's start the show.
Uraq 1: The Trouble with Pugwampis
The year is 720 in the last week of Birth.
These months it is relatively cool in Uraq. But even then the trip southwest from Rashadar was hard. They skirted far from Ra'ad the Blue's claimed territory, instead following the almost forgotten Obelisk Trail. Dozens of twelve foot black pillars of obsidian rose out of the sand, the word "trail" inscribed on it in ten different languages: Dwarven, Gnomish, Halfling, Uraqi, Imperial, and Elven being the only recognizable ones. The others were in the strange languages of cuneoform Panogolan and Buneir. Even the odd sweeping kanji of Kellisan was present.
Scrawled on almost half of these obelisks were the words "death" in Gnoll.
They took the long way around the Trackless Storm, the several mile system of near constant sandstorms requiring the detour- even if the fabled pesh fields were true. They skirted quickly past the Slithering Cove as sand eels hissed among the bones of travelers and slow, stupid camels. They walked warily past the Crouching Jackal as it stared at them, keeping eye on the Creeping Watcher miles away.
Until finally the sands hardened and turned into cracked, dry earth and the occasional cactus multiplied and was joined by thorny scrub brush and the massive Scorched Peaks were visible in the distance. The eerie Pale Mountain loomed over the mid-evening horizon like a tombstone.
They were all collected by a lantern-jawed man named Garavel Imaad-Isaam. He has said little on the long journey southwest toward the far-off mountain range, instead leading the camel caravan steadily toward its goal, where their employer supposedly waits.
A dry wind blows Garavel's keffiyeh in the wind. "Over the next hill," he says simply.
"May the Gods preserve you and your master, Garavel Imaad-Isaam." Abud says loudly. His face is still covered by a strip of cloth coming from his turban. "I eagerly await to hear what he has to propose to us."
Garavel turns slightly to Abud.
Gerber Loewe remains stony and silent as he has for most of the journey. Apparently detoxing in the desert from over a year of alcohol abuse has not done much to improve his disposition. At least he's not hunched over his camel and dry heaving today. Still, he's a sickly color and he sweats far more than his travelling companions.
"Ah..." Abud says, his voice dripping with honey. "A Flower of the desert. May her family be blessed and plentiful. What can you tell us, in the little time we have, about your most noble mistress?"
Dima shifts on her camel at the mention of their employer.
"She is the eldest daughter from a respected merchant family in Rashadar. She is ambitious and determined," Garavel says matter-of-factly.
"Ah..." Abud says, his voice dripping with honey. "A Flower of the desert. May her family be blessed and plentiful. What can you tell us, in the little time we have, about your most noble mistress?"
"She is the eldest daughter from a respected merchant family in Rashadar. She is ambitious and determined," Garavel says matter-of-factly.
Jadid rides silently.
"Thrice blessed, I can tell." Abud grins. "We can be sure an enterprise put together by such a woman will be gifted by the most potent auguries."
"May I ask if your mistress has taken a husband?"
Garavel keeps his eyes straight ahead. "You may ask."
"Hahaha! We're in the middle of the desert and your only thoughts are if she's a rich heiress?" Dima laughs.
"You misunderstand me, fair one. I have been separated from her for many moons, but I am firmly committed to my mate." Abud says. "I merely wanted to know if she has a family, so I could offer my services as a teacher. If she has not taken a husband, I would limit myself to the mission at hand and move on. Adventuring is fine, but I would like to stay in one place for a year or two."
Abud turn back to Garavel "Has she and is she blessed with children? Are they interested in a teacher of arts and elven lore?"
Garavel nods at something as he taps the reins. The camel spits petulantly.
"She is not married, so of course she has no children."
"And your purpose here is not to teach, but to do as she wishes."
"Ah, no children...." he says, trying to hide his disappointment. "No use for a teacher where there are no students. Fine, let us see what your mistress wishes."
"Your mistress," Mahjub begins, having absorbed the information presented thus far, "would she be Almah Roveshki, by any chance?"
"Excellent," Mahjub says with a satisfied smile. "Are we to play some small part in her stuggle to return her family's name to its former glory? No small feat, but I admire her tenacity."
"As do I," Garavel answers.
"Do you really?" Mahjub asks, casually tapping his own left temple as he meets Garavel's gaze.
Garavel meets Mahjub's gaze evenly and without emotion.
"Yes. I do."
Mahjub simply shrugs and smiles, turning slightly to focus his attention on the rider behind him. "So Dima, any word from your sister? Has Mehri been talking about me?"
Dima studies Mahjub carefully for a moment. "Weren't you the street rat Mehri pulled the awning down upon, once upon a time? She laughed at that a lot."
Mahjub laughs a little. "I was hoping for something a little more complimentary, but i'll take what I can get."
Dima adjusts her shawl slightly, allowing the tiny fox draped around her shoulders to stretch and yawn somewhat, as she considers her words.
"I haven't heard from her in a while myself."
"Oh? Has there been a falling-out?"
Before Dima can answer, Garavel speaks."We are here. The Sultan's Claw."
As soon as the craggy tree begins to appear over the next hill, it becomes obvious why it is called as such. With five immense, leafless branches, the tree looks more like a skeletal hand than a meager tree.
But as the party tops the last rise of the hill, they see a caravan of a half-dozen wagons and a large tent clustered around the distinctive tree. Normally a welcome sight after their long journey... except for the fire.
Lush orange and red flames engulf an elaborate wooden wagon decorated with painted moons and stars. A gout of smoke pours from an open door. A wind blows and a number of fortune telling cards fly out from inside of the wagon, one of the singed cards catching Jadid directly into his chest in a burst of orange cinders. Suddenly, the whole wagon erupts into flame.
The camp is in chaos. Camels in pens near the tree dance in agitation and a clutch of confused and bleating goats and livestock careen around the wagon as a man and a woman frantically try to chase them down. Four soldiers in the distinctive red chitin-plate armor of the Pactmaster Guard begin shouting at each other as they surround the wagon. Four burly mercenaries struggle to pull an enclosed wagon just feet within the burning wagon out of the flame's reach. An older man frantically attempts to calm a moaning man as he tries to bandage his wounds, blood beginning to drench the cracked earth below. Another burnt figure lies still next to them.
The central flap of the elaborate tent flies open and a regal woman who can only be Almah steps out into the firelit dusk. "Douse that flame!"she shouts to the men surrounding the wagon before turning toward the party. "Ah, Garavel!" she says. "Just a moment later than the nick of time as usual." Looking specifically past her major domo, she barks a simple order before running off toward the fire.
"Find some way to help!"
Abud tethers his camel and runs to assist those trying to douse the flames of the caravan. He'll try to get a bucket brigade started or, if there is one already working, join one.
Dima urges her camel to sit, throwing the reins to Abu'l-Faraj as she lightly dismounts and runs the rest of the way to the camp. If there are any more who appear injured near the flames she'll attempt to help them move to a safe distance.
Gerber dismounts and runs to help the mercenaries pull the cart out of the way.
"Is anyone in there?" he shouts in Imperial, nodding towards the flaming wagon.
Jadid runs down as well. "The pale one asks if anyone is in there."
"Eloais was," says one of the mercenaries to Jadid. "But he's dead now."
Mahjub merely observes the action with interest and makes no move to help. Seeing no tasks lacking or undermanned, he feels no compulsion to join in just for the sake of joining in.
Gerber and Jadid grab the unhitched wagon and strain. The other four mercenaries do so as well and for one agonizing second it appears as if the wagon is about to move as the wheels begin turning. And then they are pulled back as the wheel stubbornly falls back from the weight.
"Almost had it! Keep trying!" shouts one of the mercenaries.
"It just went up out of nowhere!" shouts the old man in a well worn cleric's vestment and threadbare skullcap. Writing and letters of various kinds line the edges of the robe. Dima helps him pull the two bodies out of harms way. "These two tried to save him but- Oh Heavenly Writer!" he snaps as the man he carried coughs profusely, blood splattering the edges of his robes. The man quickly rips a portion of his robe off and begins to bandage the seeping wounds.
Dima almost jumps as she hears the rattling wheeze of the body she carried- so badly burnt she can't tell the gender of the victim and in fact thought they were dead.
Abud hurries over and a bucket is thrown into his hands by one of the Pactmaster guards, who nods quickly in thanks. These four, Almah, and Garavel begin a fire brigade, dipping their pails and bowls into the large water bucket in the open cart twenty feet away from the fire and passing it down.
Meanwhile, the two camel drivers are frantically trying to catch and grab the hysterical camels, goats, and other livestock as they bleat and stampede around the camp.
Mahjub watches all of this comfortably on his camel.
"You up there!" Gerber growls at Mahjub in his northern tongue as he tries to coordinate the group in another attempt. "Down here and help us with this! NOW!"
Mahjub half-frowns as he reaches into his belongings and produces a rope. He tosses one end toward the knight and begins to tie the other around his camel's neck (with a loose noose, he's not trying to choke it.)
Gerber catches the drift and hitches the animal up before resuming his position and directing the others in another attempt.
"Bring the injured to me!" the imam shouts, dismounting. "They may yet live to feel the blessed light of Hannan upon them once more."
Looking around for a blanket, he orders some of the faithful to bring one to him and spread it out, so that he may attend to the injured on it. One hand goes to the sun disk of Hannan, the only symbol permitted by his faith.
Dima obliges and rushes over to place the horribly burnt mercenary on the blanket. Abu'l's expert hands quickly find the source of the worst of the victim's pain and it isn't long before she breathes easier again. The older man attending the other victim looks toward Abu'l thankfully.
Dima carefully lays her charge on the blanket, horrified at the extend of their burns. "You can heal even this?" she asks in quiet consternation. As Abu'l-Faraj calls upon his God, she shakes her head to dispell the images of the injuries, and goes back to find more.
Gerber shouts to the other men in incomprehsible gibberish, but they seem to get the gist. Nodding once to Jadid, Gerber roars and pulls forward. The other men groan as well, which slowly builds to a red-faced roar as they feel the wheels moving. Veins bulging and throats hoarse, the roar turns into a joyous cry as the wheels turn and their momentum carries them forward. It's just a short six-second burst of speed until the weight of the wagon forces them to drop it, but it's far enough to be well out of reach of the flames. Muhjab's camel eagerly trots forward as well, although keen eyes will notice the camel started pulling just seconds after the cart had already started moving.
Dima looks around the scene and sees no other bodies or injured around, but it's hard to notice with the frenzied cries of the camel drivers trying to calm the hysterical animals. Abu'l nods at the other cleric and helps him bind the lesser injured man's wounds easily.
"I think they'll live Dawnfather," the man says.
"Praise Hannan, they will live to see another sun rise," the imam says. "Fires do not start on their own."
He looks around, looking for either someone who looks like they might be fleeing the scene or some clue as to the origin of the fire.
Abud keeps tossing water onto the flames as they keep the bucket brigade moving. Gerber and Jadid join the bucket-wielding ranks, much to the thankful looks of the Pactmaster guards.
Mahjub whispers a word of thanks to his camel as he pats its neck, then gracefully dropping to stand at its side. Looking around at the chaos, the rogue jogs over to the two camel drivers trying to recapture the livestock to give them a hand.
Not seeing any more injured, Dima begins trying to control the camels, leading them back one-by-one and tethering them near the rescued carts.
"Oh thank you sir!" the female camel driver blurts out as he tries to calm a squealing pig from running out into the night. Mahjub nods as he coos to the pig, having spent too many a night in pig stalls when he was growing up, it seems to work.
Dima, however, gets spit on by her camel. A lot. The male camel driver is running around the camp crying out "Rombard! ROMBAAARD!"
Abu'l looks around the camp for anything out of the ordinary, but in the chaos of the night doesn't see much.
As the seconds pass, Mahjub manages to calm most of the animals as Dima gets nearly kicked by a camel at one point. For some reason, Mahjub is reasonably capable of calming the beasts.
"Best leave this one to me," Mahjub says to Dima, though you'd wouldn't know it by his focus on the camel, holding it by the bridle and leading it's head down to the side of his own so that he can calmly whisper to it. "Perhaps you could see to that fellow yelling for 'Rombard', find out why he's on course to wake half the desert."
Dima soaks a handkerchief in water and uses it to wash off any trace of the animals. Then she wanders over to the female camel driver, and points at her male counterpart. "Who is this 'Rombard' he calls for?"
The woman snaps a switch at the camel and the beast reluctantly moves forward toward the tent. The rest of the camp's members begin the clean up.
"His favorite goat," the woman says to Dima. "He is very upset."
Mahjub ushers the camel over to the tents. As he does so, he sees a filthy man near the edge of the camp watching the clean-up, crouching with his hands on the ground.
The bucket brigade keeps working for at least another half a minute before the last sputtering flames are put out. A relieved cheer goes up through the camp.
"Well done, my friends, well done." Abud says as he re-adjusts his robe and checks if his turban has become undone. "What happened here? Was this an alchemist's caravan?"
"No, this is caravan is mine," Almah replies to Abud. Garavel slides up next to her as they consider the burnt remains of the wagon.
"We lost Eloais," she says.
Garavel nods. "We lost Eloais."
She lets out a frustrated sigh. "The dawnfather is right. Fires don't start by themselves. Find out if this was set by someone in camp," she whispers to Garavel.
Garavel looks over to Abud, as Gerber, Jadid and Abu'l join them, and then back. Almah nods. "They weren't here when it started. It's unlikely they're arsonists."
"As you wish Almah-Haanim," Garavel nods.
Almah finally turns to the party. "I would ask you to help my man here find out the truth of this."
"All is well, my friend?" Mahjub asks as he approaches the crouched man.
He looks up suddenly, as if noticing Mahjub for the first time. He sniffs the air.
"Yet you seem ill at ease," Mahjub responds, kneeling to partake in the same view as the crouched man. "My companions and I came upon the chaos in the thick of it, did you see what started the fire?"
Mahjub does a good job hiding the fact that he has a hard time breathing next to this man, who obviously has a very loose relationship with hygiene. The man seems startled at Mahjub's demeanor, as if he isn't used to being addressed in such a kindly fashion. His crouch tightens before loosening, ever so slightly.
"No," he says.
After a moment, his eyes dart over to Mahjub, still uncertain but clearly trying to work up to the act of speaking. "It... it has been a while since I have smelled burnt flesh. You?"
"It's never long enough, is it?" Mahjub empathizes. "As a child I witnessed many a dispute between rivaling merchants, one in particular seemed to enjoy the smell as searing the flesh was a favored punishment of his for betrayal or theft. This," he says, jutting his chin out to the scene before them, "is almost merciful in comparison."
"Where are my manners? I'm Mahjub, Mahjub Mutawalli," he announces, giving the filthy man a comforting pat on the shoulder. "Who might you be, my friend?"
"Dashki," he replies. He looks at the hand inquisitively, sniffing it before turning away, unsure what to do with it.
"Almah hired me about a month ago to tell her all about the gnolls living in these hills. Gnolls killed my mother and grandfather when I was a boy. They put fire to our village and slew hundreds. Somehow... I escaped with my father to the town of Al'Jahar, not far from here. It was a long time ago. I've forgotten most of what I saw. Terrible things."
Dashki stares off into the campsite but Mahujb gets the dinstinct impression he isn't seeing it any more. "I find it's the sounds that stay with me. The shrill howls and barks, hundreds of them at once. They sounded close to an audience. Laughing at us."
"Well Dashki, even one struck by blindness could see that you're reliving those horrific events as if it were yesterday. I must confess to a certain degree of detachment, I had to fend for myself on the streets of Rashadar from an early age, the scent of brunt flesh was not the only, or even the worst, of what I had to suppress to survive," Mahjub replies, trying to figure out Dashki's approximate age through the filth. "I apologize if my inquisitiveness has aided in bringing these harsh memories of yours to the forefront."
"You spoke of gnolls in these hills," Mahjub presses on. "Do you think they could have had anything to do with the caravan fire? I've had no experience with their sort, but I don't imagine them to be a naturally stealthy race. Surely there would be some trace of them to be found."
As far as Mahjub can tell, Dashki can be anywhere from twenty to thrity years old.
"Oh they can quiet as the night Mahjub."
"Father raised me to know everything about the gnolls, their customs, their language. So as better to track them and wipe them all out. All of them. Together we scouted their lairs, studied their tribes, listened to them speak until we can understand what they were saying."
"They're not dumb animals you know," Dashki says eagerly to Mahjub. "Not like you might think. In some ways they're even smarter than us."
"Father would have done well to remember that," he says bitterly.
"No, a well-trained gnoll could have easily snuck up and set the fire, but they wouldn't have stopped there. We would have been under attack while we were fighting the fire and much easier to slaughter. It is what I would do."
"I, of course, defer to your knowledge of gnolls," Mahjub replies, genuinely impressed. "You clearly know much more about them than I ever could."
"What say we make a sweep around the outskirts of the camp, see if we can find a trace of whatever caused the fire?" Mahjub offers. "A minor distraction, but perhaps it will give you a brief respite from the thoughts and smells that assault your senses."
Dashki nods after a time.
"The animals will have likely ruined anything near the camp," he stands. "But we can try."
Jadid walks around pensively, looking about. He doesn't notice much out of the ordinary, aside from perhaps a filthy man and Mahjub talking intently as they look at the campsite.
Jadid steps over charred divinatory cards that litter the ground outside the burned-out wagon. Inside the wagon reveals sooty ashes, a few broken bottles, a cracked crystal ball, and several pools of melted wax where candles must have stood. A charred skeletal form remains near the center of the wagon.
Jadid goes back to the leaders of the camp. "The wagon burnt . . .it contained a mystic?"
Almah walks away to direct her guards in the cleanup as Garavel turns to Jadid. "The wagon belonged to Almah's personal fortuneteller Eloais."
"Hm. Portentous. Was he true? Had he real sight? Or mere showmanship?"
Garavel shrugs. "I do not know. His sessions with Almah were often private."
"Hm," Jadid says simply. He begins walking around. The camp has begun to get back to some normalcy. The mercenaries have sunk down around the firepit, finishing the last of their interrupted meal, while the Pactmaster guards get to work as ordered by Almah cleaning up the debris and making sure her tent isn't damaged. Father Zafir tends quietly to the injured mercenaries as another looks over them. Jadid sees Mahjub wandering around the perimeter of the camp talking quietly, and Dima listens to the camel driver explain to her about their favorite goat.
One of the three remaining mercenaries raises a jug of wine as he sees Jadid approach. Some of the disreputable lot's feature look about as well worn as Jadid's.
"Fancy a drink stranger? Least we can do after your help."
"I don't--," Jadid begins but stops. "Yes, I will try it. What is it?"
"Hannan's piss," he says and the other two laugh uproariously.
"Burns about as much, I'll give you that!" says one woman with a hairlip.
Jadid takes a drink. "Indeed, there is a burning. Not altogether unpleasant. Did you see anything before the fire, anything unusual or untoward?"
"We were finishing up dinner when it went up. Didn't see much."
"Wouldn't be able to see much anyway with how much you were hogging the bottle."
The woman punches the other man in the arm and he laughs as he takes the jug back from Jadid for his own pull.
"If Eloais had actually done more than lift his damn cards then maybe he could've gotten out of there alive. As it is, Lady Almah's going to have to find another mystic to diddle."
The three chuckle and elbow each other.
"They were known to have sexual relations?"
"What else could they have been doing in that tent of hers all those hours?"
"'Oh'", one of the mercenaries hands shake and his jaw drops slightly in an approximation of a serious look. "'This card... it is very... very full of portent. The Rutting Dog means that you must take off your clothes! Quickly! Before it is too late!'"
They laugh loudly at this.
"Sunspit, wouldn't surprise me if Dirty Dashki started the fire himself just to get rid of the competition," says one as he takes a pull of the jug before handing it to Jadid.
"Ah, the sex was suspected but not proven. Who is this Dashki? A suitor?"
"All but. He always came out with a smile on his face."
"Nah, Dashki is her 'gnoll' expert." another spits. "He was probably spying on her when the fire broke out. Bit of an open secret, his little crush is."
"Like she'd let him touch her."
"Like she'd let ANYONE touch her if they weren't clothed in platinum and smelling of perfume. Even then maybe not."
"Dashki's over there with your buddy. You can't miss the smell."
Jadid nods. "Thank you for your Hannan's piss and your words. I will see you again, I am sure."
"We aren't going anywhere."
"Send your foreign friend over some time soon. We owe him some of this as well," one says, shaking the quickly emptying jug.
"I suspect he will like it. Ah, another thing. You are warriors by trade?"
"Yep. Hired in Al'Jahar when Almah passed through with her guards."
"It would be an honor to spar with you at some time, then. I do not wish to lose the skills I have trained long and hard to acquire."
There's a deep laugh at this from all the mercenaries. "If by 'sparring' you mean, 'throwing your ass in the dirt' then yeah we can do that."
Jadid's eyes narrow for an almost imperceptible moment. "Yes, we shall see. I do hope your skills provide the sort of challenge you believe they will."
The mercenaries laugh in response to Jadid's rather ominous statement an continue their drinking.
Also, man there's a lot of editing in these PbP logs. So may conversations double back over each other... especially when all the players move around in the same camp site.
Garavel looks toward Gerber, Abud, and Abu'l as Jadid wanders off on his own.
"We should perhaps start with questioning the camp."
"Not sure how much assistance I can be with that, Garavel," Gerber answers. "Does anyone around here speak the Emperor's Prustan?"
"Father Zafir." Garavel motions toward the cleric tending the injured mercenaries. "As does Almah and I if you wish to ask the questions." He shrugs. "The rest, yes and no. But not good, yes?"
"Thank you, I'll start with him," Gerber says, motioning to Zafir and walking off.
"Father," he says to the cleric, "My name is Gerber Loewe. I've been hired by Almah. What do you think happened here?"
((Translated from the Imperial))
"Ah! Gerber Loewe!" Zafir nods, somewhat distractedly. "Just a moment."
He mutters an incantation and traces script across the chest of the badly burned woman. Her blistered and blackened skin puckers and fades turning into a deep red shade like a bad sunburn.
"Sabah. Next time don't rush so brainlessly into the fire."
The mercenary scowls and rubs her temples as Zafir turns back to Loewe. "Yes, Gerber. Apologies," he says with just the faintest trace of an accent.
"I do not know. I was reading a book by the fire, but these mercenaries were being too loud for me. I had just stood up to return to my wagon when the fire started."
"And which wagon is yours?" Gerber asks the cleric.
"Here." Zafir leads Gerber to a simple covered wagon about twenty feet from the camp fire, the inside of which looks as if a library and alchemist's workshop exploded inside covering it with papers, books, and beakers. "Almah hired me long ago to keep her and everyone else on this little journey healthy. A task they do their best to make difficult."
"And so, returning here, you saw nothing?"
"Nothing worth noting."
Zafir sighs. "Truth be told, Almah is likely better off without Eloais's attention. We could do better than to have charlatans direct our course."
Zafir closes an open trunk of potions and looks across the camp. His gaze darkens as he sees Dashki and Mahjub walk into view around the perimeter of the camp. "We could do without those types, certainly."
Gerber frowns at the pair. "Do you have any reason to believe the fire was anything more than an accident?
"Aside from the fact that fires don't start themselves?" Father Zafir sighs and waves his hands. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to corrupt your investigation. I simply find Dashki... disturbing. No one with healthy desires skulks around a pretty woman the way he does. And he's entirely too familiar with gnolls for my comfort."
"Thank you, Father," Gerber says, dipping his head slightly and excusing himself.
"Your very welcome son. Whenever you have a spare moment, I would love to transcribe any legends or stories you may have from your country."
"That's all they are, Father, is stories," Gerber answers without turning around.
"Eloais? She was inside your caravan, yes?" Abud looks at the burnt ruins, trying to find the source of the fire. "How long ago did you see Eloais?” he asks Almah. “Was she sleepy? Inebriated? Who saw her last?"
"He," Almah says as she walks off to direct her guards in the cleanup. "I hired him in Rashadar months ago to read cards for me. I haven't visited the islands of my ancestors in quite some time, but something about his presence... just felt right." She looks toward Abud. "I'm not convinced the fire was arson, but if it was, I hope you find the culprit quickly. I saw him just hours ago. He gave another reading. He was as normal."
"Eloise....Heloise....Eloaise..." Abud sounds off. "I beg your pardon, friends, for in my community a slight change in the name's pronunciation makes it a female name. I have an aunt named thus.”
"He was a foreigner. Their names can be odd."
“Eloais gave a reading...to you? Was that his last reading?"
Almah seems reluctant for a moment before she whispers to Abud.
"His readings have been... increasingly grim. His last reading centered on an auspicious card. It portended death by fire and schemes by powerful evils."
"I asked if it had something to do with Kelmarane, and he said yes- but that it was part of something much larger."
"Garavel hasn't said much has he? He often doesn't. Good. He follows orders well."
"Kelmarane is the village we are close to, and the reason we are here."
"Long ago, the village was one of several in the highlands by the Scorched Peaks situated around a battle market, a huge arcade that attracted merchants, gladiators, actors, musicians, and customers not only from Uraq- but from neighboring Panagolan and Buneir. It was a vital stop in trade with those southern countries."
"About twenty years ago... it fell, and the Pactmasters abandoned it to ruin. Rumors of curses and plagues abound, but in truth no one really seems to know why the village died. About two years ago, a pack of gnolls called the Kulldis tribe inhabited the battle market and claimed it as their own."
"Now the Pactmasters want it back, and it's up to us to deliver it to them."
"After 20 years of bleaching sun and corroding sand? Thrice blessed Pactmasters" Abud makes a traditional elven gesture of blessing. "will be lucky to find two stones together. What happened? Why do they want Kelmarane back? What changed?"
Almah looks around the camp. "Let me show you something."
She leads Abud to her tent, an elaborate affair heavily perfumed and decorated in gold and red thread. Lush carpets are laid on the ground and plush pillows are thrown about, giving Abud's feet a much needed respite from the long journey. Almah walks over to a table and idly pours herself a glass of thin wine from a silver decanter. She rolls out a large map that takes up most of the table.
"Rashadar," Almah points to a dot on the northern border of Uraq against the sea. "Mazin," she points to another dot a few inches to the west of Rashadar, also on the coast.
He finger traces down across the wide white expanse of the map for almost a foot. She lands at a small dot against the Scorched Peaks, almost directly south of Rashadar. "Al'Jahar." She then traces the curve of the mountain range that curves like a crescent moon all the way from the south and almost toward the northern coast of Uraq again.
"The Scorched Peaks are effectively the border of Uraq. Beyond these mountains, lie the southern countries. Panogolan, Buneir, and even Kellisan - who have their own empire to rival that of the Lion-Guarded Throne. I doubt anyone north of Uraq have even heard of such places. It's all just 'The South' to them. And even we don't go past the Scorched Peaks very often. The mountains are nearly twenty to fifty miles thick in places, through terrain that makes what we see here look small by comparison. Red dragons war with each other, claiming mountaintops from each other in ever-shifting border wars. There are rocs that can snatch a camel in its claws for a meal and giants that keep those birds as pets. Even without that, there is the journey itself through punishing terrain which is long, hard, and bitter."
Almah smiles despite this. "But those that can make the trip..."
"In Panogolan, there is The Silverback King. The gorilla lord sends his minions across the expanse to forage for treasures. Some he trades. Darkwood from the Screaming Jungle, sunken gold from Lake Ocota, and magical glass from the Ruins of Kho. And if you feel brave, or just suicidal, you can try to trade with the King of Biting Ants- who still knows some of the old magics of Old-Mage Jatembe that haven't been seen since the Wars of Fire. Even the natives can often find something worth giving in their town of Witbe."
"Buneir is the land of the cactus men, fighting a never-ending war with the mosquito women to keep another Malarial Queendom from rising. There are thri-kreen, the mantis-men who prowl across the savannah carving mountains into strange shapes and wielding weapons of crystallized saliva sharper than any tempered steel. Their minds are... indecipherable to us, but those that can communicate find mechanical items that rival the height of the Empire's technological prowess."
"And there's Kellisan. They ruled Uraq long, long ago. This is a land where their strange dragon philosophers sit side by side with emperors of age-old dynasties. Where the veil between the world of dreams and waking is supposedly so thin you can cross it simply by learning how to breathe a certain way. Where men master elements as easily as we can talk and can turn into animals."
"Entire worlds hidden behind those mountains. And the great, great country of Uraq- may Hannan always shine on it and Abadar bring it wealth- is the crossroads."
"Al'Jahar is tiny, compared to Rashadar. But it's purpose is simply to be a rest point for traders from these countries to exchange goods and services here before caravans go north," here Almah traces her finger back up the white desert of the map. "But even then, over six hundred miles across the Great Desert is a long, long way."
"And now it feels longer," says Garavel as he enters the tent.
Almah nods bitterly. "Here," she traces a circle in the middle of the Great Desert, "is where Ra'ad the Blue rules."
The city of Al'Jahar was also mentioned in my police procedural adventure, but that's a meta plot point for much later...
"As long as you pay him fealty and respect, you can pass. But... it is not a given."
"And for the past five years, the Kellisani have refused to deal with him. Even refusing to bring their goods to hand off to us at Al'Jahar. Kellisani notions of honor are a strange thing."
"But," Almah traces her finger back north west up the mountain range. "Here is Kelmarane. If this village came back, traders can, instead, travel along the highlands from Al'Jahar, keeping the mountains to their left- trading their wagons for camels here and then cut across to Rashadar that way, all but bypassing the dragon's territory. Even without Al'Jahar, it is possible for brave traders to come east from the northern expanses of Panogolan, if they can pass the Fever Swamps and come directly to Kelmarane."
Almah leans back. "Of course, instead of a capricious dragon, there will now be gnoll tribes eager to raid passing caravans- but no journey is entirely without its own dangers."
She looks up. "This. This is the great work we will do."
Dima nods understandingly as she helps the camel drivers get their animals calmed down. "Our goats too, were part of the family. I was very upset as a young girl when we made the great journey to the markets, Grandfather insisted they stayed at the tents."
She looks out into the night, as Jadid comes over to the camel drivers. "He was right of course. That was no place for a goat. But right now, I am no tracker, and there are gnolls in the darkness. I am not sure what to do?"
Almost without prompting the two camel drivers begin to speak.
"I first noticed the fire," she says.
'She always notices things. Oh Rombard..." he sniffles.
"But after that we were busy."
"The animals of course."
"They went everywhere!"
"And Rombard went missing! It is terrible!"
Dima places a comforting hand on the woman's shoulder. "My name is Dima Ughruda al'Badiya. I and my associates will do everything we can to help. Can you tell me about the fire? Who was nearby when you first saw it?"
"I am Hadrah. My husband is Hadrod."
"No one that we can tell."
"Eloais was nice enough for a foreigner."
"Didn't really understand his talk Cyclones and Uprisings and all that."
"Still, Almah was fond of him."
"Her trust in him was good enough for us."
"But we weren't paying attention to the fire once it started. Just our animals."
"Oh Rombard..." Hadrod seems on the verge of tears.
As Gerber walks, he sees the mercenaries around the camp fire try to wave him over, laughing.
Gerber joins them, intent on forgetting about the mystery of the fire, the hardships of the journey, and the rest of his misery.
The mercenaries slap Gerber on the back as they laugh and babble unintelligibly to him as they hand him the jug.
"Good, yes?" one laughs in heavily accented Imperial. He thumps his chest. "Fire."
Gerber nearly coughs up a lung after taking a drink. "Wonderful," he replies, somber but sincere.
The guards talk to Gerber and proceed to make further questionable assertions about Lady Almah’s character. It’s then that Abu’l walks up.
"Gentlemen," the imam growls, after holding his tongue as long as he was able, "Hannan's light does not shine on false slander and innuendo, and it is written that he who defames a woman defames all women, including his blessed mother. Answer the questions without speculating on the lusts of others, lest it raise suspicions about your own."
The mercenaries look up suddenly to the imam that has snuck up behind them as they share their drink with Gerber. They looks at each other awkwardly.
"Apologies Holy One."
"Ah, we didn't see anything to speak of."
"You hear that?" shouts the leader to the band as he walks up, his wounds mostly healed by Father Zafir. "You treat this man with respect got it?"
The other mercenary woman that Abu'l saved nods along with this as she joins the camp as well.
Jadid wanders over to the four personal guards of Almah. They wear the red chitin armor familiar to those from Rashadar and wear stony expressions as they go about their work. A pair break off to carefully guard Almah's tent and the other two clean up.
One nods at Jadid as he approaches. "Yes?"
"I don't suppose you saw anything before the fire."
The guard shakes his head.
"We were all standing guard at Almah's tent."
Another walks up. "I did see Dashki trying to hide behind a tree nearby. It was clear he was trying to look into her tent."
The other guard grimaces. "He's obsessed with her."
"Hm. He lacks discipline."
"Great work indeed." Abud says sincerely. "A project of such undertaking would reap enormous benefits to some and that may also mean a lot of greed and envy. Any disagreements about rebuilding Kelmarane? Feet-dragging?"
Almah shakes her head. "Everyone sees that this is important work. It needs to happen soon or we'll be even more reliant on any trade we get from the North. Given the fighting over the Lion-Guarded Throne, that could easily dry up in moments if they start to actually war with one another. We need to expand our options quickly."
"Yes, that makes sense." Abud thinks for a bit. "If there is no dissent, perhaps the neighboring tribes? Rivals? Even stupid or silly creatures that do not think but only revel in causing mischief?"
"I expect the gnolls we're about to evict from Kelmarane will likely protest."
"Garavel," Almah turns to her major domo. "Could you assemble the rest of your hires? I think they've had enough time to get an idea of what might have happened."
Garavel hesitates slightly. He nods and walks outside the tent.
Dashki and Mahjub have all but entirely wandered the perimeter and found little evidence so far. As they do so, Dashki looks over to the party talking to everyone in camp. He grimaces.
"Looking for someone to blame. How do we even know the fire was set? That idiot burned a hundred candles in his wagon."
"Yes, that would certainly be unworthy of all this fuss, wouldn't it?" Mahjub agrees, following Dashki's gaze back toward camp. "Am I crazy, or is that old fellow giving us the stink eye?"
Dashki growls, and Mahjub can't help but notice its more animal than man. "They blame me."
"I had nothing to do with that fire. The fool probably just got unlucky. We're in gnoll country. I wouldn't be surprised if it was pugwampis."
"Pugwampis? I'm afraid i've never heard of those," Mahjub confesses. "Who or what are they?"
"Critters that crawled up from the darklands below the earth. 'Jackal Rats' we call 'em. They worship gnolls as gods and infest their communities like rats."
"Wherever pugwampis go, bad luck follows."
"The gnolls hate them because of it. They try to kill them all the time, but the they always come back. Probably their bad luck caused the fortune-man's candles to start the fire."
"We're that close to gnollish settlements that we would be affected?"
"We're close enough that one or two may have wandered over here to start mischief."
"So the bad luck associated with pugwampis has more to do with their mischievous ways than something more magical or karmic?" Mahjub asks. "I would be comforted to know that there's a tangible solution to whatever problems they cause."
"Killing them does the trick either way," Dashki says.
"You've yet to share your suspicions with our employer, yes?" Mahjub asks, motioning toward camp. "Should we tell her, or let them all investigate each other until the sun rises?"
Dashki suddenly looks terrified. "No. I haven't told her."
He looks about to say more as Garavel walks out of the tent, obviously looking for the party. He motions toward those that he can see to enter the tent.
"My friend, you look as though you've gone white as a sheet," Mahjub observes, looking over his shoulder as the others begin to walk toward the tent. "Is there something wrong, Dashki?"
"I am... I may be... a bit too fond of her."
A small smile crosses Mahjub's face. "That's all? Dashki, you had me worried! And who could blame you, she's a striking woman to be sure."
Dashki's face goes deep red and looks away.
"It isn't acceptable. You should go. They're calling your friends in."
Gerber looks for a smaller receptacle he can pour himself a drink with to take with him to the tent.
Mahjub hangs back with Dashki as the others walk into the tent. Most are taken aback by the opulence inside compared to the rest of the camp, although Abud seems to already be enjoying the comfy pillows in front of the table as Jadid and Gerber wander in.
"Is that all of them?" Almah asks.
"The rest are coming." Garavel tries to get Mahjub's attention.
"We'll speak later, my friend," Mahjub assures Dashki, turning to walk toward the tent.
"Well, to start. What do you all think?" Almah addresses those in the tent already. "Was it arson?"
"No one I spoke to saw anything,” Jadid says. “Suspicions were aired, but they were based on no facts to speak of. I wish to ask you a question about the dead mystic. Do you believe his powers were real, or was he an entertainer?"
"I wouldn't have bothered to hire him on if I didn't think his visions had merit,” Almah says. “So yes, I believed he had the sight."
"Then we must take into account that perhaps the fire was also of supernatural nature."
Almah nods after a time. "How do you mean? I confess it would make this all easier if we could say it was that."
"Although not as comforting for the camp, it must be said," Garavel says.
"They all seemed to think your dirty friend had something to do with it," Gerber pipes in between gulps.
Almah looks at Gerber with some distaste, as Garavel translates for her.
"Do you think they have reason to?" she asks as Garavel translates.
"Couldn't say for sure," the knight answers.
Mahjub finally enters, catching most of what has been said. "Unless the injured or deceased were gnolls in secret, I highly doubt Dashki had anything to do with the fire."
"So everyone thinks he does, but you say he doesn't," Almah says. "Why is that now?"
"For one thing, because he's an easy target," Mahjub answers. "He's dirty, he smells, and lacks in many of the social graces we all take for granted. Who better to blame? I know something of being misjudged as refuse. Did a single person in this caravan not point the finger at the foul scented one they'd all rather do without? I think we both know Dashki would never intentionally do anything to displease you, mistress," he says pointedly.
Almah looks befuddled by the comment and looks toward Garavel, who clears his throat and looks away.
"Ah," Mahjub says simply as he smiles, looking from Almah to Garavel, and back again. "Awkward."
"From what I understand, the deceased went through candles like this one goes through alcohol," Mahjub says, thumbing sideways toward the lush knight. "Unless anyone actually saw how the fire started, I'd say it was an unfortunate accident and nothing more."
"So you're saying it was merely bad luck? I don't think that is enough to assuage our concerns. Quite frankly, mystical fires and bad luck aside- I would prefer tangible evidence. There isn't any speculation as to what could have caused this?"
"Along with Dashki's detailed knowledge of gnolls, he mentioned some variety of creature known as pugwampis, or 'Jackal Rats' as they may be known," Mahjub begins. "They apparently worship the gnolls as gods, though the gnolls would rather have nothing to do with them. The pugwampis infest their communities like rats, so much so that the gnolls frequently try to kill them, but the they always come back. It is said that wherever pugwampis go, bad luck follows. Dashki suspected, seeing as how this is gnoll territory, that it wouldn't be unheard of for a few pugwampi to enter camp to start some mischief."
Jadid interjects. "And when I say we must consider magical causes, I say it because no one saw anything to speak of. Not your loyal, alert guardsmen, not your talkative animal-handlers, no one. Perhaps it is these jackal rats, perhaps the mystic dabbled too deeply in powerful forces; I mean only to say I do not believe a member of your camp lit his wagon on fire without notice."
Almah nods at Jadid's clarification and considers Mahjub.
"Has anyone else ever heard of these creatures?"
After a moment, it's obvious no one has.
"It is possible, Almah-Haanim, that Dashki may be lying," Garavel offers.
"It is possible," she muses. "But if my expert is correct, the hills around here should be crawling with them, or at least some sign of their passage. It should be easy for Dashki to find one and bring it back to me."
"But the others may not believe him," Garavel says.
"No," she agrees. "As he is suspected in this affair, rightly or wrongly," she nods toward Mahjub, "it would not do to send him out into the darkness alone."
"So I'm afraid this is not yet finished. I want you all to go out into the desert with Dashki and find me one of these pugwampis."
Abud bows deeply and his hand touches his heart, mouth and forehead. "We hear and obey, mistress."
Jadid nods. "Well I see no use in waiting further."
Dima says nothing in the corner. Chasing jackal rats? hardly what she came out here for. She sighs internally as Abud commits them all to a wild Bustard chase, and follows as they leave the tent.
Gerber empties his cup with a sigh and sticks his head outside the tent to toss the cup back to the mercenaries before pulling back in.
"I'm ready." It's not clear he understands where the group is going or what they're doing.
"We are to collect jackal rats for her. They may have started the fire." Jadid says in Imperial.
Gerber frowns, closing his eyes and nodding. "That's about the only thing I'm suited for these days, I suppose."
The night is dark and eerily silent as the six walk out toward beyond the edge of the camp. Strange sound bristle in the night.
They come upon Dashki kneeling down on the ground, pawing at it and snuffling. "Small tracks. Seems there's a goat as well. See here? It's been led-"
Dashki turns and sees the whole group assembled behind him. His hand goes to his scimitar and he growls.
"Don't be foolish,” Jadid says. “Almah sent us to find the creatures with you."
"I'm not a fool!" Dashki snaps at Jadid.
"Yes, yes, yes...” Abud says. “Pugwampis....little devils messing up things...can you track them?"
"Yes I CAN track them,” Dashki spits. “There's goat hoof-prints here. And they were pulled. See the smaller tracks next to it?"
Indeed, in the dim light from the camp's torches, the party can see obvious animal tracks leading away from the camp.
"It goes into the night. We'll need light. Unless any of you can see in the dark," Dashki sneers.
"Did you set the fire back there?" Gerber asks Dashki.
"What is he babbling about?" Dashki cocks a thumb at the northern knight.
Gerber sees the confusion on the man's face and tries again in broken Uraqi. "The burnings of you did place, did not you?"
Dashki's face darkens. "No! I had nothing to do with the fire you stupid foreign swine. A thousand d*cks in your religion!"
"Khara beek, muti!" Gerber tries to swear back. Unsuccessfully.
"Enough,” Jadid snorts. “Who has a light?"
Meanwhile, Dima looks down to see her familiar has finally made an appearance, a lizard clamped firmly between its teeth.
"Kashif, you clever little fox!" she coos quietly to him while everyone else argues, scratching lightly at the ruff of his neck in praise. Then she looks back to to the tracks. Kashif, smell, sniff! Can you follow these?
Kashif paws at the ground and sniffs experimentally. Stinks. This way. The desert fox bounds off into the night.
"Let their prejudices and offenses roll off your back Dashki,” Mahjub says. “The important thing is that you've been given a task by Almah herself, one she will be pleased to have fulfilled," Mahjub says with a smile and a wink. "A pugwampi she wants, and a pugwampi we shall deliver to her. As to your earlier question, I am able to see in low light conditions. I assume it would be in our favor to approach pugwampis in darkness, yes?"
"They can see in the dark better than any of us," Dashki says, darting an angry look toward Gerber. "But it could help. I can't see in the dark," Dashki says sullenly.
"Hrm," Mahjub emits. "Well, we need you to track them Dashki, it's as simple as that. Light it is."
"When you're all ready..." Dima interrupts from a short distance away in the darkness, "... the trail leads this way." She walks off following her fennec.
Stay close my friend. The stink might be something nasty.
After fifteen minutes or so, Dima suddenly crouches to let Kashif run back to her arms and up to her shoulders.
"Gentlemen, I believe the goat is very close by, and something has my familiar a little nervous. Perhaps our pugwampis?"
My brave little Kashif, well done! Could you smell many?
Kashif rubs his nose against Dima. Goat stink. Sharpy plants
"Pugwampis," Abu’l the imam snorts. "Ignorant peasant superstition, meant to cover up for the thieving ways of nomad children."
Jadid grunts. "Oh, yes, invisible creatures of light who created us all, that is easy to believe. But creatures you can actually see, oh, they must not exist."
"I can see unruly children just fine."
"The rest of us cannot see,” Jadid waves to the darkness ahead of them. “At some point, that might be to our disadvantage. And I would wonder what children you saw at the camp that no one else did. Was it a gift from your imaginary benefactor?"
Dima sighs loudly this time in obvious irritation. She detaches her hooded lantern from her pack, makes sure the oil is full, and lights it. "Something small made those tracks around the goat. And they didn't look like human footprints. You want to stop bickering and get on with it?"
The desert night is quiet as the group tramps through, feeling almost unbearably loud given the silence. Occasionally, there is a rustle and Dima's lamp whirls toward the source of the sound- only to see a nocturnal desert lizard scurrying under a cactus or a jack rabbit hurtling away as Kashif darts after it.
The backs of everyone's necks are prickly and their shoulders are tense for seemingly no reason, as if they expect the worst.
The pesh cactuses begin to cluster together as they walk and Kashif leads them down the trail the fox has found.
A cry pierces the night.
"Ouch!" Gerber yelps. "Damned cactii."
"Careful moving forward," Mahjub advises, seeing beyond the light of the lamp. "The cactii will become more dense and cluster together in a large field ahead."
As the party progresses toward the sound, they see Mahjub is right. The local cacti grow more and more dense, until they quickly find themselves at the edge of a dense thicket of the prickly plants.
The cry has now turned into a frantic bleating, coming from somewhere deep within the cacti.
“"No go yet," Mahjub tells Gerber in broken Imperial. "Cactus, lots."
"Any suggestions on how to proceed, Dashki?" Mahjub asks. "Do the pugwampis choose fields such as this for protection?"
Dashki nods. "Plenty of cacti to trip and fall onto."
The bleating turns into full-fledged brays of fear as Dima's lantern sweeps the cactus field.
"What about traps? Because this is looking an awful lot like one," Mahjub observes. "I see the goat bleeding and tethered, but nothing else."
Dima nods in agreement. "I did not realise that pugwampis could be so devious."
"Speak up if you can detect traps," Abud asks the party.
"I can find them given the chance, yes," Mahjub replies over his shoulder to Abud.
"Blessed be!" Abud says happily. "Would you please use your most magnificent trapfinding abilities to see if the way to the goat is really trapped?"
"This is a trap," Gerber unwittingly repeats. "There's a goat tied up out there."
Dashki ponders the situation for a moment. "They can't really think that far ahead. They're hardly intelligent. Not much better than vermin. If anything, they likely may have just brought the goat out to torture it for a while and listen to it scream."
"They were fully capable of setting up a fire as a diversion." Dima muses. "Unless there is an as-yet-unseen agency at work behind that, and they were merely opportunistic." She sweeps the field and the goat again with the lantern. "And I still haven't seen one of the little beggars yet!”
"They exist!" Dashki snaps. "And they don't have to set fires. The fire just happened because they were there."
"Either way, we're here for the pugwampis, not the goat," Mahjub says simply. "If the pugwampis wished to listen to it scream, they must be nearby. I see no reason to carve a path straight to the tortured animal, that may send them scurrying to places we cannot reach."
Dashki shrugs. "Doesn't mater to me if that idiot loses his pet. But if it keeps screaming like that it's going to bring worse down on us than pugwampis. We should kill it," Dashki offers.
"A goat is not just a pet to the desert herders!" Dima replies crossly. "We are here because Almah wants a pugwampi to determine proof of the cause of the fire, but if I can save the goat in the bargain, I will."
Dashki rolls his eyes. "After you my lady," he mock bows and sweeps his hands across the cactus field.
Dima looks across the cactus field fretfully, then turns to Mahjub. "Can you find any traps?"
"Going in there will likely send them scurrying, yes?" Mahjub asks Dashki. "If we enter the field, i'd suggest the others spread out along the outskirts to try and catch any pugwampis that may run."
"They'd likely try to stay hidden rather than run and attract attention,” Dashki says. “Once you hurt the cowards, they won't do anything but run."
Mahjub sighs. "Stay here Dima, i'll get your bloody goat. If I see any pugwampis, i'll try to scare them into the rest of you. Spread out, everyone. Someone tell..." he trails off, pointing at Gerber, "whatever."
Mahjub begins to pick his way though the cacti. They're so densely packed it's hard to find any straight path through the field at all, and he is forced to weave and take a twisting route.
Mahjub's skilled agility manages to get himself through. But for some reason, he finds himself tripping on rocks he hasn't noticed and getting his clothes caught on spines he hadn't accounted for. At one point, he was sure he found a good way through, only to have a dry wind blow grit in his face and he falls backward onto a cactus with a curse as the spines pierce his backside.
Still, the skilled rogue manages to work his way through. Mahjub emerges on a thin strip of open land at the edge of a fifteen-foot wide ravine. A casual glance down the edge reveals a huge, multi-armed and wickedly barbed cactus dominating the ground ten feet below the ledge. This is almost directly below where Rombard has been lazily tied to a scrub brush. Rombard is effectively hysterical now, braying and pulling frantically at the rope around his neck. The goat is covered in cactus quills and bleeding as it twists and runs as much as it's tied neck will allow.
"Easy Rombard, easy..." Mahjub says, trying to calm the frantic goat down, though not very hopeful considering how hurt it is. Mahjub tries to soothe the goat as he looks around. He sees nothing aside from the cracked earth and cacti.
Rombard, however, is hysterical. For a moment, it appears that Mahjub has managed to calm the goat. Then, Mahjub trips over a rock and elbows the poor goat in the face. Rombard begins braying again and scampers around Mahjub. His legs get tied up in the rope and Mahjub curses as he is barely able to squirm his way out. He nearly trips over into the ravine but his reflexes just manage to pull him back. Although, Mahjub gets the sneaking suspicion he shouldn't have even been that close.
"Bad luck indeed," Mahjub mutters, panting. Cursing himself, he draws his dagger to cut the rope so he can try to pick up Rombard from it's least prickly area and bring it back to the others. Pugwampis be damned, he wasn't about to be the victim of supernatural clumsiness.
The imam draws his sword and begins hacking at cacti, attempting to clear a wider path in. "Do not watch him die. Draw your weapons and come to his aid, if you are men."
Gerber follows the imam's lead, hacking through the thick cacti.
Mahjub moves toward the rope as Rombard cries and scampers around. Mahjub begins to slice, but suddenly his hands are sweaty and his dagger drops to the ground. As he bends to pick it up Rombard almost rams into him, tangling his legs up again. Mahjub curses again as he nearly pitches into the ravine but he manages to right himself.
Mahjub then changes tactics, and decides that staying still and doing nothing while the others work their way to him is the best course of action for avoiding whatever bad luck has infected the area. He sits still, retrieves his dagger, and does nothing but speak soothing words to the goat to calm it down.
Mahjub sits as the goat bleats and screams pretty much inches from his face. The rogue sits miserably as the goat slavers and does little else but wrap Mahjub further in the rope as it scampers around. Even sitting down, at one point he's almost dragged off the ledge by the goat and it's only his grabbing the prickly scrub brush that keeps him from going over.
Meanwhile, Gerber and Abu'l start the long, laborious process of cutting down cacti. It takes a while. The sap gets their armor and clothes sticky and their hands are covered in sweet sap. Even with their hacking, Gerber actually drops his sword once. While bending down to retrieve it he headbutts a cactus and comes up with spines sticking out of his forehead.
Abu'l fares far worse. His scimitar clangs painfully against the cacti more than once. Dropping his sword and holy symbol and tripping most of the way, Abu'l is covered in spines and his clothes are torn.
Blissfully, after perhaps ten minutes of hacking, the two find themselves in the same clearing as Mahjub. Mahjub is all but tied-up and covered in goat slobber. Gerber and Abu'l are covered in sap and bleeding from spine punctures.
Dashki looks over to the others that have (apparently wisely) chosen to stay back. "Bad luck."
"Horticulture, strategic use of terrain and perhaps a bit of magic," the imam says, carefully unwrapping Mahjub.
"I'm starting to understand why the gnolls favor killing these creatures," Mahjub says ruefully as he is unbound, scanning the cactus field for pugwampis. "If infested with them, I imagine it would be enough to drive one mad."
"None of you were nearly this clumsy before,” Jadid says. “Something supernatural is here; and I do not believe it to be 'mischievous children.'"
The goat brays at Abu'l frantically. The imam tries to untie Mahjub, but finds his hands keep slipping on the ropes with all the sap.
Gerber walks over and tries to pet the goat. Rombard cries and bounds around, terrified. He kicks Gerber straight in the chest and the former knight stumbles back. His eyes widen as he trips on his sword and Mahjub and Abu'l watch open mouthed as he pitches over into the ravine. There's a crunch and Abu'l rushes to look over the edge. Gerber has landed right on the massive cactus at the bottom, his body bleeding from the wicked barbs that have seemingly found it's way past every crevice in his armor.
"AAAAAAAAGH! LOTHIAN!” Gerber screams in frustration as much as pain as he rights himself off the enormous cactus.
Still standing outside and watching the proceedings, Jadid says, "Kill the goat. It is in misery and causing us harm."
"We're as likely to do unintentional harm to each other as kill the goat as long as the pugwampis are near," Mahjub calls back, frustrated.
"Do we have clean rope long enough to lower someone down and wrap the rest around two people as anchors above? This situation will not improve with time." the imam Abu’l says. He frowns, stroking his beard. "I wonder, though. This is all very convenient. Do the pugwampis have the ability to weave an illusion of this size?"
"They don't need to obviously," Dashki says, unable to entirely wipe the smirk off his face at Gerber's misfortune.
Gerber walks a little further down the ravine so he won't fall on the cactus again if he drops from being hoisted. Meanwhile, Jadid and Mahjub continue their discussion. "I understand your concern, but I see no reason to keep one more moving variable around." Jadid begins walking around the "forest" and looking for creatures.
"You come in here and kill it then, see how it goes," Mahjub mutters.
“All you all right white one?” Jadid shouts down to Gerber.
"I can walk! I can climb! I can even sing and dance. Just throw me a f*cking rope."
Jadid grunts a small laugh. "The white one is fine."
"I've no idea if these creatures understand what we say," Mahjub calls to Abud in Elven. "If anyone has any ranged capabilities that may frighten them away, I believe now would be an appropriate time to use them."
"The field is tainted, that much I can tell with certainty." Abud says as he takes out his rope. "I feel our chances as adventurers will improve if we return with the goat *and* the knight than with none."
Jadid snorts. "And introduce yet another moving variable? Throw the goat to me and I will end it."
"Spoken like someone who hasn't tripped, fallen, got tangled, or knocked down by doing what should've been the simplest of tasks," Mahjub says, trying to untangle himself. "If I pick that goat up it'll probably sh*t down my throat and i'll die of fecal poisoning, or something equally as ridiculous."
"Use your bare hands, then. They are always your most effective weapon."
"I'm so glad I left the city..." Mahjub gripes sarcastically, reaching for the scrub brush to pull it out of the ground. "There, now it's up to chance. If it wants to fall off the cliff, have at it. I am not choking a goat."
The imam sighs and creates two loops, putting one around his waist and offering the other to Mahjub, then he tosses the far end to the loud and clumsy foreigner.
Mahjub uproots the scrub brush. Gerber grabs the end of the rope just as Rombard brays and bolts. Mahjub curses as the rope wraps around his legs and he falls prone to the ground with a thud as Rombard strains against the sudden weight. The rope jerks out of Gerber's hand as the goat takes the rope and Gerber also fails to even get a few feet up. Abu'l sighs.
"Fools!” Jadid shouts. “Kill it before it kills you!"
"Kill the gods damned goat!" Gerber screams.
"We should give that goat an armor and have it fight for us.,” Abud muses. “Armies would tremble at its approach."
Dima closes her eyes, grimacing, and nods. "This whole field is cursed. Poor Rombard, I am sorry."
Mahjub barely has time to reply to the chorus of screaming voices. He hears a shrill yell of outrage come from next to him. From seemingly nowhere behind a rock, something leaps up. As if the world's most revolting lapdog had somehow learned to walk on its back legs, the sickly canine creature screams as its milky white eyes look at Mahjub. It yelps with murderous intent and Mahjub quickly grabs his dagger to defend himself.
It promptly snaps in half.
Everyone turns at the sound and sees Mahjub facing off against the vile lapdog. The creature shrieks as it pulls a small bow and nocks an arrow at Mahjub's face, screaming all the while.
Mahjub quickly tries to dart sideways and slips out his sap, surging forward to brain the pugwampi. Mahjub's sap comes up ready to strike the creature, but it's then that Rombard bleats and tugs once at the rope and it just manages to catch Mahjub's arm at the wrong time. His sap comes down on empty air.
Abud takes aim with his crossbow and fires at the pugwampi. The bolt comes nowhere near the creature, and he isn't really sure he can blame that on bad luck so much as not being a very good shot. Dima spreads her hand and small shards of frozen water shoot out from her fingers. However, it sprays the ground by the pugwampi and not the creature itself.
Jadid purses his lips and starts moving, takeing his time working through the cactus patch. Even though he can feel himself slipping where he knows he wouldn't normally slip, his training keeps him upright.
The imam simply sighs and braces himself to keep the foreigner swinging back and forth at the other end of the rope from ending back on the cactus. Abu'l holds the rope as Gerber, hearing the battle, tries to scramble up. His foot comes down on a loose rock that he could have sworn wasn't there before, and he nearly falls back down. He manages to barely right himself and climb up over the ravine to see the battle before him.
The creature snarls and shoots straight at Mahjub's head. The rouge twists out of the way and the tiny arrow sinks into the ground just missing. The pugwampi shrieks and begins to cavort around Mahjub, babbling and nocking another arrow. Rombard bleats and brays hysterically as it drags the scrub brush behind him, nearly reaching the cactus patch.
"We were going to capture you," Mahjub murmurs to the pugwampi in Gnollish, assuming it understands the language of those they worship. "Now we're just going to kill you!" Mahjub takes another swing with his sap. Mahjub's sap looks like it's about to hit, but dust gets in his eyes for no reason and he ends up missing by a mile instead. Although the tiny creature doesn't look terribly steady on its feet much longer after what Mahjub said. The creature, milky eyes already looking around in fear at Mahjub's threat, fires another tiny arrow- but it comes nowhere near Mahjub.
Abud's crossbow bolt sails over everyone's heads into the ravine. Likewise, Abu'l draws his scimitar to attack, but strangely, it gets hung up as he pulls it out of the scabbard and he ends up missing by a mile. Dima's ice shards fare little better as it sinks into the ground and quickly melts, but Jadid finally works his way through the cactus patch to the melee, managing to keep from slipping on any spines.
Gerber draws his longsword and looks about to cleave the thing in two, but Rombard picks that time to dart in front of the former knight. Just that split second of hesitation makes Gerber miss the dancing imp.
Dima decides to stop wasting her energy and just hold the lantern steady so everybody can see what's going on, which helps as Jadid rushes over and his sinewy arms wrap around the small creature. It squeals and twists, but Jadid's training makes little work of it. With Gerber helping by blocking it in with the shield it's even easier.
Or it would have. Suddenly, the creature finds a wet sappy portion of Jadid's arm. It squirms out and yips in triumph as it bounds up off Jadid's head and passes gas in his face.
Cackling gleefully, the pugwampi turns right into Mahjub's sap. It's face crumples and its eyes roll back as it falls to the ground, even though Mahjub swears the blow didn't do as much damage as it should have.
Gerber impatiently scoops the thing up by its neck and begins trodding back the way the he came through the cactus.
"Let's get the hell out of here," he says.
"Tie it up," Mahjub says, untangling himself from the rope and giving it a tug to bring Rombard closer. "We're lucky we even managed to touch it, I don't want to risk losing it, especially in the hands of a drunkard."
It takes some effort to communicate what is needed, but Dashki smugly ties the filthy pugwampiup as Gerber hold its limp, stinking body up. Now getting a closer look, the party can see the imp is dressed in crude rags, in addition to have a rusty dagger and tiny little bow with tiny little arrows carelessly stuffed down the back of its shorts. Also stuffed down its shorts are singed and burnt harrow cards similar to what was found in the astrologer's wagon.
Rombard is vastly easier to calm now that its torturer is gone. Despite this, the walk home finds everyone tripping over exposed roots and stubbing their toes on rocks that seemingly sprung from nowhere or getting sand or grit blown in their eyes.
The party's return to the camp is greeted by tears of joy from the camel drivers as Rombard appears, followed by gasps of shock and disgust from them and everyone else as they see what it is they are carrying.
In short time, Garavel and Almah emerge from their tent. "Is this it?" she asks.
"That is it, and I believe you'll find some incriminating evidence on its person," Mahjub replies. "I don't know what you plan to do with it, but I would advise keeping it away from the camp and bound at all times. The aura of bad luck the pugwampis possess, that Dashki warned us about," he says with a nod and solemn smile to the other man, "is no myth. It took damn near all of us just to lay a hand on the little bugger."
"That aura almost caused the goat to nearly kill him." Abud points sympathetically at Gerber.
"Frankly, I see no reason to keep it alive,” Jadid says. “I doubt it's . . .aura would continue."
There's a cry from outside as one of the mercenaries slips in camel dung.
"I agree completely," Almah replies to Jadid. "There's no reason to keep it here if its presence will cause similar problems."
Almah nods toward Garavel. The major domo draws a long knife from under the folds of his robes and walks toward Gerber. He looks perturbed as it nearly slips from his hands.
"May I?" he asks in Imperial, holding his hand our toward the unconscious pugwampi. "She desires we would kill the beast to avoid similar mishaps."
Gerber tosses the thing on the ground to avoid accidentally being cut with the knife.
"Wait," the imam says. "The creature uses weapons and tools. It can reason. Let us inquire of it who sent it, and why it burnt the wagon. It retained a card as proof. This thing did not act of its own accord. If there was more to this than simple mischief, we have not seen the end of this. A wise man looks to the horizon, and not just the sand in front of his feet."
"All due respect Holy Learned One, I will not allow this thing to live when it could easily ruin months of preperation and planning simply by walking by us. There's too much at stake to do otherwise,” Almah says cooly. “However, if you wish to question it for a time, you may. Just as long as it dies immediately after. I will not have this thing near us."
"Is there one among us who is learned in foreign tongues?" Abu’l asks.
"It seemed to understand the language of the gnolls," Mahjub answers, recalling the pugwampi's reaction to his threat during the battle. "It would stand to reason that they speak or at least understand the language of those they worship, wouldn't you say, Dashki?" he asks as he turns to the other man, trying to include him in the conversation.
Mahjub can't seem to find Dashki inside the tent at all. However, his voice hesitantly comes from outside. "yes," he says.
After a while, it's obvious Dashki isn't planning on offering any more. Almah turns to Mahjub. "Well then, start your questions. Is don't want this thing living any longer than needed."
"I propose those interested in what this thing has to say take it somewhere less . . .delicate than this tent. I, for one, will not be joining you," Jadid says.
"Well, well, fair mistress....we shall take care of this dreadful business with due haste." Abud motions for anyone to follow him. "Come on, let's interrogate this rat at the edge of the camp. It's also a good place to dig a deep grave for it."
Mahjub half smiles and exits the tent, moving to follow those that wish to speak to the pugwampi, but not before he speaks to their reluctant gnoll expert. "Dashki," he says, finding him lurking near the tent. "What's the matter with you? I was in there trying to get Almah to see you in a whole new light, but you she couldn't see you at all because you were nowhere in sight!" he whispers. "I didn't mean for that rhyme..."
Color floods to Dashki's cheeks. "It isn't possible!" he hisses.
Dashki stands from his kneeling position outside the tent and grabs his scimitar as the others walk out. "Go talk to your stupid pugwampi," he says as he walks away. "Just give me the body when you're done."
As some of the group takes the pugwampi away, Jadid finds a place in camp near the mercenaries where he exercises and drills his technique. Gerber, too, heads back to the mercenaries to see if there is any drink left. He has no interest in questioning the pugwampi.
The mercenaries welcome Gerber back eagerly and hand him what little of the alcohol is left. One mercenary nearly falls into the fire as the pugwampi is taken out of camp. The rest mutter darkly. The knight watches as a few of the mercenaries good naturedly rib Jadid as he practices his forms in mid air. "Looks like dancing!" one laughs. "Practicing for your next career?"
Jadid continues but speaks in between moves. "The Temple of the Sand Snake . . .teaches the ultimate form of combat. You . . .rely on weapons, armor. I am . . .weapon and armor."
Gerber frowns and nods at Jadid in a sign of respect.
"ooooOOOOoooooo!" some of the mercenaries say to each other, causing peals of laughter.
"I could probably take you without anything. You're about as thick as my arm," says one of the quiet female mercenaries.
"Haw! Iman is turned on I think," snarks one of the male mercenaries. The man gets punched in the face in response, causing more laughter. Jadid simply stares at the woman.
The mercenaries laugh as Iman strips off her armor. A few coins get thrown on the ground. A cart door opens up and Father Zafir looks out with some annoyance. Almah's personal guard stay around her tent, although most seem to be watching this event unfold. The two camel drivers begin to talk hurriedly.
One of the mercenaries quizically nudges the increasingly drunk Gerber. "Good, yes?" he motions toward Jadid.
"We'll see, won't we?"
The mercenary seems to take whatever Gerber said as a positive and enthusiastically throws down some coin himself onto the pile, talking extremely quickly to his fellows.
Jadid bows at Iman, arms folded. He then stretches his arms out and tries to grapple her. As he does so, the monk just manages to see the sucker punch coming. He tries to take the arm into his hold, but she just manages to twist out of the way. Iman lands a solid blow to Jadid's side.
"Yes, he's quite tough isn't he?" she laughs as the other mercenaries roar in approval and throw down more coin.
Gerber sits up to watch closer and, notably, leaves his drink where it sits.
"Fast. Good." Jadid goes for her nearest limb.
Iman laughs as she dances around Jadid. "Usually, the word 'fast' isn't good when talking about men."
She lunges and Jadid shoves an elbow into her face so hard her head snaps back. She stumbles backward as Jadid whirls behind her and ALMOST slips into Jadid's hold, but either by luck or simply by being extremely loose-limbed after the blow she slips out of the hold.
Iman shakes her head grogily and stumbles around, suddenly taking this very seriously.
"Pay attention," Jadid says, lunging.
Gerber stands, watching very intently.
She seems to take this to heart. Jadid's next punch connects, but not nearly as well as the first. Iman growls as Jadid gets behind her again, but again- she manages to slip out of his grasp.
The mercenaries roar in satisfaction as they clap their hands and egg the combat on.
Jadid watches her eyes. "You leave too much open." He tries to grab onto a leg.
"You'll be opened!" she growls as she dives.
Jadid gives another massive elbow to the stomach, doubling her over. This time, Jadid twists around in the sand and twists her leg underneath his own pinning her, although she barely seems conscious after the elbow shot.
"Your leg, soft here." Jadid twists.
Jadid twists and Iman cries out once before her eyes roll back in her head. She slumps over and Jadid tosses the unconscious mercenary to the ground.
After gently putting her on the ground, Jadid looks up. "Not dancing. Combat. I will help see to her healing. She is very good."
There's a roar of approval as the mercenaries exchange coin and laughter. One of them, however, is more annoyed than anything.
"All right," says the larger one who seems to be the leader. "Lets see if you're good enough to take on a real man."
Sorry for the absence people. I was in a mild accident that kept me away for a bit. But now, ON WITH THE SHOW!
Abu'l, Mahjub, and Abud take the pugwampi just outside of camp, causing a stream of curses and dark looks as the creature's bad luck aura causes stubbed toes and trips the entire time.
The three walk to the craggy branches of the Sultan's Claw just as the pugwampi's eyes begin to flicker. Its eyes open and wakes with a start.
It begins screaming, frantically tugging at the ropes tying it and yipping hysterically. It's so loud everyone in the camp can hear it.
"Stop screaming, or you we will kill you," Mahjub threatens in Gnollish. "Answer our questions and there is a chance you will be set free. Do you understand?"
As Mahjub growls, he stares into the pugwampi's eyes.
His pants rip straight down the backside.
There's a long silence for a moment as the pugwampi shakes. It starts laughing hysterically as Mahjub looks behind him to see his rear exposed for pretty much everyone to see.
"Ah, my friend. That was not wise....We are trying to help you not be buried by sand and anger..."
Abud stares into the pugwampi's eyes and the little lapdog's eyes go glassy.
"Back at the camp they want you dead and buried,” Abud says in a monotone voice. “We may be able to change their minds if you're useful. Help us help you."
The pugwampi is still giggling as Abud begins to speak in his monotone. The imp's milky eyes widen and as Mahjub adjusts his pants, he notices that the pugwampi's jaw has gone a little slack as Abud’s spell goes into effect.
"Talk to us, little friend. Why did you take the goat? Anyone told you to set fire to a wagon?" "
The pugwampi stares at the half-elf as it squeaks out a response.
"Saw goat and happy people with it. Wanted to hurt goat make people unhappy. Laugh and laugh and maybe give skull to big gods."
"No one told. Out at night look for food. Got cold. Saw old man in wagon with little fires and went in through window. Little fire came big fire. Man went to get out but door not open. Laugh! Funny and throw little pictures at man while he burn."
"Yes, funny..." Abud gives a little chuckle. "Are there any more of you around the camp?"
"No. Not round camp."
"None your business!"
"We just want to keep them out of harm's way. If I know where, I can keep the human's attention away from you. More goats, more fires, more unhappy people."
The two stare at each other for a moment.
Abud feels a little warm. He looks back and curses as an errant, impossible spark has drifted over from the dying camp fire and set on his pants. A thin trail of smoke comes up and Abud slaps his rear maniacally to put of the tiny fire.
This fact does not go unnoticed by the pugwampi.
"LIAR! LIAR! LIAAAAAAARRRRRRR!" it shrieks. "Murderers! Going to kill us aaaaallllllll!"
"Right. I am done here," Abud sniffs.
Garavel walks up toward the trio as the pugwampi hollers and yowls.
"Have we discovered anything of use? Almah would like this to be finished quickly."
"As would I, my arse is getting cold," Mahjub replies unpleasantly, shaking his bare butt through his split pants for emphasis. "You have anything to add priest, or can we be done with it?"
"Very well," says the imam. "The creature is as simple as everyone else who makes their home in this waste. Put an end to him and his caterwauling."
Garavel takes out his knife and swipes it swiftly across the pugwampi's throat. It's eyes widen and it shudders as it dies.
"HAW! Watch out Trevvis, you may get burned again!"
"She fought well, as I am sure you will." Jadid bows quickly and goes straight for a grapple, no strike.
The two come together in a flurry of limbs. Trevvis is talented, but Jadid's training simply beats out the mercenary leader. Jadid spins around and wraps his limbs around Trevivis's arms and pinning his neck down in a full nelson.
Jadid applies pressure. "You are too used to your objects."
Trevvis gasps as Jadid pulls his muscles taut.
The mercenary leader struggles to free himself, but the monk has him locked in tight.
"The body is both soft but hard. Knowledge and training shows you how to decide."
"GRAAAHHH!" Trevvis yowls in pain as he flops in Jadid's arms. The monk, quite, simply, is a tree rooting the mercenary leader in place.
The other mercenaries have stopped throwing down their coins and their cheering and laughter has subsided to a slow murmur.
Jadid simply keeps the hold. "Submit?"
Trevvis is red-faced and sweating profusely. He struggles in Jadid's grip but his legs find no purchase on the dusty ground.
"Stupid... Scarred... HRPMH... Not... Let GO!"
Gerber looks over to see the mercenaries watching the battle, a little wide-eyed at seeing their leader so helpless. "Enough, Sand Snake! Hold!" Gerber yells in Imperial, concerned about the sentiment growing in the mercs.
Jadid lets go, but stands watchfully. "You fight with great talent. I am certain your weapons are deadly. I . . .hope I have not overstepped bounds. This has been my life since I was a babe. I wished only to practice with other students of combat."
Gerber walks over and helps the mercenary leader up. "Just go to bed, now, Sand Snake. I'll smooth it out."
"In what language, northerner?" Jadid offers his own hand as well. "I think we can teach each other things, my friends. Life is not only combat, though I can teach what I know."
The mercenary looks extremely unsteady on his feet as he struggles to catch his breath.
"Piss off," he snaps, butting elbows with Jadid as he walks toward his bedroll.
"Don't pay him any mind," one of the mercenaries says quietly (Jadid thinks it's Akram). "It's been a while since anyone has trounced him so thoroughly."
"Besides," says one of the female mercs. "You won us some coin against him."
The other mercenaries slap Jadid on the back. The mercenary next to Gerber nudges Gerber and smiles giving him a thumbs up.
Gerber just purses his lips and nods.
"I meant no offense," JAdid says to Gerber. "Perhaps I can teach you the language of the sands in exchange for knowledge of your ways? Until then, let us drink. At least these are not Imam's shouting their lies.”
"Now, who here is an expert in this . . .Hanaan's piss? For though my body has been burned many times, my gut has never burned with such fire."
"This one just about finished it off I think," one points toward Gerber. "But we have another-"
The entrance of Almah's tent flies open suddenly. She looks over the camp.
"Get. To. Sleep."
The camp goes quiet as Almah looks over the camp. Garavel walks out after her.
"These people were hired to do a job. I will not have you weakening them unnecessarily."
She looks toward Garavel. "See if those three are done with that creature. It's the middle of the night and that thing has barely stopped screaming."
"Everyone else get to bed. Now. First thing in the morning your playmates have work to do."
"It is like I am in the temple," Jadid sighs. "always someone to say when to sleep."
Gerber gets the idea and wordlessly returns to his cot. Those watching cannot discern how he feels about Jadid.
Dima is halfway through describing her life at the desert Oasis her tribe called home before her family moved to the markets of Rashadar, to the camel drivers when Almah gives the command to quieten down. She bids them a fond fairwell and beds down, watching the flames for a while.
Kashif finds a dark nook between pack and bedroll to watch over his mistress.
The next morning is hot and dry. That's hardly unusual.
Everyone is woken by Abu'l passionate prayer as the sun peeks over the horizon. The imam prostrates himself on his prayer rug and sings loudly. If he notices the young mercenary woman he saved yesterday watching him, he does not let on.
Everyone goes about their morning. Jadid practices his forms. Gerber vomits just outside of the camp and tries to keep his eyes closed against the morning sun. Mahjub looks with some curiosity that Dashki has apparently dug up the pugwampi they buried last night. The dirty man has fashioned a tiny noose for it to hang from the end of his staff and most of the camp mutters darkly as they clean up and eat their meager breakfast.
In the light of day, they can see that the Sultan's Claw is located very close to the Scorched Peaks. High hills and near-mountains block the view to the south. But to the southeast, they can make out ruins past some rolling cracked hills.
The party is quickly ushered into the tent after everyone's morning rituals. When they enter Almah's tent, she barely looks up at them as engrossed as she is in the map on the table.
"I'm going to assume Abud told you what is we're doing here. If not, then ask him after I'm done talking."
She motions to Garavel and he begins to translate for Gerber's sake.
"About a mile from here is an old mosque. A group of muridin of Hannan came all the way South and set up just a mile south of Kelmarane. These fakirs formed the Varishdalyyah a very long time ago but when Kelmarane fell, it fell."
"The events of last night has led me to believe that we are too exposed a location. I think that this ruined mosque would make a much better base of operations for the coming battle for Kelmarane. It will be easier to defend and fortify the mosque than this camp."
"However, I doubt after all this time the place is unoccupied. So this task falls to you."
Almah finally looks up. "I do appreciate everything you did last night. And I don't expect you to do this out of the goodness of your hearts. I'm willing to pay you each two hundred gold for the work we're about to do."
Arms folded, Jadid merely shakes his head.
"Not from me, blessed mistress,” Abud bows. “We are sure we're enough for the challenge and your reward, although not needed, is appreciated and well received."
"As soon as you give me leave, I shall inform my fellow adventuers about what you saw fit to inform me yesterday." He bows. "A most magnificent and cunning task."
Almah smiles slightly. "You have it."
"Who is likely to have occupied this place?" Gerber asks.
"The desert is one thing, but we're close enough to the mountains as well," Garavel says. "Could be anything. Perhaps gnolls. Perhaps dumb beasts."
"So, we're only a couple of miles from Kelmarane?" Dima asks.
"A little over a mile actually. You can see it just over the hills."
The party comes toward the ruined mosque after a short walk in the morning. The air is cool coming down from the mountains, a pleasant relief after the punishing travel in the Great Desert they had just gone through. Everyone knew it wouldn't last as the sun rose.
Most of the mosque's walls remain intact, though a few of its minarets have collapsed and gaping holes mar most of the structures ceilings. Some of the old red and orange tile work remains intact, but the massive sun symbol common to Hannan's faith is cracked and faded.
The overgrown path leads up to the western wall, where two fifteen foot wide entryways lead inside.
Jadid pads in quietly as Gerber looks outside the area. The former knight fails to see signs of much aside from the occasional small animal dropping.
Just inside, the monk sees that the two entrances are huge fallen sections of wall, although one seems to have once been a door. Scrub brush and a light, patchy carpet of hearty desert weeds invade the through the holes. The exposed area beyond is a huge hallway littered with bits of debris ranging from tiny rocks to enormous sections of collapsed masonry. Most of the roof above the long promenade is gone, but several jagged pillars remain.
Gerber stumbles a little as he walks south toward the first entrance. Even though daylight creeps into the mosque from outside, the small opening makes it difficult to see much upon simply peering in. Gerber sees a small entrance to his left as well as the hall extending further down to the south past where he can see.
Gerber hugs the south wall of the promenade and heads to the next door, discreetly peering into the room. Once Gerber's out of sight, Mahjub follows the same path and observes him from where the knight stood previously.
Gerber peers in and is momentarily startled by the man staring at him.
Gerber studies the man's face and disposition. "Ho, there, friend. Do you speak Imperial?"
The man stonily doesn't respond and stares straight ahead, face impassive.
It's with some embaressment that Gerber realizes that the man is part of the bas relief carving.
"Oh," he says. Face red, he turns and whispers to the others. "I knew it was a sculpture. I sometimes talk to sculptures. Big deal."
Gerber turns back and looks inside further. He can't see much of it, but just inside is what he thinks may be a cloister area. The outer wall of the north side he can just make out bas relief carvings, but without any light, he can't see much of it.
Abud walks slowly and carefully towards the Western Door. Looking inside briefly, Abud sees three long wooden tables and dozens of chairs that once lined this mess hall are in shambles, mostly rotted away with the passage of years, Light shines through several large holes in the ceiling, illuminating a closed door on the east wall.
Abud starts at the screech behind him. He feels a painful stab between his shoulderblades, and another one just behind his knee. He reaches back and pulls a tiny arrow from his neck.
Blood leaches into his clothes as clattering and loud yelps and shrieks comes from the room behind him where the arrows came.
"Nice meeting you," Gerber whispers to the relief before turning and running towards the commotion.
Abud looks down the small doorway where the arrows came from. He thinks he almost sees something for a second, when a stiff wind blows and dust blows in from the outside, blinding him.
Cackles come from within the small room.
The imam sighs and draws his scimitar after he sees Abud shot. Abu’l closes with the other man to support and protect him, and to drag him behind cover to heal him if necessary.
"The light of Hannan has grown in this place, but will shine brightly once more."
Meanwhile, Gerber turns and begins to run, when he hears a clatter next to him as a tiny arrow shatters far in front of him. He turns quickly, to see the sickeningly familiar figure of a tiny lapdog with milky white eyes. It screams at Gerber unintelligibly as it hops up and down on a piece of masonry.
Gerber, still hungover and having none of it this morning, roars in anger at the tiny creature and moves to attack. He swings at the creature. It would have normally taken its head off, but the sword gets stuck on the scabbard and dips lower than usual.
The pugwampi shrieks in fear and scrambles back. It screams, impossibly loud and Gerber's teeth rattle.
The fallen knight looks on in shock as his sword snaps in two.
Gerber flies into a blind rage and charges the thing with his shield. He slams into the pugwampi and sends it sailing into the air with a mighty blow. The creature's face is badly bloodied and its eyes widen as Gerber stands over him. It screams and scrambles as it runs west further into the mosque. Gerber roars as he takes a throwing axe from his belt and hurls it. It thunks solidly into the creature's back so hard that the blade sticks out the other side and its chest nearly cracks open.
Meanwhile, as everyone rushes or sneaks down to where Abud fell back, they hear screams from inside the room. Two pugwampis fly out, shrieking loudly and pointing hysterically into the room with their bows.
Mahjub takes this opportunity to nock his arrow and fire, but his hands get tangled in the bowstring for no apparent reason and his arrow falls flat to the ground.
Jadid creeps close enough to see this scene. As does Dima, who's frost ray hits the side of the door but little else.
Abu'l takes a swing at the creatures at his feet now as well, but his scimitar catches on his robe and it goes over the tiny canine creature's heads.
The two shriek at the room. One screams and the party can hear what sounds like cups and dishes shattering all at once inside. The other shoots his arrow inside the room.
Jadid warily watches what's going on, unwilling to throw himself in the middle of all those potentially catastrophic f*ck-ups.
"May your bones be bleached by the sun and the name of all your kind be erased from history!" roars Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad bin Is'haq al-Nadim as he hacks at the creature before him. Abu'l's scimitar sails over one pugwampis head, but Mahjub takes a step back, nocks his arrow, and fires. This time none of the uncertainty or clumsiness takes over, and his arrow streaks into the other pugwampi. However, given that he's trying to keep from hitting the others, his shot barely scratches the pugwampi.
Abud al-Jabiri takes a look at the pugwampi closest to him. Such a disgusting, stinking creature.
He slowly makes a fist and pushes it in the direction of one of them.
Abud rears back and slams his fist into the pugwampis with surprising force. Even though the pugwampi falls back, it doesn't seem to be enough to faze him.
Jadid watches Dima fire a bolt of frozen droplets at one of the creatures. It holds its face and shrieks in terror, before running south down the dark hall.
The second pugwampi shrieks in horror as it looks at the blood running down its chest and bolts south down the hall following its companion, shrieking the whole way.
"Cowards! To do this to a mosque and then to flee?" The imam charges after them, intent on hacking them to pieces. Dima curses most unladylike at the lack of damage from her ray, and hoists her crossbow instead.
Jadid lunges toward the fleeing creature as it rushes by, but even with his training, the tiny creature manages to just barely slip from his grasp. But somehow, Dima's loaded crossbow streaks across the dark hall and thunks solidly into the pugwampi's back. The creature crumples onto the ground. Abu'l’s cimitar whirls through the air as he chases the remaining pugwampi into the dark. Whether Hannan blessed his blade is up to debate, but somehow- even in the dark and with the bad luck that seems to follow the pugwampis, Abu'l's weapon takes the tiny canine head off at the shoulders- sending it bouncing away.
The mosque goes quiet.
For a moment.
The others, but especially Abu'l- who has run further down the dark hall where his human eyes can't see, can hear animal hooting in the dark and something moving.
The imam backs up the way he came, keeping his scimitar at the ready.
"Baboons!" Mahjub exclaims. “Coming at us!”
Gerber steps on the dead pugwampi to pry his axe out of it and then rejoins the others.
"Does anyone have a blade to spare? I do my best work up close, and a throwing axe is not terribly efficient for repeat usage, anyway..."
"He needs a blade,” Jadid shouts as he takes a fighting stance. “Do any of you carry metal weapons? We need fuel for a fire. We should burn anything still living in this, then it will be clear without any more people being hurt." The monk then notices something and begins to walk toward the shadows.
Dima nods as she hands over a well-worn short spear to the northern knight. "My father gave me this short spear, although I told him I may never use it." Dima offers to Gerber in reasonably accented Imperial.
Dima and Gerber’s conversation is interrupted as Abu'l stumbles backward out of the darkness.
Everyone hears a series of thumps in front of them. Moments later a single baboon screams and leaps on Abu'l. The imam's readied scimitar comes down hard on the simian's back and the primate howls in pain.
Mahjub's arrow streaks over everyone's heads as the baboon claws and bites at the cleric, but Abu'l manages to push him back.
Gerber grabs the spear from Dima and whirls around.. "Thank you, kind lady." The former knight is a little surprised as the spear almost comes tumbling out of his hands as he does so. However, his fingers tighten and he drives the spear home deep into the animal's belly. The baboon crumples to the ground.
Gerber looks in the spear in annoyance, about to blame his relative unfamiliarity with the new weapon for the near fumble, when there's a deafening shriek.
Everyone turns to see Jadid spinning out of the entrance and holding a thrashing pugwampi with one arm. It's tiny arms and legs beat the monk as it screams at the top of its lungs. Jadid gives the creature a brutal twist and the pugwampi's form goes limp.
The mosque is blissfully quiet again.
"If you wish to speculate on unlawful fornications, gentlemen,” Abu’l says. “The baboons and these creatures sharing living quarters raises some unwholesome questions."
"No need for a prayer, holy man," Gerber says, clapping the cleric on the back.
The imam rolls his eyes and sighs. They really need to teach this dumb foreigner the language.