As we left Cressida and Kahmuth, we detonated the powder magazine. Amidst the titanic explosion, Cressida rose to the sky as a giant, feathered serpent, and—amplifying her voice with magic—proclaimed the death of Keergai’im to all in earshot who could still hear. It was an impressive entrance.
Rana helped us return to our camp and we settled in for the night
I was quite insensate at the time. After the rush of battle died down, I was left to confront what had happened to me. While undressing, I received a great shock.
Though Lyr’s magic had healed my wounds with minimal scaring, my chest was another matter, it was emblazoned with a fresh, angry scar, a circle. The meaning of this to me was clear, it was a symbol from Pelor. Lyr seemed quite amazed by it and also feels that this is a sign. But of what?
I slept, though my dreams were fragmented and troubling. Dendera says I kept her up most of the night, turning and thrashing, but there was a deep undercurrent of concern to her remark.
In the morning, Rana had left us. Feng informed us that he had departed shortly before the sunrise, that he would aid Cressida for a time before continuing to follow the mandates of his god. I hope our paths cross again as friends.
Walking, the Al Haddid Jalut camp was a few days away, for we had been forced to abandon our camels and most of our gear to avoid detection. As we sought to avoid the Ushtarak camp, which was still in chaos, we made our way across the desert, following Dendera’s advice, in the hopes of heading off a supply caravan.
As luck would have it, we did see one, and waved it down. As we approached, however, a great rumbling came from beneath the sand and a massive purple worm erupted from the ground, attacking the caravan.
We rushed in to assist. It made a grave mistake when it swallowed fleet-footed Sehera, who dealt a tremendous blow to it as she cut herself out. Between Feng and Lyr’s magic, Indira’s arrows, and Sehera’s desperate gambit, I barely got in a single blow before the beast was dispatched.
Though I was foremost relieved to see Sehera alive, if stinking and acid-burnt, in the back of my mind, I could not help but feel dissatisfied, to think that, as of late, I have not been able to hold my own, to contribute to our efforts in the face of danger. Why would Pelor save me? Lyr says that her magic is Pelor acting through her, but is that truly the case, or is it just power granted, to be used at her discretion? While I am not one to decry the strength and generosity of my friends, the debt I owe Lyr—who has snatched me from the jaws of death on at least three occasions now—is one I can never repay if I live a thousand years. Or do I owe that debt to Pelor?
The caravan-master, Teanko, had survived the fight and, grateful for our assistance, gave us time to explain. She had not heard of the tumult at the Ushtarak encampment and declared there was no need for them to continue on their path. They allowed us to accompany them back to their base of operations.
Curiously, this was not the first purple worm attack on a caravan. These beasts are not normally a threat to the surface, for the mindless creatures typically dwell far below ground. Something has driven them to the surface. Perhaps whatever geomancy Al Haddid Jalut is using to restrain Zarjaz al-Ulaq is causing this.
For the rest of the day, as we helped compensate for the wounded and slain caravaneers, we kept our eyes alert, in case any more unpleasant surprises lurked beneath the sands.
Al Haddid Jalut Encampment, August 15
At around noon, we arrived at a flat, dry, salt lake, a peculiar feature to find in the middle of high desert. The area was home to an abundance of large tents and equipment, the encampment of Al Haddid Jalut.
We were led to a particularly grand tent and presented to Bacarhim Zdadegan, Arajnord of Al Haddid Jalut. After making an introduction, Dendera explained why she had come back, showing the ring in triumph.
We explained that, in recompense for assisting Dendera to bring the ring, we too wished to join the expedition. A strange being, a singular construct, or construct-like entity, identified as Efarmostis Berit joined us, presenting The Contract we had to sign. Other parties were involved in this expedition, and the contract sought to preemptively settle any conflicts.
An addendum was detailed for Dendera, allowing her to rejoin Al Haddid Jalut if she used the ring for two specific wishes.
Reviewing the contract, we discovered the identities of the other parties. Two were not a surprise: Al-Haddid Jalut themselves and the party of Lady Sisi Laracroix, the primary funder of this operation. Both seek the Philosopher’s Stone, with Lady Laracroix seeking to use it once, then to give it to Al-Haddid Jalut. This will be a problem, as the wording of the contract was such that, under no uncertain terms will we be able to abscond with it unfairly, at least until the contract’s term of amnesty expires a week from the expedition.
The final was worrying coincidence, for it was none other than Asha Druj and a party. They wish to study the inner workings of the legendary fortress. It seems a reasonable cover, but I have trouble believing this madwoman is not after the Philosopher’s Stone. She has already shown she is willing to do anything to further her goals. Lying on a contract seems like child’s play compared to some of the things she has done.
Lyr was, understandably, unwilling to enter into any sort of contract with Asha Druj. We took a moment aside to discuss this, eventually persuading Lyr that there was no other option in this case. We need to proceed with our plan, as uncertain its end may be, in order to preserve the life of the Effulgent One. Visually agitated, she ultimately conceded.
We signed our group in under Lyr’s name. Formally, we seek the Cintamani, a Peloric relic which is rumored to lie within the fortress. If this relic is not the Philosopher’s Stone, it is ours. If it is, Al Haddid Jalut has prior claim.
My hope is that the Cintamani is the real artifact, not the Stone, and that the relic may help us stop Chalazias’ mad plan. Even if both are real, perhaps we can trick him into believing the Cintamani is the Stone, and it will allow us to stop him. It is still a risk, for I imagine he is as capable of perverting the relic’s magic as he is Noza Oda’s. If there is no Cintamani, only the Stone, or they are one in the same, we will be faced with a serious problem, but I still see no other way out of this, despite weeks of pondering.
If we had been able to use the Khatam Mahib Ghaza, perhaps we could have stopped this months ago, but that is behind us now.
If the Cintamani is real, perhaps this is why I was kept alive, to guard Lyr until she obtains the relic.
Sehera signed on separately, she is a party of one and seeks to unbind the Karabelataniec and its duplicate from its former wielders and bind them to herself. Her ownership not only of Keergai’im’s blade but of an exact duplicate raised eyebrows, but signed to the contract, there was naught any other could do.
Contract signed, with Efarmostis Berit as both arbiter and enforcer, there was but one thing that needed doing before the expedition, for me to wed Dendera.
My head spun. I knew this was immanent, but so soon? We had not settled on a date. Dendera, being unsure what awaited us at this encampment, had tended towards “we’ll see” and changing the subject whenever it came up. And, I think she just wanted to see my face when she said the word “tomorrow.” I think I kept my composure, but I saw that twinkle in her eye, the closest she usually ever gets to laughter.
We were escorted to our tents—I have one to myself—then she separated from us to see to her own business and we went shopping. We sold off some loot, bought new clothes and a few other goods. I was fortunate to find something suitably elegant in human size. I’m sure my mother would decree this totally inadequate for a wedding, let alone my own, but it will have to do.
We joined a communal meal and got our first look at Asha Druj and Lady Lacroix. I mingled, attempting to gather some information, but soon found myself surrounded by what must have been every man in the camp. They began chanting, strapped me to a chair, and carried me of.
Everything is a haze after that.
Later, the others filled me in on some details of what happened with them.
Lyr was the first to leave the meal tent. Still distressed at the contract and the presence of Asha Druj, so close but out of reach, she was totally unready for one of Druj’s party to whisper something in her ear. Recognizing someone trying to start a fight, Feng escorted Lyr out and back to the tent.
They were enjoying “an innocent puff of his hookah,” as Feng innocently described it, when the men found him and dragged him off. Alone, Lyr finished off Feng’s entire supply. It was not simply tobacco…
Indira described a disconcerting experience of being watched and discovered Lady Lacroix’s half-elven son, Alophin, staring at her with more than usual interest. So intent was he, that Sehera recognized her discomfort and escorted her from the tent.
Sehera had previously been pulled aside by Eframostis Berit, who asked to meet in private, so, with Indira, stealthily made her way to the meeting place.
Berit was waiting for them there. He cautioned them that he suspected the Marut would break the contract after meeting their goals. They, like him, are beings called “Inevitable”, the inhabitants of the plane of Nirvana, also known as Mechanus. Their mandate: to seek out those who break the laws of death. In the cosmic accounting of Mechanus, Bennura’s soul remains unaccounted for. Berit was unsure why the Marut come for him now—perhaps Bennura designed his fortress to keep them out as well as the rest of the world—but he suspects more is at work than simply their typical mandate.
If the Philospher’s Stone is what it is, it has the potential to circumvent the same rules the Marut embody. They will not be willing to leave it be and will be willing to break the contract to destroy it. He suspects they will endeavor to not leave any survivors of such an attack.
He made an agreement—a rider to main the contract—with Sehera for mutual support in the face of such a breech. I wonder if he approached Sehera because she was to not have interest in the Philosopher’s Stone. Aside from Asha Druj, that is, who as I said, is hardly without subtextual interest in the Stone.
As they left, Alophin was waiting for Indira. She did not share his words.
On return to the tent, they found Lyr insensate, speaking only in vague mysteries. Could she have entered an oracular state? I suppose only time will tell.