[Campaign Journal] Sword, Sorcery and Minarets #02

by Kalman Farago
The plot thickens (and I have a feeling many future updates will bear the same title)

We got back to the Sea Foam Serai, rented a number of rooms for our group according to each member’s desire for privacy and state of money pouch — Ambrosius and Khasim gave extraordinarily generous tips to the servant in charge, and Ambrosius let him know he was a mercenary looking for work — and retired for the night. Soon after, however, the three of us sharing a four-bed room were woken up by a loud banging on the door, and the drunken tenants of the neigbouring room have foisted off an even more drunken… drunkard… on us, a brawny, moustachioed men clutching a hand-and-half sword even in his stupor. Apparently, he was given the fourth bed in our room but ended up in the wrong place. A brief altercation with the neighbours followed, as well as a discreet but unsuccessful shakedown attempt of the newcomer (the PC of a player who couldn’t make it to the first session).

Burzasp: While everyone else is busy arguing and shouting, I helpfully prop the man up against the wall while patting him down for anything to take.
Santiago (OOC): Melan, this is the WORST way you’ve ever introduced my character to the party.

In the morning, we introduced ourselves to our new roommate, a warrior called Santiago di Lavellos from a distant land, who, having a chronic shortage of money, a monster hangover and nothing better to do, agreed to tag along with us on our mysterious investigation. After a generous breakfast, we talked to Skaganti, the owner of the serai, a man in gold-emroidered magenta robes and the tattoo of a grinning red sun on his brow, who received us in a side office, a place of modest decoration. As Ambrosius queried him, it turned out that Skaganti did, in fact, have a job. A friend of him — allegedly a trader of some sort — was robbed recently, and was looking for someone to recover his goods. Intrigued, we decided to wait an hour for him to show up and discuss the job, while the two spellcasters went out to do a bit of private investigation related to our main business.

They walked over to Khojar Mirza’s house, now surrounded by the morning crowds, shopping, doing business and gathering for some sort of ceremony in the blue-domed building. Vultures were circling in the sky above: around the tower, large clumps of the black birds were gathering on the tower we escaped from, waiting patiently for something. To learn more, Muzafar used Vifranavaz’ invisibility spell and his own telepathy to sneak inside through the front door, and read the thoughts of the household guards as well as one of a group of hooded men gathering in the courtyard. They learned that Khojar’s body was still missing, but the local authorities launched an investigation into his disappearance. In fact, just as the magician was scanning the thoughts of the guard, he became aware of some commotion inside the building. An old, greying servant was being apprehended by some cultists of a local religion as a suspect in the case. Sensing that the poor man cold not expect any sort of fair treatment, he used a bit of magic to conjure a whirling, coiling, snake-like cloud of dust, together with the ghostly form of a fat man who might resemble the mirza, and distract everyone present, giving the old man a chance to escape. This naturally elicited excitement and shouting, something about some sort of „Invisibles”, apparently known enemies of the state.

While this transpired outside, the rest of us have finally met Skaganti’s friend, a shifty, sickly-skinned man called Gulai Mir the Nomad. He had one hand in a bandage (unrelated to the case, he claimed), and gave off a scent of strong perfumes. He told us how he was quickly approached and efficiently robbed by members of a gang called „the Fisherman King’s Men” while he was loading his boat a few days ago. They stole his boat and made off with three heavy wooden boxes, which they no doubt took to their not-really-secret hideout, a tower rising from the sea a short rowing distance from the docks. When pressed about the contents of the boxes, he tried to evade the question, but eventually revealed they held three dead bodies — as he claimed, the bodies of relatives whom he wants to have interred in a family mausoleum (a rare thing here, as a local cult normally feeds all bodies to the city’s eponymous vultures). The whole story stank a bit, excuse the pun, but we were low on money as much as on morals, and agreed to try and recover the bodies for a total of 180 gold pieces. Gulai Mir stressed that they should not be exposed to sunlight — Burzasp privately believes that all this business has something to do with the zombie-god Ozolba, but that naturally didn’t strike him as a deal-breaker.

The Headquarters of the White Hand

Time was passing, and the party was invited to a meeting of the White Hand that evening. While the party was vehemently discussing future plans (mainly whether they should try to incite the White Hand against the Fisherman King’s Men — Muzafar was very much against the idea, while others saw it as a good opportunity), Burzasp got a bit sick of the endless arguments and decided to investigate the bandits’ tower alone. He picked a good and secluded observation spot along the waterfront, and sure indeed has observed some boats and a single larger barge arriving to and leaving the tiny island. He even tried to intercept and/or shadow a crew that left from there and rowed over to the mainland, but couldn’t locate them in the bustling port, so he went to rejoin the others.

In the evening, the party went to attend the White Hand meeting. To cut short a long story and plenty of paranoia („Yeah, because it would be the first time in Melan’s games that we get invited to a friendly gathering and almost end up being butchered for no reason.” „Oh, , he’s drawing a map of the building’s layout. It’s gonna be a fight…” “Tamur Haquim the Barber, that’s a typical name for an assassin! Are you sure we want to follow him?”), it was exactly what it seemed at first glance: a dull meeting of some local craftsmen who are trying to protect their shops against robbers and thieves, full of empty rhetoric by a better-dressed member, while most of the audience were discussing the exciting problems of the Cart Edict, aqueduct concessions and such while sipping tea. We did get a round of applause, though, for kicking a pickpocket almost to death the day before. „Even though some of us think you might have been too soft on him.” Apparently, some of the craftsmen were persons who were willing to take justice into their own hands, and even seek out various wrongdoers to give them a taste of just desserts — something Ambrosius found interesting, and he talked to a blacksmith named Ultron Zard, apparently the man leading these expeditions, if he could participate on the next one. We tried to inquire about the gangs in the city, and found out there were at least two major ones — the Fisherman King’s Men, and another group based in the slums, where “idle beggars were being fed by irresponsible altruists, instead of being put to proper work”. We also tried to quiz people about possible fences we might use to get a crack on the Fisherman King’s tower, but to no luck.

It did end up as a fruitful and interesting evening, though. It turned out the man delivering the speech was one Smender Famag, an alchemist we have already been looking for. We’ve shown him some of our strange artifacts (the ones we’ve found on our persons with no clue to their origins), and got some interesting revelations. The ancient writing that decorated a fancy turban was apparently the sort of script some fakirs use to write prayers on their garments, and one such fakir was, in fact, in town. The name on the scimitar — Talhuris Khan — was the name of an outlander nobleman of some sort currently visiting the city. Burzasp’s four vials contained some very exotic, and no doubt extremely valuable, alchemical materials that even Smender couldn’t identify — he suggested us to try Chandir Lakh, an astrologer, or one of his other customers on Uugen’s Market. What he COULD identify, however, was Khasim’s magical cloak with the White Hand’s symbol — it had belonged to Mul Tragan the mirror-seller, a reedy, antisocial man just standing next to him, stolen a while ago.
Smender Famag: “This could all be very, very interesting. Do tell us, where did you find it?”
Khasim (taken by complete surprise): “I, uh… got it from Tarsios, an old friend, and…”
Smender Famag (as there is a silence in the room and everyone is looking at Khasim in interest): “An old friend? Very interesting indeed. And who might that friend be?”
Mul Tragan: “My cloak!”
Khasim: “He… uh, I met him near Khosura… where I… saved him from some raiders. It was a gift. He gave it to me as a gift. Please, have it back.”
Mul Tragan (clutching the cloak greedily): “My cloak!” [Hurries off without a farewell]
Khasim: “He could have at least thanked me.”

We eventually left but were still restless, and decided in the serai to do some more investigation in the night, checking out Talhuris Khan’s camp, located next to an old, walled-up tower which – local folklore claims – once belonged to someone called Riamos, a strange and dark person who has allegedly ripped open the throats of his victims with his bare teeth.. Vifranavaz, who was afraid it might reveal him, hid the scimitar of Talhuris Khan in his room, and we set off.

On the way there, we came across a group of urchins beating and kicking an old man lying on the ground. Burzasp quickly dispersed them with a few well-aimed slaps to the ear, and we helped the moaning man to his feet. What luck! After a few kind words, the conversation with the man, named Murad the Appraiser, turned very interesting indeed:
Burzasp: “We are looking for a “bird” in the harbour. The Fisherman King bird.”
Murad the Appraiser: “And a very big bird he is!”
Burzasp: “Do you know where he nests?”
Murad the Appraiser: “On his tower cliff! You do not want to annoy him!”
Our man, it turned out, was in fact a fence, and he might be able to use or services now that his young accomplices have turned on him. An opportunity to get us into the stronghold of the Fisherman King’s tower without too much hassle? We agreed to come back and see him the next day, although he warned us that he would not venture out at night — the Warriors of the Tiger, the city’s ancient military brotherhood would be out in force, scouring the streets with their pet tigers to find and kill anyone they caught on the streets — or inside, if they decided to batter down a door they fancied. He pointed us through a large square, towards the palace: next to the immense, fortified gates, standing by the crumbling great statue of a winged tiger-beast, a trio of fighters were standing in conversation. The Warriors of the Tiger themselves, two men and a woman: blue-black plate armour, gaudy plumed helmets, blue and red finery and haughty expressions on their sun-tanned, noble faces.

New Opportunities

We walked on — towards yet another unexpected and rather unwelcome meeting. Turning down a corner, we ran into a group of armoured and well-armed old warriors, lead by a plump, cheerful greybeard who called to us when Ambrosius turned towards him:
Man: “Ho! My name is Granto Gygas, and what is yours? Did you say you were looking for something?”
Vifranavaz: “Yes. Sir, we are strangers in this city, and lost. Can you help us with directions?”
Man (cheerful, drawing his sword): “Sure I can help you! Hand over all your money!”
Burzasp (exasperated): “Vifranavaz, you idiot!”
Man: “Get ‘em, boys!”
The oldsters came at us with a surprising ferocity, and after the first dolorous exchange of blows, in which Ambrosius was almost cut down, Burzasp suffered a grievous wound and Muzafar’s sleep spell only downed one opponent (revealing they were well-armed and high-level), we’ve turned tail and run for our lives… except for the always shifty Khasim, who was hiding in the shadows, sniped one of the bastards with his crossbow, then slit the throat of the sleeping man, dragged the looted corpse into the shadows, and made away with his pouch and armour back to the serai before the rest returned. Fleeing north in the streets, the party finally emerged under a tall house, and a voice called down from a high balcony:
Guard: “Halt! Who goes there?”
Ambrosius: “Your mother!”
Guard: “That’s good, because I would happily [expl. del.]”
Ambrosius: “You wouldn’t dare, you pansy.”
Guard: “I will come down and give you the beating of your life, just you wait!”
Guard 2: “Shhh! You will wake the master… and you don’t want to do that.”
Voice (from the house): “Will you keep quiet out there? I am trying to sleep! If it is beggars, go down and give the impertinent curs the whip, but be done with it quick!”
Muzafar: “Oh [expl. del.]. It’s Smender Famag, the alchemist from the meeting of the White Hand. We’d better go before we get into more trouble.”

A grievous blow has discouraged Burzasp and Vifranavaz from any further exploration that night, but Ambrosius, Santiago and Muzafar have decide to regroup and press on to visit Talhuris Khan’s camp. On the way they’ve spotted a large group of shaggy, ragged people heading towards them down a dark street in some sort of macabre carnival, dancing a merry jig to some sibilant piping. Discretion being the better part of valour, Muzafar used a Knockspell and they hid in a nearby storehouse, getting a peek of the strange flute player in the midst of the group as the crowd passed by: a cloaked figure with writhing tentacles peeking out from under his hood – probably a good thing they decided to avoid this meeting!

They soon resumed their way (after checking the storehouse and only finding cratefuls of grey, lightly phosphorescent shrooms) and eventually got to the tower and the camp. On the former, a dark, abandoned spire with walled-up windows and entrance, they saw an inscription, which Muzafar was fast to decipher:

“In the Mirror of Riamos he who looks, might see that which he seeks, and that which he seeks to hide from himself”.

Hmm… stories of vampires (or so we assume) are no laughing matter, but such an artifact might well help us recover our identities. They also managed to talk to two of the camp’s guards, swarthy, moustached men in colourful turbans, who were friendly enough and related to them the news that the Khan’s family heirloom scimitar was recently stolen! (And then somehow came into our possession…) Asking about Riamos and his abandoned tower, it turned out the men had not heard much more than us — the place was sealed tight and they were all right with it being that way. One of the guards mentioned that they were more concerned about another tower — pointing at the dark outlines of an ancient bastion behind him — one belonging to the Followers of Dókh, the pariah-cult tasked with disposing of the dead by leaving them to the gathering vultures. These were dark types, and they had recently dragged in three living men by brass chains, never to be seen again — only their cries could be heard for several hours.

As the adventurers were leaving, they’ve caught sight of the Khan himself, returning from some business in the city on a carried litter, and gasped in surprise… for they saw no one else but Vifranavaz himself! Indeed, the Khan looked exactly like the party’s wizard; the clothes were different, but his facial features were spot on equivalent. Disturbed by this relevation, they returned to the serai and rested for the night — after walking in on Khasim’s little private orgy with a number of pretty prostitutes (whom he must have somehow paid with way more money than we have…)

The next morning we discussed the uncanny news about the Khan, and made plans. We had to make sure not to stay out too long in the evening this day, since the Warriors of the Tiger and their feline pets would be out at night. The news that we had — or were? — imposters, who could be recognised in the city was another piece of information. Was Vifranavaz Talhuris Khan, as Ambrosius suggested, or the other way round? Were we, as Burzasp weighed the options, people who had been wronged, or a bunch of dangerous thieves who have lost their memories? Where did our first memory, the return from a strange — ritual? — figure in, and what about the strange tuning forks we were holding? Were we working for Khojar Mirza? It was briefly contemplated — Burzasp held this opinion — that we should reveal us to Talhuris Khan to find an ally. Too risky, and he might decide to have us slain immediately, retorted others. Still, we had someone looking like the khan in our party, and this similarity may still do us a service. There were other concerns as well, as Muzafar interjected: if we were guests at Khojar Mirza and not just summoned into his home magically, there were at least a dozen people in the household who could see us, and who knows where the investigation would end up.

Still in the morning, we visited the star-seer Chandir Lakh, who was known to give free astrological advice to those in need. (Muzafar, deciding the meeting too risky — he was afraid the man might know Vifranavaz — stayed at the serai, copying the star charts he had found in Khojar Mirza’s tower room.) There was already a row of petitioners waiting patiently on his stairs, while an elderly servant ran up and down with a cane to maintain the line. After paying a bit to skip the half-day queue, we climbed the stairs to a comfortable suite, and met the portly old man, asking him some questions about our problems, mainly our amnesia and — against the better judgement of some of us — our mysterious link to Khojar Mirza. Vifranavaz, bowing, inquired if he might have a lost half-brother, and Chandir Lakh asked him to walk over to his star-room to see what they might learn; as for Khasim, he openly asked him what he might have to do with Khojar Mirza.
“The mystery of Khojar Mirza is a question which now weighs on many minds” – the star-seer responded after a short silence, during which he contemplated the city through the windows, listening to the sounds of birds chattering on a higher floor of the tower.“ He was not to be found in his quarters, and while there were traces of blood, it is theorised he was carried off by unseen forces, to a fate unknown. Your question, therefore, raises many interesting conundrums.”
He came across as a well-informed and generally well-meaning person, but I for one am not convinced he knows anything about divinations, as his answer to our core questions was that we should come back at a later time — say, tomorrow night –, when he could examine our constellations in greater detail. Either that, or prepare an ambush for these bumbling adventurers who don’t even remember their identities but who, as far as they know, might well be some known enemies of some very powerful people. The single most specifically useful information we got was about my four mysterious vials. He explained they contained the raw material of magic that seeps into our world in the vicinity of rare portals that lead from our world to others, or protuberances of the vast gulfs of the Cosmos into the Mundane — certainly artifacts of great potential power in the hands of a sorcerer! He, like the White Hand alchemist Smender Famag, immediately offered to buy it off Burzasp’s hand, but he decided to hang on to the vials for now. Our audience with the astrologer concluded, we returned to the Sea Foam Serai to brief Muzafar on the events.
Muzafar: “So you have tied my name to a great sin, and blurted out something we really did not need anyone else to know. Well done, you dolts. Have you at least made sure you have not been followed on the way back?”
Khasim: “No?”
Santiago: “Not really.”
Ambrosius: “No.”
Burzasp: “Now wait just one bit! In fact, what about you — you have not proven your bravery — you ran when you should have helped us, so you have nothing to complain about.”

After this intercession, we visited Murad the Appraiser. He didn’t have any jobs that could get us into the Fisherman King’s tower, but he did have one that sounded relatively easy and promised a quick 100 gold coins: he needed some people to sabotage some dockside maintenance work as part of some petty prestige war between a friend of his and a local official. Whatever, we agreed to take a look at the thing – sounds like easy money. And at this point we concluded our session.

Notable quotes:
Santiago: “They sold the same room twice!”
PC2: “Nobody [expl. del.] with adventurers.”
PC3: “I can see the smouldering ruins of the Sea Foam Serai already.”

Ambrosius: “Good morning, Vifranavaz!”
Vifranavaz: “Tell, does not the dark mystery in our past weigh heavy upon your soul?”
Muzafar (exiting his private room): “Ah. So you lot are still alive.”
Burzasp: “Does that disappoint you?”
Ambrosius: “… some greetings!”

Bursasp (to Skaganti): “Greetings, oh Padishah of hospitality!”
Bursasp (to a servant): “Lead us, oh servant of servants, writhing worm, you dust of the earth!”
(Burzasp’s note: I didn’t actually say “writhing worm” and “dust of the earth”, some other player blurted that in.)

Khasim: “So we land on this pier – ambush the guards there and hide the corpses while we assume their clothes – then we row over to the tower and infiltrate it, to…”
Burzasp (OOC): “… actually, did Melan ever say it was their pier?”
Khasim: “… and if we find civilians, we have to find a way to neutralise …”
Santiago (OOC): “This reminds me of the times we spent five hours planning, then ended up attacking from the front and killing everyone.”

Ambrosius (to Santiago): “… and they let loose live tigers in the city streets!”
Khasim: “It would not be much use to do it with dead tigers, would it.”

Santiago: “In my opinion, Vifranavaz, and don’t take this as praise, you would make a much better khan than the original.”
Vifranavaz: “It looks like I already have my slobbering toadies.”

Originally posted on Dragonsfoot.

Referee’s Notes: As the tile says, the plot thickens. Or rather, there is no plot, at least not a predetermined one. This has lead to a lot of fascinating gameplay, but also some serious problems. Too many conflicting player agendas (both because of dominant players clashing, and the sheer number of active participants). Too much time spent discussing and sniping down alternate plans. And some players did not enjoy themselves. So, either a collective agreement is in order, or some players will have to go. This will be discussed over the coming weeks, and hopefully, we will reach a mutually acceptable compromise.


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