[Campaign Journal] Sword, Sorcery and Minarets #13
#13 Fiasco in the Beggar’s District
by Gabor Lux
The dun battlements of the City rose above the horizon. The boat sailed into a crescent bay, where, just in sight of the walls, a cluster of dismal huts perched on high poles rising from the sea, forming a dense multi-level village connected by wooden walkways and stairs that seemed to be close to collapse. Someone suggested it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stop and ask about the recent news, just in case the Warriors of the Tiger were still looking for dangerous fugitives. They moored their vessel on a pier, and turned to an old, ragged man sitting on a pile of boxes, hinting of a small tip. Bawragh, the ancient beggar, immediately looked interested. Beckoning to the group, he lead them up a few flights of rickety stairs, explaining that he’d prefer to be further from the group of half-naked urchins who were even now hurling insults at him.
“Don’t trust the old man!” one cried.
“What is this?”
“They are ruining my life with their constant taunts and thievery. They are all little miscreants and thieves. Let’s go to my hut, where we can talk safely.”
“That is not a very good idea. Those kids are looking too fondly at our boat.”
“Be it as you wish. But please wait just a minute, I have to have a bit of my cough medicine before I can speak well.”
Bawragh shuffled off in the direction of a large hut, Marasura and Vifranavaz looked around, catching sight of a small group of tall young punks smoking something in the shadow of another dirty shack looking close to collapse.
“Hey! Care to talk?”
“I have got these green bars from Arfel. The first one is always free.”
“Thassomethink! Cool! I’m Midjar, and this is my best pal Zhorf. Have some of this grey square, it’s fucking great stuff!”
“I know we would understand each other. I would like to know more about your settlement.”
“I thought you’d want to know my sister.”
“Let’s not rush to conclusions. Where has Bawragh gone off to?”
“Probably to call the red-eyes. They live over there in that big hut.”
“Red-eyes? That doesn’t sound promising. We might have to be going sooner than we thought. Do you know any interesting news from the City? We are sailing there, and wouldn’t want to… well, it’s better to know the recent stuff.”
It turned out there were interesting news from the City all right. There was much talk of a recent murder that had taken place recently: a respectable stargazer, Chandir Lakh, had been found killed in his own quarters. Much sorrow, it is said, had also fallen on the house of Khojar Mirza, although here the news were unclear about the nature of these calamities.
“Well, there comes Bawragh again.”
“Isn’t that kid down there looking at our boat?”
“I think we will be going now.”
“A pleasure talking to you guys. Can we count on you if we have… business in the City?”
“You bring the bars, we bring the hands, you know the way.”
“I think we understand each other perfectly. Nice talking to you, boys.”
Bawragh was back, much less morose than before. He suggested that the characters seek out the large hut in the centre of the pier village, where they would find satisfactory answers to all their pressing questions.
“We really have to be going.” Burzasp answered, pushing a silver piece into the dirty palm of the disappointed beggar.
Back in the city, the party started to think about their next course of action. There was an immediate need to find lodgings, since the Sea Foam Serai might still be unsafe. Some passers-by suggested Ali Barzol’s Caravanserai, an affordable establishment close to the eastern harbour. The place turned out to be a smoky multi-level gallery situated in an inner courtyard, and full of low-born vagrants and miscreants — just the perfect place to remain inconspicuous. Ali Barzol, an unctuous man of enormous girth and greasy moustaches, quickly offered them a room on the first floor gallery, and the deal was struck for three days’ board. After placing a few discrete questions about the dead stargazer, he turned out to know that, according to city custom, he was “being given over to the skies” — chained in an open tower and fed to the vultures — in the western part of the city. Some in the party suggested seeking out the corpse before the vultures would get him and asking him a few questions with speak with dead, but it turned out nobody actually knew this spell, and sneaking into a tower guarded by a horde of religious fanatics was too risky. However, if all went well, Chandir Lakh’s tower would be ripe for the picking and could offer some interesting clues about the murder — at least before any inheritors showed up.
After nightfall, they staked out the dark building. The square was deserted and the nearby shops were all shuttered, but two guards wearing the city’s insignia were standing before thefront door. Looking more carefully, it appeared that there were two more entrances: a gallery from the neighbouring insula leading to a door on the first floor, and a bridge connecting the white cupola of the tower to the other side of the street on the third. They snuck into the tenement next door by breaking a simple latch and proceeded to the roof. The cupola was made of some thick, opalescent material, and the interior seemed to be filled with dense vegetation, and several birds were perching on their branches, asleep. “Noisy noisy” came the judgement, and it was decided that Burzasp, under the cover of invisibility, would descend by rope to the second floor, where three large, open windows offered easy entry.
Burzasp rappelled down, and found himself in a room of simple astronomical instruments and a blue ceiling painted with the outlines of constellations. A throne stood surrounded by several cushions, and Burzasp found a container of white crystals labelled “crystal dream”. He proceeded to the suite in the western half of the tower, where the stargazer had once received them. He examined more cushions and a platter of empty cups, all seeming to be undisturbed. An old iron statue of a woman stood next to the wall, and as Burzasp shone his light on the proud face and small dagger in her hand, he suddenly realised her features were familiar.
The warrior who had accompanied Rahib Khojar on his journey home — here? Something did not add up. He examined the statue more closely, and saw that the pedestal had held a corroded, half-broken plaque. Only the first half of an inscription was visible:
“* A D A R B … …”
He turned back to the cups. They were of very fine make, and identical to the ones found in Khojar Mirza’s sitting room. A coincidence… or is it? He could not decide, but the cups were valuable, and he collected the lot of them. Sneaking downstairs, he first found a harem where Chandir Lakh’s widows and four children were sleeping; opposite them was another sitting room, and a door next to a peeping hole. There was a simple room with a cot on the other side, but the lock was beyond Burzasp’s abilities. He snuck downstairs to the ground floor, listened for a little while to the guards’ bored conversation, then noting the rest of the place was storage and servants’ quarters, crept back up to the observatory and climbed the rope to his companions who were still waiting on the rooftop. There was another way to the room he could not enter: they walked down to the first floor gallery, and Vifranavaz sprung the lock from the other side. The room proved empty except for a folded message left on the cot:
“Simon bin Nazer says: Rathap Manur believes you a betrayer of the Fellowship.”
They retreated to the street, and pondered their discoveries.
“What does Lady Vampánga’s statue mean?” someone asked. Santiago was introspective:
“Maybe that there is a centuries-old conspiracy of the local noble families we have somehow became involved in? We don’t know enough to tell.”
“The message is a more urgent issue. Is the stargazer’s murder connected to us?”
“Everything is possible.”
Someone suggested to go visit Smender Famag right there and then, but Santiago advised against, as Vifranavaz struck a light to smoke one of the green bars:
“The streets are not safe at night. There is that story, about the ancient Khan who skins people alive. We should be home now.”
Next morning, Ali Barzol’s caravanserai was all a-bustle: various lowlifes were scrambling to bring food and drinks to a set of crosslegged tables, and a band of turbaned fellows were tuning a bunch of weird brass instruments which produced a not unpleasant music. A wedding was in preparations, and all were invited — Varat Devi from the garbage collectors’ clan was marrying her beloved, the handsome Djilat of the harbour-sweepers. There were people in colourful clothing all over, some oddly familiar — but for now, the party (except Marasura, whose player was absent) chose to visit Smender Famag of the White Hand, and ask his expert advice on matters both alchemical and city-related. Examining the container produced by Burzasp, he suddenly seemed very interested.
“Crystal dream! That is a very remarkable substance. How did you come by it?”
“We found it on the bodies of some robbers we slew.”
“That was well done. But these crystals — they are forbidden in the City, and their sale is very strictly controlled. They impart a sense for the invisible, revealing hidden things to the expert gaze. There would be a sure buyer for it, were it to go on sale even in clandestine circumstances.”
“Maybe another day.”
“And there is one more thing. I know some of this substance had belonged to a renowned stargazer, Chandir Lakh. You might not know, but he has been murdered very recently — so disposing of this rare material unwisely would attract certain attention.”
“Maybe the robbers had gotten it from their victim? But who was this Chandir Lakh you speak of? We have only known him by name.”
Smender Famag knew the man: as an astrologer, he had been a patron of the poor, but also a celebrated society figure belonging to an organisation known as The Seekers of the Starry Sky. This group was dedicated to a lighter form of occultism, more due to boredom than a genuinely deep interest. Their membership included some of the finest aristocracy, including members of the Warriors of the Tiger, Lady An-Raydn of the House of Nezhat Quawar, Puran Devi, a seller of musical instruments; and Rathap Manur, a master wizard.
“That is very interesting. Please, continue.”
But there was not much more to be known: the members of the society were amateurs and dilettantes. Then, the subject turned to Ali Shulwar, but here, Smender Famag confessed to little knowledge: he was apparently some figure from the past who was buried in the Undercity — and as a law-abiding citizen, he respected the interdict the Followers of Dókh, the maintainers of the vulture towers and disposers of the dead had placed on it. Before departing the house, Vifranavaz drew the alchemist aside with a private question:
“Do you know of any who would be an expert in mirages and illusions?”
“Mirages are the binding matter of our world, fleeting and transitory.” came the reply “I had known a man like that just a few days before, but now he is dead.”
“Is the White Hand genuinely our ally?” mused Burzasp after they had left Smender Famag. “He seemed to be withholding something.”
At least the trail of Ali Shulwar pointed towards the Undercity, but where could the entrances be? A well or sewer system? Might a smuggler like Samir the Tiger or Murad the Appraiser, both old acquaintances, know a way? Vifranavaz suggested there may be sewer outflows near the city walls; others considered the vulture towers, which may be hiding forbidden entrances.
“Spare some change? Spare some change for an old man?” came a request from behind them. They turned, spotting a wretch of a man, all grey and filthy, dragging himself by his hands and the stumps of his legs.
“What kind of bad fortune has happened to you?” asked Ambrosius as he tossed him a coin.
“The little brothers… they chewed off my legs as the priests had ordered when I refused their tithe — but a blessing it is! They know… they know all, and they must know that my legs were a worthy sacrifice!”
“The little brothers are… rats?”
“They are rats indeed, outlander! Many are they who obey Sürü Miklári, the great god of the under-passages! I heard you… you were discussing going down there…”
“Here is another coin, and you have heard nothing. But you must tell us about these priests — do help those who bring them sacrifice?”
Not surprisingly, the priests did help those who brought them sacrifice. They received worshippers in the Beggars Quarter where they had kept themselves imprisoned in an underground sanctum. The Beggars’ Quarter was a well-contained area in the southwestern quadrant of the city, flanked by the Fortress of the Tiger from the east, and high walls from every other direction. The only entrance was through a well-guarded gate, and as the watchmen warned, there was no way out after sundown: the lords of the city would not suffer these wretches on the streets at night. It was afternoon, still time to pay a visit to the temple, and they went, passing through narrow alleys and finally descending to a small courtyard, where yawned a dark entrance with black basalt stairs going yet lower. Two women in vividly coloured robes were emerging, deep in conversation:
“And they have wrought a miracle — milk for the milk and butter I have brought them, where I believed myself barren.”
“I bring the same gifts as you, so they will be calm and grow fat — may they bring the darkest misfortunes on those I spit upon!”
The party entered the dark sanctuary. The columned hall was illuminated by several feeble oil lamps, and bore the mingled smell of heavy perfumes and rat stench. All around on the tiled floors swarmed fat black rodents, lapping up the milk, butter and other savoury foodstuffs offered by the worshippers, and leaving black droppings everywhere. Fighting off the revulsion, they proceeded to the row of wrought brass bars which cordoned off the open part of the temple from every direction, and waited until a shuffling form cloaked in unsightly purple emerged from a dark side passage. The face of the hooded man was invisible, but he was attentive.
“Listen to our request, oh priest of Sürü Miklári! We come looking for the tomb of Ali Shulwar, he who lies beneath the city, but we know the way not. Does your god know?”
“The passages are known to Him, as His blessed travel far beneath the ground. An exclusive sacrifice will be needed.”
“He must be a very wise god then! And he must be very wealthy, with so many who bring him sacrifice… surely more than just milk?”
“He is wealthy indeed, but that should be no surprise: indeed, who would dare steal from His house or disturb its sanctity?”
“Wise words. Will these two green bars be enough? They are a valuable substance.”
“Do not worry, for if it shall be found insufficient, the little brothers will return to take their due. I will reveal this to you: to achieve your goal, you must seek the Garden of Sanghé, or the Court of Zuhari Kutargi. Both of these are found close to the Temple of Jeng. So are the words of Sürü Miklári.”
They departed the temple, shaking off its revolting smell, compared to which the Beggars’ Quarter offered a favourable comparison. Back through the street they went, when suddenly, Ambrosius pointed at a figure in the crowd, a bow-legged nomad with long moustaches, his lips red from chewing seaweed.
“I recognise that man! He had been spying on us at the Sea Foam Serai and wouldn’t talk even under the charm Muzafar cast on him. Where is he going now?”
They trailed the nomad through the streets, and he was going south and west, in the direction of the great fortress rising above the quarter with its painted roofs and thick walls. He passed through a roofed alleyway, and finally emerged in a small crowded plaza, whose northeastern side was occupied by a columned entrance leading to a temple-like hall. He walked up to the entryway, and spoke something to an armoured guard. They exchanged a few words, then the nomad produced a small package from under his clothes, handing it over. They both disappeared inside the hall.
“So that’s who he is working for, the bastard!”
“But who, exactly? I see no symbol.”
“We will have to extract more from him. He will talk this time.”
At last, the man emerged again. He cast a glance left and right, and finally went back as he came, but his way was suddenly blocked by a group of well-armed people obviously meaning business.
“Nice meeting you again. You will come with us.” spoke Ambrosius, grinning.
“Yes, and you will look into my eyes…” continued Vifranavaz, speaking the words of a hypnosis spell. People around him started to look.
“Come with us, and… he seems unaffected?”
The nomad was smiling, and looking over his company, shook his head.
“That won’t do.”
“You will speak now, or you will speak the hard way. Get going.” snapped Ambrozius.
“I will be silent no matter what.”
“You will talk. Who do you serve?!”
“YOU!” cried the man, and reached into his robes. A small dagger glinted, and he fell over dead, blade in his heart. There was a collective gasp from the crowd.
“He committed suicide! The bastard committed suicide!”
From around them came angrier voices, and the mood was starting to get ugly.
“They killed him!”
“They cornered and killed an innocent man!”
“The killers are outlanders!”
“Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Vifranavaz quickly spoke the words of invisibility and silently made for the stairs of the closest insula, leading several stories up through galleries.
“Accursed sorceror! They are among us!”
“Calm yourself!” cried Burzasp “This is only a misunderstanding. Look!” he emptied his pouch of gold into the crowd, and several men dived for the coins rolling in every direction, but many more were too thirsty for blood to notice. He held back the attackers as he ran up the stairs after the invisible Vifranavaz, finally shaking them off and escaping through the rooftops. Ambrozius and Santiago chose the streets: breaking through the crowd and dealing heavy blows wherever they encountered resistance, they ran from their pursuers and just rolled under the lowering portcullis before the quarter was sealed for the night.
“You fellows have excellent timing.” a guard remarked.
“Let’s not try that again.” responded Santiago.
Original date 9 and 30 September 2012.
Referee’s Notes: Successful investigation followed by one of the larger screw-ups you could commit while trying to remain anonymous and uncover vital clues. What caused the fiasco in the Beggars’ Quarter? Frustration with the nomad’s reticence might be a reason. At least escaping the mob proved fairly easy — but this is something a mid-level group can do fairly reliably. Hitting a dead end, the players decided to pursue their lead on Ali Shulwar — and the next part of this journal finally brings us to the Undercity.