Several days prior, Nanda’s fateful draw from the Deck of Errant Destinies announced the early return of the Malazephyr, a deadly sandstorm that normally scoured the desert and its people once every two years. It’s sudden return was seven months early, and none would be prepared for it. The party made heroic efforts to get word to everyone they could that would be in its path, and as our story opened, they were at the end of several days spent preparing their fragile new settlement for its arrival.
The question of what to do with the deadly cursed skulls weighed heavily on the party. They could not remain and continue to curse the land so many were beginning to depend on, but where could they be safely sent? Looking for more ideas, the group asked Ghomesh if she might know of any experts among the Aridesa refugees. After all, had they not been searching for powerful artifacts before they fled? Ghomesh knew of a few people, but one in particular was her first choice. After searching tents a while, he was located and brought to the main house. His name was Balasar. He was a blind man, old and somewhat infirm, but still mobile and quite bright of spirit. Asking to see the skulls, he examined them closely and then announced that he knew what they were and could speak at length on them, once he was properly compensated with a better tent and living conditions. The party agreed, and he told them of the Twin Skulls. They had belonged to the last living heirs of House Tulesti that Ghadir was aware of, and were offered on the Shadow Plane as a sacrifice to its master. Ghadir had found a way to travel there with these two living people. Three Shadelords of the plane had attended the sacrifice, demanding days of torture for the two before they finally died. In return, Ghadir was granted further power and the skulls were blessed by the lord of the Shadow Plane himself to become holy artifacts there. When Ghadir brought them back to the material plane, they bore horrendous curses in place of the shadow blessings.
Balasar’s counsel to destroy the skulls was straightforward. Take the skulls to the Shadow Plane, locate the Shadelords that demanded and witnessed the ritual, and destroy them. Once they were all dead, the skulls could simply be smashed to destroy the curse. Until then, they were nigh invulnerable to anything a mortal could do to them. Unwilling to spend the time with so many other matters pressing, the group squirreled the skulls away in the bag of holding until later. In the process of analyzing the skulls, Balasar revealed that even though his natural sight is long gone (by his own hand, no less), he is sensitive to the auras of magic, and can see enchantments clearly in his mind’s eye, even at a distance. The group was quick to hire him to work with the settlement’s security forces, asking him to patrol periodically with a town guard and look for any noteworthy or dangerous magic.
Meanwhile, the trader offering to establish a trade route to nearby Herlish was overjoyed when the group accepted his offer. Finn even sent extra funds with him as a donation for the Church of Rustum there. Once the man and his crew were loaded up, they beat a hasty path out of the settlement, hoping to reach Herlish before the storm’s arrival. As the sandstorm drew closer, the air to the west turned from light blue to gray, and then to a hazy beige color. The wind steadily picked up throughout the day, but it blew toward the sandstorm, instead of away from it. Finn and Dingo worked together to coordinate warning messages for the populace arrayed around them, and to set up a method for Dingo to send messages to Finn at a distance once the group departs the settlement.
With the leading edge of the storm mere hours away, people began to move inside the shield wall and take up shelter in smaller tents. By now, over 1400 people had gathered near the estate, and it was no easy task packing everyone beneath the dome that would protect them from the worst of the Malazephyr. As the move was finishing up, kites appeared on the horizon, racing ahead of the stormfront. Soon, it became clear these were three more of the trimaran ships like the SeaChild. All three flew Aridesa peacetime colors. A quick rally of troops and town watch met the approaching ships at the base of the rocky hill, with Arastea Ghomesh in the lead. She quickly vouched that she was familiar with all of these people. They had been assigned to several dig sites and work camps scattered within a couple of days’ sailing from here, and had received messages her people had dispatched to them. While she knew who they were, Ghomesh made clear that she could not guarantee allegiances after all that had happened at Aridesa. Under orders from the party, Tulesti soldiers and town guards separated and patted down people coming off the ships. Finn and Nanda searched the vessels one by one in the now painful wind as everyone else retreated inside the shield. The rest of the party quickly zeroed in on one individual in the new group. When she realized she was caught, the woman drew and knife and attacked, but the suspicious Tarsus was ready for her. He easily disarmed her, flung her to the ground, and pinned her. She was no assassin, or even a soldier. Knowing little more than that she was to meet someone here and hand off the implements of assassination in her possession, she was not of much value. However, the group noted that she wore another of the prisoner’s rings the cultists were fond of using to track members. A quick check of the ring against their revelation cloth, and the group was off up the hill in pursuit of the linked jailer’s ring. They quickly zeroed in on it, only to find it stuck to the door of the main house by a poisoned dart. Their quarry was aware they were being hunted, and how. At least they now knew for sure there were assassins in their midst.
Now in possession of the jailer’s ring, it was a race against the clock to locate the wearers of the remaining linked rings. One immediately showed up in the infirmary, but checking there revealed a young girl who had found it on the cot. Questioning a cleric in the tent indicated a man named Romi had been on the cot before her. He had been assisting Tarsus with cistern repairs earlier, and had injured his hand. A second lead wound up in a chase through refugee tents on the lower slope of the hill, very near the shield interior. As the man threatened to get away from Tarsus, a town guardsman named Pashar Agosto took careful aim on the fleeing man with his heavy crossbow, firing a shot worthy of an accomplished sniper across 40 paces at a moving target. The bolt lodged squarely in the man’s eye socket, penetrating deeply enough that he likely never knew what killed him. Unfortunately, that turned a potentially useful prisoner into a literal dead end for General Thornbane, who had the body collected and brought back to the house.
The sky had darkened to alternating stripes of black and brown as the first hard lashes of the storm tore at the shield. With the powerful artifact in place driving the arcane core, the shield held strong, humming softly against the strikes from outside. Gathered at the house to quickly surveil the settlement from above, the party spotted trouble at the infirmary below, with people rushing toward the tent. They moved to intervene, but were intercepted in their main hall by a pair of assassins that moved freely between the shadows of the room. The pair moved quickly, striking hard and retreating before the party could reposition. The attackers showed skill not just with blades, but also with rudimentary spells, defending themselves with magic when cornered. Sindar and Zayn focused their efforts on disrupting the magical abilities of the attackers while Tarsus and Nanda tried to pin one down and finish him off. Finn bolstered the the rest of the party, allowing them to push themselves harder than normal while healing wounds to his allies almost as fast as they were inflicted. As the first of the attackers was struck a mortal blow, he triggered a ring he was wearing and immolated several yards around himself in a blast of fire. The fire took his life, and nearly took a couple of heroes with him. With the first assassin down, the second quickly grew desperate. He threw his ring as he fled, but was slammed off his feet by a last-second attack from Nanda. The explosion did more damage still, but no one was out of the fight yet. Cornering him in the sitting parlor, the party soon ended that threat, as well. Unfortunately, the attackers here had delayed them too long to assist with whatever was happening at the field hospital.
Down the slope, a similar attacker made a sudden move against Avendi Volok, attempting to end her life in one motion. Though nearly successful, the strike was not quite enough against the now desert-hardened priestess, and she immediately put distance between herself and her attacker and pushed healing magic into her wounds. Several people nearby came quickly to her aid, including Warden Ghomesh and her ward, a town guard, and Brigadier Hennin. The four warriors descended on the would-be assassin like a pack of dogs, slashing quickly from several directions. The man twisted away from many of the blows, but the sheer volume meant a few got past his agile defenses. He made another play at Avendi, clearly focused on ending her life. The group defending her had to reposition several times to finally corner her attacker away from her, and she was able to turn her attention toward assisting them. Seeing he had missed his chance and was, at worst, about to be captured, the man whispered a word and raised high a ring on his left hand. It glowed brightly for a moment before erupting in flame that torn through the field hospital with explosive force. Although Avendi and her defenders survived, several of her patients perished instantly in the blast, and the hospital was all but destroyed.
In the aftermath, Finn wondered aloud where the rest of the attackers had been. Assuming he had correctly identified the specialists that attacked the settlement, they should have access to additional powers they did not use, not least of which was a murderous familiar made of solidified shadow energy. But if that was the case, then where had those been? Almost on cue, news arrived from the Aridesa camp: Hana Daea, high priestess of Mahari, had been killed minutes earlier by shadowy demons than quickly vanished after the act. She had been the real target all along, with the rest of this being a diversion against targets of opportunity. Of course the Children of Ahriman, worshiping the demon lord himself, would put a high price on the head of the most revered and loved worldly representative of Mahari. Break the will of Mahari’s worshipers, and maybe get a less effective opposition as a reward.
With full honors, Hana Daea’s body was brought to the house, where Finn administered rights in concert with the remaining priestesses of Mahari. After applying spells to ensure her preservation, Finn led a procession to inter her remains in the Tulesti crypts below. At the conclusion of the ceremonies, a teenage boy with a lost look on his face introduced himself to Finn. He was the now orphaned son of the departed, Kando Daea. He asked Finn some mildly troubling questions, clearly needing guidance and bearing the burden of a heart soaked with a volatile need for vengeance. He asked a fateful question of Finn, “How do I learn to do what you do? How do I learn to stand up for people?” In response, Finn handed the boy is personal copy of the Hymn of Heroes, the holy book of Rustum’s faith. “Read this, and then we’ll talk.”
The story closed as the young Kando Daea, by candlelight beside a bunk in the Tulesti Citadel, took his first steps into the Church of Rustum.
The vote has been tabled in the Asad while missing delegates are searched for and rescued. An automatic procedural clock of 60 days started when they went missing, with 30 days now remaining before the delegates are declared dead and replaced. The Black Fleet has been spotted in Riyaqan waters.
Quote of the Day
“I should probably check her butt, too.” -Nanda, looking upon Tarsus’ new captive with rapt anticipation.
Assassins’ loot list
(1) medium-size +3 shadow leather armor
(2) +1 short swords
(2) +1 hand crossbow
(21) crossbow bolt
(1) belt of physical might +2 (DEX, CON)
(1) potion of invisibility
(3) potion of cure moderate wounds
(3) ring of retribution (1/day)
(1) cloak of resistance +2
(2) large CoA insignia (mithril with gold inlay) 175 gp value each
(2) handy haversack
850gp total value in rubies of various size
676gp total value in Khasif Nation gold coins (be careful spending this- it will draw attention)