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[DCC] Sandcrawling: the Cultist


#3 Anti-Illusionism Squad
Validated User
This is, somewhat unsurprisingly given the title, an AP of my DCC campaign which I'm running PbP. I'm doing it to test my "Arabian/Eastern European/Persian/Central Asian/Chinese" setting.
There's only one player. No, it's not for lack of willing players. I find few PCs fit the genre better. We skipped the funnel, and I modified the chargen to include lifepaths, and to give higher average attributes. I'm thinking of applying the rules for solo playing, but I'm not sure they're necessary in this case. Most of DCC works by-the-book anyway, apart from some setting houserules, and stuff I've swiped from Kevin Crawford's games, and assorted other OSR.
Anyway, here we are.

Spoiler: Show
Rozmahera the Cultist, once Sarangerel the servant
Class: Wizard 1
Stock: Mongol, born in the saddle (attack rolls on horseback)
Alignment: Chaotic

Rozmahera is in her mid twenties. She is small and wiry in the way of her people, with thick black hair to the small of her back, which she braids and sometimes binds up. She has a round face with acne-scarred cheeks and tilted, widely spaced eyes. She dresses in the local style with loose, airy clothes, headscarf, and veil.

Background Notes
Born Sarangerel, a fierce steppe girl, daughter of Ganbataar who did not let his wife stop or dismount to birth the baby.
Made sacrifices to Khan Oshoth and other ancestors with her family.
Father died in battle. She makes sacrifice to him now, too.
At 14, sold by her uncle, Megujin, to traders on the SEA NEAR A STEPPE. Her mother did nothing to stop it.
Traded through several markets, arrived at Karbar in the APPROPRIATE MARSHES, a handmaid to Lamya, fourth wife of Emir Beltashazzar, who was a sorcerer and secret thrall of Bobugbibilz.
Lamya, a djinn's daughter, was married to Beltashazzar against her will when he stole her feathered garment as she bathed, preventing her from changing her shape to a bird and flying to her father's palace. Sarangerel became her ally, promising to return her garment.
Beltashazzar recruited Sarangerel as one of several assistants in his magical rituals, teaching her only enough to aid him. With Lamya's help, she expanded her studies, copying spells from Beltashazzar's tomes and practicing in secret.
Sarangerel learned where Beltashazzar kept Lamya's garment. She brewed a potion of wine and blue lotus and drugged the carnivorous apes that guarded it, but she did not return it to Lamya as she had promised. Instead, she put her belongings in a cask and threw them from the wall into the river, then donned the garment, transforming into a bird and flying down to the river bend to collect her things.
From there, she fled to the city of Harran with dreams of power, luxury, and respect. She was no longer Sarangerel the steppe girl or Sarangerel the servant. She took the name Rozmahera to make a new life, and to shield her from the wraths of Beltashazzar and Lamya.
Her first plan is to make a worthy sacrifice to Khan Oshoth and ask for his protection and aid. She plans to give a great deal of her own vitality, so she needs to find a safe place where she can convalesce until she regains her strength.

Connections (part of the chargen).
Vadhut the Huntress: Rozmahera recognizes her because she's the current toast of the Harran dock town for being the one who slew a maneater lion called Qatl that was preying on folk along the river. She brought the carcass in on a raft a couple days ago and everyone's been keeping her well fed, drunk, and happy ever since.
Atars the Eunuch Guard: He is a servant of Beltashazzar, a guard in his harem. He was always pleasant and respectful to Rozmahera. She suspects he nursed a secret love for Lamya.
Nabukudrachara the Astrologer: This shapechanging rogue charmed his way into the harem of Beltashazzar posing as a maidservant to steal jewels. Rozmahera caught him in his female form, forcing the lock on the vanity of Beltashazzar's second wife. Fearing that she would be blamed if something was missing, Roz lay into him with a belt until he howled, which brought Atars running with his scimitar drawn. Roz then took pity on Nabukudrachara and lied, saying the new maidservant had forgotten the charcoal logs she was to bring to freshen the chamber and Roz was beating her to help her memory. Roz ejected Nabukudrachara the first chance she got, and never did see him in his natural form.
Yima the Beggar: Roz's fellow fugitive, though hiding from a different enemy. Roz met Yima on the riverboat out of Karbar and they became friends. Yima wanted sex, but Roz wasn't interested, and Yima seems willing to forego that for now. They posed as a married couple and rented an apartment above a pawnshop in Harran dock town.
Artaxerxes the Acolyte: The handsome young acolyte taught Roz the true faith in Karbar, or so he thinks. Really, he taught her how to appear as a monotheist, but in her heart she thinks the god he worships is no greater than other gods and devils. She was not the only apostate in Karbar, either. If Artaxerxes knew of the awful rites that go on in Beltashazzar's palace he would have a howling mob at its gates in hours.

The animal was hopping under Roz. She passed a hand through the chestnut pelt to soothe it almost reflexively - it was a skittish beast, with the tendency to leap sideways, but then she has been able to afford it exactly because of this - but even while doing that, she looked around.
They were at the top of a dune. First she checked behind her back: there wasn't any cloud of dust to give up a pursuer. But other than that, there was the city she had left in the morning.
Then she checked east. Looking with half-closed eyes against the rising sun, she seemed to notice the contours of a white-stone house, maybe a large estate, quite far away. If she sped up, she could probably reach the place by early evening. But there weren't any rumours of a noble's estate. Was this a place whose inhabitants wanted to be left alone, or just an old ruin, inhabited only by bats and lizards? It was tempting, though. Roz was naturally curious, and besides the idea of convalescing in a shady garden instead of a desert cave was a fine one...
Then she checked straight in front of her. There was the desert, and the wind was blowing to hide any traces she might find. Going forward, she'd reach some low hills in a couple of hours. There might be caves there - she had heard Artaxerxes mentioning that the fire-worshippers (which the young man despised on par with the Many-Faced, as he called them) were using the caves for some of their rituals. And she knew there was an oasis on the other side of the hills; the caravans were stopping there when travelling. The hills were Roz's destination, of course. It wasn't the followers of Fire that worried her, after all, but the long reach of the Emir and his fourth wife. She wondered whether Beltashazzar had even discovered her deception yet, but she was certain that Lamya had, and would not take it well. Either way, the hills were her goal now, though not the caves of the fire-worshippers.
Finally she looked west, raising her scarf over her face - because the wind was blowing mostly from that direction, and carrying sand that was already beginning to get heated. There wasn't anybo...
There was a skirmish in progress not 300 meters ahead. She doubted the participants of the ferocious battle have had the time to notice her, given that most of them were by now lying down and calling the stars for help, or howling to be taken to a star. A couple were summoning the Sun while trying -in vain- to get their entrails back in their bodies.
There were, she was able to notice, three man-slayers in the fray, those that killed other men with the abandon of poets or lovers. Her mother had taught her to recognise them. It was easy.
Her father had used to be one of them.
Two of them were on the same side. As she was looking, one of them dropped his kilij, and fell over - after slaying the man who had stabbed him with a spear in the chest. He had been fighting five men in the beginning; now there were but two left, and the three last had had to make a wall of spears to survive against him.
The last man wielded a bloodied, straight saif, facing another like him, armed with a tulvar. The tulvar user had a cut across his open-faced helmet, but nobody was giving ground. And she could swear both were smiling.
There are three camels and a horse tied nearby, not far from an extinguished fireplace. There are also riderless horses walking around.
Oh, hells. A battle. And by the looks of it, it was being fought between men who cared nothing for life. The victors' blood would be up when it finished. Best to hide for now. Roz turned the chestnut's nose and urged it back over the crest of the dune. When the battle was out of sight, she slid off the saddle and crept back to the crest to watch the end of the battle, lying flat on the sand with only the top of her head, swathed in an undyed tagelmust, appearing over the dune.
The first attacks are uneventful. The four clash and jump aside. The saif proved as fast as a serpent's tongue in defence, but superior reach of the spears helped a lot.
The second attack dealt a wound to the lonely warrior that would have slain lesser men - he himself stepped into attack when his boot slipped. The turn of his body doesn't seem to help much, and his helmet flies off, revealing chestnut hair.
He doesn't budge, nor does he seem really affected after another attack glances off his armour, causing him to step back. Instead, he stepped back and seemed to be calculating, smiling through the blood flowing down his face.
The following clashes are close calls for the lonely man. He only survives due to his speed, armour and mastery of the shield.
Then the saif glistened as a serpent's tongue, coming from a surprising direction, and stabs in the light helmet the other manslayer is wearing. The tulwar stops mid-swing, and the man stumbles - right over the foot of the lonely fighter, which just happened to be there - and clashes with a spearman.
While the downed manslayer was shaking his head, trying to clear his vision, the other spearman realised a deadly truth. The bloodied saif-wielder is approaching him, as if planning to stab against the spear. His retreat turns in a rout.
"We surrender", the man with the Tulwar booms sharply, unaware Roz is watching. "Promise to free us for ransom, and we'll fight no more! That, or prepare to see how the sons of Jalal die!"
The other man sighs.
"I'll accept your surrender", he answered.

Of course, Roz did not intervene. She admired the speed and power of the victor, but she does not know him or his agenda. She watched, noting the name Jalal, and waited. If they head her way she slides down the back of the sand dune and mounts in readiness for the meeting. Nobody bothered to look in her direction. Instead, when they're bound, a stunningly beautiful woman appears from behind a dune and asks with a powerful tone, not even bothering to hide her face.
"What's going on here? How dares my servant to be tarrying with the breakfast!"

The man waved to a body nearby and answers. The woman turns green, but keeps her composure and goes back behind the dune.
The man with the saif said something to his prisoners, which makes them all laugh and shake heads, just as they're the binding each other.
Roz remembered the name Jalal, too. Jalal is rumoured to be a "highway sheikh", robbing those that don't make him a precious enough "gift" and pass around his abode. He leads the raids in person or sends some of his 13 sons.
"13th son of Jalal", with the right - or wrong - tone is also used as an insult, since it's rumoured that one of said sons is actually one of Jalal's daughters (about a score, but nobody has counted them - Jalal marries them off as soon as he can, to ensure alliances with other sheikhs). Supposedly, it's not used in Jalal's oasis, but elsewhere it is a way to put under doubt someone's manhood, while remaining within limits of polite language.
Roz tried to understand the situation. The woman, clearly highborn, was waiting for breakfast? Were they camped beyond that dune, so near the city? Why didn't they ride into the city last night? And the men the hero overcame... Jalal's raiders who set on the camped party in the early morning?
There could be an opportunity here. Would Jalal's son be grateful if she released him? Would the Highway Sheik himself be grateful? She lay on her belly on the dune, feeling the warm sand through her light robe and watched. When the man returned to his highborn companion she would see if they would welcome a traveler for breakfast and then, perhaps, she could learn more.
As she approached, the man had run to the top of a dune, and ran back, cursing. He saw her, but didn't stop.
The attackers were now bound by the feet, and digging a grave nearby. The man and the richly-dressed woman had lit a small fire with a pot on it, probably the bitter dark stuff people in the city used to drink instead of tea. It was also popular in the harem, among the local girls. It wasn't often served to slaves, though.
The food being dates and cheese, the veiled woman was looking at it with...suspicion? Haughtiness? It's really hard to tell.
When she approached them, the man was fully outfitted, with a new helm and a bandage across the face. He smiled though, and while Roz only look at the other side of his face, it's not too ugly a smile.
"Wait, wait, wait. A desert rose riding in our camp? Do you recognise one god, or many*?"
His hand was on his shield, and he was leaning on a spear. Their mounts, and a few other mounts, were tied nearby. On the camels' backs she could see a rich saddle and lots of packs. Some of the packs looked like two human figures wrapped in cloth, and a white horse - obviously a stallion, judging by the interest it shows to her mare - was saddled with an warrior's saddle.
Roz was surprised that the man could recognize her gender while she wore the tagelmust. She was a wiry woman in the way of her eastern people and she could be easily mistaken for a man until she spoke. "There is no god but God," she replied in the local language. "Peace be upon you. I am Rozmahera. How come you to be camped here so near the city and digging so many graves? I see by my sister's dress," and by this she meant the wealthy woman, "that you are not bandits."
"There is only one God",
he agreed and moved aside to make way.
"I am Young Eagle, as my name is almost impossible to spell for the people in the Ta'ashim lands. They have named me Hasan abu Saif, and it fits me as well as any other. Have a seat at our fire, drink some kafe, have some dates, and listen to our story...Rose".

His stare became lost over the horizon as he put the spear aside, and sat. The saif clicked softly, despite not having hit the ground.
"We left, since our sister here" - the woman grunted disapprovingly, but kept silent - "has heard of a man in Haran, tall, strong and in all ways worthy of respect", - here the woman rolled her eyes to the sky; it didn't offer her consolation, as the sun is starting to be as hot and bright as white-hot iron - "and wanted to marry him. But her father disapproves of her choice, and she turned to us, sending her maidservant with a detailed plan of the harem. Kassim, the dead man there", he gestured to the camel with cloth-covered bodies - "was my best friend. He had a soft spot for the plight, and asked me to help. So we went, and snatched her under the noses of her father's guards, and are bringing her to Haran..."

"They're bringing me here because I paid them!",
the woman almost roared. She jumped, even uncovering her face in the hurry - a face that would bring a hefty price on a slave market - but since they were the only non-slave around, apart from Hassan, it's not a big deal. He wasn't looking at her, and the captives can't see her from here, anyway.
"I'm not leaving for some stupid girly dream! I'm leaving, because my father wanted me to marry an old man; me, the daughter of [OOC="Kaikuhuran"]non-Egyptian[/OOC] sultans! So I drugged the guards and left through a secret passage; they only had to pass by the drugged guards at the gate and bash an eunuch on the head!"
She realised she had said too much, and dropped back, hastily fixing her veil.

"That story is true, too. Just as my story is true, but both were incomplete", Hassan was smiling wearily now. "She forgets, though, how her "directions" got us lost. We had made, it seems, half a tour around Haran, when I stopped. Had we but followed our guide instead, Fatimah and Kassim might have been still alive...but such was the will of the One God, that we waited here. And then we were attacked by the sons of Jalal, made on the day he met some jackals in heat. Had she deigned to wake up, we might have ran with her, but she kept sleeping between those dunes, having taken a vow from us not to approach her until she woke up herself!"
He shrugged and looked in the same place far away.
It seems he was waiting for something. A story, maybe?

"God is mighty," Roz said when Hasan finished his story. "May God find you a man deserving of your peerless beauty, Emira, or preserve you from men if that is your wish." She watched the Emira's eyes as she spoke to see which might be the case, and looked also for signs in their dress of which of the five religions they observed.

She loosened the tagelmust and sipped the coffee, letting Hasan and the Emira see her round face - only the face of a servant, after all. "My own story is even stranger," she said. "Know that I was a groom in the house of a wealthy sailor in Sura - he was called Kamil - and, having a day of rest, I rode out along the east road on my chestnut mare to see the orchards. By chance, I passed three fierce-looking men armed as warriors who walked west on the road toward Sura. The one took me by the knee as I passed and showed to me a gold ring as thick as your thumb, though he did not offer it to me. 'Where can I find Kamil the sailor?' he asked me. I did not believe he would pay me the gold ring for so trivial a thing, but I feared him and said - may God forgive me - where the house of Kamil the sailor was. But a djinn was in this man and the coin he wished to pay me was death. He drew his scimitar as swiftly as a snake strikes!" And here she made a darting motion with her hand. "But God caused the chestnut mare to shy from him even faster. See, she does it even to this day!" Roz took a bit of charcoal from the fire and threw it near the mare's feet, knowing how she would leap sideways.

"I rode hard away from them east and stopped at the home of a poor weaver. He and his wife gave me food and his talk calmed me. His wife brought up water from the well for me to bathe and I disrobed, but I saw then that the warrior's evil touch had, by witchcraft, left a mark on me. The mark seemed harmless to me, but when the weaver's wife beheld it she fell down weeping and soon after died unnaturally. We buried her and that evening while I was behind the house drawing water the warlocks - for that was what I then knew them to be - came looking for me. I heard them speaking to the weaver as I drew near and, as before, they showed him gold and asked where I was to be found. The weaver told them I had gone to the well and then I heard his death-scream. Again, God preserved me, causing my chestnut mare to break away from the man who held him in the yard and I ran to her and mounted and sped away."

"When next I saw a mosque I consulted the learned imam therein and his counsel was this: 'find you a sanctuary where none might happen on you from one full moon to the next. There disrobe, for if none can find you there then none can suffer the curse of your body, and pray each day until your voice grows hoarse and anoint the witch-mark with pure, clean water. When a moon has passed then you will be cleansed of the mark, God willing, but if anyone sees the mark and dies, or if you speak a word to anyone but God, the curse will continue.' That is how I come to be here in the desert, seeking a place of safety."
As she finished her story she sipped the coffee again and gauged the story's effect on her breakfast companions.

The story didn't seem to be captivating the audience. However, they did listen politely.

Hassan leapt to his feet shortly after.
"Well, the All-Seeing will show up the tellers of untrue stories, of which here are none present, no doubt", he says. "And now you need to resume your search, while we need to go to Haran city, so nearby yet so...hard to find, as it seemed last night. Our friends - my friends" - he corrects himself with a swift look in the princess' direction - "need to meet the hodja one last time, and she needs to meet her husband-to-be".

"I'm glad at least you wouldn't make the believers buried under the sign of your Sun, infidel",
the princess reacts. Seeing his mistrust of Roz's story, she decided to be more welcoming.
"Poor girl. I'll tell you not to go to those hills: our deceased friends said the Fire-worshippers meet there. The All-Seeing one whose Eyes are in the night sky wouldn't want you to suffer this. No, go...uh, west" - she stops for a moment to look at the still rising sun - "and you'd reach a lone high hill in about a day's riding. If you go around it, only at noon when the sun is at its peak and no normal person is traveling, you'll see a door opening. There is no living soul there, although the mechanisms open at some times during the day. Pass your month of fasting there, and when you've freed yourself of your mark, come to see me at the home of my new husband: Karim ibn Yazid! Send this to me" - she casually hands you a ring worth maybe 50 gold marks - "and I'd give you work as my maid!"

Karim ibn Yazid is someone Roz has heard about, indeed. He is rumoured to be the most wayward son of the richest, shrewdest trader in Haran. And "shrewdest trader in Haran" says a whole lot.
Hassan laughed at the princess' reaction, but says nothing. Instead, he was tying the captives' hands.
"We need to go...princess", he smiled.
"Yes, indeed: the less I suffer your company, the better!",
she said while climbing on the camel. The captives were following them on foot, with their hands tied.
"Karim ibn Yazid is a fortunate man. By what name should I ask for you when I call, God willing?" Roz asked, fixing her tagelmust around her face once more. The monotheists are so tiresome, she thinks, invoking their one god with every other breath. It is always an effort to appear pious in their way.
"Yasmina!", the woman shouted back, as Hassan slaps her camel, and they start walking towards the city. "Princess Yasmina, wife of Kassim ibn Yazid!" The captives looked at Roz as they're passing, but it's hard to read anything on their faces.
The desert lies in front, otherwise unchanged, except for Roz now knowing one of the low dunes is hiding a mass grave.
She watched them ride away for a while, then turned to the horses that are starting to calm down. She was a fair judge of horseflesh and took her time, watching their gaits, before capturing the three best, counting the chestnut among them if the others are not fit, and rides on far enough to put some distance between herself and the battlefield.

She stopped where a corner of masonry sticks up from the sand... some forgotten ruin. She can see a long distance in every direction and scans the horizon to see that she is not observed, then dismounts and waters the horses, which must now endure the hot midday. Disrobing, she packed her belongings carefully in a saddlebag, setting the garment of the djinn's daughter aside, and buries the bag ten paces from the corner of the ruin, careful to cover the marks.
One more scan of the horizon and then Roz slipped the garment over her shoulders and transformed into an exotic bird. She took to the sky and made a wide circle around the ruined corner, scanning the desert all around. Not seeing anyone, she turned West to find the lone hill. She did not trust the Emira's directions any more than Hasan did, but she knew a day's ride is an hour's easy flight on the hot updrafts of the desert.

The lone hill was lone indeed, so this far the directions of the princess were right. It was beyond the place where the grassy lands passed into rocky ground and then into sands, roughly in the middle of a patch of desert. Why is only this spot, about a day's ride across, desert?
Only the gods know, and they weren't telling their secrets this day.

The place was, however, devoid of any doors. In fact, almost completely covered in grass described it better.
That is, until noon. At noon - or roughly noon, as Roz is lacking sand or any other watches - a part of the slope covered in desert grass moved inside itself, like a door that opens towards the room. There's no more she could see inside, apart from there being a tunnel that goes downwards.
Roz floated on the updrafts, watching to see how long the doors stays open. The door didn't show any signs of planning to close. After a whole sahat has passed, it closes. Nothing passed through it.

A carrion crow looked at her, but didn't react in any way, except with the due respect to another bird that's over a dozen times larger.
When her search is complete she soars skyward again and wings east to find her horses. Flight is wonderful - it's everything that riding a pony on the steppe is, but moreso. When the door does shut, she drifts down and skims across the hillside looking for any sign of habitation... tracks, rubbish, a patch of night soil where the chamber pots have been emptied. Across the hillside she found some tracks, that seem about a day old. It seemed there were 3 camels, and a horse. There was also a patch of night soil, but the rubbish is little and carefully masked.
The horses were still where she left them, not five sahats ago. Finding the place - or rather, waiting for the door to open - had proven the most time-costly part of it.
Roz alights by the horses and steps out of the garment, resuming her human form. She folded the garment and sets it aside, then sifts through the sand ten paces from the ruined corner until her fingers contact the leather bag. She dug it out and unwraped it, fetched out her clothes, and dressed, conscious of the hot sun on her shoulders.
Another drink for the horses and one for her, and then she turned for Harran, leading her two extra horses. It was only a couple hours from the city - there's no reason to camp in the desert waiting for noon tomorrow. Besides, if she's going to explore the hill she needed both lore and gear.
Harran stretched in front of her as big and sprawling as ever, and paying her just as much attention as usual - that is to say, close to none. The roofs of spire-like temples are still trying to pierce the sky they venerate. From the highest ones, people crowding the streets down there look like ants.
Roz knew this well, because she can fly just as high on her own.
Back among the ants, some people looked with approval at her supple figure and the skill with which she's managing the three horses. The guards at the gate looked at her, too but were only content to rummage through her saddlebags.
In one of them, they found a box of afiyon - the substance that brings dreams to sorcerers and mortals alike. Some rumours say they're all fake, even when dreamt by a sorcerer.
The guards demanded import tax on the box and the feathered dress - "Luxury dress, huh?". Other than that, her stuff didn't attract their attention, or so it seemed. Roz shrugged as she measured out a portion of the opium into the tax-man's scales. She didn't much like having her things pawed through, especially her hand-stitched codex. She was going to have a spy-pouch sewn into that satchel before she left the city again.
Once inside, she stopped at street vendors carts a few times on pretense of seeing the wares, but she was really taking notice of the people behind her to see if she's being followed. Since she was not, she headed down to the dock district to stable her new horses and then to a wine-sink frequented by locals. The plan was simple: share a little of her lucky find and when tongues are loose she'll turn the conversation to the mysterious lone hill in the desert.
What could ever go wrong?

*It means exactly what you're thinking it means. The setting has not one, but five monotheistic religions. The Stars, Moon, and Sun are the main three, the Fire and the Great Being are...well, it's a complicated relationship. But these three recognise each other for being "mostly right".
More importantly, though, polytheistic religons have united. That's why the Five religions of the One have no time to kill each other as much. They're, of course, killing the Many-Faced.

I suspect I've made a few mistakes with the tenses, but I don't have the patience to comb the text a third time to see whether I've put in past tense everything that's not marked to note I think present tense actually works better;).


#3 Anti-Illusionism Squad
Validated User
Roz wasn't followed, as she could determine easily. Well, unless we count beggars and children - the difference between which is mostly in the age and the abscence or presence of eyes - and both of those groups are easily warded off.
The locals seemed not to pay attention at first, but the afiyon, shared under the table in order not to get the proprietor angry that they're not buying it from him, makes her somewhat popular. A well-dressed man whose effeminate manners betray either a taste for other men, a good eduction, or both, chooses to share her table, telling her a tale in which he has just arrived in the city by means of a flying horse.
She didn't spot him on the way in, so he's probably a liar - or a storyteller, or both. He doesn't make a pass on Roz, though, which also...proves nothing.
He knows nothing, which is aggravationg. But then he smiles and sends for one of his servants, an old man with a long white beard. Seems like he has paid for them to drink on another table.
"Shazzam", says her new friend, "tell the respected woman here about any places West of Haran. She wants to know if there is a buried, or hidden, place which door opens on noon".
Her new friend only introduced himself as Emre. He probably considers himself funny, but Roz's knowledge of Beu language - she knows seven languages, all in all - tells her he's just called himself "Poet".
The man looks at him as if he'd lost his mind.
"Young master", he dares speak. "It's all a lullaby I was singing for you when you were young. My grandmother was singing it for me, and her grandmother before that! Are you really interested in the songs old women make up for the children?"

"You know I am. Humour me, Shazzam, I haven't heard it in...years, I guess. And we've got good arak*, good afiyon**, and good company***. Why wouldn't we enjoy anything we want, children songs included?"
A sign of pain crosses the face of Shazzam upon hearing the word "afiyon", and he looked at Roz disapprovingly. Meanwhile, Emre - or whoever he is - winked at her. The old man starts to recite hurriedly.

"Sleep little boy, sleep,
Don't you disturb the sleeping king.
If you enter through the Door of Noon,
prostrate yourself, ask to stay as a guest.
Tell him it was noon you entered
And you should stay for lunch,
Ask for bread, ask for salt
And he shall touch you not.
Be strong, little boy,
Don't look to be smart,
Smart boys meet the sleeping king
when he's in his angry mood.****"
The man stutters the last words and passes a hand in front of his face.

"There's more, Master Ka... Emre. But Shazzam is old and his memory is not what it used to be! The air outside might help me, though. What if we go for a walk, maybe Shazzam would be able to remember more?"

"Why not?" asked Roz. "There are other winesinks and casinos on the docks with young men suppler and fairer than the mustachioed louts that serve here." She pays with one of her little chunks of gold and pulls the effeminate young man up the stairway and into the street.

"Here's an woman that understands men's beauty", Shazzam bows to you, or at least in Roz's general direction. Now that you think about his movements, curiously deft at times and missing their goal at others, you start to suspect that he is half-blind. This is confirmed when he looks into the sun and doesn't even blink.
He leads you through a labyrinth of backalley streets, and through people's backyards - apologizing where necessary, as is customary - talking all the while.
"My grandmother told me that west of the city is a tomb. The tomb of a king, built by djinnis who were grateful to him, because he turned them to the faith of the One..."
"And they were grateful?",
Emre or whoever it is frowns.
"He wasn't a conqueror-king, like many are today. He opened for them the mysteries of the Star, showed them how great the Eyes of Allah are, that other spirits can live on said eyes, and yet avoid perturbing His sight", Shazzam explains.
"The tomb", Emre reminds him softly.

"Yes. The tomb. The djinnis erected it, the old stories say. It allowed visitors only for a sahat a day, an hour before noon to noon, thus making it easy to keep from robbers, since the rest of the time, there was no need for a honour guard. It is said the djinni provided some statues of warriors, moving with spring-powered limbs to ward unwanted intruders. To top it all, it was masked as a hill... alas, a little too well: almost nobody alive today knows where it was located. And honestly, it's for the better: who would wish to disturb the eternal sleep of the saint?...We reached the best garden for wine, young master!"

The place is impressive, more of a rich man's villa than a caravansarai daring to break the orders in the Sacred Book of Stars.
Then you hear a gurgle from the old man, and looking at him, you see Emre holding him up in the air by the lapels.
The young man shows surprising force, and his face is twisted in rage.
"You lied to me, old man!", he whispers.

"This winesink looks much as I imagine the home of Yazid the merchant prince of Harran to look," quips Roz. "But come, your anger spoils our jollity. Will you beat your old servant to death? Condemn him instead to the service of a poor woman, to clean my creaking hovel and massage my aching feet at the end of a day of hard toil for few coins. Surely my home is a more fitting place for him than Paradise. I'll even pay you for him, as I've picked a few nuggets of gold from the shoes of a flying horse that came into the city only yesterday."

At Roz's words, Emre turned around, releasing his servant, and his jaw dropped.
"You knew all along?"
The old servant bows as low as his creaking joints would allow. Which, due to constant practice no doubt, would be lower than some youngsters could manage.

"Allah should thank you for saving an old man from the wrath of his ungrateful student", he says. "And an old man would thank you from saving his ungrateful ward from committing a sin by striking his old mentor, in front of witnesses no less! I can only pray to the All-Powerfule that he would find a wife as smart as you!"
Emre has the decency to blush, but then finds the strength - or temerity - to smile.

"I should thank you as well for staying my hand, before I had insulted my old teacher too much. But you impressed me by guessing right, I must admit - for all my presenting as Emre, you guessed who I am. Since you already know I am Kassim ibn Yazid, come over. Some of your afiyon would make the nagging of my siblings bearable, and I'd be glad to share with you the best wine in this hole. For it is true, my father does buy only the best wine for us. As well he should, since his illness constraining him - and us, his sons - to stay here despite even the law saying we should be back to the main city!"
He makes a motion to offer her a hand and lead her in the walled garden. It is a honour, or as much honour as the wayward son of the richest city merchant could bestow upon someone he had just met.
Shazzad is nodding frantically behind his master's back, signifying that she should accept his offer.

"I am honored," said Roz, but she did not bow. She is suspicious of wealthy men, who look at all the world as possessions, even as she plots to take her place among them. If the world is lords and servants, after all, it is better to be a lord. Or landlady, as the case might be with her.
"Will the wives of Kassim ibn Yazid not object to him entertaining a common woman as his friend?"

"I don't know", Kassim frowns in thinking. "Why would I care about the opinion of someone I've never met?"
"What the young master wants to say",
Shazzam explains in turn, "is that he's yet to be married. His father and his siblings extort him to do so, numerous maidens would give their souls to marry a son of our Master, yet Young Master Kassime remains more reluctant than any other man his age!"
Kassim nods, suddenly sad.
"And to have a wife, what gain is this? Kids, yes, I like playing with my brother's kids. But to have someone nagging me not to drink, not to visit tea shops and gambling houses, not to go with caravans to protect them against rapacious river pirates...pray tell me, why would I need anyone else to do that? I've got a father, and Shazzad, and siblings! They all do that anyway. Let's go and drink instead!"
Shazzad sighed. Seems they've had this conversation before. Kassim looked questioningly at his outstretched hand, and Roz let him lead her into the garden.

While they were going in, after traversing the yard and entering the garden, Shazzad was sent away to bring them slippers and to pick more comfortable clothes for home.
But just as they're sitting on a table, and a slavegirl poured them wine, the revelry was interrupted by a man looking like an older version of Kassim. He didn't even pay attention to Roz, hurrying to tug Kassim's shoulder.
"Brother, breath at me! Good. You're not out of your mind, right?"
"What makes you think I would be?",
Kassim asked nobly in his arak-and-dirt stained robe and actually managed to sound offended. The other man paused at such an obvious question, but managed not to go off.
"Nothing but my worries, brother! I knew the Stars would not allow you to miss this chance, blessed be the One!"
Kassim's face starts to frown.
"Now come and change, you've got the rare chance today! A princess has come looking for you, all the way from Kaikuhuran!"
Kassim's face changed to utter shock.
"A...real princes? Looking for me?"
"Are you surprised?",
his brother looked attentively. "Come and..."
Kassim freed his hand - skillfully, it must be noted - and put it on her brother's shoulder. And he looked at Roz for a fleeting moment.

"No, brother. I'm not going to change, except in my home clothes. She made all that travel, she deserves to see me as I am. Bring her to me in the garden, and tell the servants to bring wine!"
"My mind is made",
Kassim declared. His brother just sighed.
"If you don't marry her, young one, I will - even if my other wives kill me for it!", he threatened before turning to go. Then he turned again, and bowed at Roz.
"Forgive my lack of manners, good woman - but I'm trying to persuade my brother and finally take care of his future!"
With another bow, he left in a hurry. Despite being somewhat portly, he moved with great alacrity, spurred by the necessity to keep all the appearances and proper behaviours.
It's not an easy task, with a brother like Kassim, one might suppose.

"Come", Kassim directed Roz gently. "We can wash our faces in that marble fountain, since we're going to be presented to a real..."
It is just at this moment that Princess Yasmina appeared. She has removed her travel robes, and she was removing her silk veil as she approaches to see the man she has chosen to marry. Since there is nobody else in the garden but the slavegirl and Roz, another woman, it was about as safe as it could get.
"My prince",
she almost sang. "I came all the way from Kaikuhuran to see your face! I might say I'm delighted..."
Then she stopped abruptly and looked at Roz.
"You?", Yasmina said in utter disbelief.

Kassim, meanwhile, was looking at the face of the woman. Now that Roz was seeing her whole body - or as much of it as the silk dress allows, which is several times more than what the travel clothes allow - she realised that not only would she fetch "a good price" on a slave market. She'd bankrupt rich buyers, and possibly start a blood feud. The merchant's son seemed almost entranced, and couldn't even think to offer Yasmina wine.

"Emira, here is your ring," said Roz, producing it from the pouch hidden in her clothing. "I cannot accept your offer of work yet, but I hope I do not displease you by coming here early. I did not find the place you spoke of and I feared to sleep the night in the desert." She deftly rose and shooed the slave girl away, pouring wine from the jug with a practiced hand and placing it before Yasmina's place at the table.

"Master Kassim, I came on the Emira in the desert outside the city earlier this very day. She had just endured a terrible battle in which most of her party had been slain by bandits, but the first thing she did was sit for breakfast, and indeed, invited me to join her. Such a lioness will understand a man who fights river pirates - a man who is his own master."
If any words were possible to have better effect on Kassim, they were yet to be devised by some poet. He rose slowly, and bowed.
"Thank you, Roz. I... I think I might take your advice. After she had travelled all the way from Kaikuhuran, it would be impolite to turn her away, no? And my brother, for all his qualities, might be a bore, not to mention already having three wives."
He started to walk slowly.
"I think I need to talk with my father. If you will excuse me..."
Almost in a trance, he turned and went. Yasmina waited for him to go out and turned to Roz, eyebrows raised as high as they could without flying off from her face like arrows from a bow.

"Keep the ring, and I'll give you another one. Just explain to me, for the mercy of all that's holy, what was that about river pirates, that made him bite the hook? And what advice would the guy be following?"

There were hard lessons of the heart that Roz had to learn in the harem, and it seemed they had not gone to waste. The princess would be grateful for something that had cost Roz nothing at all, the girl once known as Sarangerel, reasoned to herself.

"He is a youngest son grown up in a house of people who tell him what to do, how to dress, what to say and who to associate with, Emira, but none of them see what is plainly written. Some stallions will respond to the reins and others must have their own heads. Even this latter kind will carry you fast and far, though, if you don't mind going where they take you." She cast her eyes down in careful modesty.
"If my words have pleased you, keep your ring. I spoke true when I said I am pursued by wicked people and I have real need of a month of solitude. If you would keep my pursuers from me, God willing, whatever lies they might tell, I would be in your debt, Emira."

"And that's all? He thinks I'd want him to stay at home for...what? Watch over the slavegirls? How stupid are the women he knows?"
She laughed shortly and closed Roz's hand around the ring. Then she removed her own earrings, which had emeralds the colour of the steppe at winter, handing them to the other girl.

"I know you lied to Kassim just now, Roz. No horse can go to the place where we were and back in the same day, let alone before afternoon. But I'm alone in this place, and I need a smart friend like you. Take these, and keep them as a proof of our friendship. If you want a friend, that is."
She took a sip from the glass Roz had poured.
"And the people that come asking for you? They'll learn nothing of any use. I've been raised in a Kaikuhurani court; I know how to put a trap for them, with a bait they're going to swallow whole and thank me before they discover the truth. Hah, here's a task for my husband-to-be, one that would keep him entertained and away from those dens of sin that I would disapprove!"
She smiled deviously and stopped talking. Just in time, as an old man in opulent clothes entered the room just then, without knocking. Two muscled, fat eunuchs are almost carrying him on their shoulders, one of his arms resting on the neck of each of them. He might seem weak, but the spirit in his eyes was unmistakable*****.
He looked at the two of you and smiled.
"Well, now. Which one of you is the one Kassim wants to marry, and which is the one Shazzad is recommending that he marries?"

*Strong alcoholic beverage, but it's not wine.
***Presumably, Roz.
****Presumably, this has better rhyme in the native language.
*****Or rather, it is mistakable for being due to something else. Many people make that mistake, maybe even Roz did.


#3 Anti-Illusionism Squad
Validated User
Style note: I'm now switching to present tense, because well, it feels more natural.
Also, it's easier to adapt the text.

Roz accept the earrings and hides them in her pouch. Her own ears are not even pierced.
"As I did not 'travel all the way from Kaikuhuran,' and Master Kassim's brother did not threaten to marry me, the Emira Yasmina must be the former, though I cannot speak to the latter," says Roz to the great merchant when he appears. She still does not bow or genuflect in any way. "Peace be upon you, Master Yazid."

"Peace be upon your house...father", princess Yasmina bows deeply in turn. She's using the traditional greeting of wives-to-be, and bows as deep as one might bow to one's own father. "Who is Shazzad?"

"My son has good taste, then",
the old man smiles. "So, yer's Yasmina the princess...hah! Never thought we'd marry with nobili...", his speech is interrupted by coughing. The eunuchs hug him and put him on a bench, surprisingly gently for such giant men. One of them massages his chest until he calms, and his coughing makes speech impossible.
"I can see you have nice hips for childbearing, Yasmina. Go with my servants, child, you need to start preparing for your marriage to show some more grandchildren to this old man, before he dies. And while I've still got the strength, I need to talk with..."
Yazid turns again at Roz, and this time he's definitely smiling. Roz, on her side, was startled when the merchant tells the princess she has nice hips. Kaikuhuran is distant, but a sultan's daughter is still well above the station of a merchant - even one as wealthy as Yazid...
A sultan's legitimate daughter, Roz guessed, thinking back to the conversation in the desert. It was Roz who had given Yasmina the title Emira. She had called herself only a sultan's daughter. It didn't matter now.

"Her name is Roz, father",
Yasmina bows again. Then she puts a hand on hers and whispers in your ear.
"I saw how Kassim looked at you. If you want it, too, I'd glad to have you as a sister!"
When she leaves, not letting her a chance to answer - probably not willing to draw the ire of the old man - Yazid was still looking at Roz with his shiny eyes.
"Shazzad says you're smarter than my boy...and that's hard. He ain't got common sense, but Allah has given him brains. He says you know how to restrain yourself, though..."
He nods to himself, twice, and reaches for the wine on the table. The eunuchs ignore it, though.
"The hekim said you shouldn't drink, Master Yazid", one of them dares to mumble.

"I'm not for marrying, Master Yazid, no matter the old servant's opinion. I am grateful, though, for the hospitality of your house. I will not impose on you long, God willing, nor at all, if that is your wish."

"Heh", the old man croaks. "Too bad. He might use a wife that doesn't make decisions out of passion. But no - I'm not here to invite you to be his wife, or not; I'd have balked at my father deciding that for me at the time, and Kassim is more like me than he wants to admit."
His gaze seems to drift, but then he focus with an effort of will.
"If you're not willing to marry my son, you're not after money. Then what are you after?"

The old man sighs.
"Share your story or not, as you will; I can only provide you with what I know you to need, though. From now on, however, for entertaining a capricious old man - and for talking some sense in his wayward son's empty head - you're to be a guest of this house for as long as you want to. I'll make sure nobody bothers you about marrying or not marrying any more; you already gave me your answer. The servants will accommodate you as you desire."
He waits for a bit.

Spontaneously, Roz decided to show the merchant the truth of her character. Perhaps she senses a kindred spirit in him, a yearning for greatness, now sated and burning low in him, but bright and new in her. "All of it. Everything. I'm after everything." She tilts her chin and stands with feet spread wide. "I want to put my boot on the neck of the world as Khan Oshoth did, and hear my name echoed back to me on the lips of all its kings. And I will."

Yazid looks at her in surprise, then his eyes flash in a way that she hasn't seen yet. His laugh sounds like the laugh of her father this time, though.
Her mother used to say that he always entered battle laughing like that.
"Leave us!", he orders the eunuchs and steps on the ground. "Now", he adds with a low grumble, and they jump to obey.
The man that couldn't stand moments before is sitting, and was smiling at her.
"Khanessa Oshoth. Now that's a name that fits you, girl!", he laughs again, then pauses to take a breath. He's not moving like a man in his prime. But she sees he can push his body, where necessary, by pure force of will. And he has elected to show her that much.
"Looking at you, I believe every word you said. No, scratch that: looking at you, I believe you have a plan already! So, do I take it you want my riches and have come for them - or do you see me as an ally, potential vizier maybe? No emirat can be run by itself, unless you mean to destroy the world - but that's not what Khan Oshoth did."

"Khatun Rozmahera, perhaps. But keep your riches, good master. If you would aid me, give me good counsel. Do you know aught of a hill a day west of the city, a hill with an aperture that opens only for an hour each day? Shazzad says it is the tomb of a sainted king."

"There's indeed such a story. But I only went to search for it once, when young, and didn't find it... but then, I was attacked by raiders while searching, and I spilled my blood before they could do so. Then their camels and weapons became the basis for my first caravan instead."
He smiles, briefly reminiscent of the days of his youth.
"If you go there, you might need a guard. Do you want me to send a mercenary with you?"

Roz shook her head.
"No, I would go alone. But if you know where to acquire them, I would pay you for a laminated horn bow, arrows, and a saber, and a small smelting pot."

"I'm not going to take your money after offering you hospitality", he laughs. "Not for this, at any rate. If you want me to sell you Sky's Lightning, the masterwork of a master archer from far away Khitay and the land beyond? Then you should prepare money, and lots of it, and I'd still sell it only to a friend. But what you're asking for will be a parting gift."
Yazid waves his hand at the slavegirl.
"Lead her and make sure she gets what she asked for. And sent Youssouf and Halil back to me."

When Roz was leaving after the slavegirl, she could swear hearing him mumbling: "And Kassim still got the short straw".

A night and a day at the market and then evening finds Roz at home in the little apartment she shares with Yima. She takes blood from the tortoise as carefully as she can - just enough to fill her little inkwell - and binds the turtle's wounds. Waste not, want not. She gives it cabbage leaves and lets it free in the apartment. If it dies, so be it.
She sets the smelter in the fireplace and lights a fire beneath it, and she places seven gold chunks in the smelter. While they heat, she sits naked on the rug and scribes the runes on her body. The brush is cool and sticky on her skin. Finally, she steels her resolve and tilts the little smelter over her hand. Father, grandfather, grandmother, if I please you... keep me from harm. The gold evaporated above her hand and she felt a tingle all over her body.
Then she dresses and begins the next ritual. She builds her little shrine of candles and flowers and places on them her sacrifices. Bread, fruit, milk. These things are a meal she offers to her ancestors, and she invites also the jealous star-god of these parts that Artaxerxes taught her of, and Ibis-headed Thoth, who looks with favor on the labors of sorcerers, and most of all peerless Khan Oshoth. What will you demand of me, O spirits, O gods, to speed my plea to Khan Oshoth?
She listens to the whispers of the wind, but hears nothing intelligible. At some point, the wind brings to her the sounds of a drunk singing about the breasts of a city-wide known courtesan. He's comparing them to pears, but what did a banana have to do with the whole stuff?
Whatever it is, neither the courtesan would be happy to hear the song, nor is it likely that the Khan would be interested in songs or pears. Now, the courtesan herself, naked and bound as a sacrifice, might be another matter. Her home is probably well-guarded, though.
Then the wind seemed to bring the sounds of laughter of a thousand voices. Then it stops, and Roz heard the sounds of fists thumping into flesh, probably from the drunk getting into trouble.
As a bonus, though, the tortoise seems happy with the cabbage leaves, and not showing signs of dying prematurely...
In all, she decided it didn't do to dwell on what might be hints from the spirits and what might only be voices on the wind.
In the evening, the sky being clear, Roz warns Yima - her roommate, who ran with her and has more intentions towards him than she gives him opportunities - that her tortoise is not to die when she's away and she gives him the rest of her opium. She secrets her codex in the smuggler's pouch, gathers her new things, and takes one horse, riding out into the desert to find the hill again.

Swerving behind a hill, first thing she notices was the dustcloud. Then it gets too close and lets her see that the dust is due to horses and camels, heavily laden with amphoraes, no doubt carrying the olives in oil from the West, chests of unknown provenance; and big lumpy sacks that no doubt contain cloth, or maybe even armours. Slaves from the Far North, fair-haired and probably fair-skinned once, before meeting the desert sun, march with their hands tied up, behind a camel. Two horses are dragging a closed car behind them, maybe containing more slaves - or the wives and concubines of the trader. The difference would only be in how luxurious it's from the inside, not in how closely they're kept.
The advance guard rides towards Roz, a spear pointed to your chest. His posture, however, is lazy.
"Clean the road", he says calmly. "And be grateful that my masters already have more slaves for sale than they need. It's not safe travelling alone around here - not even if you only meet honourable traders."
He spits on the ground after the word "traders", or maybe at the "honourable" part. Under the helm she can see the boy is young, probably an year within your age, and his beard is just beginning to grow. Moreover, he was carrying a bow that might as well be from her homeland.

Roz laughs at the boy and says in her own language, "Why would you look for honor among men who must sell a thing for more than they bought it?" She swings her gelding out wide enough to get around the caravan.
"Huh?", he answers, and she didn't see understanding in his eyes. Which might have reminded her that other horse people also had a composite bow, and some of them were working as mercenaries.
She saw him circling back to the caravan and talking to one of the armed men. Maybe it's about her, maybe not. Roz can't even hear them.

The cave is reached soon-ish. At noon the door opens, as before.
The interior is like a corridor that has been dug in the stone. There is some sand, but not much, and the horse and you can both enter, albeit the roof is too low to be riding. It is sloping downwards.
When she reaches a bigger room, almost half a spear throw in diameter, she can notice the signs of recent habitation, including unfinished torches, and a forgotten long piece of cloth with the letters for Yasmina embroidered on it. It seems like a part of her undergarments that has been forgotten: the princess sure has ample enough breast to need something like that.
There are also three corridors opening in the other three directions. Unlike the corridor behind her, however, they seem to be descending even further down. There is sand on the floor of one, and no sign of steps. This one also gives some suspicious odor.

Roz leads the gelding into the hill and stops in the large room. She hobbles her horse there, and puts its feedbag on. She kneels in the center of the room and touches her head to the ground, praying to the jealous star-god to show her mercy - she does not seek to disturb the king, only to find a sanctuary. Granted, if the Stars were jealous, at least they're not showing it. According to the Holy Book, they're showing it with columns of fire, swords of fire, and rains that drown all life. No such unsubtle signs are to be observed, though. Even the horse seems calm.
She leaves the horse there and returns to the tunnel mouth where she entered, studying the door mechanism carefully. This, however, presents her with an interesting dilemma. Namely, there's no visible mechanism, or hinges for that matter. The door is just going in and out of the wall of the dune. The sand particles are dancing in the doorway, but the air there is moving like a typhoon, so despite the wind blowing towards the entrance, the sand grains dance like so many dervishes in the sun's rays, and yet they don't enter.
Then, when the sun has shifted just a bit in the sky, the door suddenly goes out of the upper part of the entry. She can feel it giving an audible clanking sound when it closes off.

Kneeling in the corridor, Roz bangs flint and steel over a pitch-soaked torch. She coaxes the torch to life and then returns to the large chamber, and goes to the sandy passage and squats on her heels, checking the odor and the tracks in the sand. The tracks are left by different feet, and they all seem to come and go back, at least to her eye. The odor is definitely unpleasant, reminding her of human and animal wastes.
Luckily, it's not felt in the main chamber. Much. And that might be due to having a horse in there, which has a smell with the ability to block fainter odors.
Still, she's probably lucky this odor counts as faint.
Continuing her exploration, Roz carefully made her way down the right-hand passage, watching the walls, floors, and ceilings for seams. The passage went a long way down, winding at weird angles, and the more she goes, the more it was alight with darkly green light, coming from green orbs on the roof, roughly evey 20 paces, which provide a somewhat eerie, but adequate enough light.

It ends in a small cicrular room with an armed guardian statue of bronze, situated near the entrance, a table and a chair - the table's surface is giving the same green light. The only other item in the room is something like a semit-transluscent bath tube, filled with a semi-transcendent green liquid of the same colour as the lamps. Unlike them, however, it's not shining - but instead seems to be simmering.
Roz kept the torch burning for now, peering at the guardian without crossing the threshold. Was this a machine? It was quite clear to Roz that the statue is depicting the Saint himself, who was an warrior...or would be depicting him, except for a small detail. Why is there a Sun engravement on his chest?
Either way, the Saint is armed according to the fashions of his time, bearing a straight blade - most likely a kaskara, and a round shield. The blade of the kaskara is only bronze-covered, but she got a glint of steel from where the bronze has peeled off. Curiously, that's exactly the percussion centre, where a perfectly-timed cut would connect with the target!
The tub, she noticed, reaches to the ground, but due to its transluscence she was able to conclude that there's no open fire under it. There aren't heatwaves coming from it, either.
And it seems the Sun sign is starting to blaze brighter, as well as the statue's eyes - which might as well be from emeralds. Or it might be just an illusion due to Roz having approached, and changing the angle from which she's looking at the statue. She didn't believe that for a moment, though, retreating back up the corridor, pausing a few yards back to see if the sentinel will return to slumber. At the very least, it didn't follow her. That's something. His eyes are definitely shining, though, although there's also a golden shine on its breastplate.
Roz tried the central passage this time, as she was developing a theory.
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Space Cowboy

Registered User
Validated User
This is a great Let's Play! Chock full of details, full of campaign flavor, and with an interesting, nonconventional protagonist.

I hope Fate smiles on Roz :D


#3 Anti-Illusionism Squad
Validated User
This is a great Let's Play! Chock full of details, full of campaign flavor, and with an interesting, nonconventional protagonist.

I hope Fate smiles on Roz :D
I'm glad you like it:). I'm having much fun GMing it, myself!
I can't claim full merits for it, but of course, the point of my GMing style is that everyone gets to contribute.
Lately, I've been thinking of writing up the setting, or maybe a DCC adventure in the setting. Haven't yet decided whether to work on either, though, but at least I'm thinking, with all the horror that implies;).

Stay tuned for next updates, then:D! Roz meeting a living saint that wasn't what people though he was. The young sorceress is allowed entry in the Kingdom of the Flame! She proves her mind, meets a philosopher, and borrows books! Dispelling the myths of pocket dimensions! Get to know the nightingale-singing fox, and her would-be suitors:p!

All of that should be after Christmas, though, although the updates just need to be cleaned up. Or maybe I should say after my mother's operation, which wasn't expected;)!
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Space Cowboy

Registered User
Validated User
I'm glad you like it:). I'm having much fun GMing it, myself!
I can't claim full merits for it, but of course, the point of my GMing style is that everyone gets to contribute.
Lately, I've been thinking of writing up the setting, or maybe a DCC adventure in the setting. Haven't yet decided whether to work on either, though, but at least I'm thinking, with all the horror that implies;).
That sounds pretty cool! You've obviously given a lot of thought to the culture, mannerisms, language etc. of the campaign. Definitely adds a lot of color and flavor. :D

Stay tuned for next updates, then:D! Roz meeting a living saint that wasn't what people though he was. The young sorceress is allowed entry in the Kingdom of the Flame! She proves her mind, meets a philosopher, and borrows books! Dispelling the myths of pocket dimensions! Get to know the nightingale-singing fox, and her would-be suitors:p!

All of that should be after Christmas, though, although the updates just need to be cleaned up. Or maybe I should say after my mother's operation, which wasn't expected;)!
I hope your mom's operation goes well. :)


#3 Anti-Illusionism Squad
Validated User
That sounds pretty cool! You've obviously given a lot of thought to the culture, mannerisms, language etc. of the campaign. Definitely adds a lot of color and flavor. :D
Well, I'm just Bulgarian. You learn a lot about the region by osmosis, because having a love-hate relationship to everything Middle Eastern is pretty much part of the definition;). Some people even skip the "love" part, which I find an attitude that's going beyond stupid.
Of course, it also helps that my Master degree is closely related to the region's history and culture, so I've had additional reasons to learn more, apart from curiosity and history. And I've got a player who also has personal connections to the region, which is extra nice, I couldn't make the game what it is without him!

I hope your mom's operation goes well. :)
Thank you! She was operated last night, as I was told a couple hours ago. Seems to be doing as well as could be expected.
Admittedly, that means I should post the next part:D!

Let me see how much I could clean in the next hour or so;).
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#3 Anti-Illusionism Squad
Validated User
The central passage is the last one without sand in it. It is long-winded, though shorter than the other one, and opens into a big chamber.
It is, obviously, meant to be a funeral place. The sarcophagus there is made entirely of crystal, and contains a body.
The Holy Books of all the five religions of the One are strewn on a table in front of the sarcophagus, under a crystal lid. The body carries the prayer rosary of small opals, usually associated with the Stars, but on his chest lies a drawn sword of high quality. Its head carries, surprisingly, the symbol of the Sun, while the blade has the typical vortex-like spots of blades from this region, and an inscription that seems to be in the local script.
The ground is covered with a mosaic representing a battle of some kind, featuring lots of fire. Which might be weird if that's the same saint, as he was known for spreading the religion peacefully.
After studying it in the double light - torches and green spheres - Roz is unable to learn much about the battle depicted there. Then again, the fires are coming from the mouths of jinns, which are fighting - and dying - on both sides of the battle. As footsoldiers.
Clearly, it's not a battle that has been included in the kind of history scrolls she has had access to.
Cautiously, she squatted and touched the burning tip of her torch to the mosaic. The mosaic remains unchanged, though she can feel the warmth spreading much further and much faster than it had any right to. Within mere moments, it had reached where her knees were touching the floor.
The king is laid out under crystal, Roz reasons, and not stone. The door opens at noon. Surely, pilgrims must be expected to cross the floor to view him and I'm imagining the books are laid open on the table so they can be read through the crystal cover...
So she decided to read the pages of the texts that lie under crystal. If the mosaic contains some warding magic, it must trigger only if the sarcophagus is disturbed... She also had plans to advance and reads the texts and the verse on the king's sword.
The books are all opened at the pages where they speak of similar topic.
The book of Moon says literally: "There shall be no other gods".
The book of Sun talks about throwing off false gods, and how any Sun follower is bound to tell the Truth to the "deluded".
The book of Stars speaks of how the religions are but one, and of the special treatment followers of other religions deserve from others, even of a different faith.
The book of Flame speaks of the flame that burns, and the flame that cleanses, stipulating that it's faith that makes all the difference.
The book of the Eternal speaks how all dead people return to the same stars, and are judged according to their deeds, not on following a specific ritual.
The verse on the Saint's sword is about stopping wars between the Faithful of the One and believers in the Many - as long as they accept the One. She also knew that it was from the Book of the Sun, much as it was misattributed to Stars' followers. And - another point of contention that Roz knows the true answer to - its original meaning is that if "pagans" accept the religion of the Stars, followers of the Sun should also stop waging war against them. And vice versa.
Later, her history knowledge points out, it has been attributed to the Stars followers - with help from some Sun's radicalists, who preferred forgetting the original meaning to the idea of making peace with anyone who doesn't share the exact same beliefs.

As she read them all, the emeralds from the mummy's eyes fall off, and the saint opens his eyes.
"Is my presence requested?", he asked. "Are there apostates among the djinn?"
Roz leapt back, startled. Her saber slaps against her leg.
"I have no knowledge of such things, my king," Roz answered, mind racing. "I am hunted by a pawn of the demon Bobugbilz and I have come here seeking refuge."
The man was speaking a somewhat archaic form of Pelagian, with what probably counts as an accent. She was using the same one, since Roz had learned 6 extra languages in the harem. All of the books were also written down in different languages: only someone like Roz could have read them by herself. Or a wizard. Both are facts she tends to forget.
"Bogubilz!", he roars. His eyes are flashing with golden light like the clear sun of noon, the one that sears the exposed flesh in the desert.
"It was long since I haven't heard this name, and 'twas all the better for it! Are you seeking only refuge, or help against his minions?"
He then looks at the books.
"And did you read those by yourself?"
His voice is calmer now, and there's a hint of curiosity in it.
"Only refuge for a moon, my king," she replies in his language, mastering herself now. "But I haven't provision enough for a moon."
She looks at the books as he asks after them. "I read them. I was a servant in the harem of a wealthy but wicked prince who it pleased to claim ownership of women and servants from many lands. One of the ways we passed the time was to teach each other our languages, and to make riddles in them. Another was recitation from texts mundane and holy. Would it please you to hear tilawah? I recite only poorly."
The saint, if that is him, nods.
"So be it. Asylum was asked, and it shall be granted. You can remain in this room, or the central room, and a lodging will be made available at night, and provision throughout the whole day. During the day, you can remain in the service shaft, or mingle with the pilgrims in my room. The control room shall be off-limits, but you can read my books. At the end of the month, come to see me and tell me what you've learned, and I might make you a gift. If that's all..."
The saint started to go back to his sleepy state, she realises.
"What are you now, my king? You seem an animated corpse, and it is frightening. When you seem to slumber, do you dwell in Paradise?"
His laughter was cheerful, and he stopped pulling the crystal lid back upon hearing the question.
"Animated corpse, hah! Do not be afraid, child: I'm not truly dead, but it's because I'm asleep. I only awake when my presence is necessary. Luckily, this hasn't been required lately."
Then he pulled the lid back, sharply, and resumes his utter immobility.
He's alive is he? Sustained by what? His sun god? Hmm. Did he wake because she stepped on the mosaic?
Roz realised that the man woke up after she was stepping on the mosaic for a while, but after she finished reading some of the underlined passages in the holy books. All of them in different languages.
Whether it's the sun god keeping him alive, the Stars or anything else, she cannot tell with any certainty.
Roz turns and walks back up the corridor, thinking. At the top she checks on the gelding and takes off its feed bag, and then tries the left passage.
The gelding appreciates the food. And she reaches a place where the wall ends in a stone door. It is unassuming, with no handle and only a flame sign on it. The sign is giving some faint blueish light, which allows her to decipher the smell mystery. Namely, it probably means that whoever has been inhabiting the central room, probably didn't find the means to go out to dispose of his or her own waste. But since the floor here is covered in sand, the solution, at least to the odor issue, has been obvious.
Roz wrinkles her nose. She supposes that she'll need such a solution herself, soon. Tombs are so rarely built with toilets.
She was wondering now whether this was the "control room?" It's not a familiar term for her, but she understands its parts.
So she touches the flame symbol with her torch.
And then the door starts shining, the light from the flame expanding, and it opens. From behind, a heavily muscled, glistening in blue, manly hand reaches and wraps itself around the door's central opening, pushing the two wings aside.
If it's a man's hand, this man should be at least 10 paces tall... which would fit the ceilings, as she realises. And then the door opens.
The man behind is heavily muscled, bare-chested, and wearing the traditional modest clothes of a Stars worshipper - except for also wearing skins of beasts she doesn't recognise. They're probably made of special material, though, as his whole body seems to be made of smokeless fire. Normal skins would be smouldering.
He looks down at Roz, and his voice booms so strongly that the arrows in the quiver on his belt, as well as the dagger, jump in their places.
"Who are you? Are you a messenger of the Holy One, or just an Earthly worm trying to sneak into the Kingdom of Holy Fire?"
Behind him, Roz was able to see an woman of great beauty, though her features are obscured by the intense heat coming from the man's body.
By grandfather's beard! A djinn in the flesh! Or in the fire, as it seems.
Roz hurriedly turns her grimace into a sneer. When you're not holding any cards, bluff.
"I am she who is, I come from the end, and I am not looking for you, devil. Know you where is a servant of God, given great power by Him who is most merciful to work His will on the world?"
The room behind the djinn is shining in blue, which provides light...apart from the djinn itself, that is. She can tell it's luxurious, with silk curtains, rich tapestries, and rugs that seem ankle-deep...and just might be, in the case of Roz's ankles.
Much more than the wall with the woman next to it is hard to tell, though. The djinn's enormous chest is hiding most of it.
"Devil!", he booms and said chest heaves. His tongue shifts to a more archaic version. "Know thou, woman, that here be the Kingdom of Flame, and we all art servants of the One. Those you call devils were expunged in a holy effort, and are wandering the world. And you shall per..."
The woman traverses the room, rapid as a desert fox, and puts a hand on his shoulder. Well, she just might have been trying to, but she only reaches the lower part of his biceps.
"Briddle your ire, oh Ahmad, mighty warrior! It is not fitting for a mighty man such as you to get angry against a weak woman such as herself!"
Roz grits her teeth but continues, "The word on your lips was 'perish.' Even as I suspected! You would have sought to slay a godly woman given asylum in these halls by the sleeping king. Can it be for God's glory? Only for yours, O Ahmad, for now I know the name of a devil with a Book. Praise God, who made marvels without number."
Turning to the woman, she spoke differently.
"Wise lady, how come you to be a prisoner of this one? And why does he call this boudoir a kingdom? Does he name himself king thereof?" She was not foolish enough to think the woman a prisoner, but some will more swiftly correct a misconception than answer a simple question.
"You've spoken to the Saint?", Ahmad wonders. "Then how come he didn't tell you he, himself, gave us the religions of the One? And why would you insult me to be a devil, when you should know there are only worshippers of the One, here?"
The woman laughs with a mellodic voice before answering.
"When you open a door to a castle, do you see the castle, or the whole place, my dear? Stop being such a bore, Ahmad! She's here with good reason, as the display showed - and as you would know if you weren't too preoccupied about losing a chess game to me. Again".
With this, she grabs Roz's hand and pulls you without much apparent effort.
"Come over, my dear. I'm a guest and relative, not a captive - and so you shall be, as well. Well, a guest, at least - relative would take more effort", she laughs behind her hand, hiding her mouth like a young girl.
"This big bore here is lucky I like chess and am helping him shorten the long hours of his duty!"
Behind them, the room is just as opulent as you thought. There's a great shisha next to a chess table, from which the two players have been obviously smoking. The whites are losing. There's also a sliding door on the other side, marked with the sign Roz already knows - although this one has handles, as well.
Roz breezed past the djinn. "Oh, I love riddles! When I open the door to a castle," she says, seeking to amuse the lady, "I see either a hall or a town. If it's the hall then I have approached the castle from without and therefore know it to be a castle by its shape. If it's the town I have been inside the castle and therefore know it to be a castle by its function."
As she speaks, she's thinking about the chessboard, deciding if the white player still has strategies to play or if his position is untenable. With her sharp mind, she comes up with some even as they speak, and likely a strategy that would have taken hours even to a professional player...yet she keeps talking.
Roz sees there is a last-ditch strategy the whites can use. By attacking unwisely with the queen, then removing her, and then trying to protect her, they can lure the blacks to start a bidding game...fortifying the right-side lines, but weakening the left side.
The left side where their king is now situated, after the move known as Mounting the War Elephant. Then a quick attack can lead to a defeat.
"If I am entering the Kingdom of Fire from the outside, then surely I know its shape - it's a boudoir, with deep carpet, cushions, and gauzy hangings. If I am emerging from the Kingdom then surely I know its function - a king sleeps there, so it is a boudoir." She grins at the lady. "Is not my folly wise?"
The lady keeps laughing when listening to you.
"Oh, splendid! The Kingdom as the Saint's boudoir... well, not that there aren't those that would feel honoured...", she stops and wipes small tears glistening like fire opals, from her eyes.
"Or..." she points to the gate. "It might be just that there's a whole kingdom there, and you have emerged in one of the lower chambers of its castle after entering from below! Now, do you want to see said kingdom, or would you rather see me defeating Ahmad first? I feel bad to leave him hanging like this, though it's not like he's got a chance."
"Such is my fate, to be outwitted by sly foxes",
Ahmad sighs resolutely.
"Hopeless, is it? I don't think so. Let him think on it awhile. If it pleases you, show me the Kingdom and then return and let your game be finished. I am Rozmahera."
The woman looked at her without understanding.
"I've lost a War Elephant already to her Raider Chieftain", Ahmad explains gravely. "She's pressing the advantage now. Even if I was a shah-ustah (master chess player), anything I can do will end up in my defeat!"
"Indeed, and him knowing makes it so much more fun!",
the woman giggled. "I'm Najwa, Roz. Glad to meet you...despite your strange ideas about chess!
Roz smiles coyly.
"Well, if it's impossible you won't mind wagering on it. But I don't know yet what to ask for! Maybe Najwa will have some ideas for me to ask for while she shows me the kingdom."
"You think you can do better than me, mortal? Against another of the djinni, a sila?", Ahmad's laugh almost shatters the shisha. Even Najwa is hiding her mouth, and obviously smiling. Then he stomps on the ground, commanding silence.
"Very well. If you manage that feat, mortal, then I couldn't give you more intelligence! But I could grant you one of seven boons: strength of a hero, the luck of the accursed, the charisma of a temple whore", here Najwa looks at him disapprovingly, "the grace of the cat, the health of the ox, a bountiful harvest to all lands you command for three years, or a magic sword! But if you fail, you'll serve me for three years. Do you dare to try?"
"Better don't",
Najwa advises you. "I'm not going to play to lose!"
"I will never be a servant!"
Roz snaps. Never again. "If I lose, I will give you a magic garment. That's a fair trade, since one of the stakes you offer is a magic sword. And if I win, make me strong, but do not make me a man or manly. I have heard that story already." She grins ruefully at Najwa and sits down behind the white pieces on the chessboard.
Najwa and Ahmad both sigh as the sila sits down.
"I agree, fair would be fair. And no, I'm not going to twist my words when it's a fair bet. What kind of djinn do you take me for?", Ahmad promises, preparing himself to watch.
"So much for your magic garment",
Najwa commented ruefully. "I'll see if I can make Ahmad bet it on something. Probably not chess, he knows his ability..."
As Roz made your first move, she reacted exactly as expected. Ahmad sighs, but doesn't comment. It's the sila who smirks, conveying the message more clearly. But it's the next moves that mattered! She had a chance to see the trap.
She didn't, and next moves go exactly as expected, with both Ahmad and Najwa sitting with their jaws hanging when Roz's lightning-like attack develops, and she says the dreaded and coveted words.
"Shah. Math".
Roz wins.
She was quiet when the game is finished, drinking from her skin of water to excuse from speech for a moment. When she was young and first arrived to the harem she would exult in her victories, but the women and eunuchs there did not appreciate it. In fact, they didn't much appreciate losing at all, but Roz is not about to let the djinn's boon escape her, nor the feathered garment. Still, she watched Najwa and Ahmad to see what sorts of losers they are. She expects grace from Najwa, but mortal men with Ahmad's towering pride have shown her that they can be stormy when embarrassed.
The djinn, however, bowed low first.
"You are an ustah (mistress)", he says as explanation. Then he raises his hands above his head.
"In the name of the Stars, all-powerful and merciful!", he roars, as his eyes roll backwards in his head.
Then he brought his hands together with a thunderous clap, exhales powerfully, breathing fire upon the mortal woman. But the fire that engulfs her doesn't hurt. In fact, she felt invigorated, as if drinking a hot tea in the heat to keep fresh! And her body feels now much more powerful. No doubt the djinn has made good of his word! She even lifted the shisha to check her new power.
A fast look ensures that no, her slender frame is still as feminine as it was before.
The djinn, however, moved his hand in front of his eyes and stumbles a step backwards.
Roz was pleased. "You have kept your bargain, fiery Ahmad."
"Please, Najwa, will you tell me more of this place? It's a marvel."

In fact, Roz was beginning to doubt she'll be able to perform the ritual to her ancestor here with all these damned monotheists about. But she didn't tell them that.
Najwa nodded, as if she didn't believe her eyes yet.
"Yes", Ahmad swells with pride. "Fiery I am, and it should be obvious even to a mortal! Though you're less mortal now, which might have helped..."
"She means you're made of fire",
Najwa explains to him.
Ahmad stopped cold in his tracks.
"Come, shah-ustah", the sila pulled Roz's hand. "The kindgom of djinni awaits you!"

*Shah-math means roughly "the shah is dead". Not sure if that's the right transcription...but the name of the game here is "shahmath", and not "chess".

Space Cowboy

Registered User
Validated User
As she read them all, the emeralds from the mummy's eyes fall off, and the saint opens his eyes.
"Is my presence requested?", he asked. "Are there apostates among the djinn?"
Roz leapt back, startled. Her saber slaps against her leg.
Freaky! :D

"Who are you? Are you a messenger of the Holy One, or just an Earthly worm trying to sneak into the Kingdom of Holy Fire?"
Behind him, Roz was able to see an woman of great beauty, though her features are obscured by the intense heat coming from the man's body.
By grandfather's beard! A djinn in the flesh! Or in the fire, as it seems.
Roz hurriedly turns her grimace into a sneer. When you're not holding any cards, bluff.
"I am she who is, I come from the end, and I am not looking for you, devil. Know you where is a servant of God, given great power by Him who is most merciful to work His will on the world?"

Ha! :D

The story continues to take Roz to unexpected places.

Also, a small formatting note: it's easier for a reader to follow along if you put line breaks between the paragraphs. For ex:

As she read them all, the emeralds from the mummy's eyes fall off, and the saint opens his eyes.

"Is my presence requested?", he asked. "Are there apostates among the djinn?"

Roz leapt back, startled. Her saber slaps against her leg.
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