Trade’s Increase sails past Al Thasdun just after dusk two days later. It had been a choppy, if not particularly eventful, journey and one that the party would need many hours of solid land under their feet to regain their bearings. For some this is the first sight of the city, for others, more of a homecoming. Stretching the width of the bay and sheltered by the mountains that blunt the Southern winds and make the cities existence possible, Al Thasdun is a study in contrasts to Aramviso. The city gently flows down the mountainside, a cascade of lit terraces, to the lower city and the sea. Te massive Emir’s palace occupies the central heights, its darkened upper portions, the pleasure gardens and apartments are a missing jewel in the city’s crown. Small streams flow down the hillside, their courses engineered to flow through the villas of the wealthy before moving on to the abodes of those less well off.
The ship anchors in a cove ten miles to the South, sheltered only by scrub and brush but providing a decently concealed anchorage. From here goat paths twine through the hills to reach the back of the city in the Palace district. Wanting a quicker passage to the inn, however, Tomasso instructs the crew to ready the boat for departure and rows the party in. At the docks a little subterfuge and some quick distractions allow the group to appear as if they have not just hopped off a boat at 2am but are coming from the night’s revelries. The streets are better light and busier than would be normal in Neu Ungren at this time and they set off for the inn which their uncle had indicated as the meeting point.
The Flag is a sprawling complex in the Southern style that looks as if it has seen better days. Making their way into the courtyard and then into the atrium there is no sign of anyone and a gong situated near the bar is considered and discarded as too intrusive. They move over to what appears to be the innkeep’s suite and knock quietly. Almost instantly a man answers from inside and comes to the door. Matthias introduces himself and Szilvia indicating that they are here to meet Roberto. The proprietor, a large man of obviously Northern extraction with huge drooping side whiskers ushers everyone into the atrium. Introducing himself as Hank, Hakim around these parts, he arranges two rooms and when questioned about the current situation and their uncle’s whereabouts goes to put on a pot of coffee.
On his return Hank outlines the current situation. The city is in a bad way. Yusuf Kuzbak, titular prince of the city and a venal rogue has been assassinated in a very public fashion, his decapitated head thrown into the marketplace. Despite the very public nature and 6 months elapsing the prince’s killers have not been apprehended. The city is now under the rule of a very lax, and nominally Kuzbak-loyal judge (Qadi) and has descended into squalor. Rival families and gangs are taking the opportunity to settle old grudges and there is very little civic investment. Rumor has it that the Kuzbakids have sent “a man” down from the mountains to sort the city out but no evidence of this actually transpiring has yet been forthcoming. To make matters worse a significant current of anti-Kuzbak sentiment, especially within the old families, is being inflamed by preaching at the local Jebbabs and is merging into a general hostility towards foreigners. This, obviously, has not been good for the inn’s business. Hank recommends that they do not stray far from the inn tomorrow (their uncle should arrive within two days) as it is a prayer and meeting day and foreigners are even more likely to be harassed. Exhausted and willing to leave business until the next day the party retreats to their rooms to get a comfortable sleep in well turned out, if not recently used beds.
The next morning breakfast is served by one of Hank’s daughters, a gorgeous woman combining the best features of her mother’s Southern looks with those of her father. Heeding Hank’s advice, and in any case still mostly unsteady on solid ground, the day is spent lounging at the inn. In the daytime the courtyard takes on new life as a local marketplace and general watering hole. Nothing of particular interest, a man busy proving that there was almost no market for donkeys the primary entertainment until Vida moves into the courtyard to start his morning training. It soon becomes apparent that there is an over large number of young men loitering with a vengeance. All wear some form of grey hooded robe and direct suspicious glances at Vida, the rest of the party and especially the innkeep. Shortly thereafter an argument begins between Hank and some of the young turks. Szilvia, moving closer to overhear, learns that Hank is being pressured to explain why he was not at the Jebbab this morning and to hold a poetry recital. The inn, says a cloaked spokesman, has been the site of these events since time immemorial and they are requesting the chance to continue this tradition. Hank seems most unwilling to acquiesce and after dismissing the men for the moment, moves back into the inn. On questioning some of the guests it’s discovered that these are primarily sons of middle class nobility attempting to throw their weight around out. They dislike Hank for his foreign birth, his refusal to worship and most importantly his refusal to force his daughters to marry certain local gentleman of good standing. Vida, still practicing, is challenged by one of the men for his lack of attendance at worship but he replies “it is through practice that we improve and through improvement that we come closer to the truth” and the cloak, who cannot think of an appropriate retort, retreats to his group.
The day moves forward, with numbers of cloaks coming and going but showing no sign of reducing in numbers and looking increasingly hungry for any pretext to start setting about with their large staves. The arrival of food in the late afternoon passes unnoticed and it appears that a confrontation is inevitable. It’s suggested to Hank that they consider calling the bluff. Setting a fire would attract the guard and it’s unlikely that the cloaks are bloodthirsty enough to fight at those stakes. Hank agrees and Tomasso sneaks around back, disguised in a grey cloak, and sets fire to a set of damn blankets and other garbage, returning without detection. The smoke rises and the alarm is sounded. Hank’s daughters are screaming, his wife playing the part of a long suffering and persecuted woman and Hank himself storms into the courtyard demanding how this all has come to pass. A bucket chain is arranged and the fire is dealt with. In the courtyard an inebriated man, unnoticed until now, stands up and weaves his way to the front. “Alright boys” he says “it’s time to go”. His words appear to carry great weight and no one gainsays him. When the guard arrives demanding what has happened he tells them that perhaps there was some light arson. Hank, on being questioned, proclaims that he’s sure it wasn’t these young gentleman here. The young gentleman in question are invited for a chat at the constabulary, the guards seeming oblivious to their protests of who their parents may be. A small, scrofulous guard notices Tomasso and mutters something to one of his partners. Tomasso indicates he’s seen the exchange and the guard approaches and says “come with me, it will be easier this way”. In the proceedings the drunken man seems to have disappeared though Tomasso swears that he sees him at the bar for a second as he is leaving with the guard.
The guard introduces himself as Khnobi, and proceeds to talk the entire way to the palace grounds while saying absolutely nothing of worth. Tomasso is lead into the lower palace complex, evidently serving as the guard headquarters, an imposing building of reddish stone and rusting metal. They wind their way through the foreboding tunnels and hallways on a path that feels suspiciously circuitous. The walls appear hewn out of the rock rather than constructed and the place has the air of professionally inflicted despair. Khnobi arrives at a door, knocks, and is let in by a brute of a man who stands back revealing his twin and a spartan room consisting of an unused divan and a desk with a thick man sitting at it.
The man thanks Khnobi and dismisses him and the two guards who scowl at Tomasso as they leave. Without pausing from…eating is the wrong word for his treatment of the fowl…processing, he introduces himself as Irfan stating “You bought the Black Widow”. Tomasso nods. Irfan nods and proceeds to outline a deal of the take it or leave it variety. In exchange for turning a blind eye to all dealings he wants a 50% cut of the profits and the names of contacts and manifests for all shipments in and out of the city. If this is not forthcoming and Tomasso attempts to continue business in Al Thasdun then violence will be visited on his person, most specifically in the testicular region. After weighing the situation, but none too pleased by it, he accepts the deal. Khnobi will be his contact locally. He returns to the inn.
Later that evening Roberto makes his appearance looking significantly worse for wear. Gone is the fat, amiable man, he is now gaunt, wiry and haggard looking. Nonetheless he is overjoyed to the see the heirs announcing that he’d feared he would never see them again. Matthias assures him that they got the message in time to save both Alberto and Shuh from separate attacks. With relief but with no sincerity whatsoever he says that he thought Alberto would survive to get the message through.
Not wasting any time, Roberto outlines the current situation. Yanos has not crowned himself yet but is styling his rule as a regency. Quite who this regency is on behalf of has been kept purposefully vague. The heirs inquire about the wellbeing of their mother and discover that she is being kept under house arrest (and heavy guard) in a fortified manor several hours ride from Aramviso. Their step-sister, who Yanos is blaming for the murder, has fled to the Rogebok family estates and has gone to ground. Roberto is unsure of Yanos’ next move but suggests that he may have a problem on his hands with his daughter. The heirs remember Katrina from childhood as a precocious, brat, a poor loser in all games. Time has apparently not altered her character; she has matured into a highly unpopular know-it-all. A woman who would stoop at nothing to be queen and who is not afraid to display her feeling that the crown should be hers.
Opposing Yanos, and thus potential allies for the heirs, are two of the kingdom’s most important personages. The first is Gabor Prokotnik, the old warhorse and scourge of the emirate. A brilliant commander he bears a personal grudge against Yanos for his last, and almost his only, defeat at the hands of the Kuzbakids. Prokotnik believes that Yanos is actively colluding with the Southerners and sold him down the river, directly leading to the campaign’s failure. The hatred is made more bitter by the death of Gabor’s son in that ill fated expedition. After the old king’s assassination, Gabor has retreated to his lands. He and his retainers remain entrenched in what is likely the most fortified position in the entire island. He remains an important political figure, recognized for his martial prowess, his loyalty and he retains the fealty of a large number of men at arms. If the heirs wish to endear themselves to him Roberto suggests that they consider the close personal friendship Gabor had with their grandfather. Mo inquires what manner of man was he and Roberto describes Godor Sarkad as a magnificent bastard, a wencher, a great man to have next to you in a fight: a man’s man who couldn’t run a moderately sized village and only lucked into his kingdom by the grace of his seneschal Oltan Capetti’s steadfast devotion to seeing Godor’s whims achieved.
The second possible power broker is [Firstname] Gurtochuk. Unlike Gabor who is personally out to wring Yanos’s neck, Gurtochuk’s beef is much older and with the Sarkads in general. Apparently at the time of the departure of their grandfather’s expedition he had believed himself more of a social equal and compatriot rather than a subject. Godor seized the monarchy, cut a deal with the southerners and then failed to implement any meaningful distribution of authority by sanctioning only the most neutered of parliaments and the Gurtochuk family has been nursing a grudge ever since. He derives most of his power from his immense wealth and he is owed money by a large part of Aramviso’s nobility which, in uncertain times could be to his advantage but also means that a good deal of the nobility would be very glad if he were shown the door of the kingdom.
The heirs discuss the options and the party offers some opinions. Matthias is strongly in favor of Prokotnik for his martial assets as well as his reputation for loyalty. There seems to be little interest in Gurtochuck. Roberto advances that he also has extensive contacts with the local thieves guild that would be, for the right arrangements, willing to invest a substantial amount of money to certain “causes”. Mo also discusses the future of their partnership with Mathias. He is very much interested to know what future there will be for his research projects and Mathias promises him that funds will be diverted and also that there should be ample opportunities for such a skilled engineer in their exploits to come. The heirs decide, that the first priority should be rescue mother before any possibility of word from Neu Ungren reaches Aramviso. It’s thought that springing her loose in such a bold and decided manner will also be beneficial in negotiations with Prokotnik. The earliest window for news arriving in Aramviso would be seven days from now. Travelling by land would be two days too slow. Sailing would take approximately six days on the Al Thasdun → Tunna → Aramviso route but could be affected by a lack of wind or storms. There is a third and much riskier way, sailing directly along the coast, but this would require the navigation of treacherous uncharted shoals. No one sails that route…
Half a day out of Al Thasdun the ship is embayed near the mouth of the Arvil river. Tomasso makes several unsuccessful attempts to find a path through the shoals but with a wind coming up he is forced to beach the boat and take stock of the situation. Surveying the surrounds in his skiff he discovers a path which may allow them to continue the voyage. It’s either that, dismast the ship and row her up the Arvil to the foothills or turn tail and sail back to Al Thasdun two days the poorer. Surveying the shoal he pegs the chance at little better than a coin toss of passing over with the hull unscathed. Tossing the dice, the crew is ordered to shove off and they set sail for the gap. With a flick of the tiller the ship crests the top of a wave and rides it momentarily, only a few seconds but enough time to clear the gap and into the next lagoon. A silent prayer of thanks to fate, Tomasso steers the ship through the remaining reefs and into the clear waters off Aramviso.
It’s with the walls of the citadel in sight and the satisfaction of a difficult voyage managed that the party’s path takes an unexpected left turn. Out of nowhere a massive gale, not quite a purple storm but definitely lurid pink, ambushes the boat and lays her on her beam ends. Orders are given to drop all the sails and with a scrap of canvas serving as a storm jib Tomasso and the crew struggle to keep the ship as close to their destination as possible. Staying afloat is the greater priority, though, and the ship is forced to fly before the wind. With no bearings and with the ship travelling much too quickly for sounding, Tomasso has little recourse but to post a man at the bows to yell if any obstacles should heave into sight. A wet, miserable position, and the crew rotates bell after bell to give each man a break. After 12 hours of scudding blindly across the sea the storm blows itself out and as first the wind then the rain lets up it reveals a small island no great way off.
The ship appears to be rocking gently in a large coral lagoon and a quick glance at the reefs does not reveal any easy exit routes. With little other option, they beach the boat in the delta of the small river feeding the lagoon. While the sailors, under Mo’s direction, set about digging a trench and erecting a small defense of sharpened sticks, Tomasso sets about investigating the reef with his skiff. A more thorough investigation does nothing to improve the initial survey. After several hours he is no closer to finding a safe passage. It’s disconcerting that the island is so…native…it would suggest that they may be significantly farther from Aaramviso than he had thought possible. Bobbing on the lagoon and trying to fix their relative position, his thoughts drift to his router describing the approaches to Isla Malarta. Something trips a memory of a “hooded island” surrounded by shoals marked “xxx certain death – Avoid!” and, suddenly, he remembers the same symbol combination appearing in Elena’s handkerchief. At that moment he turns and, looking back towards the shore, sees a column of smoke rising. Taking precise bearings of the smoke’s origin, about two hours walk into the forest, he returns to the beach to tell everyone that they’re not alone.
Consternation and a decision to scout out the other settlement, for the smoke Tomasso had seen was clearly more than a small campfire. Szilvia volunteers to scout ahead and with backup about half an hour behind in the forest. Creeping up on the forest edge she spies a village of huts, the architecture unmistakably riverlands Doni, and a number of people milling about. The village appears to be a farming community and the wild pigs that roam the forest likely descendants of earlier domesticated ancestors. Oddly, Szilvia notices that most of the huts have one or more goat skulls adorning the doorway. The skulls appear to be marked with patterns in a ruddy brown substance that could be blood. Apart from that the only item of interest is the apparent preparation for some form of feast later tonight. Several bonfires are being heaped up in anticipation. Szilvia returns to the backup group to report the findings and indicates that she will go back to watch the feast and see if there is more intel to be gained.
When she makes her way back to the clearing dusk is already falling and the festivities appear to have started. The village is lit by numerous fires with one large bonfire near the centre. At the very centre, however, there is a dias with a garlanded goat on it. The villagers appear to be treating the goat with significant respect and reverence. The party continues with the consumption of significant amounts of liquor from a communal bowl. A little while later the drumming starts and to Szilvia it feels more potent than drumming normally should. Looking back at the village it is no longer clear exactly what is happening on the ceremony grounds. The dancing humans now appear to be taking on goat like qualities, this fades in and out but gradually becomes more consistent. The goat on the dias now appears to be a garlanded human surrounded by dancing goatmen. Finally the ceremony reaches its height, to Szilvia it’s now completely clear that this is a village of goatmen sacrificing a man. One of the leaders approaches and cries out in a mixed tongue that includes some recognizable Doni such as “for saving us, for the master, a little bit of power”. He then sacrifices the garlanded man with a vicious looking blade and a shower of blood, far more than would be expected bursts forth. The goatmen surge forward and begin painting their faces with the same markings as Szilvia saw earlier on the skulls above the hut doors. The goatman who led the sacrifice picks up the corpse and brings it over to the fire. Goatmen start dancing around the bonfire, some in an extasy begin cutting themselves and splashing the blood on the flames. The leader tosses the corpse onto the bonfire and as it is consumed a shape forms momentarily above the flames before dissipating. Szilvia falls asleep and when Vita and Mathias come to investigate several hours later they find her sleeping blissfully and so deeply that she is undisturbed when Vida picks her up bodily and they return to the boat.
Back at the boat there is consternation when, in the morning Szilvia wakes up and explains to Matthias that she knows that the village populated with human sacrificing goatmen. After getting the full story of the previous night’s festivities the party is thoroughly disturbed. They set to improving the makeshift stockade as much as possible. Tomasso, more motivated than ever to find a path through the reefs, starts dragging his skiff down to the water’s edge. Everything would have to wait, however, because near the water’s edge Tomasso stops, the hair on his arms prickling. The breeze, previously so steadily blowing on shore, has stopped. The air, now dead still, feels cooler. It is as if the warmth of the day is being sucked straight out. He looks over his shoulder to the South/South-West. The day is clear, the sea calm. A a bank of cloud, so low to the horizon as to be almost invisible, reflects the sun’s rays. For the briefest of moments the white band flickers purple. Tomasso runs up the beach yelling frantically to the crew to start dismasting the boat.
With no time to explain he simply points to the horizon and says “purple storm”. The crew look in disbelief and then, recognizing the signs, redouble their efforts to make all fast. The boat being seen to, Mo sets to widening the trench that had been their palisade. They would dig themselves in, like Neu Ungren marines, and pray for the best. The storm’s approach is now unmistakable. In the course of five minutes the squall line has advanced across the sea, the clouds progressively building in height. The ship dismasted and made as fast as limited preparation could make her, Tomasso sets to lashing her to a series of trees with a hawser run out from the capstan. He manages to round three wide trees and is lashing the rope back upon itself when with the storm upon them Vida leaves the shelter and drags him bodily back to cover. In an instant, the sky is a lurid purple and the waves start pounding the beach. Suddenly all is calm, and there is a moment of complete silence and then wind hits the shelter. An incredible roar so deep that it shakes the walls of the trench, buffeting those crouching within. Time and space lose all meaning. The flashes of lighting appear now near, now far, but nothing else can be made out in the wall of swirling noise and water. The air is oppressive, choking, difficult to breathe. Vida, sitting cross-legged in the trench, begins to meditate, appearing to grasp some manner of inner truth among the chaos.
And then, as suddenly as it came, the storm is gone. The sky clears, the sea settles. The air, so oppressive just moments ago, now tastes clean: scoured. The party emerges from the waterlogged trench, stunned and deafened to take stock of the damage. The beach is littered with debris, the forest inland has been devastated. Scarcely a tree remains undamaged, many have been uprooted. Two of the trees the boat had been lashed to have suffered this fate and are no longer to be seen; tossed somewhere deeper inland. The third, however, remains fast. Inexplicably the ship lies where she was left, overturned, but looking for all the ruin and destruction like she had just been run up the beach for some light repair work. The hull has been scraped completely clean. Overwhelming happiness, relief and gratitude wash over Tomasso. Fortune doesn’t often come in bigger does than this.
The cleanup begins. The sea is now calm and the breeze slight and while the crew is setting the ship to rights and the party sets to rebuilding their camp Szilvia heads through the ruin of the forest to see how the village has fared. The settlement is a mess, most of the huts are flattened. The inhabitants, however, seem to be coping remarkably well. Most are moving about gathering the scattered wood and the rebuilding process seems to be already well in train. Meanwhile, back at the beach, Tomasso rows out to the reefs hoping to find that the storm has broken or shifted some reefs; perhaps there is now a passage. To his regret he finds that the bay is exactly as he surveyed it yesterday. He remembers the sailor’s tale of hooded islands surrounded by reefs so strong and impenetrable that they cannot be shifted even by such storms. The islands of these stories are invariably wealthy, crammed with nubile women and perhaps a curse or trial to overcome for the shipwrecked sailors to gain their freedom. What will the party need to do to gain their freedom? At the very least there should be time to spare since the Santoni ship which would bring news of their departure from Neu Ungren will likely have turned back in the face of these two storms.