Posted by zero
14 September 1380 C.E.
Hada had her men loot the ship for valuables, lamenting the fact that the lobraider was too large for her smaller, shallow-drafted baghalah to tow. Some of the men went below the hold of the Kannite ship with axes, and the sound of chopping wood resonated up from the dark and fetid hold of the hulk. Nyleth watched the sailors carry things onto the ship, fascinated by the efficiency of the pillaging. Quinn stood vigilant nearby. “So, sinkin’ ‘er, then. Just’s well,” said the Dalesman. Moria nodded absently at the observation.
“Will Hada’s men be able to get out in time?” Nyleth wondered aloud.
The wizard placed a hand on her shoulder. “I doubt this is their first sinking.”
“I suppose so,” she said quietly and absentmindedly reached up to squeeze Moria’s hand very briefly.
“Suren not tae be th’last, either,” said Quinn.
Once the preparations had been made, the captain requested an audience with Nima, suddenly very reserved. “Blessed one, we must destroy this vessel so that it does not carry its taint to ground.”
“Just into the depths,” Moria commented wryly in Faerie undertone.
Hada continued. “We cannot carry the corpses back to shore, and we have little iron, so may we use fire instead?’
“Iron?” Nyleth asked quietly of Moria in Faerie.
“To weight the ship down?” he guessed with a shrug.
“Mmm … that would make sense. I suppose.”
“I can cast my prayers and set fire to the ship to purify the taint of that illness,” Nima assured the captain.
Hada looked extremely relieved. “Oh, thank you, blessed one! Thank you!”
“It will take me a small amount of time to ready myself,” said the priest.
“My men are gathering kindling in the hold as we speak.”
“And a torch, as well. If you please.”
“We will have one lit on a bough of sandalwood.”
“Thank you, my lady,” said Nima. He then removed his weapons and armor and put on his ‘working clothes’. Then he wrapped his prayer beads around his left hand. The men hastily cleared the deck of the lobraider, and Nima was brought a brand of sandalwood. “Is all in readiness, my lady?” he asked.
At her nod, Nima cast at-tahhar on himself and stepped over the rail to the derelict. There, he began prayers for the dead, prayers to the Djinn, and prayers for purity. The men of Hada’s ship went to their knees and prayed for the Djinn to hold them free of guilt in the act. Nima paced to the hold, lit the kindling and paced back out to the railing, all the while continuing his prayers. Smoke rose slowly at first, but after a few minutes, flames began to flicker within the hold.
“Saint Immotion, lend yer cleansin’ tae theirs, I beseech ye,” Quinn said piously.
As soon as Nima was aboard, the men quickly cut the ties and cast the lobraider off, lowering oars and rowing hard to get clear of the listing vessel. As the at-Tair al-Bunni left the lobraider in its wake, the smoke rose like a great black serpent high into the afternoon sky.
Hada turned the ship’s rudder toward the island of al-Khawthar. It was a lonely rocky isle, with palm forests clinging to the steep mountain slopes and treacherous rocks upthrust from the surf. There were no signs of habitation. Hada declared that they had arrived at their destination and asked what the adventurers wanted to do.
“I suppose we should take a dinghy over?” Nyleth said dubiously. “Though I do not know how we will let you know when we are finished.” She squinted at the island for a moment. “Perhaps we could build a fire?”
The captain nodded. “Sayyaddati, I will send two of my men with you to man the dinghy. If you find yourself in peril, light a fire, and we will find you. May the djinn of this island be kind to you.”
Nyleth smiled at Hada and hugged her tightly. “You have been such a help to us, Captain.”
While the men lowered the lone dinghy into the water and then lowered a knotted rope for the two sailors to descend, Quinn helped Nima get back into his armor. “Forbiddin’ though ‘tis, at least it’ll be solid ground under mah feet fer awhile,” said the Dalesman. The adventurers joined Hada’s men in the little boat, and the sailors took up the oars and rowed over the breakers to bring them to shore. Nyleth sang to keep everyone’s spirits up.
Moria frowned anyway. “I have got a bad feeling about this.”
“Me, too,” agreed Quinn. “But it’s th’ way we have tae go.”
Once ashore, the sailors leapt out into the surf to haul the boat up onto the sand. The Dalesman stared up at the rocky slopes. “Suppose th’ best way tae find anythin’ ‘here is from th’ highest point.”
“Crude logic, but I have not better suggestion,” said Moria. It seemed to pain him to admit.
“Thanks,” Quinn said earnestly.
Nyleth looked around for a path of any sort then bustled about the sailors, making sure they were going to be safe. The men were already searching for dry wood with which to make a fire, but were entirely grateful for the bard’s attentions. There did not appear to be a path cut through the trees along the shore, but the thin soils made the woods quite light.
“Should we perhaps search the shores to see if we can find any sign of survivors from the wreck landing upon the island?” asked Moria.
“Aye, that sounds best,” said Quinn.
“That’s a good idea, Ecoriel,” agreed Nyleth, pulling out her bow and adjusting her armor. “Hopefully, it will be quiet, yes?”
“Stranger things ha’ happened,” muttered Quinn. Then he held up a hand and suddenly said, “The tree.”
“What?” said Moria, turning to look at him.
“I dreamed aboot a tree at the cent4er of th’ island.”
“‘Course, I also dreamed of a sea serpent, an’ I didnae see that…”
“Well, but maybe that means something more metaphorical than a serpent,” said Nyleth. “Or a tree.”
“Aye…” said the Dalesman. “D’ye know what was odd, though? The Magus offered me mah heart’s desire fer the pear … but I ain’t sure what that’d be.”
The bard patted him on the shoulder kindly. “Would you like me to scout ahead?” she offered, hands poised to pull her hood over her head. “I’m a little less … conspicuous?”
Moria nodded and said, “Keep your hood up.”
She nodded back. “I will whistle if I need you to stop.” She demonstrated a trilling birdsong from Faerie. Once sure everyone understood what was expected, she disappeared under the cowl of the elven cloak the wizard had made for her. Its magic let her blend into the rocky backdrop.
The ground ahead was waterlogged, almost inundated, yet there only appeared to be a few weeks’ worth of water-flora growth in the area. It was definitely not a natural or old marsh. She whistled stop, then returned to report.
“So, where’d it all come from, then?” asked Quinn, looking up toward the cliffs again.
“Good question,” said Moria.
“Maybe there was a flood?” suggested Nyleth.
They looked around for anything that might suggest an answer. A short while later, Nyleth called to the others. “Look over there,” she said, pointing at one of the larger tide pools. “See how the water is a different color? The new water is fresh water – the other is salt.” Then she turned toward Moria. “Remember what the poor thing said? That Amirandi was making them dig holes under the sea?”
“There’s a hollow that winds up intae th’ hills,” added Quinn. “Followin’ an old drainage oot of th’ highlands, most like.”
Nyleth nodded, still looking at the water. “Perhaps we should follow the hollow?”
“Hard tae resist when it rhymes,” said Quinn. At Moria’s wince, Nyleth began to giggle, then bit her hand to quiet herself. The Dalesman smiled and shook his head. “I ain’t much fer goin’ under th’ sea, anyways.”
“Nor I,” said Nyleth, “but that is because I am a terrible swimmer.” She took a few steps inland, then reached up a tree trunk. “Look at this,” she said, drawing her fingertips over a scarred patch on the tree. The others dutifully examined the oddity. “It goes a ways – like something pushed through the trees.”
“Ye need a boost there, Nyleth?” asked Quinn.
“Sure. Unless someone else can see better?” No one volunteered, so the burly Dalesman held Nyleth up by the waist for a better vantage point. He aimed a slightly guilty look at Moria as he did so, but the wizard shook his head, narrowly avoiding rolling his eyes.
“I’m positive something really big pushed its way through,” said the bard. “And is this what things look like when you’re tall? Neat!”
Quinn shrugged, which brought Nyleth up another inch or two. “Mah Da an’ brother are both taller’n me,” he said. Then he lowered her back down gently.
“Thank you, Quinn!”
“Forward, then?” asked Moria.
Nyleth took point once more, and the others fell in. They had little difficulty following the giant’s path, now that they knew what to look for, making their way higher and higher into the hills. The ground beneath their feet was saturated until they came upon the remains of a massive excavation – a grand swath of felled and uprooted trees, five-foot earthen berms, wasting piles of excavated stone and boulders all surrounding a great dug trench carved into the top of the hill. The trench led to what used to be a tremendous lake, but was now a nearly empty basin, choked with lake-weeds and dead fish.
Nyleth pulled a scarf from her bag and held it under her nose. “What in the world?” she said. Moria grimaced.
“This’d be where they was lookin’ fer Black Razeel, then?” suggested Quinn.
“They drained the lake!” Nima said incredulously.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Nyleth, crestfallen at the wrecked site. “The poor lake.”
“There’s a path leadin’ doon there,” said Quinn. He pointed to a strangely symmetrical mound of moss and algae at the center of the basin.
“Tree,” Nyleth said absently. “It looks like a tree in the middle.”
“Aye,” said Quinn, a little breathlessly. He started following the path down into the lake.
“Should he go alone?” the bard asked Moria. The wizard shook his head and started after the paladin. The others followed, weapons drawn, just in case.
“I dinnae ken what’s really aboot tae happen,” said Quinn, eyes never wavering from the mass, “but suren I’m glad we’re here t’gether.”
“As am I, Quinn,” said Nyleth.
They made their way to the center, finding the ground increasingly wet and boggy until they were forced to wade through waist-deep lake-water and grasses taller than Quinn. At the center was an algae-coated squat dome with a granite stair leading up to what was a sealed archway. The stone seal had been battered down, leaving only an open doorway, above which was ancient Hammaddi script above the lintel.
“Kin someone read that?” asked Quinn. “I’m still learnin’ th’ Hammaddi alphabet.”
The others inspected the script, but it appeared to be gibberish … not a word of it was Hammaddi.
“Oh, goodness,” said Nyleth, tracing the letters with her fingers.
Quinn tilted his head after a long moment and said, “It’s Faerie, innit?”
“What?” said Moria, cross and puzzled.
“It’s supposed to be,” said Nyleth pointing at the first letters. “If you were to spell out Ait na’Constanta’ using Hammaddian script, that is what it would look like. Sorta. It’s badly transliterated, but I think it’s supposed to say ‘Place of Protection’.”
“Izzit magic? The archway?” asked Quinn.
“I’m not sure,” Nyleth admitted. Moria cast the divination and reported moderate magic within.
“I think whatever we’ve come here tae find is through there,” said Quinn.
“Indeed,” said Moria. “Shall we?”
“Aye. Lemme take point this time, though.” The paladin started up the slippery stairs into the dark structure and the others followed.
The wizard evoked light so the humans could see. The interior was limned with columns, and there was a central pedestal, but the floor was slimy granite, pierced through with tiny holes. Water glimmered beneath the stone floor, and a larger aperture lay between each column. Four humanoid corpses lay on the floor.
“Uh oh,” said Quinn, kneeling for a close look at the nearest corpse. It appeared to have been a man clad in mail and armed with a heavy mace, but his face and arms were badly burned, as if by acid.
Moria cast detect magic again, noting the moderate emanation from beneath the floor, somewhere in the water. Nyleth stuck close to the wizard, looking around the chamber without touching anything. The pedestal in the center had a gold setting upon it, as if it once held something about the size of a melon.
“Lookit this,” he said, pointing to the tattooed head of one corpse which showed the image of a coiled snake. “Settites?”
“The ogre mentioned Settites…” said Moria. The others murmured agreement.
“‘E ain’t as badly burned as t’others,” said Quinn, moving around the periphery to search the Settite. As the paladin moved, they heard something disturb the water below the floor. He paused but a moment before resuming his grisly task.
“I do believe that there is something moving below us,” said Nima.
Moria held up a hand. “I hear whispers,” he said softly.
“Aye, I hear it, too,” said Quinn through gritted teeth. “Tellin’ me I wannae leave. In Hammaddi.” A loud splash sounded just beneath the paladin’s feet. “We need tae find a way doon there, afore I start agreein’.” He reached down and liberated two vials of different-colored liquids and four amethysts from the corpse.
Nyleth gave him a thoughtful look, head tilted. “Ah, I see. Quinn, just think of the little girl when the voice speaks. Ecoriel, if I found something that was close to this size,” she said, pointing at the cavity on the pedestal, “do you think something might happen?”
“It might need to be specific,” said Moria, “but I sense no magic … from there.”
“Near ye, Nyleth!” cried Quinn as something splashed beneath her.
She looked down at the floor. “Huh. The voice told me to go. I decided not to.”
Quinn nodded then stepped up to the pedestal for a better look. “Guess this is where I need a pear,” he said. He reached out and tried to push the pedestal down, but it sat firmly in place.
Nyleth and Nima both called a warning to Moria, who started edging up the stairs. The bard reached out and took his hand in hers, but the wizard shook his head. “I think we should leave. This isn’t the right place.”
“This is silly,” said Nyleth, sounding a little exasperated. Then she began to sing – a silly song about pixies and picnics. Moria shook his head to clear it, blinking rapidly. Nyleth squeezed his hand warmly, and continued her countersong.
“Name yourself! Speak clearly!” Nima demanded.
There was a splash at the north end of the room, and a large creature emerged partially from the water. Slender spines and brightly colored frills stretched back from the human-like face of the massive water snake. Every motion of the serpent’s long form set its brightly patterned scales and glistening fins to flashing like gems. The creature had the face of a Hammaddin woman, and it hissed at them. “Begone, foul thievessss!”
Nyleth looked at the creature and smiled. “I am afraid that we are not the thieves you are looking for. What has happened to your beautiful lake?” She somehow managed to continue her song. The serpent hissed and bristled her spines menacingly. The bard altered the song slightly, segueing into a verse about cool waters and placid ponds.
“There issss nothing left to ssssteal!” the creature insisted. “Begone, or I will kill you like your fellowssss!”
“Someone’s stolen th’ Black Razeel, then,” said Quinn.
“You must be very upset,” Nyleth said sympathetically. “We are upset at the thieves, too. They also stole from us.”
“Liessss!!!” shrieked the serpent. “You are trying to deceive me! There issss nothing left, villainssss! Go! Begone!!!”
“No lies, graceful one,” the bard said soothingly, holding her hand out. “He stole a youngling from us. A child. We will leave you in peace, and we will find him. We can return what he stole.”
“Why? Why do you perssssisssst? Why do you come back? It issss gone. Why do you return? Go!”
“She’s lyin’ aboot there bein’ nothin’ left,” Quinn said softly, in Faerie.
Nyleth nodded, continuing to parlay with the creature. “It was not us who returned, graceful one. We sought him before he stole from you. He cheated us and deceived us. We were too late.”
The sea serpent seems to hesitate. “He? The ssssurvivor? The one that esssscaped with the orb? It issss he you sssspeak of?”
“It is, graceful one. The one and the same.”
“He sssstole from you assss well? Why? Who are you?”
“We seek to retrieve our young one. We can return with the orb, as well> He has done a great evil to many.”
“Why have you come then, if not to ssssteal? You sssspoke of the Razeel! Why have you come, if not for the Razeel?”
“We were told he was seeking it. He hopes to use it to harm our child. We had thought to get ahead of him, to make sure he never arrived.” Nyleth hung her head. “We were too late. I am sorry, graceful one.”
The creature looked confused. “What? Harm a child with the Razeel? That’ssss not possssible!”
“Then you give us hope, graceful one. Perhaps we are not too late to save both the Razeel and the child.”
“Do you not know what the Razeel issss? You are not thosssse who came before, then. You are not thievessss.”
Nyleth smiled. “I must admit, graceful one, we do not know. And indeed, we are not the thieves. But perhaps we can be allies.”
A wide reptilian grin spread across the monstrously large human face, and the creature began to cackle heartily. “Oh, more the foolssss, them! I killed all but one, and they sssstill do not know they are foolssss! Hahaha!”
“Cannae say I care fer th’ sound o’ that,” said Quinn. Moria cast a concerned glance at the paladin.
The serpent calmed, though it continued to grin and sway back and forth excitedly in the water. “I feared that they ssssaw through the russsse, and returned to collect the real Razeel. But you are the enemiessss of my enemiessss, and they sssstill do not know.”
“Then it is still here,” said Quinn.
Nyleth smiled broadly at the serpent. “Indeed we are, graceful one. It was wise of you to deceive them. How can we help you?”
“Forgive me for threatening you. I am Laylah bint-Aynah al-Khawthar, Spirit of the Lake, and Guardian of the Black Razeel. Perhapssss we may help each other!”
“That would be delightful,” Moria said evenly.
“Per’aps,” said Quinn.
“The stars shine on our meeting, Laylah bint-Aynah al-Khawthar. I am Nyleth of the Faerie.”
“The Razeel is ssssafe for now, but they will return oncccce they disssscover that they have a fake! They will return with more Ssssonssss of Mot, and I may die thissss time.”
“How long since they left, I wonder?” said Quinn.
“You will not die, Laylah. We will make sure of it,” said Nyleth
“Perhaps we could lay a trap of our own,” suggested Moria.
The bard nodded at him. “Indeed, if we can do so without harming the lake anymore.” More quietly, she added, “I wish I had the power to make that right.”
“If you wish to find thissss man, you may wait here. He will be back. They took only a charmed bauble, a decoy, nothing more. The Black Razeel is far older than me and liessss within the place of protection, but I alsssso know where they are are going. I heard them sssshout as they fought me, I could tell you and you could sssseek them firsssst.”
“Now that sounds aboot right,” said Quinn.
“I would hate to miss them, but it sounds like a perfect opportunity,” said Moria.
Nyleth nodded. “I would ask your council, Laylah, if you would give it.”
“They return to the mortal city, Medinat-al-Jebail, to a place called ‘Abah an-Ni’. The dying one ssssaid to flee there assss he threw the decoy to the ssssurvivor.” Laylah hissed loudly.
“We are at a crossroads, then,” said the bard. “The thieves will return, no doubt, but I wonder if Amirandi will be among them.”
“Suren he’ll be there when they go tae deliver what they took from ‘ere, though,” said Quinn. “An’ if not, mebbe the thieves’ll ken where ‘e is.”
“I do not know if we can catch up to them,” said the bard. “I believe we should wait for them and protect the Razeel. We know where they were to take it, and we can return there after defeating the thieves.”
“If they return before you do, I will guard thissss place with my life, but if I should fall, they will find the Razeel, and that would be doom for the realmssss of man.”
“Laylah, I do not wish to put you in further danger,” said Nyleth.
“The risk is all of ours,” said Moria. “Can you not take the Razeel elsewhere, Laylah?”
“I may not, for I am bound by an ancient covenant. Sssso long assss the Razeel remainssss in ‘Ait na’ Constanta, sssso must I guard it.”
“So … and hear me out … We could hide it elsewhere, and you would be free to guard it … also elsewhere?”
“You … would become the guardianssss?” asked the naga.
“Oh, I…” Moria looked at the others. “I had not considered that.”
“Thass some vow,” said Quinn, his tone carrying warning.
“I fear we are not strong enough to be so,” Nyleth said sadly. “But we are strong enough to help you keep it safe until the thieves are no more.”
Abruptly, the naga spoke in Faerie. “Whomever shall bear the Razeel upon themselves shall ever be its guardian until another bears it to a place of protection. So shall it sustain them until it passes to another.
Moria quirked an eyebrow, his eyes glittering with interest. A beat later he said, “I accept.”
“If you take the Black Razeel, you become itssss guardian, and I am free to travel this realm!” said Laylah, clearly excited. “Free to ssssee and live, and to bear young, and passss on to the next realm.”
“Then be free. We relieve you of your duty and will take your place as guardians of the Black Razeel.”
“…Aye,” said Quinn, smiling.
Nyleth clapped and bowed. “You are free, Laylah. May the stars bless your many children!”
The naga nodded. “You musssst firsssst retrieve it, with no assssisssstance from me. Only then doessss the burden passss on. I can show you where it liessss, in the Place of Protection, but after that it issss up to you and your companionssss to retrieve it.”
“Then please, show us the place, graceful one,” said the bard.
“Make yoursssselves ready. It issss deep beneath the water.”