The Fated decided they had to get more information. Zoya, Mahmud, and Shikra flew to Alakyrum, arriving on the 23rd. From the air it was clear that Alakyrum was a city in the grips of discontent. The detritus of riots and the scorch marks of fires littered its bazaars and plazas. The city guard, thinned by the Butcher’s eastward march, was doing what it could to disperse angry crowds.
Mahmud and Shikra headed straight for the Great Mosque of the Way of Eternal Truth, where their friend Mahdi al-Idam was imam. Al-Idam was astounded to see them. “You should not be here, you are in grave danger!” He explained that “The Butcher has left Tavic Marcello, Sacker of Cynidicea, in charge of Alakyrum.” Worse, Tavic Marcellus had arrested the Grand Patriarch on charges of preaching treachery against the Empire.
Meanwhile Zoya checked in with her spy network. Abiram reported that “the Patriarch of the Great Mosque has been having clandestine meetings in his chambers, but I could not discern with whom.” Cainan had learned that “the great hero, Abdulla al-Rassan, last of the Swords of Imran, is leading a cell of rebels seeking independence for Opelenea.” Bartini had learned that “the famous mage, Abdullah al-Rassan, is married to a beautiful bride that he visits in his harem only after dark.” Ithamar reported “many of Alakyrum’s ruffians and mercenaries have been hired by a mysterious patron, but no one knows what for.”
With this information in hand, the party returned to the Oasis of the White Palm. While this was afoot, Suad had been attempting to scry various forces with his crystal ball. Scrying Abdullah al-Rassan proved fruitless. Scrying on Utuk-Xul revealed the great dragon to be slumbering on treasure in a dark pit. Scrying on the Butcher of Ber-Gathy showed him looking at a map of the Empire in a war-room.
On the 26th, Mahmud led a brief excursion to the City of the Phoenix. He and the other adventurers found that the palace complex where Utuk-Xul had dwelled was guarded by skeletal minions, and might contain a dungeon within. With the situation at hand already complex, the adventurers decided to postpone exploration.
Indeed, the complexity of the situation now drove the Fated into a great argument. Mahmud wanted to give the Staff of Ruling to the great Abdullah al-Rassan so that he could lead Opelenea to greatness. Diametrically opposed, Shikra wanted to retain the Staff of Ruling for their own ends. Suad, Rakh, and Ethlyn were in between, curious as to what the Staff of Ruling did, and whether Abdullah al-Rassan could be trusted.
Senef consulted the spirits. Is it Abdullah’s goal to rule Opelenea? No. Is Abdullah aligned with neutrality or chaos? No. Would the Staff of Ruling be useful against Amur-Sin? Yes. These answers made it clear that the party would have to at least meet with Abdullah al-Rassan. Mahmud, Ethlyn, and Shikra obligingly flew back to Alakyrum, where Mahdi al-Idam had arranged for a meeting with the famed sorcerer.
Despite the guards around the Mosque, Abdullah made a conventional entrance to the Mosque, casting no visible spells. He greeted the Fated warmly. They responded with probing questions. “Who do you intend to rule Opelenea?” asked Mahmud. “I have no intent one way or another. But it is Imran’s will that I serve as ruler,” said the mage modestly.
“I have heard you have a beautiful wife. Will she be queen?” asked Ethlyn. Abdullah’s face fell flat and he paused oddly and for a long time, finally saying “I do not have a wife.” Ethlyn, perhaps thinking she might be queen, asked Abdullah to accompany the Fated back to the Oasis of the White Palm to get the Staff of Ruling. Abdullah agreed, and the band soon took flight. They again noticed that Abdullah did not cast any spells during the trip, or even study his spellbooks.
On the 5th of Genethelen, the travelers reached the Oasis. The Fated soon gathered in their full numbers to meet with Abdullah. Abdullah explained that on the 13th of Genelen – the next full moon – a great uprising was planned in Opelenea. The remaining Auran leaders across the realm would be killed, and Opeleneans would rule Opelenea. “It is my hope that you will join me in this undertaking, and take the pashalic of nearby Khaibar for your own.” Not even the promise of temporal power could cool Shikra’s antagonism towards Abdullah. In the face of his offer, the warlock demanded that Abdullah subject himself to a series of magical divinations before they would even show him the Staff of Ruling. Abdullah was outraged, saying that he had been brought here on false premises, and refused to subject himself to “an inquisition”. He turned to leave, Shikra went for her wand of paralyzation, and chaos erupted.
Mahmud moved to block Shikra, Rakh tackled Abdullah, Shikra claimed innocence, and Suad dispelled the magic on Abdullah. A mighty enchantment was broken, and Abdullah sat up in confusion screaming “Look out, she’s spellca… wait, where am I?” He was amnesiac, with no memory of anything in the last nine months. The last thing he recalled was the Swords of Imran exploring the Tower of the Worm…then, nothing. Suad surmised that Abdullah had been ensorcelled by Navana for the past three seasons. She was behind his planned coup.
With dawning horror, the Fated realized that the only man in all of Opelenea who knew the details of that coup had lost all memory of it: Who he had hired, what their orders were, all lost when the enchantment that had controlled his mind for nine months had been broken. At a loss, the party decided the best thing they could do was warn the Grand Patriarch. Suad immediately scryed him, but his image was blocked. Senef called upon the spirits, but to no avail: The Grand Patriarch was not in Alakyrum, not imprisoned by Navana, not in the Tower of the Worm.
Senef divined what would happen if the Fated warned the Aurans. “Vicious plans are set awry, but many Opeleneans are condemned to die.” What happens if we pursue Navana directly? “The Sarcophagus Legion is unleashed on the region.”
“I thought perhaps the Staff of Ruling was what Navana needed to control the Sarcophagus Legion,” said Shikra. “But maybe not.” “No, my friend, I believe you are right,” said Suad. “For the Staff of Ruling is gone from where I hid it. She has taken it.”
“Taken it? How?!” demanded Mahmud. “A wish? A djinn? An invisible stalker? Who can say. She is a powerful sorceress,” said Suad, devastated.
Increasing desperate, the Fated scryed again for the Grand Patriarch. This time they found him, or rather, what was left of him: Nothing. He had been disintegrated. With the Grand Patriarch dead, the Fated had no allies of sufficient power or authority to stop or seize control of the upcoming coup.
If what Abdullah al-Rassan had said was true, in little more than a week, rebellion was coming to Opelenea. The Fated had to choose: Take part in the rebellion, warn the Aurans against the rebellion, or wait in the Oasis to see what happened. They talked late into the night, discussing their options…
The Fated had decided that they would seize Khaibar. This southern city was isolated from Alakyrum, but close to their allies at the Oasis of the White Palm; it was also relatively under-populated, but with high walls from its ancient prime. Moreover they knew that Abdallah al-Rassan had intended for them to rule it, so there would be no opposed leader, ideally.
Zoya arrived first, by flying carpet, and immediately began to gather information about Khaibar at the Djinn of the Green Fez, a watering hole for ruffians and carousers. The town’s Pasha was called Arjenus, a ruthless Auran legate and minion of the Butcher. Arjenus’s military forces consisted of around 120 Auran legionaries as well as 60 Kemeshi mamelukes under the command of the Great Mufti Farouk. Early in his term, Arjenus had crucified the head of the local thieves’ guild, and retained the former guild lieutenant, Vahtak Bey, as his personal vassal; Bey’s loyalty was assured through a poison which only Arjenus could cure. Zoya heard that Leila at the Dropping Djellebah, a brothel, might secure one a meeting with Vahtak Bey.
The rest of the group arrived on the 7th of Genelen. Suad’s carpet and Shikra’s invisibility spell made avoiding the Auran legionaries at the gate easy. Once inside, they headed to the Mosque of the Great Holy One, where Achmed Raisul was imam. They brought with them the rebellion’s erstwhile leader, Abdallah al-Rassan. Achmed instantly recognized him, and spoke of his readiness to strike to revenge the Patriarch. Poor Abdallah played along as best he could. It was clear that Achmed Raisul was pro-rebellion.
Zoya, Ethlyn, Senef, Bellona, and Shikra now left the mosque to seek out the Dropping Djellebah. The group travelled under the cover of an invisibility spell and hoped to avoid trouble. En route, the calmness of Khaibar was disrupted by a sudden explosion that tore apart a nearby mudbrick building. Zoya raced behind the rubbled building, hoping to catch the unseen perpetrator. No one was there, but in the grill work of a high metal fence she found a torn belt-sash with a jambiya still scabbarded in it; the dagger’s hilt was shaped like a howling dog.
Senef extinguished the fires with his shamanic powers, a gesture that was rewarded with an accusation of sorcery by the Auran guards that rushed to the scene. When the guards tried to disarm and arrest Senef, Shikra unleashed a hypnotic pattern and Bellona intimidated everyone with her empty wand of detecting traps. Ethlyn then claimed to be a high-ranking Auran noble and demanded an apology from the Auran centurion in charge for hassling her men while they were doing “your jobs for you!”
Their bravado worked and the guards meekly retreated. Zoya and Senef made their way into the Dropping Djellebah. Zoya quickly found Leila and began to talk business. To ensure their privacy, Senef dropped a large quantity of gold and hired all of the extent houri in the brothel. Zoya and Leila could hear the girls in the next room, loudly discussing the size of the shaman’s snake.
Back at the Mosque, Achmed Raisul explained to Mahmud, Rakh, and Suad that the explosion was doubtless the work of “The Mad Dog of the Desert”, a fundamentalist assassin who opposed any cooperation or commerce with Aura. The three decided to re-unit with their comrades. They found Bellona, Shikra, and Ethlyn in the alleyways behind the brothel, and headed over to Ibrahim’s Mint Parlor, a tavern catering to off-duty mamelukes and guards. As Fate would have it, the Great Mufti Farouk had decided to take his mint tea at the parlor that afternoon, and Mahmud was able to arrange a formal audience with him on the next day.
While these preparations were underway, Zoya and Leila had concluded their business, with Leila agreeing to arrange for a private meeting between Zoya and Vahtak Bey. As she left with Senef, Zoya could hear the houri whispering, “They call him the Desert Wind…” Senef, for once, had no wisdom to impart.
Most of the Fated were ready to retire for the night, but Suad decided to visit the local Tower of Knowledge. His trip was interrupted by an annoying call to prayer celebrating a holy feast day in which Al-Sindor had caused date palms to bloom in the desert. This seemed so coincidental as to make the sorcerer suspicious, but consultation with local religious authorities revealed this was an annual festival. Sometimes a date palm is just a date palm.
Once the prayer ended, Suad befriended three junior mages in the Tower. Epaphras, Parthalan, and Wadi explained that the Tower’s regis, Soraya, also known as the Crescent Witch, was disliked by the pasha, and rarely left the Tower. From their conversation, Suad surmised that Soraya was moderately more powerful than himself, but not an archmage or wizard. Feeling comfortable that there would be no unexpected danger from the Tower, he rejoined the Fated at the Casbah of the Rising Camel, the inn where they were residing for the night.
Zoya had bribed the innkeeper to alert them if there were any problems, and this proved a judicious bribe. He gave them warning that a group of guardsmen were coming to carry away Ethlyn for forcible introduction to the pasha’s harem. Ethlyn hid herself away in an empty room and the guardsmen went back to the palace empty-handed.
The next day, 8th Genelen, Mahmud went to entreat with the Grand Mufti Farouk. He brought Rakh along, posing as a slave. Mahmud tried to feel out Farouk’s loyalties to the Pasha and to the Empire, while Farouk discretely inquired as to Mahmud’s purposes in Khaibar. Mahmud left the meeting certain that Farouk knew about the planned rebellion, but uncertain of his intentions or position. Outside the meeting, Rakh was “freed” by some benevolent Auran guardsmen, who informed him that slavery was illegal in the Empire and sent him packing with some copper coins. “You’re a free lizard! Go on, boy. Go!”
Senef decided to ask the spirits for guidance about who might be the best allies. This communion revealed that Farouk agreed with the rebellion; that the Mad Dog worshipped the chthonic gods; and that Vahtak Bey was in fact being poisoned by Arjenus.
That night, Senef and Zoya headed back to the Dropping Djellebah to meet with Vahtak Bey. The rest of the Fated were hidden invisibly nearby. Vahtak Bey had an easy smile but dead eyes and Zoya felt he’d as sooner kill her as sleep with her. Senef decided that bluntness was the wisest course. “Rebels are planning to slay all of the Auran leadership in Khaibar. You are not Auran so there might be a place for you after the rebellion. Where would you stand should such a thing occur?” Vahtak Bey was taken aback by this display of forthrightness, but quickly recovered. “I have no love for the Aurans, it is true. Should certain problems I have be resolved, I would be open to a change in regime.”
Since these forthright tactics proved effective, the Fated decided to re-visit Farouk at the palace. Mahmud met the Great Mufti on the 9th over mint tea and iced sherbet. “What returns you to the Palace to meet with me?” asked Farouk. “A storm is coming, and I want to ask where you will stand when the desert winds blow,” said Mahmud. “That very much depends who is doing the blowing,” said Farouk. “I am. When the rebellion ends, I will rule Khaibar, and I will give freedom to you and your slave-soldiers.” “You give me much to think on,” said Farouk. The two warriors ended their meeting, each bearing his face in stoic inscrutability.
On the 10th, the situation in the city got even more complex. A caravan of traders arrived and set up a bazaar not far from the palace. The guards on the walls and gates had doubled and frequent patrols seemed to be on the look- out for perpetrators. The Mad Dog’s bombs continued to go off in Khaibar. To avoid trouble, the Fated traveled everywhere under the protection of invisibility magic.
Suad had by now secured an audience with Soraya, the Crescent Witch. He brought the handsome Mahmud with him, and the green-eyed Soraya was instantly smitten by the paladin. “I will be very frank with you,” said Suad. “In a few days time there will be a rebellion. Mahmud will be in charge.” “I’m sure that will be just fine,” said the smitten sorceress.
Zoya had been working studiously to create a network of carousers and spies within Khaibar and these efforts had begun to pay off. One of her ruffians reported a rumor that the wealth of the Pasha was kept behind a door with a Lion’s Head. Her spy, Yaghoub, reported that a secret passage runs between the Pasha’s harem and his bedchambers.
It was now the 11th of Genelen. The Night of the Crescent was fast approaching, so the Fated began to put last minute preparations in place…
The Night of the Crescent was fast approaching, and the Fated felt they needed more and better intelligence about the likely course of events. Senef had called on the spirits too often as of late, so they were forced to ask Achmed Raisul, the imam of the mosque in Khaibar, to oblige them with a communion spell. It clearly galled Senef to ask, and the imam demanded a large donation to the mosque for his troubles. “Someone in my congregation will suffer today when I unable to restore their body because of this favor,” he said. Then came the questions: “Is there going to be an assassination attempt in Khaibar?” Yes. “Is the Mad Dog working for Navana or hired by Abdallah al-Rassan?” Yes. “Is Navana intending the takeover of Khaibar to be a trap for the Fated?” No.
Meanwhile, Zoya dispatched Celic and Dornethan into the city to gather intelligence and eavesdrop for information. Late that night, Dornethan raced back to the mosque, where the Fated where staying, with bad news: Celic had been captured by Auran legionaries and taken to the city’s prison! Senef was sanguine. “We should not interrupt our mission for this set-back. We pay Celic a lot of money for his silence.” Ethlyn was worried that Celic might break. “He might be tortured!” The Fated had slipped into argument when Zoya suddenly announced, “I wll rescue him –personally,” and vanished.
With her magical cloak and slippers, the thief had little trouble sneaking into the prison. The monolithic structure was largely empty. Ten prisoners, in ill-health and showing signs of torture, gazed hopelessly from a number of cells lining the main hallway. One of these was Celic, nearly naked. “They took my magic items!” he said to Zoya, pointing at the terminus of the hall, where a guard chamber was filled with about a dozen legionaries. The guards were playing card games occasionally punctuated by desultory patrols. The lead guard, a burly centurion of Opelenean descent, was bragging about his way with prisoners. “Forget about the carrot and the stick. What I use is a stick and a bigger stick!” Zoya noticed that the lead guard carried Celic’s magical scimitar.
Zoya approaches unseen and planted the last of her pineapple-bombs near the guard’s feet. Then she walked out of the room. A few seconds passed, and a fiery explosion erupted in the guard chamber. Zoya did not gaze back as the flames burned away the guards behind her. When Celic’s scimitar flew past Zoya, she caught it mid-air without looking. She then calmly freed Celic and handed him a potion of invisibility. The invisible thieves walked out of the prison in slow motion even as dozens more legionaries rushed to fight the fire. Celic later swore that an angelic choir had played epic music throughout, but this seemed unbelievable.
Days passed, and the Night of the Crescent was at hand. It was Calefadras, 13th Genelen. Senef made on final query to the spirits. “Does the Pasha know of the planned coup?” No. “Will the Mad Dog commit assassinations during the coup?” Yes. “Will there be a riot?” Maybe.
As the full moon rose over Khaibar, the Fated gathered, invisibly, outside the pasha’s palace. Shikra and Suad floated overhead on Suad’s magic carpet. Around 3AM, Shikra spied dark-robed assassins emerging from a sewer grate in the palace courtyard and making their way into the main hall. The Mameluke guards on the walls either failed to notice them, or deliberately ignored them. Either way, something was afoot. Zoya decided to reconnoiter. She was soon over the walls and at the main hall. Within she could see the gore of dead Auran legionaries, and hear sounds of fighting. The thief took up a hidden position by the entrance.
With Zoya in position, it was time to move. Mahmud revealed himself, and commanded the Mamelukes to open the gates to him. Calefa, goddess of fate and fortune, spun her great wheel, and the destiny of Khaibar was decided. “We will open the gates when Farouk, the new Pasha of Khaibar, orders it.” Farouk! cursed Mahmud. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. The Great Mufti had heard Mahmud’s plans and decided to take power for himself. How dare he!
“OPEN IT!” Mahmud shouted to Suad. The gate magically burst open, and the Fated charged in. Ethlyn blew the Trumpet of War, and its stentorian tones, unheard in a thousand years, sent the Fated into a frenzy of heroism. “Free Khaibar!” shouted the usually laconic Senef.
Guards on the walls unleashed volley after volley at the Fated, but Bellona suppressed their enthusiasm with a pair of fireballs. Rakh and Androcles raised up the stairs and cut down the stragglers in melee. Mahmud, Wazir, and Umar pressed into the main hall, cutting down any Mamelukes in their past. A score of foes had been cut down when the advance was halted by a rude trap – a hidden pit in the palace corridor that sent Mahmud and Wazir tumbling down into slimy water occupied by something monstrous. Shikra was able to get Mahmud to safety, but a hideous giant crustacean dragged Wazir below, leaving behind just blood and viscera.
The Fated knew that time was not their friend; Farouk was even now organizing a defense against their assault. They pressed on, vowing to return for Wazir’s remains. Tragically, the delay of the trap had already given Farouk the time he needed, and the Fated charged into an ambush by over a dozen elite Mamelukes, led by Farouk himself. The Great Mufti’s surprise attack incapacitated Mahmud. The paladin fell, bleeding heavily where the scimitar had sliced away a chunk of his left hand.
Bellona, Suad, and Shikra decided it was time to get unpleasant. Shikra summoned a rust monster, Suad conjured a hydra, and Bellona unleashed her newly-researched spell, obsidian blade. The mages turned the tide. The Mamelukes were cut down, as were a second wave after them. Farouk fell back, badly wounded, while his officers covered his retreat.
By the time the officers were dealt with, Farouk had vanished. Zoya now called upon the power of her Star Gem. The true sight it granted her revealed numerous secret doors; Barnabas the bat was able to smell blood from one of them, and the Fated raced after Farouk. They caught up with him in the private quarters of the Sultan. He had recovered his wounds, and he had 18 mamelukes left – this would be a bloody fight. But then Calefa’s wheel turned again, and the hand of Fate changed everything. “Mahmud, there’s no need for my men or yours to die. Let’s finish this one on one. The winner rules Khaibar.”
Mahmud nodded, and the two great warriors fought. Farouk was fast and strong, and he dealt a terrible blow to Mahmud. Mahmud stumbled back and Farouk rushed in, knowing another such blow would slay the paladin. But Mahmud had strength yet, and smashed his shield into the unarmored knees of the Mameluke leader. Bones broke, and Farouk crumpled. Mahmud brought down True Death, and the Mameluke leader’s head rolled from his body.
The Mamelukes looked down at their fallen commander impassively. Then one of them spoke. “The Auran legionaries on the city walls will have heard the alarms by now. They’ll be coming to the palace soon. We should join our brethren at the gate to stop them.”
The Fated looked at each other uneasily. There were no Mamelukes at the gate. And there were still many legionaries in town…
Outside the palace, the horns and bugles of Auran legionaries resounded through the town. With the remaining Aurans due to arrive to counter-attack in minutes, there was little time to spare. Mahmud ordered the Mamelukes to the walls to defend the palace, and he and Ethlyn joined them there. In the courtyard, Senef began the lengthy ritual that would summon a dragon.
Not more than 5 minutes later, a half-century of legionaries had taken up positions in the buildings and towers outside the palace. From the highest minaret, a legionary shouted: “Legate Arjenus, we heard the alarm!”
Ethlyn called back “Who is speaking?” “Centurion Nestor. And to whom am I speaking? “Ethlyn, Emperor’s Talon.” The Emperor’s Talons are the elite bodyguard and enforcers of the Empire, answering directly and only to the Tarkaun. Their black cloaks and bronze badges are feared and respected throughout Aura.
“Ethlyn, of the Fated?” called back the Centurion skeptically. “That is just what the Emperor wanted you to believe,” she swiftly responded.
“The Emperor is dead. Who do you serve now?” Ethlyn hadn’t heard the news of the Emperor’s death so she was taken aback. “Um…The Emperor is dead, but our mission remains. Thereafter we shall serve whoever the Emperor acclaims!” she said.
“Are the Emperor’s Talons supporting the Butcher’s claim on the throne?” the centurion asked. “The Emperor’s Talons are here to weed out corruption and kill the Mad Dog,” came Ethlyn’s stern reply.
“Ah… what do you mean by corruption?” The centurion sounded concerned. “You have nothing to fear. Your service has been honorable,” replied Ethlyn.
There was a lengthy pause as the legionaries discussed what to do. Then came a roar behind Ethlyn – a mighty dragon, the coppery brown of burnished sand, had appeared in the courtyard behind her. The creature was out of line of sight to the legionaries outside the walls.
“We are ready to serve,” announced centurion Nestor at last, “but we ask that you show us your badge of office and warrant.”
Ethlyn clambered onto the paw of the great dragon inside the gates. “Of course! Come forward, Nestor and you shall see my warrant.” The gates were opened and Ethlyn revealed herself to the stunned centurion. Nestor staggered back at the sight of the dragon.
“This is my warrant. The Talons on this dragon,” declared Ethlyn. “We are the Dragons of the Desert, and we now rule Khaibar. Come forward or be destroyed!” It was a great moment to announce a new name change.
The legionaries knew they were outmatched, and presented themselves to Ethlyn. There were not even very many of them: A scant 48 soldiers were all that remained. The rest of the town’s garrison was dead in the barracks, having been slaughtered by the Mad Dog’s assassins during the coup.
Ethlyn interviewed each of the soldiers in turn, vetting their leaders and assessing their loyalty. “Legionaries! You have a choice to make. Join us, or be gone from this land. Be loyal to us, and we shall be good to you. Cross us and it will not go well for you.”
Mahmud strode forward and threw the head of Farouk before them. The dragon, smelling food, gobbled the head down in moments, unintentionally adding to the horror of the moment.
The legionaries of Khaibar were in turmoil. The Butcher and Legate Arjenus had done little to earn their loyalty. Many of them had been assigned to distant Opelenea for most of their adults lives and had taken native wives. But the Fated had a dark reputation, despite Ethlyn’s resounding speech. In the end 36 of the 48 swore to serve. These were proclaimed as “The Dragon’s Talons”.
The others were disarmed and sent away. Bellona chased after one of the departing centurions. “Marcus, when you return to Aura, tell the mages at the Academy that Balen died a hero’s death.” The soldier looked at the [Cha 8] elf with contempt. “Balen was a traitor. He helped destroy Kirkuk. He didn’t deserve a good death.” Seeing the sudden glowering of the sorceress, Marcus added, “but I’ll be glad to mention it.”
The party now had their soldiers pile the many dead into a great pyre in the courtyard. Dozens of brave soldiers had died during the night, at the Mad Dog’s hands or the Fated’s. When the pyre was ready the dragon took flight and set them aflame.
Instantly panic gripped Khaibar. “A dragon is attacking the palace!” “FIRE!” Alarmed residents took to the streets, fleeing for the city gates. Others took advantage of the confusion to begin to loot. The city teetered on the brink of anarchy. Ethlyn took flight on the dragon, and blew the Trumpet of War. Magical tones not heard in a thousand years rang over the casbah. “We are the Dragons of the Desert,” she cried. “We are here to free you from injustice, and rule you with wisdom!” This gesture, and vigorous action by the remaining town guard, soon restored order.
The party now asked for a tour of the palace. Centurion Nestor obliged. One of the early stops was the pit-trap which had cost the life of Wazir. Nestor showed how the trap was controlled, and revealed the hideous giant crayfish that lived within. “What did Arjenus feed this thing?” asked Suad. “Mostly harem-girls that he’d grown tired of,” said Nestor, expressionless.
“What was your opinion of Legate Arjenus?” asked Ethlyn. “I’ve never found it in my professional interest to have an opinion on my commanders,” said the centurion. “Good answer,” she responded.
“We should feed the body of Arjenus to the crayfish while the harem girls watch!” said Suad, whose mind had lately seemed to be fraying under the effects of stress and magic. Everyone agreed this was a good idea, and the Dragons were led to the harem of Khaibar.
It was spectacular. A pool of enchanted waters, glowing with soft magical lighting, was surrounded by divans and ottomans, pillows and silks. Over a dozen delightful beauties adorned the waters and furniture, unveiled and scantily clad. Ethlyn strode forward. “Ladies! We have freed you from the tyranny of Arjenus. You are no longer harem girls. You are free!”
The panicked girls began to cover themselves. “Free to do what? Go back to the brothels?” said one. “No, you can do whatever you want!” said Suad. “Can we stay here? It’s awfully nice.”
“Sure,” said Suad. “But first we’re going to feed Arjenus to the crayfish!” Cheers resounded through the harem, and the women gathered to enjoy the mastication of their tormentor. Mahmud demanded that Arjenus’s corpse first be beheaded, so he could place the head on a pike on the walls. The women took the opportunity to spit on the corpse and beat it with their shoes. Then the once-proud legate was fed to the hungry crayfish. Senef got a few hairs from the deceased Wazir’s remains, for use in a reincarnation.
This grisly task finished, the party completed its tour of the palace. Captives were freed, the torture room shut down, and servants set to clean up the gore left by Mad Dog’s work. And then, finally, came the treasury – vast wealth, the jewels and gold of an entire domain, 140,000gp, more treasure than they had seen in one place than in their entire careers. Bellona nearly squealed with glee. Shikra gazed at the treasure and seemed to contemplate it. “We should conquer more cities,” she finally said.
The next day, the 14th, Vahtak Bey came to visit. The dead-eyed thief-turned-vizier arrived in a feverish state, the poison in his body close to killing him. Senef cured him with a simple spell. “The desert heals everything!” “I wish the clerics of Imran had been so kind,” muttered Vahtak. He then produced voluminous paperwork and scrolls – all of the paperwork necessary to run the realm of Khaibar!
The Dragons of the Desert had decided that Ethlyn would be pasha and Mahmud would be grand mufti. These two were soon engrossed in learning about their new realm. The pashalic of Khaibar had 2,340 peasant families and 542 urban families. Sub-domains to Khaibar were four oasis domains, Bab al-Djebel, Bir Muktar, Bou Farfa, and Oued Tal. Below these oases were some smaller oases and many scattered nomadic tribes, totaling another 4,300 families. The realm as a whole was under the ostensible control of the governor of Jubai, who in turn reported to the exarch in Alakyrum. The realm’s garrison was depleted, because many of the Imperial forces had been levied for the Butcher’s campaign in the east. What remained to be called up were the native troops: 60 camel lancers, 60 horse archers, 120 camel archers, 360 composite bowmen, and 720 light infantry with scimitars and shield.
While Ethlyn and Mahmud busied themselves in administration, Senef reincarnated the fallen Wazir. The once strong and dexterous nomad came back in a slow and frail body, but a palpable faith radiated from him. “Imran has sent me back in a new body, but I am still your faithful servant,” he announced. He had returned as a cleric, and made his way to the chapel.
Suad and Zoya set about interviewing the harem girls to see whether any might make suitable henchmen. Suad found none of them met his exacting standards, but Zoya found four that had cunning, agility, and charm. These, she recruited.
From the 14th to the 18th, much was afoot:
Mahmud was gone from the city. He flew to Oasis of the White Palm to retrieve his wife, Aaliyah, and to give his friend and patron the Sheikh gifts. “Sheikh Hassan, my band now rules Khaibar. I am the Grand Mufti of the city. I am taking Aaliyah to be with me in the palace.” The Sheikh clasped his hands in friendship. “May Imran shine on you. Go forth and conquer larger realms. My nephew’s sons will be rulers of men.”
Zoya’s spies in Ber-Gathy sent word that “Omalan, the pasha of Ber-Gathy, was slain in a coup, along with most of his followers. A council of the leading citizens of the town seems to be taking power.”
Shikra’s genie transported the Dragon’s library and workshop from the Oasis of the White Palm to the palace in Khaibar. Suad began to convert the torture chamber and cells into a laboratory for magical experimentation.
Ethlyn and the legionaries tried to hunt down the Mad Dog. Reports had stated that the Mad Dog had vivid blue eyes, dark clothing, and preached sermons from roof tops in the night. But since the coup he had not been seen.
Everyone waited tensely for spies to arrive with word from Jubai and Alakyrum…
Yay! Big update!
Also, I love this: “I’ve never found it in my professional interest to have an opinion on my commanders.”
Great story. Full of complications, intrigue, and bloody death.
Thanks! Things have gotten very excited for the newly-renamed Dragons of the Desert. Right as everyone is reaching 8th level we’re advancing into the domain game.
Zoya has a syndicate established in Khaibar (by way of taking Vahtak Bey as a henchman). Ethlyn is serving as domain ruler. Mahmud and Bellona are serving as commander of the armed forces. Shikrau, Suad, and Bellona are doing magical research. It’s awesome!
While awaiting word of how the coup had gone elsewhere, the Dragons of the Desert busied themselves with mastering the intricacies of their realm. The most pressing issue was to exert control over their new vassals. Ethlyn sent out a missive to the beys of her four oasis sub-domains, Bab al-Djebel, Bir Muktar, Bou Farfa, and Oued Tal, calling them to council on the 23rd of Genethelen.
Meanwhile, Zoya recruited the sycophantic Vahtak Bey as spymaster of the realm. Mahmud, as Grand Mufti, recruited 180 young men to be trained as soldiers. These were placed under the charge of Androcles and a light infantry marshal. A heavy infantry marshal and cataphract marshal were also hired for more advanced training. Shikra and Rakh began to earnestly recruit experienced followers that could buttress the band’s depleted forces.
Mahmud’s wife, Aaliyah, found the condition of the harem unacceptable and began to organize those houri who had not already left for her husband’s benefit. Ethlyn found this outrageous – “I told them that they could freely choose to stay or go, and do as they wish!” Aaliyah matched her outrage. “There are none of us free to choose – all is decided by the hand of Fate. I know that a harem of houri is nothing to you, but it is disrespectful to my husband that with your outlander ways you have dismissed these women rather than give them to him.” When the remaining women indicated their preference to stay as Mahmud’s harem in the luxurious palace rather than depart for the vagaries of the city, Ethlyn gave her grudging assent.
Having delegated to Vahtak Bey the burdensome tasks of management, Zoya (along with her closest comrades Celic and Dornethan) went on a hijink, attempting to bring 210 loads of lamp oil (21,000gp worth) into Khaibar under the noses of the Merchant’s Guild. She and Dornethan were unfortunately caught red-handed and brought to the prison. It was still under repair from the last time Zoya had visited the establishment.
Mahmud might have simply released Zoya had Abdullah al-Dinar, the head of the local Merchant’s Guild, not arrived at his court demanding justice. “Such outrage perpetrated under your new administration! I demand justice!” Mahmud offered to quest the two thieves with some perilous task, an offer which left al-Dinar sputtering with fury. “What! Ridiculous. By the laws of Opelenea these perpetrators should have both their hands cut off! At a minimum they must be branded and fined!” Mahmud sighed heavily. Zoya didn’t seem like the type to accept branding.
Fortunately, before he and al-Dinar reached the prison to enact justice, Zoya and Dornethan had made good an escape. Mahmud pretended outrage. “Again, an escape from the prison. Again, this is the work of the Mad Dog of the Desert!” he exclaimed. “I do not want the citizens to worry. I will find this villain.” He then paid for Al-Dinar’s “silence” on the matter with a sizeable bribe.
On the 23rd of Genethelen came two messengers and two caravans. The messengers were from Bab al-Djebel and Bou Farfa. Each carried a dispatch from their ruling bey.
The courier from Bab al-Djebel walked up to Ethlyn without bowing or greeting her as pasha and handed his message. “You talk of freedom for Opelenea, but yet an Auran is still in power, and a woman at that. The people of Opelenea have no need of such pretenders! Bey Ebrahim.” Having delivered his message, the courier turned with contempt, leaving the palace with no kind words or respectful gestures. Before the eyes of her assembled vassals and people, Ethlyn was losing terrible face. She responded harshly. She gestured to Nestor, her centurion. “Cut this one’s tongue out.” To her scribe, she dictated a message: “This messenger did not speak with proper respect. Send me a new one who will speak more to my liking.” Gurgling and bleeding, the messenger was booted from the palace carrying Ethlyn’s response.
The next courier was from Bou Farfa. His message read “”Most gracious Pasha, I must decline your kind offer. Certain family traditions and ties of blood leave me to believe that the Council of Wisdom in Ber-Gathy will be a better allegiance for my Oasis. I wish the Light of Imran upon you. Bey Rasheed” Senef whispered into Ethlyn’s ear. “This one’s words are sweeter, but the underlying message is the same. He tells you to fuck yourself. You must answer strongly.”
Ethlyn called for another scribe and dictated. “Bey Rasheed, thank you for your well wishes. May the light of Imran shine also upon you and your family. I respect your close ties with the Elders of Ber-Gathy. However, your realm has ancient and sacred oaths binding it to Khaibar. I hope you will continue to honor these oaths of your ancestors. Do not forget that we are much closer to you than Ber-Gathy. Consider the benefits to trade and security you will enjoy as part of our realm. Pasha Ethlyn”
Next up was Bey Maadoi of Bir Muktar. He was an older man, stooped and grey. “Pasha, I bring you a gift. 3 young men of handsome visage and strapping endurance, as a gift to your harem. May they bring you great joy. All of us hope for prosperity under your rule. We have never had it under Auran rule. We all pray that you will bring it.” Ethlyn concealed her surprise at the strange gift, and thanked Bey Maadoi profusely. She then pronounced that she would pay for a festival for all of his people (a 13,500gp value) and asked him to send his soldiery to Khaibar upon his return to Bir Muktar. “I will call my men to arms as soon as I arrive home,” he assured her.
Finally came Bey Shovai of Oued Taal, a tan and fit man in his 30s. “Great Pasha, the people of Oued Taal praise your deeds and welcome your rule under the light of Imran. We come today as supplicants. Brigands from the salt waste have been raiding my domain. They come with fire, steel, and dark magic. They have already butchered 60 people. Can you help us?”
Ethlyn did not hesitate. “We will use all of our powers to end this menace,” she said. The entire party breathed a sigh of relief. At last, something to KILL! After appropriate feasts and courtly needs were attended to, the Dragons of the Desert set out the next day for Oued Taal.
On the 25th the party arrived at the oasis. They had been there before, of course, as adventurers. Lamech, the largest proprietor in town, warmly greeted them. “Remember Lamech! Lamech who supplied you with all your equipment when you ventured into the Desert of Desolation!” “We remember how much you charged for 500’ of rope!” they laughed.
Bey Shovai’s scouts had caught a prisoner and Rakh and Ethlyn subjected him to interrogation. Under their gentle ministry, the prisoner revealed that the bandit’s force numbered a few hundred, mostly archers and light horse, encamped about 10 miles to the north-east. The prisoner was utterly terrified of his leaders: Valros, “a renegade Auran tribune too cruel even for the Butcher to tolerate” and Kamal, “a Kemeshi priest of dark gods who fights with two swords and sends souls to hell.”
Under Bellona’s strategic leadership, the Dragons of the Desert led Oued Taal’s forces to face the bandits. While the bandits had little intention of a stand-up fight, the Dragons stole an early march on their enemy, and forced them to battle. Valros’s troops deployed amidst the ruins of an ancient Zaharan casbah, littered with ruined walls and rubbled buildings. The bandits had 120 bowmen and 60 light cavalry, while the Dragons had 240 light infantry, 120 bowmen, and 60 camel archers. The Dragons led a heroic foray against a broken wall from which Valros and Kamal were leading the battle.
Mahmud and Rakh led the camel archers forward, while Shikra, Suad, and Bellona soared invisibly overhead on their magic carpet. The mounted advance was treacherous, for not only was there the mudbrick debris everywhere, but Valros had hidden rusty, jagged weapons and sharp rocks amidst the sands to cut up charging camelry. Arrows carpeted the sands, and casualties spilled their blood. As Mahmud and Rakh broke through the traps, Valros and his lieutenants led a charge from the walls. Rakh and the lieutenants tore into each other in a bloody duel that left them all fallen on the sands. The Auran renegade Valros and Opelenean paladin Mahmud were evenly-matched and sliced into each other.
Suad unleashed an illusionary dragon onto the men below, and a moment later, Bellona followed up with a fireball that devastated a mass of the troops. The appearance of the mages above the lines prompted Kamal to take action – he unveiled draconic wings and soared up to the flying carpet. His strength and speed was of two men, and in moments Suad was cut down. He might have dealt with the other mages as well, but on the battlefield below, the bandits were fleeing.
Valros and Kamal chose to retreat before they could be captured. The Dragons and their forces engaged in a hot pursuit that killed and captured many, but the foe had kept enough cavalry in reserve to screen their escape. When the fighting wound down, the Dragons had 15 dead camel archers, 30 dead bowmen, and 30 dead light infantry, with equal wounded. They had killed 60 bandit bowmen and 15 bandit cavalry, and captured an equal number.
The Dragons of the Desert had won a great victory over the brigands. Since the enemy leaders, Kamal and Valros, had escaped, Shikra set off invisibly to track them down from her flying carpet, using her crystal ball to pinpoint landmarks from the enemy’s vantage point.
Pasha Ethlyn turned over the brigands’ captives and the basic spoils of the battlefield to Bey Shovai, who pledged to distribute the spoils to families in his domain who had been harmed by the brigands.
Meanwhile, Zoya, Wazir, Umar, Rakh, and Suad began to search the ruins the bandits had been occupying. Given the haste with which the bandits had fled, Zoya had realized the enemy leaders, Kamal and Valros, must have hidden additional treasure within the ancient ruins. Her insights were correct, and the searchers soon turned up another sizeable portion of treasure.
By now, Shikra’s familiar Barnabas had returned with a report from his mistress: The 30 surviving bandits had taken refuge in a hidden oasis in the salt wastes to the north-east, about 9 miles away. It was still early enough in the day that a small troop could reach the oasis by late afternoon, so Mahmud, Ethlyn, Bellona, Senef, and 30 camel archers hastily began riding in that direction.
Kamal, Valros, and their thirty men had pitched a camp in a secluded shore protected on three sides by the lake of an oasis. The Dragons decided that Valros and Kamal were too dangerous to risk holding back. Senef summoned a copper dragon from the desert sands, while Shikra used her magic ring to call a djinni servant. The dragon attacked from the east with its scouring wind, while the djinni came at the oasis from the northern lake shore. Mahmud led the camel archers from the south, while Ethlyn and Bellona came behind the dragon in the east. Kamal managed to dispel the summoned dragon, and he and Valros broke through the encirclement to engage Senef in close combat. Incredibly, every attack they made missed. It was as if the desert sands themselves were protecting the great shaman. The chaotic priest Kamal was slain by a barrage of magical missiles, and Valros was held by Senef’s magic. Valros and 9 prisoners were taken back to the main force; the rest were burned.
Zoya and her colleagues had collected nearly 20,000gp worth of trade goods and treasure squirreled around the ancient ruins. These Mahmud granted in their entirety to the men who had fought for them. “You have done well, soldiers!” he announced, as the men buried themselves in loot. Ethlyn gifted Bey Shovai with a marvelous two-handed scimitar they’d found in the spoils, which Shovai used to behead the Valros in retribution for his misdeeds. Bey Shovai pledged his undying loyalty to the Pasha and the Mufti. Their mission accomplished, the Dragons marched back to Khaibar, taking with them one-half the forces of Bey Shovai.
It was soon the 1st of Vicelen, marking the start of Imperial Year 383. On that day, spies sent word from Alakyrum: Legate Tavic Marcellus, sacker of Cynidicea, had been killed on the Night of the Crescent along with his followers. A Council of Wisdom had taken power in Alakyrum. The Council of Wisdom includes: Baruch bin Eleazar, guildmaster of the Merchant’s Guild of Alakyrum; Mahdi al-Idam, imam of the Great Mosque of the Way of Eternal Truth in Alakyrum; Urabi al-Chukri, great alchemist of Alakyrum; Ashera Salim, sorceress of the Tower of Knowledge; and the sheiks of various great families, including Bahadur, Hussein, Ruhollah, Ravi, and Saddam.
On the 3rd of Vicelen, an emissary arrived from Jubai in the east. He was a blue-robed Auran named Pendaelen Tamour, and he represented Prefect Gundus Ionicus, ruler of Jubai. “All of Opelenea is in rebellion! Imagine our relief when we heard reports that an Auran noblewoman had taken power in the chaos of Khaibar. Prefect Ionicus asks that you join him in restoring Auran authority over Opelenea.” Initially reserved with regard to how much information he would share, Pendaelen soon was drugged with a philter of love and found himself quite enamored of Ethlyn. Words spilled out fluidly from there.
Over a dinner “whose taste is sweetened by your very presence”, Pendaelen explained that Prefect Ionicus is a powerful war mage from an old and proud family in Aura. He and the Butcher shared no love, and the Prefect believed the assignment to govern remote Jubai and its salt-mines was below him. Worse, he was not invited to join the Butcher’s campaign to the east. Pendaelen mused that this was because “The Prefect’s military greatness would have perhaps outshone the Butcher’s”.
He then smiled. “But I can assure you that the Prefect was not aware of your own greatness, my princess. I have sent a messenger to inform him, though my words cannot do justice to the splendor of your being.” “We should probably catch that message,” whispered Ethlyn to her advisors. Zoya promised to take care of it.
Ethlyn then asked Pendaelen to tell her of the Prefect’s forces. “Your beauty makes my lips sing. The Prefect has about 500 heavy foot, 300 light foot, and 200 archers.” It became clear that the Prefect’s military situation was grim. Jubai was geographically isolated with desert west and east and the forbidding Meniri Mountains to the south. All of the surrounding territory was in rebellion, and Ionicus could not expect relief from the Butcher. Still, he seemed honorable and Ethlyn, herself Auran, was intrigued at the idea of restoring Auran authority over Opelenea.
While this was afoot, another emissary arrived, this one born on a litter from Alakyrum. The obese and decadent occupant was Majial Maziar, a high-ranking member of the merchant’s guild. In his fat, bejeweled hands he bore a missive straight from the Council of Wisdom, which he delivered to Mahmud. “Grand Mufti, many cities in the north have not joined the Kingdom of Opelenea, including the coastal city of Nuvië. All of Alakyrum’s resources must be turned towards restoring order to the north and preventing the Butcher from returning by sea. However, we cannot allow the salt mines of Jubai to remain in Auran hands. The Council of Wisdom commands that you capture Jubai and install Majial Maziar to preside there. For this deed your actions in Khaibar shall be given our warrant and you shall be formally recognized as among the nobility of the new Kingdom.”
With Ethlyn entertaining Pendaelen, Mahmud was left to host Majial. The merchant prince made no friends during an interlude in the harem, where he seemed unable to grasp that the houri had been freed. “With Aura’s power gone, we should be restoring the old ways, my friend,” he chided Mahmud. “Our pasha is a former slave. She abhors slavery and frees those she finds.”
“A former slave, of course,” chuckled Majial. “Here is an offer for you, friend Mahmud. After we capture Jubai, you take Khaibar, and I’ll take that sweet peach of a pasha as my wife. With some firm discipline, her old slavishness will no doubt come out, yes?” “Definitely an interesting idea,” agreed Mahmud.
Thinking that agreement had been reached, Majial turned to other subjects. “Does the name Amur-Sin mean anything to you?” asked the merchant prince. Mahmud shook his head, though of course the name of his undead Thrassian foe sent his heart racing. “Me neither. Some sort of Kemeshi warlord, I think. I overheard Councilor Ashera Salim warning my master Baruch that he was a threat in the west. But why would Kemesh attack us? They should welcome our return to power. The slave trade will resume!”
“You are no doubt correct,” said Mahmud. “I do not think a Kemeshi warlord will be any threat to us.”
Diplomatic overtures from both emissaries being complete, the Dragons of the Desert convened in their war room to decide their next steps. With Amur Sin in the west, Navana in the south, Alakyrum in the north, and Jubai in the east, the situation was complex…
After fierce debate, the Dragons of the Desert decided that their first priority was to pacify their realm. That meant dealing with the rebellious beys of Bab al-Djebel and Bou Farfa. Mahmud left his Mamelukes to guard the city and marshaled the remaining troops. Vahtak Bey was instructed to begin hiring mercenaries in large numbers. Finally, Ethlyn visited Pendaelen, the ambassador from Jubai. “There will be business between our two cities,” she said. “I look forward to speaking with you upon my return from meting out justice.”
On the 6th of Vicelen, the party was en route towards Bab al-Djebel. Outriders caught a hapless officer of Bey Ebrahim’s forces. Under threat of castration by a stern-faced Ethlyn, the officer revealed the organization and leadership of Ebrahim’s army. Bab al-Djebel had mustered 60 camel archers, 120 composite bowmen, and 240 light infantry. Against this force, the Dragons of the Desert had 30 camel archers, 60 camel archers, 60 composite bowmen, 30 heavy infantry, and 360 light infantry, giving them a 3:2 advantage in numbers.
Battle was pitched the following day. Senef devastated the right flank with magic, while Bellona and Ethlyn encircled and destroyed the left flank with the cavalry. The fiercest fighting occurred in the center, where a platoon of composite bowmen had taken cover behind a veritable wall of the dead. Mahmud and Rakh led a charge that shattered the enemy, and the battle was over. It was a great victory! The Dragons lost a mere 30 men, while slaying over 200, and capturing an equal number of prisoners. Rebellious Bey Ebrahim was slain in the fighting, but his two sons were captured. Ethlyn thought to rehabilitate these two, but Mahmud insisted they be beheaded. “There is only one punishment for treason,” the stern paladin said.
Before Mahmud could bring justice to the captured troops, Ethlyn gave a rousing speech. “You are the lucky ones! You have seen what we can do! Have you ever seen such a route? Those who wish to bask in the riches of victory…join us!” Her words carried power, and the troops’ loyalty was won. Senef, Voice of the Desert, was appointed the new bey, and the aghas and sheiks of Bab al-Djebel pledged their allegiance to him. “We should never have turned our backs on Khaibar!”
Now it was time to deal with Bou Farfa. Rather than take the caravan road, Mahmud and Ethlyn led their army across the trackless desert, relying on Barnabas’ aerial observation to guide them. On the 8th, they reached the White Salt Lake and encamped. A pride of lions had been spotted nearby, and Mahmud and Rakh took the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess to the troops. Soon each bore an epithet of lion-slayer and a leonine pelt. Senef, meanwhile, dazzled his new vassals with his shamanic magic, promising them that “soon we shall become the most prosperous domain in the Pashalic!”
On the 9th of Vicelen, the Dragons and their army reached Bou Farfa. Bey Rasheed rode out to greet them under the flag of Khaibar. The sycophantic and groveling bey presented them with the severed head of “his nephew”, who he explained had sent the offensive letter to Ethlyn without his approval or knowledge. Ethlyn and Mahmud knew that this was a lie, but it was a lie intended to save face for the bey, and this was the proper way of the desert. Mahmud responded smoothly, “Thank you for dealing with that problem. We have come to your oasis to deal with your bandit problem. We don’t want anyone disrupting the tranquility of the realm.” “Doubtless, any bandits are quite cowed,” said a terrified Rasheed.
No expense was spared to entertain the Dragons of the Desert during their three-day stay in Bou Farfa. Rasheed’s groveling was unrelenting. On the 12th, the party marched back to Khaibar, taking with them the majority of Bou Farfa’s mustered military, including its prized company of horse archers. Rasheed was left in power… for now.
As the Dragons neared Khaibar, they were shocked to see the decapitated head of Pendaelen mounted on the city spires. Everyone within the city seemed to think this was as it should be, leaving the party confounded. “Who ordered this?” demanded Mahmud. “Shikra did,” said Vahtak Bey. “She arrived here on the 7th and ordered me to decapitate Pendaelen and send his headless body back to Jubai with a declaration of war, as well as to send Majial Maziar back to Alakyrum with word that we had agreed to their terms. All was done as I was instructed…”
Possessed of invisibility magic and a flying carpet, it was certainly possible that the warlock had flown to Khaibar and given these orders. But she denied it. Something terrible was afoot. Senef consulted the spirits. “Is Vahtak Bey telling the truth?” Yes. “Was Navana or one of her underlings responsible for this deception?” Yes. “Is Alakyrum’s government in any way responsible for this deception?” Yes.
Navana’s invisible hand was at work. The sorceress had conspired to ruin their chance of alliance with Jubai. It was too late to stop Pendaelen’s body from reaching Jubai but perhaps the damage could be undone. Ethlyn penned an inspired letter: “Prefect Ionicus, urgency requires me to dispense with typical protocol. There is an agent of Chaos named Navana who has orchestrated the overthrow of Aura in Opelenea. She is also the one who instructed that Pendaelen be killed while I was away. War between us is not in the interest of the Empyrean Gods. Between us, the people of Opelenea can again live under righteousness. Have your holy men commune with the gods to certify that my words are true.” The letter was sent out immediately.
That night, Ethlyn was assassinated. Her corpse was found in the morning with an Auran dagger sticking out of her neck, and two silver coins placed on her eye. Each coin bore the profile of Gundus Ionicus. Senef was able to restore her to life, but at great cost; the pasha would be bedridden for a month. Strangely, her hair seemed to be sapping her energies with its own constant growth, as she always had ankle-length tresses by nightfall.
Achmed Raisul, the imam of Khaibar’s mosque, was summoned for a communion. “Did Prefect Ionicus or one of his underlings order Ethlyn to be assassinated?” Yes. “Did Navana or one of her underlings order Ethlyn to be assassinated?” Yes. “Is there an agent of Navana within the Council of Wisdom of Alakyrum?” Yes.
What to do? Mahmud argued for taking the battle to Navana. “She wants chaos, and we must destroy her to stop the chaos.” Senef cautioned “if we go after Navana, she will unleash the Sarcophagus Legion. We are not ready for that.” Shikra argued for that the party needed to gather more power and experience with further adventuring. But ultimately the Dragons settled on dealing with the Jubai crisis.
Mahmud sent out missives to the rebellious beys of Jubai. “Auran rule has been shaken. Khaibar has come under Opelenean rule again. We know you do not agree with the rule of Prefect Ionicus. We will join you in bringing Jubai under control. With our aid, the city will fall easily. And then you shall have full looting rights to the city – everything save the palace – in exchange for your help.”
On the morning of the 15th, Zoya dispatched four hand-picked spies to Jubai to ferret out information, then oversaw security preparations in the palace – sealing up every secret door, hidden portal, and sewer grate in the entire complex. Mahmud, meanwhile, paid a visit to Soraya. After first negotiating with her to supply diviners to help protect the palace, he then made a more bold offer: Marriage. Soraya was delighted to become second wife of the Grand Mufti. As was proper, arrangements for the wedding were left to Aaliyah, the first wife, who felt that the upcoming Festival of the Unconquered Dawn was the proper time.
On the 17th word arrived from Zoya’s spies in Alakyrum. The Council of Wisdom was hiring adventurers to venture into the Howling Emptiness. The Council had also issued a call to arms to all of its vassals, and strengthened its garrisons at Ber-Gathy and Hissar. The next day, a bladedancer named Valara arrived in town, seeking after Shikra. Several weeks prior the warlock had commissioned criers and solicitors to seek out a suitable candidate and one had finally answered his call. Valara was a striking and hard-bitten warrior-woman. “Do you have any experience fighting undead?” asked Shikra. “They die to quickly to call it a fight,” said Valara. “Do you adventure?” “It’s not that I go on adventures. It’s that wherever I go, there’s adventure.” “You’re hired,” said Shikra, who seemed vaguely smitten by her.
That night, assassins struck at Mahmud. This time, the assassins were caught – a pair of dark-cloaked professional killers from the city of Jubai. Under torture, the assassins revealed they were hired by Nasser the Eunuch, spymaster of Gundus Ionicus. Mahmud beheaded them, and sent them back to their master. For further information, Senef consulted the spirits. Is Ionicus in league with Navana? No. Will Navana make a military move against Opelenea if we march on Jubai? No. Is Ionicus personally responsible for ordering the assassination against Ethlyn or Mahmud? No.
Word arrived shortly thereafter from Zoya’s spies. “Rumor is that Gundus Ionicus’ best friend was slain by a sheikh out west. Now Jubai is under military law. Auran legions are conscripting every available able-bodied man. The merchant’s guild is abandoning the town. Every day the Prefect sends riders out east along the silk road.”
The Dragons plotted their next steps…
Brilliant stuff! Love the shock value of the line, “That night, Ethlyn was assassinated.”
But, hey! It’s okay…she got better.
She almost didn’t get better… The Tampering With Mortality roll was at a brutal penalty for instantly killed (-10), existing side effect (-1) and dead one day (-1). Senef is only level 8, so her total penalty was -7. She rolled a 17 on the d20 and 5 on the d6, so the outcome was virtually as good as she possibly could have hoped.
No doubt the lead up to that roll was a little tense…
The Dragons of the Desert greeted the Celebration of the Unconquered Dawn with a great festival. They had much to celebrate, after all! A year earlier they had been exiled outlaws – now they were rules of towns and cities. On the 31st of Vicelen, Mahmud married the sorceress Soraya, admitting her into the family as his second wife. It was a grand celebration and the paladin and his lovely bride were hailed by cheering throngs of Opeleneans as they paraded through town.
Coincidental to the wedding an emissary arrived from Alakyrum. Parthalan was an apprentice of Urabi al-Chukri, and he came bearing a missive from the Council of Wisdom as well as the princely gift of 12,000gp. The Council of Wisdom had been impressed with the party’s leadership in Khaibar, and had proclaimed them the Shields of the South, with suzerainty over the entire vilayet of Jubai and its four pashalics of Ber-Gathy, Hissar, Khaibar, and Old Jubai. Coming with this appointment, of course, came the responsibility of capturing Jubai first. But that was just the first responsibility. According to the letter, the mages on the Council had divined that Amur-Sin was conducting a dark ritual in the Howling Emptiness; it was a matter of mere months until this terrible work was completed. The Dragons of the Desert were commanded to disrupt this ritual.
The party’s reaction to having such authority and responsibility thrust upon them was mixed. Bellona saw the Council of Wisdom’s offer as justification of her military strategies to date. Ethlyn continued to feel that a deal could be struck with the Auran ruler of Jubai, but Mahmud was ready to go to war. Rakh was eager to march straightaway to the Howling Emptiness. “I want Amur-Sin’s head on a pike!” He seemed undeterred by Suad’s counsel that Amur-Sin would turn to dust when destroyed. Senef and Suad were certain that there was more afoot than mere politics. Senef turned to the spirits for advice. “Is Navana trying to orchestrate us into fighting Amur-Sin?” Yes. “Is Urabi al-Chukri Navana’s agent in Alakyrum?” Yes. “Is the Mad Dog’s base of operations in or underneath Khaibar?” Yes.
Given the disaster that had occurred the last time the Dragons marched off to war, Senef and Suad counseled that the party should secure Khaibar against spies and assassins before taking any further action. That meant dealing with the Mad Dog. Since the Mad Dog’s assassins had been spotted entering the palace via the sewers, it seemed a natural place to look for them. Vahtak Bey was able to provide a rough description of the Khaibar sewers. They were arranged in a grid through the hill upon which the city was built, flowing largely south-and-west to eventually emerge several hundred yards away. It was a large complex, but the Dragons of the Desert no longer had to resort to dungeon-crawling every inch of such venues. Instead they gathered 256 soldiers and organized them into squads of 16. Each squad was assigned a sewer entrance and instructed to spread out around it until within sight of the next squads. The Dragons themselves all entered via the palace sewer grate, save Shikra who monitored overhead.
Most of the troops had little trouble with their assigned tasks, but one group was forced to the surface by an encounter with a swarm of carrion crawlers. Shikra went to notify the party, but the discovery of carrion crawlers in the sewers was soon displaced by a far more interesting discovery: A cunningly hidden secret door in an inexplicably dry patch of the sewer. Without her star gem, even Zoya would not have found it.
The hallway behind was heavily trapped, but Zoya safely led the party through them to a chamber richly decorated with gold-dusted utensils and carpets. Her magical vision espied a secret door in the far corner. It took three spells for the party’s mages to break the seals on the secret door. When the door blew open, it gusted wind into the chamber that blew the gold “dust” all over Shikra and Mahmud. It was not dust at all, but mutated yellow mold. Fortunately, neither succumbed to the danger. Bellona cleansed the room with fire. The dungeon beyond was a labyrinth of deadends, illusions and traps. Upon entry, an image of a demon prince manifested and warned of unspeakable danger. Further in, segments of flooring rotated underfoot, nearly sending Zoya into a deadly pit. Most curious of all was a corridor that seemed to affect the flow of time. Those who passed forward found themselves hungry, tired, and grizzled, as if a day had passed, with torches burned out, and spells expired. Those who passed back were rejuvenated to their prior vigor and condition. Such magic was well beyond the art of the present day, suggesting this complex must date back to the ancient Zaharans.
Pressing forward, the Dragons of the Desert came to a huge octagonal room holding ingots of iron, copper, bronze, and silver mingled with semi-precious and ornamental stones. The experienced adventurers estimated the treasure’s value as 200,000gp, although the weight was nearly 100,000 stone. It would take an army to get the treasure out.
Centered in the room was a statue of Dagon, the Zaharan god of death, whom the Opeleneans call Dahaga and the Aurans Dirgion. At each plane of the octagon, Zoya detected a secret door, with a ninth secret door visible at the northwest vertex. The entire room was a sinkhole of evil.
With the treasure nearly impossible to carry, and so many potential threats, the party decided to investigate the secret door in the vertex. This portal led them to a reliquary, its walls covered with shelving and cubby holes filled with a vast quantity of scrolls, maps, and other items. Many of these proved magical, and the Dragons made a point to scoop these up: In all they gathered two scrolls, two potions, an ornate brass ring with a bloodstone, an iron-shod staff carved with runes, a short wand of amber, a light khopesh with a hilt carved like a striking raptor, and a curious black cloth that seemed to create an inter-dimensional pocket wherever it was placed. The party took a cursory look at the other scrolls and maps, which seemed to be historical records, but decided to press onward through a metal door to the west.
The passage beyond this door was 20’ long and ended with another metal door. This metal door led to a small room, entirely coated with metal, with four identical exits, each leading to another short passage with another metal door. Mahmud and Wazir went west to explore, entering a long corridor. But when the rest of the group went to follow, Mahmud and Wazir were not there. The party was able to regroup in the central metal room, but was very suspicious that the same door seemed to lead to two different places. They decided to try heading west again, this time spiking the doors open as they passed through them. This activity resulted in a terrible grinding sound of metal on stone; some mechanical force was at work which drove the spikes out of the doors and then, as the party watched in awe, rotated the entire array of passages clockwise.
Now that they understand what was going on, the Dragons were able to chart a path deeper into the dungeon. They soon came upon a massive chamber, decorated like a chessboard; an ancient Zaharan poem gave cryptic guidance as to the safe route through, but warned that a false step would result in instant destruction. Rather than have party members be at risk, Shikra summoned waves of berserkers who died gloriously until the route had been determined.
Past the chessboard, the party came to a tomb entrance, which read: “Entrance unto this most sacred of sacred places will result in certain death, for desecrators will meet the curse of the undead. Flee now lest your very souls be eaten by the King Who Never Dies.” Here they paused. They were looking for an assassin, not a slumbering undead king. They had already found a fortune in treasure earlier in the complex. Should they open this door? Mahmud looked to his mages for guidance. “What’s the worst that could happen?” said Shikra. “Do you have to ask me if I want to open a door?” said Suad.
They opened the door. The mummy lord within awoke. Battle was joined. The party was blazing fast in its initial assault, striking the mummy lord with spells, arrows, and swords to ensure it couldn’t get a spell off. Mahmud struck hardest with True Death, and the creature staggered. They had almost won the fight! But then an explosion of earth’s teeth missed the creature, as did Mahmud’s follow up blows and all of the party’s arrows. The mummy lord exhaled black smoke from its lungs, and brought death. Shikra, Suad, Zoya, Wazir, and Valara went down. The rest of the party was barely standing. Sensing doom at hand, Senef called on the spirits to dispel the mummy lord. The spirits agreed, and the undead king was vanquished.
In the aftermath, Senef was able to save most of the party. The black smoke had dissolved Wazir and Shikra’s teeth where they had inhaled it. Zoya had shattered her knee in a hard fall going unconscious. Worse, Suad’s gonads had rotted, necessitating amputation. Valara, their new bladedancer, had taken the full force of the blast, and was beyond saving. She would need to be restored to life back at the mosque.
From within the mummy lord’s sarcophagus, a powerful golden glow was visible. The Dragons of the Desert approached cautiously and were awed to see a golden cup and talisman, hammered of gold, chased with silver, set with great gems. The talisman was shaped like the winged sun. “It is the Cup and Talisman of Al-Sindor!” exclaimed Suad. “The holiest of holy relics. The Zaharans captured them during the Empyrean War and hid them away in the West. It is said that Al-Sindor came to Opelenea seeking them, but even he failed to find them.”
In a trance, Senef detected curses lay upon these holy relics. Yet as he emerged, a terrible greed came into Senef’s eyes, and the shaman seized the Cup and Talisman in his hands. “They are mine,” he said.
With the Cup and Talisman of Al-Sindor in Senef’s slightly deranged hands, the Dragons of the Desert decided it was time to head for the surface. Unfortunately the way out brought them through the octagonal treasure room they’d earlier detected was a sinkhole of evil; there, they confronted the guardians of the Cup and Talisman – eight Zaharan mummies. The mummies came from secret doors in every direction, and the party was nearly overrun. Suad was forced to escape in gaseous form, while Celic was cut down. Dornethan held the rear flank long enough for Mahmud and Rakh to finally destroy the mummies.
Even upon reaching the surface, the party still had lots of issues to handle. War with Jubai still loomed, as did the mysterious dangers of Amur-Sin to the west. The realm had to be put in order. And Senef had to be cured of his obsession with Al-Sindor’s relics, if possible…
Several of their soldiery had died during the investigation into the sewers, and Mahmud felt ethically obligated to pay their widows a wage for their loss, as well as a bonus to those who had dared the sewers at all. This cost the party 2,500gp but the generosity inspired more recruits to make up for the losses.
Meanwhile, the fallen Celic and Valara were restored. Celic came back stiff and scarred; Valara emerged with vestigial angel’s wings. Both henchmen resigned upon recovery. Celic had already died and been reincarnated twice. “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve died so many times, I barely remember who I am. I need to take what I’ve earned and go.” Valara was more curt: “I should have listened to what I’d heard about the Fated.” The party was sad to see them go, particularly Celic, who had been with them for over a year.
While Senef was busy healing the wounded, Suad recruited Achmed Raisul, the imam of the local mosque, to cast remove curse on Senef. The shaman was caught off-guard, but the spell had no effect. “What are you attempting, priest of Imran?” the outraged shaman demanded. Suad smoothly talked him down while a worried Achmed Raisul fled the angry shaman.
Suad now approached Rakh and Mahmud. “My friends, Senef remains obsessed by the relics. I fear we must break into Senef’s room tonight, tie him to his bed, and unleash spells on him until this curse is broken.” His comrades agreed this was the wisest course of action, and that night put their plan into action. Despite all of their precautions, Senef woke up instantly when his door opened. He might have unleashed a spell on them had the two warriors not quickly grappled the shaman and tied him up. Suad found the relics and hid them away in his portable hole.
A few minutes later, Senef became placid. With the relics out of his possession, the curse was lifted. “My friends, I feel much shame at what I have done. These relics are dangerous. To see them together is to cover them. I deeply regret my actions. Forgive me.” Rakh assured him that all was forgiven, but Senef was left tied up for now.
Achmed Raisul was summoned again, briefed on the situation, and commanded to commune. “Is there a way for us to remove the effect on the Cup and Talisman of Al-Sindor that causes people to covet it?” No. “Is Senef still coveting the Cup and Talisman of Al-Sindor?” No. “Can the covetous effect on someone affected be removed by the Dragons of the Desert somehow short of a wish or miracle?” Yes.
Senef, finally freed from his ropes and gags, explained the results. “This item is not cursed. It is something more. It is Imran’s power and will brought into this Sphere of Existence. It is difficult to resist the allure.” Suad sighed. “I could not resist. I am a weak man.” Bellona looked at Senef’s groin, still bandaged from his castrating injury in the dungeon. “Are you still technically a man?” “I will kill you in your sleep,” said Suad. He was polite enough not to mention that Bellona herself had experienced similar genital adjustments.
Suad had a theory that the Cup and Talisman might be safe if stored and viewed separately, but very dangerous if kept together. A few days later, on the 7th of Genelen, Senef was able to commune with the spirits to confirm the theory. “Does someone in the presence of the Cup and Talisman need to resist covetousness continuously?” Yes. “Do the Cup and Talisman cause covetousness when viewed separately?” No. Ok then! “Is Mad Dog planning another attack on Khaibar?” No.
The spellcasters wanted to study the Cup and Talisman. The party’s workshop was split into two halves by thick curtains, with a neutral zone between, so that the two relics would never be seen at the same time. When not being studied, they were kept in the portable hole. This was but a temporary measure, though. The Dragons of the Desert decided that the Cup and Talisman ultimately deserved to be in a Tabernacle, a Holy of Holies. They decided to use the entire sum of the money they had found in the dungeon below – 200,000gp – to construct a holy mosque, a great pinnacle of good where the Cup and Talisman could live. The minaret would feature a winged sun disc adorned with diamonds. Workmen began construction on the 9th of Genelen.
On the 10th of Genelen, Ethlyn and Mahmud decided it was time to go to war with Jubai. All of the wounded party members were now fit for travel, and the necessary tasks – training troops, supervising the construction of ballista, hiring mercenaries as they arrived in town, and so on – had been completed. It was time. Ethlyn assumed overall command of the army, with Bellona as her adjutant. Mahmud took command of a cavalry division while Senef and Zoya each took a light infantry division.
By the 17th, the army had reached the Oasis of Akhir, half-way to Jubai. They were greeted there by local guides from the region of Jubai. These men, experienced Opelenean caravaneers, explained that the Auran leadership of Jubai was marshalling for war against Khaibar, a move they opposed. They offered to advise Ethlyn and Mahmud on the best routes to travel within the region. Jubai, they explained, sat in a large oasis overlooking a series of salt mines to the south-east. To the west, north, and east, it was ringed by smaller oases, each ruled by a bey; these beys were opposed to the Aurans, too. The guides’ words confirmed the missive that the party had received from Alakyrum. They decided the first order of business was to recruit the beys to their cause.
The problem was how to do so. Prefect Ionicus’s army, numbering perhaps 3,000 men, was well-supplied in Jubai. Sitting at the center of the ring, he enjoyed interior lines. Any attempt to march Khaibar’s army along the ring of oases would leave their supply lines exposed to a thrust by Ionicus, or subject the beys to being defeated in detail. Success mandated that all of the beys be recruited nearly simultaneously, timing their marches so they concentrated in space and time on Jubai at once.
Bellona worked out a cunning plan. Ethlyn would take the army and march it to the Khabul, the closest oasis, then steer south-east towards a rendezvous point a dozen miles from Jubai. The proximity of her force would prevent Ionicus from striking to the more distant oases, for fear of exposing his own lines of communication. Meanwhile, Mahmud and Shikra would use the magic carpet to fly to the outer oases of Bab al-Yasir, Bir-Nadia, and Dadbeh. Each bey’s forces would be ordered to the same rendezvous point. With sufficient alacrity, the armies could converge in strength before Jubai’s army was able to destroy them in detail.
The plan was put into motion on the 18th of Genelen. By the 19th, Ethlyn was at Khabul, and had recruited its bey, Tavish, to the cause. To the party’s delight, Tavish explained that all of his fellow beys had been ordered to marshal their forces by the Council of Wisdom in Alakyrum and were ready to fight! This prediction proved true. On the 20th, Mahmud had little trouble recruiting bey Kamal of Bab al-Yasir and bey Abbas of Bir-Nadia – flying in on a magic carpet bedecked in magical armor made quite the impression. On the 21st, he and Shikra reached the oasis of Dadbeh. Its bey, Farbood, was gravely concerned about joining the war effort, however. His oasis was the easternmost in all Opelenea, meaning it would be on the front line of any Auran counter-attack. He requested that Mahmud personally pledge to defend Dadbeh if it came under attack. The Grand Mufti, a man of honor, gave his word to do so. By the 22nd, the beys had consolidated with Ethlyn’s forces about 12 miles from Jubai.
Meanwhile, in Jubai, Prefect Ionicus had been taking action of his own. With the countryside against him, he was hampered by poor scouting and reconnaissance. He knew that the beys of the oases had marshalled their forces, but it was not until the 19th of Genelen that he located Ethlyn’s army in the vicinity of Khabul. Ionicus decided to march out to destroy Ethlyn’s forces before any of the other beys could reinforce her. Unfortunately, he did not know her route of march, and his army marched past her’s to the west. By the time he realized where Ethlyn’s forces were, they were nearly astride his lines of supply to Jubai. On the 22nd, he turned course and marched eastward, also encamping about 12 miles from Jubai.
Between the two armies was a lush region of oases, farms, and groves. On the 23rd, the two armies met there for a pitched battle.
Awesome, awesome stuff.
Out of curiosity how did you run the assassination of Ethlyn?
The assassin was an NPC I had fully developed. I ran the encounter behind my GM screen, using various “Hear Noise”, Surprise, Move Silently, and other throws to see if he reached her.
Around dawn, on the 23rd of Genelen, the Dragons of the Desert met with Prefect Ionicus and his lieutenants under the flag of parley. The Dragon’s terms were simple: Ionicus was to leave the battlefield with his troops and march eastward, yielding Jubai and its domains to them. Though outnumbered, the war mage Ionicus refused. “The Auran Empire has commanded me to defend its prefecture of Jubai, and I will do my duty. You are honorable men and women. Why do you not join me to end this insurrection and restore Auran rule over this realm?”
“Does not your duty to the Empire demand you march to Aura to protect the Senate from men like the Butcher?” countered Bellona, radiating magical charisma. “If the Senate ordered me to Aura, I would march there at once. But they have not. My orders leave me here, in Jubai. And here I shall stay, unless by force of arms I am compelled to depart.”
Bellona persisted. “We have you outnumbered. Our troops are undefeated, while yours are mostly raw militia. You cannot hope to win.”
“That may be so,” said Ionicus. “But no prefect in Auran history has surrendered to a rebellion, and I will not be the first to do so. I will not besmirch my family’s honor by retreating in the face of rebellion. If, under the Light of Ammonar, I win, then my family shall reap the glory. If I lose, then I will die having done my duty, and the Ionicus name shall not be besmirched.”
“Then we must fight,” said Bellona. “May Ammonar grant victory to the righteous,” said the Prefect.
The Battle of Jubai was fought on 23rd Genelen. The battlefield was a lush oasis punctuated by three palm-lined pools spread in an arc left-to-right.
Ionicus deployed his army in five battalions. Each battalion had a company of heavy infantry, two companies of light infantry, and a company of militia. The battalions on the left and right flanks were reinforced with a company of light cavalry, while the three center battalions had an extra company of militia. Ionicus took command of the right (easternmost) battalion, with his henchmen Drakima (a bladedancer) and Jannion (a fighter) in his retinue. Various legates of the empire commanded the remaining battalions.
The Dragons of the Desert deployed their army in six battalions. From left (east) to right (west), the battalions were: Mahmud, with a company of horse archers, three companies of camel lancers, and two companies of camel archers; Senef, with three companies of light infantry and one company of composite bowmen; Ethlyn, with one company of heavy infantry, two companies of veteran light infantry and mamelukes, two companies of composite bowmen, and one company of camel archers; Zoya, with four companies of light infantry, two companies of composite bowmen; Bey Abbas, with three companies of light infantry and one company of composite bowmen; and Bey Kamal, with three companies of light infantry, one company of composite bowmen, and one company of camel archers.
In total there were 33 companies under the Dragons, arrayed against 25 companies under Ionicus. The Dragons of the Desert had 4:1 advantage in cavalry, but Ionicus had five times as many heavy infantry.
Mahmud opened the battle by advancing his camelry in a wide flanking march around the easternmost oasis towards Ionicus’ right flank. This brought him into line of sight of Ionicus and Drakima. The battle-hardened casters placed a wall of stone to channelize the camelry, then unleashed fireballs and insect plagues on the advancing troops. Mahmud’s lieutenant Umar was melted by the blazing fire, and his camelry routed. The flank attack was stalled.
On the Dragon’s right flank, Abbas and Kamal advanced slowly. Kamal’s battalion was heavily engaged by skirmishing tactics by the light cavalry and javelineers they confronted. It was clear the battle would not be won here.
In the center, Ethlyn, Senef, and Zoya’s battalions were gaining ground, but it was tough going. Each of Ionicus’ battalions had a tough heavy infantry company at its core, buttressed by light infantry skirmishing with javelins, and the Dragons’ lighter troops found it tough going. The mamelukes took the brunt of the casualties.
However, Suad and Shikra, scouting overhead invisibly from the flying carpet, had been able to locate Ionicus after he began casting spells. Here was a chance to cut the head off the serpent! The mage and warlock positioned themselves above and to the rear of Ionicus’s unit. Suad unleashed a fireball onto Ionicus and Drakima, but a globe of invulnerability dissipated its effects. Shikra then used a scroll of flesh-to-stone to petrify the war mage, but he resisted the spell. The Dragon’s two casters were now painfully exposed, and they paid the price. Ionicus unleashed a lightning bolt, and Drakima a flame strike. The mages were incapacitated, and the flying carpet crashed to earth, smoking.
Mahmud now rallied his camelry battalion and led a charge against Ionicus’s battalion. This attack swept away several companies of the enemy. Around the same time, Ethlyn, Senef, and Zoya brought up their reserves and smashed through Ionicus’s center. Ionicus’ left was still holding, but the morale of the Auran army was fast beginning to collapse.
Ionicus and Drakima fell back to the smoking remains of Suad and Shikra, perhaps hoping that the bodies of the heroes (or their magic items) would be useful bargaining chip after the battle. They needed just a few moments of time to gather the fallen and fly away. They didn’t get them. Mahmud, Ethlyn, Zoya, and Senef advanced unremittingly, and the Auran position was swept away. Ionicus and the rest of the Auran leadership escaped, but they had been decisively defeated.
After a heated pursuit, the total casualties were:
Ionicus: 750 killed, 750 captured
Dragons of the Desert: 350 killed, 140 missing
As the day ended, the air was filled with the cries of the wounded and the scents of dead men and camels. Even as the vultures fed, the Dragons planned their next steps.
As the 24th of Genelen dawned, the Dragons of the Desert knew they had to seize Jubai quickly, before Gundus Ionicus could occupy it. Leaving Senef and Abbas’ divisions to slowly march the prisoners-of-war, the Dragons of the Desert raced southward. Their forces arrived around noon. The gates of the great city were closed, and no flag flew over its walls.
Mahmud advanced forward with his honor guard of Mamelukes. From the walls, a hook nosed-man with bulbous lips on a thin face called down in a high-pitched voice. “Hail, Mahmud, Lion of the Desert. I am Nasser, vizier of Jubai. There is no need for violence this day. We will open the city gates to you, if you promise not to sack the city.” “I cannot promise this,” called Mahmud. “I have sworn to my men that for their loyal service, the city is theirs to sack.” There was a murmur of fear on the city walls. Nasser called down, “then you will condemn thousands of women and children to death!” “It is not I who have condemned them. Blame your Prefect.” Mahmud whirled and left.
Despite Mahmud’s stern words, Jubai presented a formidable obstacle. It was a walled city, with an older walled casbah, Old Jubai, within. Two citadels protected the city. The Dragons began to encircle the city but their numbers were insufficient to form a blockade. With no artillery or siege equipment, the only way to capture the city would be a brutal assault. Through crystal balls and magic carpet, the Dragons of the Desert were able to determine that there were about 1,500 defenders, but they were ill-equipped and poorly-trained conscripts – literally any man who could fight. Still, even militia would be formidable when defending their walled city.
As the day progressed, deserters from Ionicus’ army began to trickle in. Mahmud rode out to disperse them, but they sought enlistment. “We are tired of fighting for butchers and losers. You are undefeated on the battlefield. You shower your soldiers in the spoils of war. How do we sign up?” Mahmud made provision for them to join the camp.
By nightfall, Senef had arrived with the prisoners-of-war. Ethlyn gave a rousing speech inviting the prisoners to join the army. Those who would not join were to exiled to the desert. Such was her charisma that all were recruited – all save the 15 prisoners of Ionicus’ elite guard. These men marched into the desert, heads held high.
The Dragons now convened a war council. Mahmud rose to speak, and the beys and aghas praised Mahmud for his glorious camelry charge in the preceding day’s battle. He thanked them for the kind words and explained the situation. “Tomorrow we can assault the city. It will be a formidable fight. Should we win, the city will be yours to sack. Or we can accept their surrender and enter peaceably. In this case, we will pay you for the value of the pillage from the city’s treasury. Which do you choose?” Heated debate ensued, but in the end only Bey Abbas wanted to risk death to sack the city. “We shall accept the city’s surrender and enter peaceably then,” said Mahmud.
It was now around midnight. The Dragons decided there was no better time to demand Jubai’s surrender. Mahmud and his guards arrived at the walls and demanded to speak to Nasser. After a few minutes, the vizier appeared. “It is customary to begin a night-time assault by surprise, grand mufti,” said the sleepy-eyed Nasser. “We have come to accept your surrender. Open the gates and we shall not sack your city,” said Mahmud. “I will need a few hours to inform the city fathers. At present everyone is making preparations for their imminent demise. Might you give me a few hours?” “I shall return at dawn,” agreed the paladin.
After the vizier vanished, Zoya climbed the walls. Hidden by her elven apparel, she slinked through the darkened city, slowly making her way towards the palace. The city was in chaos, with messengers running in various directions, nervous militia set at guard posts, and citizens had at work barricading their homes. As she approached the palace, the clever-fingered thief borrowed an officer’s badge from a passing lieutenant and used her new “rank” to enter. The palace interior was as chaotic as the city. After some minutes of searching, she found the treasure vault. The great bronze door was locked, and four militia men were arguing about how to get it open. Zoya revealed herself and commanded the militia to return to their posts. One of the conscripts shouted “An officer! I bet she has the key to the treasure!” and they drew their weapons. Calling on Nightbringer’s power, Zoya extinguished the light in the hallway and murdered the conscripts in the darkness. She was unable to get the treasure vault’s lock opened, however, so she fell back to pursue another agenda: Subversion. Telling a different story to every militia patrol she encountered, Zoya soon had half the city in a state of panic.
Meanwhile, Mahmud and Ethlyn were summoned to the picket lines. The sentries had caught a man sneaking out of a sewer-pipe. His hand-cart was laden with platinum coins and silver jewelry – almost 100,000gp worth. The man identified himself as Yosef. “I am bringing an offering to the Great Mufti! The treacherous Nasser the Eunuch – who cannot be trusted – planned to steal the treasures of Jubai. But I discovered his plot, and took these treasures instead. I gift them to you!” Even without magic, Mahmud sensed this was a bald-faced lie. But Suad’s telepathic powers confirmed it as utter falsehood. The man was a thief, and his thoughts were “I hope he believes me! Maybe he’ll give me a reward even bigger than what Nasser promised…”
“I am told you are a liar and a traitor,” said Mahmud. “Who would slander me so?” said Yosef. “I would,” said Suad, revealing himself. At the sight of the sinister mage, the thief wet himself and fell on his knees. “Please, Great Mufti! I am but a humble thief, one who has climbed from the depths of being a mine slave to make something of himself. I know your comrade Zoya employs such as me! I will serve her loyally.” “You have already shown you are willing to betray your master, Nasser. Why would I take one such as you into my service?” said the grim-faced holy warrior. Suad smiled evilly. “Allow me to summon a hydra and we shall tear him into five pieces.” “No,” said Mahmud. “I must handle this myself.” His face an implacable mask of justice, Mahmud seized the thief, bodily carried him into the center of the camp, and beheaded him. Yosef died still begging.
The party realized that if Yosef had fled with such a great treasure, it was likely that Nasser had as well. Sadly, Suad’s scrying was unable to find the eunuch… all he saw were patches of sandy desert.
At dawn on the 25th, the gates of Jubai were opened, though not by Nasser. A council of elders was in loose control, and all too happy to surrender to an armed force that had sworn mercy and could re-exert order. It took until the 1st of Juselen for the city to be fully pacified. After considerable debate, the Dragons decided that Mahmud would rule as the Vali of Jubai, while Ethlyn remained as Pasha of Khaibar and Bellona took over as Pasha of Old Jubai.
The conquest of Jubai was a heady time for the Dragons. Henchmen, mercenaries and followers flocked to the city to take service with the great conquerors. A band of holy warriors, leading two platoons of light cavalry, swore undying loyalty to Mahmud. Another two platoons of light cavalry pledged themselves to Ethlyn. Suad hired a magical scholar named Majid and a Kushtu witch-doctor named Isingoma to his service. Rakh was able to hire Thrassians from the local arena, recruiting Atrekh the Beast Fighter, Sitahitan the Prize Fighter, and Ubakhi the Manhunter to his service.
While these machinations were accomplished, Zoya began to receive missives from her spies in Alakyrum. Cainan reported “The Council of Wisdom denied requests by Ber-Gathy and Hissar to be placed in charge of the Vilayet of Jubai. The emissaries were sent away.” Jafar reported, “Ambassadors from the rebellious cities of Ummal, Tariq, Jayyan, and Byblos have arrived with peace offerings at Alakyrum. Fareed reported, “The city of Nuvië was devastated by a tsunami. The Council of Wisdom claims this proves Imran supports our righteous cause.” Zoya quickly surmised that it was no coincidence that Nuvië had been destroyed just as four rebellious cities were suing for peace. Perhaps Imran did favor the Opelenean cause!
With Alakyrum apparently supporting the Dragon’s claim on Jubai, and winning the revolutionary war, the Dragons turned their attention back to other threats: Ionicus and Amur-Sin. Senef consulted with the spirits. “Is Prefect Ionicus staying in Opelenea?” No. “Is Amur-Sin a month or less from completing his ritual?” Yes. “If we left tomorrow, could our army reach Amur-Sin in time to stop the ritual?” Yes.
Based on this tidings, it was clear Amur-Sin had to be the top priority. The next day, 2nd of Juselen, the Dragons of the Desert began to march their army towards the Howling Emptiness. The mages stay behind to conduct spell research, while Ethlyn and Bellona led the army. Mahmud raced ahead to Khaibar on the flying carpet. His plan was send couriers to Hissar and Ber-Gathy to demand troops for the fighting in the west.
To his surprise, Mahmud found a battalion of troops camped outside of Khaibar. A Kemeshi pennant, showing a black lion on a golden field, hung over the camp. The troops within were Mamelukes, and they were waiting for Mahmud. When the paladin approached he was greeted by a dark-skinned titan of a man who saluted proudly. “We are the Pride of the Black Lions,” said the Mameluke. “Once slaves, now free, we seek gold and glory in battle. We are told that you are invincible in battle. We offer you our arms.” “Your offer is accepted,” said Mahmud.
The Dragons of the Desert were on the march with an army of 4,500. Opting to keep the army in formation rather than leave behind the slower-moving heavy infantry, the Dragons reached the oasis of Khabel on 8th Juselen. From there, they headed south-west into the Desert of Desolation.
The events that occurred next have already become legend among the troops. A pride of lions was spotted feasting on slain camels directly in the path of the army. Curiously, the beasts could not be scared away by outriders, but they did not seem hostile either. Mahmud and Ethlyn rode forward, and the lions revealed themselves to shapechangers – lycanthropes with golden hair and eyes. “Word of your glorious deeds hallows even these desert sands. We have heard that you are lions among men. We offer you a gift. We can make this true.” Suad suddenly appeared. “Do it! A were-lion is a powerful creature. Your power will be awesome.” Mahmud raised his eyes to the holy sun of Imran, and then declined. “I must follow the path I am on,” he said.
Ethlyn smiled and opened her arms. “I would welcome your gift.” The were-lions roared exultantly and had the bard kneel before them. She felt the flesh of her neck being torn, and then blackness. She awoke in the baggage-train, being tended by Senef. The shaman gazed down at her judgmentally. “Now we’ll see what happens to you on the full moon.”
The moon waxed full on the 13th Juselen, as the army was encamped not far from the sunken city of Pazar. The change came to Ethlyn – her hair grew to a luxuriant golden coat and mane, a tail erupted from her spine, feet and hands became paws… She roared as the beast form took her. When dawn came, she seemed relaxed, and everyone politely ignored the camel gore spattered near her tent.
On the 16th of Juselen, the army reached Oued Taal. From there it advanced northwest to Khaibar. There it was joined by a congregation of Imranic chaplains, come to minister to the needs of the Faithful. Morale soared among the army. Rakh joined them in their proselytizing, and soon began to be called “The Rock of Faith,” managing to convert Atrekh, the Thrassian henchman, to his faith. On the 22nd, the Dragons had arrived at the oasis of Bab al-Djebel. From here they would strike westward across the Al-Baki Hills and into the Howling Emptiness.
While this was afoot, Shikra, Senef, Suad, and Suad’s assistant Majid and Isingoma were busy researching in Jubai. Diligent study of the Talisman of Al-Sindor by Majid, Senef, and Suad revealed that it could cure diseases and remove curses, while the Cup could bless those who drank holy water from it. Shikra and Isingoma were brewing potions of curing and necromantic potency.
In addition to research, Senef was also communing with the spirits each week to gather intelligence. On the 9th of Juselen, Senef asked “Does Amur-Sin have over 1,000 troops”? No. “Does Amur-Sin’s ritual relate to the Awakening?” No. “Is Amur-Sin south of the two oases on our map of the Howling Emptiness?” Yes.
On the 16th, he asked: “Is Amur-Sin west of the westernmost oasis on our map of the Howling Emptiness?” No. “Is Amur-Sin within 12 miles of the southern badlands marked on our map of the Howling Emptiness?” No. “Is Amur-Sin located at a spot we have a treasure map to?” No.
On the 23rd, Senef asked: “Will Amur-Sin finish his ritual this week?” No. Surprised at this, he asked “Has Amur-Sin already finished his ritual?” Yes. Alarmed, he asked “Does Amur-Sin now have an army of over 1,000 troops?” Yes…. There was no time delay. Senef realized the Dragons ought to have moved faster, perhaps striking at Amur-Sin as soon as his commune revealed he had few troops. With Shikra along to provide for invisibility, Senef set off on the flying carpet immediately to try to warn the army.
Unfortunately, on the 23rd of Juselen, the Dragons had already begun their westward march. The day become quite unfortuitously: Bey Abbas fell off his camel and broke his neck, dying instantly. The party was suspicious of foul play but witnesses all claimed that Abbas had simply had an accident, and Zoya could find no evidence of foul play. Without Senef the party had no way to restore Abbas to life, but they kept his corpse secure in the baggage-train. Ethlyn gave a moving speech praising Abbas for his lifetime of service to Opelenea. Nevertheless, it soured the mood of the troops.
The mood got much worse when the army’s outriders returned that night. An army of many thousands of skeletons and zombies had been spotted marching north in a valley about twenty-five miles west. “We’re too late,” said Bellona. “He’s completed his ritual and raised an army of the dead.”
Grief-stricken, Mahmud gave the order to fall back the next dawn. The army would retreat to Khaibar. Riders were sent to warn Bir-Muktar, Bou-Farfa, and Sidi-Hakeim to evacuate. On the 25th, the Dragons reached Khaibar, where they were met by Shikra and Senef. “I bear grave tidings!” said Senef. “We know…” said Mahmud. With her knowledge of the occult, Shikra was able to give a more detailed estimate of what they might be facing. She feared that Amur-Sin had cast undead legion, a powerful ritual that might have brought him as many as 5,000 or more skeleton troops.
On the 26th, Shikra departed soon after to gather the party’s other spellcasters from Khaibar. Riders arrived later that day with word from Pasha Abaddon of Ber-Gathy – “We have called our vassals to arms, but they will not be ready until the 2nd of Froelen. I pray it is soon enough.” In a hurried war council, the Dragons decided that if Amur-Sin’s army advanced north, they would march to Ber-Gathy to defend it.
The next morning, the 27th, Senef summoned the bustards, kites, and vultures of the desert and commanded them to find the enemy army and report back on what they learned. This proved a valuable reconnaissance tool, revealing that Amur-Sin’s army had advanced north and was now pillaging an oasis south-west of Ber-Gathy. Mahmud ordered the army to set off north.
Amur-Sin’s army continued to move north in the following days, as did the Dragons’ army. The Dragons reached Sidi-Hakeim on the 28th, and Ber-Gathy on the 1st of Froelen. They were met with relief by Pasha Abaddon al-Hamza. “I welcome you to Ber-Gathy as my sovereign lords, and praise Imran that you have come to offer us your protection,” said Abaddon. His servants then produced numerous chests, each filled with precious coin, offered in tribute to the Dragons.
Camel outriders and Senef’s avian scouts reported that Amur-Sin’s army had reached the oasis of Tuat. Tuat was a vassal domain of Ber-Gathy, and only a day’s march from the city. “My forces will be ready to fight tomorrow,” said Abaddon. “What should do?”
“Let us attack in the name of Imran, and die for him!” said Rakh, with more fervor than wisdom. His boldness swayed no one. The war council felt that Amur-Sin was likely to either march on Ber-Gathy or advance to Hissar, a fortress to the north. The Dragons decided that if Amur-Sin marched on Hissar, they would attack him in his rear. If he marched on Ber-Gathy, they would stand siege against him until Hissar’s forces could arrive.
Senef called on the spirits for guidance. “Is Amur-Sin personally leading his army?” Yes. “Is Amur-Sin planning to come to Ber-Gathy?” Yes. “Do the Cup and Talisman of Al-Sindor have any special power to destroy Amur-Sin?” No. Senef cursed…it had seemed so timely to find the Cup and Talisman, it was as if from the stories of old! But sometimes war is not a story book.
All through the 2nd of Froelen, Mahmud, Bellona, and Ethlyn marshalled the forces of Ber-Gathy and assimilated them into the army. Zoya spent the day reconnoitering the city and seeking out weak points and hidden ways in. Senef summoned weather and brought early springs rains, transforming the earth around Ber-Gathy into a morass of mud and soft sand.
The preparations continued through the 3rd of Froelen. The day was growing long when the cries rang up from the tower watch. “Enemy in sight!” The army of Amur-Sin had arrived.