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Old 11-02-2020, 02:32 PM   #31
Stomoxys
 
Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 178 since leaving The Homeland

I made my towards the confused troll and the sarcophagus. In the stone receptacle was a desiccated corpse wrapped up in bandages. Grogg's blow had hit it in the chest, which had shattered from the blow, detaching the head and shoulders from the lower body. As I watched, the collapsed part seemed to spread, turning the corpse into dust. Gritt's corpse had been dressed up in the armour of a warrior and a gold crown, but this corpse was only wearing the bandages and no ornaments except a small handheld mirror. Looking closer, I saw that the mirror had a single crack.

Channeling the power of the stars, I carefully examined the corpse. It had been the focal point of an extremely powerful ritual that had kept something in place. However, the bonds had been weakening and would have unraveled on their own if Grogg had not broken the spell. Presumably, the wraith was the main reason the bonds were weakening, but the guardians of the place had said the mirages had intensified when the stars started their activity. If so, the last two demons may escape, even though the wraith has been destroyed. Probing further, I got the impression that the wraith had tried to control Darwan. If freeing the demon was the wraith's main goal, it could have destroyed the corpse long ago. It would also explain why Darwan helped us by taking us to the campfire. Examining the mirror, it had been very magical and an important part of the ritual, but now the energy was dissipating.

Turning to Grogg, I noticed that they had no shadow. It was still standing over by Wolfram, but making its way towards us. I asked Grogg what had happened and they said the corpse had felt like hundreds of years of suffering and they had decided to destroy it. Something had thanked them and let them send their shadow after the wraith. A fitting parting gift from a demon of shadows. The shadow acted just like Grogg and they seemed to agree on everything. It even had its own aura, which was exactly the same as Grogg's aura. Both the Groggs wanted to know if the shadow version had their own Shadow Kra, but Nuur-Karif could not see anything special through the ring. Wolfram, who had finally turned back into a human, seemed very mistrustful of the shadow troll, but only grumbled a little. Even though they had charged headlong into the crypt, the spirits had not been able to hurt them noticeably. The wraith, however, had cast some spell on their leg and it was paralyzed. I offered to examine it, but they refused.

Around the sarcophagus, symbols were chiseled into the stone floor. I could not interpret them, but I copied some of them onto the attached papers. In the outer chamber, the mirror was still standing where the smoke device had been. Looking into it, a jaguar creature looked back at me and I felt a strange attraction to it. Stepping away, the attraction disappeared and I examined the mirror. It had been critical for the ritual on the area and, unlike the rest of the crypt, the magic was not dissipating. While letting it remain in the crypt would be dangerous, we decided that it would be best to leave it alone and let Nefalonia deal with it. Inspecting the side walls of the outer chamber, I found walled up doorways where the side rooms had been in the illusion. Grogg and Shadow Grogg made short work of the brickwork and inside was another sarcophagus. Here, a weaker version of the ritual had been performed and it was also dissipating. In the sarcophagus was another withering corpse, but it was unremarkable now. There were eight side chambers, so Darwan must have been imprisoned with eight companions, the same as Gritt. Wolfram came over and sounded a bit distracted, but they did not disturb my examination. The crypt was unpleasant and there was little more we could do, so we decided to leave the way we came. On the way out, I noticed a walled up doorway in the inner chamber that probably lead to the last tower.

When we returned to the surface, the towers and most of the mirage effects were gone. Instead, we could see the open pits where the towers had been. The gold items that had been lying around, including those Grogg had picked up, were replaced by stones and rubble. In the middle of the area, the pleasant oasis had turned into a puddle of mud and I am glad I did not take a bath. Nuur-Karif wanted to put the spirits to rest and Wolfram agreed. I suggested we should try to materialize them and maybe get some information and the others agreed. However, the first spirit that materialized acted like it was still being tortured and there was nothing of value in its gibbering. Apparently, Nuur-Karif knew the human and put them out of their misery. I wanted to try again, but Nuur-Karif refused, saying it would bring needless suffering. A few more minutes of suffering would not make any difference and the spirits might have valuable information. If nothing else, their names and hometowns could be useful for propaganda purposes. About fifteen spirits were dispatched, some by Shadow Grogg, to Wolfram's disapproval. Clubbing them in the head is not their preferred way of banishing spirits. It is interesting that the shadow can interact with both spirits and the material world. While this was going on, I inspected the last tower and saw that it was full of rubble. It would have been nice to enter directly into the inner chamber, but clearing the rubble and breaking down the wall would have taken a long time, even for Grogg.

Nuur-Karif wanted to rest for a while before we returned to the camp and I used the opportunity to study the stars. There was nothing noteworthy, except that Kama and Taxini were still gone. After about an hour of rest, we returned to the camp. Grogg had the idea that they could reattach their shadow using the silver needle if they could charge it on the mirror shard. They were quite determined to try this until I pointed out that the energy inside could create lightning. This changed their mind and they set to sewing themselves back together with their shadow and somehow it worked. While Shadow Grogg would be a useful ally, they would certainly attract attention and possibly hostile reactions. Wolfram's opinions on magic are close to the norm here.
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Old 11-02-2020, 02:42 PM   #32
Stomoxys
 
Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 179 since leaving The Homeland

I woke in the morning from the smell of Yana and Nujan making breakfast. While we ate, we discussed how to proceed. Nuur-Karif wanted to find Mir and give the spear to them but I pointed out that that giving a spear that causes megalomania to a megalomaniac warlord may not be the best idea. Nujan chimed in that Mir would use the spear invade something, now that The Evening Fortress is ruled by Isa. Investigating the stone circle would be interesting, but we should inform Nefalonia about what happened in the crypt first. Before we could do anything, however, we would have to deal with Wolfram's leg. They still could not move it and still refused to let me examine it. Nuur-Karif prayed on the matter and proclaimed that if Wolfram would crawl on their belly like a snake from midday to Ajaw reached the horizon, Ashtar would heal their leg. Wolfram declared that they would honour the gods and crawl on their belly all day and Nuur-Karif gleefully joined them. Clearly we would not make it to Ur, or anywhere, this day. I scouted ahead and we retrieved the mirror shard without issue.

During lunch Nuur-Karif explained how to get into Ur. The main gates were guarded, but should be open during daytime. During nighttime, it would be possible to sneak in through the northern slum that had spilled out of the city walls. Wolfram did not want to enter at all and I did want to see the stone circle. Kra could fly ahead with a message for Nefalonia and we could enter the city after the stone circle. If Nefalonia's predictions about dragons were true, it would be best to be somewhere with a basement. The rest of the lunch was dominated by a theological treatise on the difference between dragons and snakes after Grogg claimed that snakes were like dragons and did not like them. This was abruptly ended by Grogg claiming they could sense a dragon on the horizon. Not a good sign.

Soon after we crossed the main road and continued north towards the circle, I was running ahead, but spotted three riders coming towards the others. Slipping behind a stone fence, I readied my bow and snuck closer. Nujan spotted the riders first and went to meet them with Nuur-Karif. Wolfram remained on their belly and Grogg stayed with them. The riders looked like Aldera scouts and announced that the area around the stone circle was off limits to civilians. Instead, we should go to Ur and they were sure that an armed party like ours could find lucrative jobs. Nuur-Karif agreed and the scouts rode off. Sneaking Grogg and Wolfram to the stone circle would be almost impossible, so I put on the fake beard and clothes and we went back to the main road. As expected, we did not make it to Ur before it got dark and made camp about two hours walk from the city. Still no sign of Kama and Taxini.
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Old 11-02-2020, 02:59 PM   #33
Stomoxys
 
Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 180 since leaving The Homeland

Wolfram had dreamt that a snake had sucked the poison out of their leg and when they tried to stand up, their leg was working again. Initially, they wanted to stay in the camp while we entered Ur, but we were planning to stay for two days until the dragons had passed and they reluctantly agreed to come along. Inside the city, we found an inn that looked relatively sturdy. Wolfram stayed there and I told them to guard the mirror shard closely. Nuur-Karif wanted to visit a chapel in the slum and I wanted to go with them, but Grogg wanted to go to the marked and letting them wander alone could be risky. We soon found a shop selling intoxicants. The human working there at first looked dismayed when a towering troll entered the store, but became very helpful when Grogg showed them a pouch full of gold. Moving on to a tailor's shop, Grogg bought some fabrics and I picked up some dyes. Grogg asked several indiscreet questions, but at least we heard a rumour that Mir had traveled north. Probably not something we can put any stock in. Mir seems to be moving around a lot, intentionally spreading confusing rumours. Back at The Evening Fortress, their plan had been to lure the Larma forces into Ur and then assault them or starve them here. Being in the city when either happens does not sound very appealing.

I wanted to contact Nefalonia, but it was unclear how and instead we went towards the slum to find some more purple incense. On our way we met Yana and they suggested we should contact a high ranking officer near the centre of the city. If I showed them what I am, we could probably get them to contact Nefalonia. Nuur-Karif was still in the chapel and Yana was getting medical supplies, so Grogg and I made our way to the city centre alone. As we got nearer, we saw barricades being erected in the streets and a large number of guards. Clearly they were preparing to defend the city and making it through the winding streets would be a nightmare for an attacker. Near the tower of the council, a guard in a shiny uniform with badges of rank hailed us. When they saw me, they told us to wait and soon a human called Lina appeared to escort us to Nefalonia. Instead of the tower, we were led to a nearby bar and Grogg and Lina chatted about dragons. They expected there to either be 0 or 2 dragons on their way. Grogg of course forgot to call themselves Mork, but I told them my name was Hisse. Surprisingly, they knew this is not a real name.

We were met by a shout from Nefalonia when we entered and they were happy to see us. The bar was a public place, but they did not seem bothered by this and we informed them of what had happened. They were happy that the wraith was destroyed, and it seemed they had expected the demon to escape. We could also confirm their suspicion that it was Darwan that was imprisoned in the crypt. Kra had never reached them. There was a rumour that someone wanted to kill Nefalonia and the mages had freaked out when an unknown familiar had appeared. Now, Kra was locked up, but Nefalonia would free them immediately. They became very interested when we told them about the mirror. Speculating, they said the mirror showed an image of Darwan's area of origin. It might be possible to use it to contact and even control the demon with the mirror. While this would be extremely dangerous, the mirror could not be left where Tivito could get hold of it. They wondered if we could fetch the mirror for them, but changed their mind when I said Wolfram should be kept out of it. Wolfram would be liable to attempt to destroy the mirror, but Nefalonia did not want to us to have anything to do with demons if we could not trust each other. I got the impression Demons work a bit like the discord among the stars, amplifying any conflicts among mortals. Considering that the mammal civilizations collapse in every cataclysm, I have to agree with them. Instead of sending us, Nefalonia would go themselves and thanked us for our service after releasing Kra. At least we got a letter giving us access to the tower. In a throwaway line, they also identified Tsovin and Vagan as Kama and Taxini. This makes sense when viewed through the usual lens of mammal confusion. I will attempt to visit one of their temples later.

After we had left Nefalonia, we returned to the slum to resume our search for purple incense. Wandering around for a while, we ran into Nuur-Karif and Yana who took us to an herb shop. A pungent smell wafted towards us when we entered and and the shelves were full of curios, including a human foetus and various animals preserved in alcohol. Grogg was mostly interested in what intoxicants were to be found in the shop, but also found some incense and I spotted some interesting ingredients for poisons. Slikk and Slakk's poisons do not appear to be very strong.

Nuur-Karif had some important news they wanted to share, so we returned to the inn to find Wolfram. Back in our room, they told us they had received a mission to kill Nefalonia, getting various degrees of shock and dismay in response. Wolfram wanted to know where they had gotten this mission and Nuur-Karif claimed they had gotten it from Ashtar, but they hesitated slightly, raising my suspicions. My suspicions were more or less confirmed soon after when Wolfram asked if they had gotten specific instructions and they answered negative. Seeing our reactions, Nuur-Karif agreed to investigate the source of the mission further and said they would go to the other chapel in the city. Not entirely trusting them, I offered to come along and to my relief, they agreed and welcomed me along.

Last edited by Stomoxys; 11-02-2020 at 03:15 PM.
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Old 11-02-2020, 03:14 PM   #34
Stomoxys
 
Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 180 since leaving The Homeland

The other chapel was located in a wealthier part of town, meaning traders and minor nobles were living there. Hired soldiers stood guard outside more or less every house and we got some long, suspicious stares. We finally reached a large building and entered on the ground level, where we were met by a clerk. Outside, across the street, two guards were keeping an eye on us. Giving a sign of Ashtar, Nuur-Karif was told that it was closed and instead was asked if they wanted to take a mission. Agreeing to take a look, the clerk handed Nuur-Karif a piece of paper with five names on it. The first was Nefalonia with a bounty of 150 gold pieces, followed by another council member called Garold for 200 gold pieces. I had not heard the last three names before and they had smaller bounties attached to them. Everyone on the list had to die before Ajaw rose twice. When asked about the human in charge of the missions, the clerk at first refused to answer, but thought better of it when Nuur-Karif grabbed them and revealed their fangs. The human was called Robal and had given Nuur-Karif the mission earlier. They were now in hiding in a secret basement under a house nearby. Robal had the same rank as Nuur-Karif, but did not perform missions themselves, instead delegating them to poorer Ashtarites in the slums and taking a cut of the bounty. The clerk was not happy about working there, and terrified of the repercussions, and asked for help getting out of there. Leaving through a side door, we escorted them out of the wealthy area and Nuur-Karif sent them to meet someone named Riko in the slum. Before leaving, the clerk told us there were Ashtarites with higher rank than Nuur-Karif connected to the chapel.

We returned to the chapel and I was reminded of the events in Sulla. When Palongi had raged across northern Arland, someone had murdered some of the leading priests of Mitra in the city, throwing it into chaos. At the time, we did not believe that it concerned us, but this situation seemed very similar. We made it back to the chapel undetected, but the side door was closed and we had to enter through the main door, possibly raising suspicion from the guards. Down in the actual chapel, a human was sleeping and Nuur-Karif knew them from Sam, calling them Podo. Podo was there to kill the people on the list and collect the bounties, but there were few murderers in town and they could not do them all alone. Nuur-Karif said they could take Nefalonia and asked me to fetch the book with the bounties. When I returned, the bounty hunter claimed that the city had already fallen to Larma and the five people on the list were the only ones who would resist. However, they were somewhat suspicious because it seemed like someone was manipulating events to keep Ashtarites away from Ur. Usually, there should have been lots of murderers there. Nuur-Karif said they had to pray on the missions and we sat down on the floor. The snakes in the room were unusually happy about this and crawled all over us, as if they were not used to anyone praying there. I opened my eyes before Nuur-Karif and started studying the book. There were many names and notes, indicating that jobs had been done and money paid. Interestingly, there was a spike in the number of murders on the night Guling was attacked and since then, there had been a high volume of jobs. Ur had also been attacked that night and someone must have been working hard since then to wipe out any opposition. I showed what I found to Nuur-Karif and they returned to their prayers but soon opened their eyes and spoke with new conviction in their voice. They informed Podo that we would take Nefalonia and the last three while the bounty hunter could take Garold and we left through the side door. Sneaking out of the wealthy area, I made sure nobody followed us.

Back at the inn, Nuur-Karif confirmed what I thought and announced they had gotten a mission from Ashtar. The Ashtarites at the chapel were apostates, killing for gold, not Ashtar. To purge the apostates, Nuur-Karif would have to enter the cellar Robal was hiding in before sundown and could not leave while anyone was left alive in there except Nuur-Karif and their companions. Attacking a cellar having no idea who or what is in there, or even the basic layout of the place did not sound like a pleasant task, especially since we had little to no time to gather intelligence. Discussing how to get in, we decided that the best way to get to the house was with a fancy wagon. Nuur-Karif said they could get some fake hired soldiers from the slum, as this seemed to be a requirement in the wealthy area, Hopefully, we could borrow a coach from the council. The wagon would also be useful if we had to flee in a hurry. We should also contact Nefalonia or, if Nefalonia was already gone, Garold. Perhaps they could provide some intelligence and if nothing else they could warn the people on the list. At least whatever was down there should have the decency to bleed and die when cut.

Last edited by Stomoxys; 11-15-2020 at 08:54 AM.
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Old 11-07-2020, 11:51 AM   #35
Stomoxys
 
Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 180 since leaving The Homeland

Nuur-Karif said it was likely that the cellar had several exits. This seemed plausible, considering that there seemed to be a lot of shady business going on there and perhaps an alternative entrance could be used to gain access without raising too much suspicion. The most obvious place to search would be the neighbouring buildings and the sewer system. I had seen two similar places before. One was Lunari's little basement hideout and the other was the compound of the organization that had hired Lunari. The latter had run under an entire city block and I expected this to be somewhere in between. Nuur-Karif needed to go to the slum and I and Nujan would be the best to reconnoiter the house and its surroundings. This left Grogg and Wolfram to contact Nefalonia or Garold. Neither of them is what I would call skilled with words and I considered going with them, but decided we had to risk sending Yana with them.

The house in question was a two storey, rectangular stone building in the shoddy style popular among the apeoids. It was quite unremarkable for the area, with a wide stair from the street to a double door in front and a garden in the back. The inner part of the garden was hidden behind a high wall and a strategically placed hedge and fountain. From the street, we could only see a small shed and a porch in front of the back entrance to the building. Worryingly, the surrounding buildings had a distinct lack of windows, and the ones we could see were shuttered tightly. In fact, both the house and the streets around it seemed abandoned with no city guards on patrol.

Across the street from the garden was another house, also with a garden and it looked just as abandoned. From this garden it would be easy to climb to the roof and observe the target house while remaining relatively concealed. Nujan took up position as spotter and I leapt over the low wall surrounding the garden. Stripping down, I climbed to the roof and took up position. There was nothing of particular interest to see, so I lay down to observe. Perhaps five minutes later, I heard a loud yawn from Nujan, indicating that someone was coming. Sensing something of potential interest, I lay perfectly still and soon saw a noble and their bodyguard come strolling down one of the streets. Nujan feigned sleeping against a wall, but was rudely informed that loitering was not permitted by the bodyguard and slunk off. Having chased off the jaguar, the two apeoids entered the garden I was spying on. Initially, nothing appeared to happen, the noble just sitting there and the bodyguard washing their sword in the fountain. This lasted a few minutes before I spotted a subtle movement in one of the curtains on the upper floor. Another few minutes passed and a human female came out and escorted the others into the building. I waited a few more minutes, but nothing more seemed to happen before Nujan appeared and signaled impatiently for me to come down. Back on the street, we discussed what I had seen and speculated that the splashing from the sword washing had been a signal. Nujan suggested we could bribe some young humans to go into the garden to splash in the fountain, but we rejected the idea. It would almost certainly have raised suspicions if they were questioned. Before we left, we saw a nervous looking human that I believe entered the building, but they entered through the front door and we could not see them entering from our position.

Searching the area, we discovered that a sewer was running under one of the streets next to the house. Following the sewer downhill, Nujan spotted an open grate in a relatively secluded side street. Slipping out of my clothes and down the drain, I made my way into the main tunnel. In the light from the coin, I could see a raised walkway so I did not have to wade through the filth, but the smell was nauseating. I had just gotten used to the darkness and my sense of smell was deadening when I heard Nujan yawn and thump with their foot on the grate. Crawling back, we agreed to meet again after four grates to see if we could coordinate. Carefully sneaking forward, I met Nujan again at the fifth grate and we decided to meet at the 17th, which would take me close to the house. On the way there, I spotted two wooden doors which both appeared to be locked from the inside and sent Nujan to investigate when we met up. Sneaking very carefully the last part, I spotted a metal door that would lead directly into the basement of the house. However, there were no handles or keyholes on my side and it did not budge when I pushed it. The door was presumably barricaded from the inside, and while I did not doubt that Grogg could break it down, it would be neither a quiet nor a quick affair. Returning to the grate, Nujan had discovered that one of the wooden doors were probably connected to some noble's house while the other was under a mercenary compound. Neither sounded very welcoming and Grogg and Wofram would not make it in or out the way I had come. Following the tunnel a bit further down from where I had entered, I came upon an intersection as well as a stair leading up.

I got Nujan to fetch some rugs to cover me up, not wanting to sully the clothes I would have to wear again. Back at the inn, our companions and luggage was gone, but I got a quick bath. Nuur-Karif came back while I was drying off and told us that Wolfram and Grogg had not succeeded in contacting Nefalonia or Garold. However, they had talked to a commander Hydor of the tower guard, one of the names on the list. While the officer had given them a coach and promised not to interfere, they had not been willing to provide us with a safe haven. Nuur-Karif had been more successful and procured both a hideout and two low ranking Ashtarites to act as guards. The mages' tower would certainly have been more comfortable and potentially useful than a dirt hole somewhere in the slums, but that was the risk we took sending Wolfram and Grogg on a diplomatic mission. Our luggage was already at the hideout and Yana was out with the wagon, scouting an easy route from the wealthy quarters to the slums. Wolfram and Grogg were waiting at a nearby eatery and we went to meet up with them.
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Old 11-07-2020, 12:05 PM   #36
Stomoxys
 
Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 180 since leaving The Homeland

When Wolfram heard what I had seen, they became strangely obsessed with the shed I had seen, saying we should tie a rope around it in case it contained a hidden exit. Nuur-Karif clarified that it was Ashtar would not mind if the denizen of the cellar escaped, as long as there were none left alive in the cellar. This did not appease Wolfram. They had decided that whoever was in the basement were malevolent sorcerers and necromancers and should be smitten. At one point, they proposed that we should split up and try to take one exit each, but Nujan and I were able to convince them that this would lower over overall chances of smiting any sorcerers. Noting that nobles would never deign to enter the sewers, Nuur-Karif said there were probably more exits and asked if I wanted to come along and survey the surrounding buildings. Walking around the city block, there was nothing particularly distinct about most of the buildings surrounding the house, except the one in the opposite direction of the sewer. This building had a large courtyard, hidden behind high walls with closed and guarded gates. We took up position in an alleyway and observed the building for a while and saw a large coach with drawn curtains enter the courtyard and the gates closed behind it. An excellent place to hide an entrance for nobles that did not wish to be seen.

Returning to the others, we made our final preparations. Nuur-Karif had concocted a drought that should protect against toxins which could prove invaluable in case an Ashtarite got a bit too close with their knives or teeth. The acrid taste burned my throat and made me retch, but I forced it down again. Seeing my reaction, Grogg looked suspiciously at Nuur-Karif, but drank their dose and neither they nor Wolfram looked particularly bothered. Riding in the wagon, I stripped off everything but the cloak and beard and removed my makeup. The coach was parked near the exit from the sewers and we approached the house on foot. Making an undetected escape should be easier underground, despite having to wade through a river of muck.

Walking up to the building, the main door was open and we walked in. I guess the building's reputation was enough to keep most intruders away. Inside, a large staircase led up to the second floor while a smaller set of stairs led down. I picked the door behind us shut, but before I was done, a voice from a female apeoid upstairs asked what we were doing and if we were acquainted with the place. Nuur-Karif answered yes and footsteps receded up the staircase again. Trying to not make unnecessary noise, we made our way down the stairs and came to a chamber dominated by a statue of a winged lion. Lions are jaguar like creatures, but larger and the males are distinguished by having a large mane. The apeoids consider them to be connected to Mitra and revere them, especially the Vasulla family and Mir had brought some from the west. Wolfram said that the winged lion depicted a Malakk, a messenger of Mitra. In front of it stood a wide bronze cresset containing a oil that burned with a tranquil flame. The only other feature in the room was a stone bench in front of the statue. Inspecting it more closely, I realized that the bench could be toppled over to open a hatch in the floor.

Before I could investigate further, I heard steps in the stairs coming down towards us and the voice asking if we were sure we were supposed to be there. Nuur-Karif went up the stairs and I could hear the sounds of a brief struggle before Nuur-Karif came down again, restraining the human female I had seen in the garden earlier. Tearing up the human's clothing, we bound and gagged them and they did not resist, but indicated they wanted to speak. Nuur-Karif removed the gag but they did not say much of value, only insisting that we must not go further down. When we did not reply, they claimed Elik would be insulted. Nuur-Karif moved to put the gag on again, but I stopped them. According to Pakk, the chamber below the Kabal temple at The Evening Fortress was dedicated to Elik. I was hoping the human would reveal something interesting, but I am not sure the ensuing rant contained anything of value. Only Elik had power down in the basement and only Elik's followers could purge all the transgressions and corruption. As I have mentioned before, none of the mammals know their proper place and that seems to extend to their cults. The human ended their rant by blowing wildly, making the fire in front of the Malakk flare up unnaturally. Nuur-Karif acted decisively, punching the human in the face so they passed out and they were gagged again.

Wolfram lifted the bench, revealing a short stair down to a room with three chests and a winding staircase leading further down into the darkness. I stripped down and prepared for combat while Nuur-Karif killed the bound and unconscious human. Dragging the corpse to the stair, they left a trail of blood that could have been avoided if they had dragged the human down first and then slit their throat. Using the coin for illumination, I picked open one of the chests which contained four smaller chests as well as some daggers and some clothing. I got the impression that the items were left their for safe keeping, but the others were impatient and I did not have time to open any of the other chests. Walking down the stairs with Grogg and Wolfram in front, we heard the clinking of a cup, causing Grogg and Wolfram to charge ahead.

Last edited by Stomoxys; 02-12-2021 at 12:05 PM.
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Old 11-07-2020, 12:21 PM   #37
Stomoxys
 
Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 180 since leaving The Homeland

I reached the base of the stairs and peeked in through the doorway Grogg had stormed through. Ahead was a room with a couple of toppled tables and a small bar counter. At the far end was a large and sturdy wooden door and a smaller side door that Grogg was barging through. To my right, Wolfram was fighting the bodyguard I had seen earlier while Nuur-Karif leapt over the bar counter and attacked someone ringing an alarm bell. Expecting more enemies, I took up position and aimed at the large door, but Grogg soon reappeared, and attacked the main door, standing directly in my line of fire. Wolfram and Nuur-Karif had won their respective engagements and the door would not last much longer when I heard footsteps behind the door and all the lights in the room flickered. However, nothing else happened and the door soon fell, letting Grogg storm forward followed by Wolfram.

Moving to the ruined door, I noted that the side room had been a bathroom. Ahead was a hallway that ended in another massive wooden door, but with two smaller doors on the side. One of the side doors were slightly ajar and a light inside was shining through. Grogg and Wolfram charged in, but the light grew to an intense flash before dying off again. Sensing trouble, I approached the door, but a metal portcullis fell from ceiling right in front of me, blocking the doorway. Through the portcullis, I saw Grogg lying on the floor, while Wolfram was standing looking stunned. At the end of the room, a human was pulling on a hatch cover on the floor, but were interrupted by Wolfram who had regained their senses. Momentarily closing their eyes, the human drew their dagger and let their hand swipe over the blade, making it shine with a white light. Expertly dodging several attacks from Wolfram, the human stabbed Wolfram in the arm and the dagger gave off a bright flash. Despite Wolfram's armour, it looked like the attack had hurt them seriously, but before the human could attack again, Grogg had gotten to their feet and ran them down. Wolfram followed up by cutting the human to pieces.

I could hear someone barricading the main door, but I was more concerned with sounds of footsteps from above. Looking closer at the ceiling, it looked like some of the stones could be removed, opening murder holes for the defenders to fire arrows or pour boiling water on us. Warning the others, I retreated to the first chamber, while Nuur-Karif and Nujan went into the side chamber opposite the portcullis. A voice from above shouted "Now!", but nothing happened in the hallway. Instead, someone screamed in agony from the chamber Grogg and Wolfram was in. The closed chamber had also had murder holes, but the ceiling was not very high and Wolfram, the oversized human, could fight back through the holes. Moving down the hallway to join Nujan and Nuur-Karif, I saw Grogg force up the portcullis to the sound of screaming metal while Wolfram was thrusting their sword up through holes in the ceiling. With the exit cleared, Wolfram escaped the room, but took a bolt in the back on the way, followed by Grogg. Expecting them to join me, I ran into the side room Nuur-Karif and Nujan were in. It turned out to be another bathroom with no murder holes.

A crash behind made me realize that Wolfram had not followed, but was attacking the main door at the end of the hallway. Before they could bash the door again, we heard the sound of stones moving and the twang of crossbows firing, followed by Wolfram shouting that they were injured. Wolfram came stumbling into the bathroom, another bolt sticking out of their chest, but Grogg did not follow. Instead we heard the now familiar sound of Gragg's axe hitting the door and splintering wood. One of the walls in the bathroom was made of wood and sounded hollow, but Grogg broke down the main door before the defenders could reload their crossbows and Nujan and Nuur-Karif rushed in. Taking up position behind the remains of the door, I saw Podo, the Ashtarite killer, standing on a table in a large chamber while a human on a walkway above me to the left lit up their dagger, similar to the one Wolfram had chopped to pieces. Besides them, the room was empty, but there were remains of a feast on the table and signs that it had been abandoned in a hurry. The walkway was not very high and Grogg finished the human in a single blow. However, this left them vulnerable to Podo, who slashed them in the throat twice. Unlike the other apeoids, Grogg has tough skin and the knives did not do more than irritate them. Seeing this, Podo backed away and surrendered. A human with a radiant dagger burst out of a small door right in front of me, but did not notice me and ran straight at Grogg and struck at their arm. While the dagger flashed, it did not make a dent in Grogg's armour and the human's head nearly flew off from Grogg's counter attack. Quickly checking the room they had come from, I found another empty bathroom.

Hearing sounds and fearing a counter attack, I kept a close watch over two small hatches at the end of the walkways on each side of the room, presumably leading to the loft above the murder holes. Nuur-Karif did not seem to have any concerns and took the time to tie Podo's hands before stabbing them repeatedly in the neck with Podo's own blades. Searching through the rest of the complex, we found no one left alive. Adjacent to the main chamber was a somewhat smaller room that smelled of tobacco and other intoxicants. At the far side of this room was an open door leading to a dark corridor in the direction away from the sewers. Not wanting to be attacked from behind, we closed and barred the door to the corridor before continuing our exploration. We did not find anyone in the loft either, but there was a trail of blood that tasted like the bleeder was unconscious. Wolfram must have hit them hard. The blood led to another hatch that opened to a walkway over a cesspit. On the far side was another corridor leading to the door I had found in the sewers, with the trail of blood continuing upstream on the walway.

Returning to Wolfram, Nuur-Karif performed first aid and I studied them closely. There are no small people to take care of such matters here. Judging from the number of plates and glasses scattered in the main chamber, there had been at least ten mammals in there. Presumably most of them had fled through the tobacco room, while the fighters in the loft had fled through the sewer. It struck me that in all the chapels and temples I have been to so far, while mundane compared to the temples at home, I have felt something divine, even in the Kabal temple. This place, on the other hand, felt just like any other den of mammal depravity. The human upstairs had given the impression that this place was holy for Elik though. Perhaps it was an act or perhaps Elik is an organization similar to Tivito. Either way, we would have to get out somehow. The original plan was to escape through the sewers, but our largest companions would not be able to squeeze through the loft. It did not help that Wolfram was unable to stand without help. We could maybe leave the way we came, but then we would have to drag a bleeding Wolfram through the streets which would probably attract attention. However, the back wall of the bathroom Wolfram was lying in led directly to the cesspit. It did not appear to be load bearing and from the cesspit it should be possible to get up to the sewer exit. Setting Grogg on the task, there was a large hole in the wall a few minutes after. Seeing the blood trails, Wolfram told Grogg to pursue them and Grogg set off. I shouted after them that the fighters had probably escaped to the surface by now and Grogg came back again soon. Wolfram grumbled about smiting sorcerers, but the bolts sticking out of their chest had pacified them.

Supporting Wolfram and keeping their wounds out of the muck, we stumbled down the sewer to the intersection above which Yana and the wagon was waiting. Grogg hauled Wolfram up the stairs and into the coach and we set off. At the edge of the slums we abandoned the wagon and Nuur-Karif's hired "soldiers". Wolfram was worried about the horses for some reason, but Yana explained that the wagon and horses were valuable and someone would take care of them. Whoever took the wagon would face a formidable cleaning job to get rid of the smell. Initially, our party raised some eyebrows, but as we got deeper into the slums, the inhabitants knew to mind their own business and we eventually reached the hideout. It was a dirt cellar under a rundown little house, but at least we got water for cleaning and the human living there took our clothing for washing. Wolfram was about to pass out again and was put under with Grogg's needle. Extricating the bolts were a lot easier on an unconscious patient and Nuur-Karif explained every step carefully. Having patched up Wolfram, Nuur-Karif sat down to pray and said the mission was a success. The targets must have been the humans with the luminous knives and possibly Podo. While such weapons would be utterly useless against anyone important in The Homeland, they would be quite effective at killing soft skinned apeoids silently, if very visibly. Even though the luminous dagger had barely grazed Wolfram, their arm and should had extensive burn marks and the cut itself was cauterized. We might have stopped the murder plot against Nefalonia and Garold by killing the assassins. As a side note, I think I have figured out how the star energy in the coin escapes as light and that I can reproduce the effect without the coin.

Last edited by Stomoxys; 11-17-2020 at 09:28 AM.
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Old 11-17-2020, 09:27 AM   #38
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Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 181 since leaving The Homeland

I awoke from someone knocking on the door and we discovered food outside waiting for us. Since Wolfram was still sleeping, I experimented and carefully tied a small container for the star energy that would be leaking just enough to provide a bit of light. I placed the container in the middle of the room above the food and filled it with a little energy resulting in a faint, but pleasant glow. It did not last very long though, but I was able to refill it. Still, the coin is a lot more efficient if the only purpose is to produce light. When the light was about to go out a second time, Grogg exclaimed that there was paper in their bread and spit it out. Retrieving the paper slip, I carefully unwrapped the saliva-covered outer paper and found a short note inside. It read "Dear friend and believer. I might need your help and I have information that may help you. I have no expectations that you will do anything to help me, but contact me quickly if you wish to get involved. This is not related to anything sacred. Reagards, friend and believer.". Assuming it was from some Ashtarite, I gave the note to Nuur-Karif before waking Wolfram from their needle-induced slumber.

Wanting to investigate, Nuur-Karif immediately left to talk to the human that had let us in, even though it was obvious, after thinking about it for two seconds, that it had to be Riko. They were the leader of the Ashtarites in the slum who had directed us to the safe house and was supposed to be the only one who knew we were here. Nuur-Karif returned after 10 minutes and had not learned anything, but wanted to go to the chapel to help a fellow believer. I pointed out that dragons would soon raze the city, Larma invade it, and Mir besiege it, so whoever sent the message would soon have more immediate problems, but I agreed to come along. Wolfram had been healed by the needle and could now stand on their own and wanted to come along so we decided everyone should come. To avoid standing out too much, Yana and Grogg would sew cloaks from some old cloth Grogg had, which at one point was soaked in swamp water and various dyes, giving it an interesting colour scheme. Heading out, we met a human in the underground tunnels that gave the sign of Ashtar and gestured for us to follow. They led us down another corridor than the one we came down originally and we emerged in a courtyard surrounded by some dilapidated buildings. I was initially worried that our party would look suspicious, hiding our faces in deep hoods and cloaks, but it turned out the inhabitants of the area looked equally suspicious. Reaching the chapel, Grogg, Wolfram and Nujan waited at a place they served beer while Nuur-Karif, Yana and I went in.

After washing, we found a human sleeping in the chapel and Nuur-Karif soon made it clear that it was Riko. They looked less weak and sickly than the rest of the slum dwellers and had indeed sent the note. If we were willing to hear them out, they would tell us what they knew. A female at the council had been asking about a party of foreigners that would stand out and Riko believed they meant us. My first thought was that it could be Nefalonia, but I almost immediately rejected it. Due to the incident in the cellar, we probably had powerful enemies in the city and it was more likely to be one of those that were looking for us. Moving on to their problem, Riko told us that someone was offering large sums of gold to slum leaders to let them pass through unhindered. This sounded like Larma, but it was not clear if they meant letting single agents or divisions of troops through. Parts of the city wall has crumbled in the slums, so it would be possible to gain a foothold in the city if one could enter the slum without opposition and this had been a very recent development, indicating that an attack could be imminent. Praying on the matter, Nuur-Karif did not get any specific instruction, but I got the clear impressions that many in Ur would die soon. While Riko did not want to accept the money, they expected other groups in the slum to do so and feared they would face reprisals by Larma and their collaborators.

We informed Riko that we would not help them if they decided to help Larma, but we might help them if they decided to resist. We would have to discuss it with the others first though, and they agreed to meet us again in an hour. On the way out, Riko asked about the other chapel and seemed relieved when told it was still active. This was strange, considering that they also indicated that their life was in danger and the leader at the other chapel had been promised a temple. I am not sure what they meant with that, but I have heard other Ashtarites use the word temple about larger chapels and suspect it indicates a more important place of worship. Nuur-Karif consistently calls everything a chapel, but they are fond of keeping their secrets. I think the basement in the slum is a temple while the one in the city is just a chapel.

Meeting the others outside, we told them what we had learned. Wolfram assumed that it was Nefalonia looking for us and wanted to just waltz up to the the mages' tower and ask for them. I pointed out that several of the defenders in the cellar had gotten a good enough look at Wolfram to put crossbow bolts in them and would be able to describe the oversized, hairy human, but it did not seem to penetrate. Thankfully, Nuur-Karif and Grogg realized the problem and Wolfram was voted down and we would at least hear Riko out. Another option was to try to leave the city. Wolfram was a strong proponent of this option, saying we should find Mir and give them the horse spear. That this would leave us out in the open when the dragons came and we had no idea where Mir was was no deterrent. Walking to the bar where we were supposed to meat Riko, we were lead to a meeting room by one of Riko's underlings and the slum leader showed up soon after. Nuur-Karif apparently changed their mind on the way there and told Riko we had not decided yet and wanted to send Nujan to the tower. Understandably, Riko were not interested in wasting more time on us, but told us they would not help Larma. We had ten minutes to decide whether we would stay or leave.

Nuur-Karif was happy to let the chapel burn and changed their vote to leave the city. Nujan also preferred to leave, so there was a majority for leaving. This meant we had to figure out how to find shelter from the dragons, figure out where Mir was and evade the Larma army that was on its way. Nujan suggested going to the crypt which Wolfram thought was a fantastic idea, but this would take us back west, the only direction we were quite certain Mir was not, and it was far from certain we would reach it before the dragons. Somebody talked about digging a hole in the ground, but I suggested we should just find a farm with a basement. Wolfram and Nuur-Karif had decided Mir was to the east, which would force us to wander through the desert and off the road if we were to avoid Larma. Dying of thirst in the desert is not on my to-do list, so I pointed out we could move quicker and easier through the swamp, but only Yana seemed to agree. We would have to get lots of water for our desert expedition, but Wolfram and Grogg got the bright idea they should get beer instead.
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Old 11-17-2020, 09:45 AM   #39
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Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 181 since leaving The Homeland

Our discussion was cut short by a crash from outside. Nuur-Karif and I ran out of the bar and saw the locals tearing down one of the nearby shacks. Riko was nowhere to be seen, having surmised that we would not help them. Looking down the street, we saw that the materials from the demolished buildings were used to construct a barricade while an armed mob of humans were guarding the street. If we were not going to be involved, we would have to leave now and we went to fetch Grogg and Wolfram. In the meantime, they had bought three caskets of beer from the bar and stacked them on top of all the other stuff Grogg was carrying. As a result, the overloaded troll moved at a snails pace. Getting through the desert like this would take weeks, but the more immediate concern was getting out of the city. When we reached the mob, they did not challenge us, but pointed out another mob further down the street. Nuur-Karif started walking again, but Wolfram freaked out as usual and refused to move before they could hold on to Grogg's back, slowing us down even more. At least the other mob was smart enough to not attempt to stop us, though it looked like some of them wanted to. Walking through the slum, it looked like most of the side streets were being barricaded and we saw preparations for a fight everywhere. Finally, we reached one of the holes in the city wall. While a gang of humans were working on barricading it, they withdrew and let us pass through.

In front of us, the slums extended several hundred meters outside the walls, gradually becoming sparser further from the walls and finally giving way to small scattered farms. The sky looked clear, but it had done so the last time Palongi came as well. When we reached the edge of the slum, we turned eastwards, walking against most of the traffic. The farmers in the area was headed towards the city with their produce and to find shelter from the army on its way. To the north east, I spotted two columns of smoke. I would expect burning farms when the army arrived, but there was little sign of panic on the yet. Nonetheless, Nujan and I went to investigate. The others were moving so slowly that intercepting them would not be an issue, especially considering the deep tracks left by Grogg. When we got closer to the fires, we saw that they were indeed burning farms. However, there were no other signs of conflict and the only corpse was a dead animal in the well at the largest farm. There were far too many tracks of humans and horses and they had burned everything useful they could not take with them. To cement my suspicions, the horses had had bags on their hooves, like those we had seen on other Aldera horses. This must have been a base for the Aldera forces that had now withdrawn, the tracks leading north. Returning to the others, they had not gotten far, but had at least gotten out of easy view from the city and had filled the waterskins at a farm. I was acutely aware of how exposed we would be if the dragons arrived and I and Nujan scouted ahead to the north east to find a suitable shelter. Unfortunately, all the remaining buildings in that direction were poor hovels that would be blown away in a storm and we returned to the others again. The closest farm that definitely had a basement was the one where they had filled water and we decided to return. Apparently Nuur-Karif had managed to charm the inhabitants. On our way there, we spotted another column of smoke to the south east.

Nuur-Karif went ahead and had succeeded in negotiating our stay by the time Grogg had lumbered up to the farm. While the humans living at the farm hustled us inside, Nuur-Karif whispered that they at first had denied they even had a basement and it soon became clear why. The little dirt cellar under the main building was stacked to the ceiling with heavy creates, leaving barely enough room for all of us. On closer inspection, I noticed that all the crates had a defaced sigil. The whittler had been a bit lazy with one of the crates and I could just make out the seal of Aldera. Perhaps Mir does not intend to sacrifice Ur after all, or they just want to have supplies nearby for a long siege. Settling in, the others went to sleep except Grogg who wanted to smoke, but I persuaded them to drink the liquor they had bought instead. I had not been able to see the stars the night before and felt restless and meditation only made it worse, so I climbed up and overheard the humans discuss that their child was hiding somewhere. Hoping for a distracting challenge, I went looking for them, but found them almost immediately. Instead I got them to show me potential hiding places at the farm and ended up on the roof of the chicken coop which was a good vantage point. When Ajaw was nearing the horizon in the west, I saw a dust cloud rise up to the south east. Squinting in that direction, I resolved a throng of humanoids in white armour and white banners marching around the city walls and towards the slum. Larma had arrived.

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Old 11-17-2020, 10:02 AM   #40
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Join Date: Jun 2020
Default Day 181 since leaving The Homeland

Telling the child to go inside, I followed and went down in the cellar to wake the others. I was about to tell the humans to close the hatch when I heard them talk about Ajaw and climbed back up. Ajaw seemed to be hanging motionless above the horizon in the west and was blazing with a dark orange hue and bands of crimson was streaking across the sky. Turning the corner and looking to the horizon in the east, the sky was turning an unnatural, starless black. Climbing back up on the chicken coop, I spotted Kama and Taxini dashing towards us faster than I have ever seen them before and ran with them. We were hunting and all my senses were strained to their limit while my heart pounded in my chest. It was not normal prey we were hunting, but fierce predators and a single misstep would be fatal, even for gods.

Finding myself back on the roof, I looked down and saw Grogg and Wolfram wrestling. Wolfram wanted to drag me down, but Grogg had held them at bay. My heart was still pounding as I jumped down. The crimson bands was becoming brighter and looking to the west, it felt like standing in front of a bonfire. Letting Wolfram drag me along, we made it to the cellar and Grogg closed the hatch above us. They were not going to let Palongi go unchallenged. While we settled in, we could hear Grogg pounding their club into the ground and chanting the name of their ancestor god, Orga, with increasing intensity. Touching the hatch, I could feel that the temperature had increased even more and tried to meditate. However, I was interrupted by a huge explosion followed by a sudden silence. Nujan wanted out to see if Grogg was still alive and I started to lift the hatch, but Wolfram was on the verge of panicking and grabbed both of us, shouting that there was nothing to we could do for Grogg. As if to prove them wrong, Grogg roared out a challenge Palongi, calling the dragon a coward that did not dear come and meet them. Through the small gap I had opened, I could see red light and dark shadows flickering, turning the inside of the little farm house into a bizarre and fascinating spectacle. Grogg's roars were loosing their rhythm and was becomming increasingly deranged, sounding more like animal screams than a sapient creature and the ground shook every time their club came down. Between Grogg's howls, I could now hear the answering roar of the wind. Palongi was there. Bellowing a last scream, Grogg thundered away from the farm towards the east.

This was the spur Wolfram needed to get their act together and they finally let us go. Rushing up the ladder I saw bands of crimson fire and black clouds forming a maelstrom above us, battling for control of the sky. Lightning bolts flashed over the plain surrounding Ur, hitting the ground in huge explosions that threw dirt and rocks high into the air. In answer, whips of flame lashed the air and ground, leaving black scourge marks and smoke were rising from several fires, as well as from Ur itself. Through the pandemonium, Grogg stormed eastwards, waving their club and fist towards the black clouds, ignoring the lightning bolts striking the ground around them.

The furthest part of the chicken coop was simply gone, replaced by a blackened crater where the lightning bolt we had heard earlier had hit. Feeling a sudden increase in heat, I dived for cover and crashed into Nujan while a ribbon of fire scoured across the farmyard and set the remains of the chicken coop on fire. Shouting for Wolfram to bring the beer, we were able to put out the fire before it spread. In the dry heat, the farm house would be ablaze in seconds if the fire caught on. To the south west, I could not see the army clearly, but occasional white flashes burst out from the slum. Whatever was going on there, it was interrupted by a whip of fire blazing through slum, leaving a burning inferno in its wake. Looking over to Nujan, I saw the fires in the sky strangely reflected in their eyes and they started uttering words as if in a trance; "Mir is defending the city. We must give them the spear to keep them grounded.". Whatever they meant, I had no time to reflect on it as an intense lightning bolt struck Grogg, making their black silhouette stand out against the intense beam of the bolt, even though they were several hundred meters away by now. It looked like their left arm was completely ruptured by the lightning, but their remaining arm grabbed after after a black ribbon lashing towards them. Somehow, they were able to catch it and throw it eastwards before collapsing in a heap.

Running towards them, I felt the temperature start to increase behind me while Wolfram turned into a bear. Above us, the ribbons of flame were fanning out, driving the black clouds before them. Reaching Grogg, I saw that their arm had turned into a blackened stump. The lower part seemed to be split in two, giving off a sickening odour of burnt flesh while their hand was completely gone. Getting them back on their feet and over Wolfram's back, we slowly made our way back to the farmhouse, Grogg looking like they might fall over at any time, but still triumphant. By now, the heat was sweltering and the whole sky looked like it was on fire.

Reaching the house, we eased Grogg down the ladder to the basement and put the needle in them. Needing space, Nuur-Karif insisted we had to stay upstairs and I agreed reluctantly. Even though the heat was increasing, the burning ribbons were mostly lashing the retreating clouds, leaving the ground unmolested. Not wishing to be in the house in case it caught fire, I sheltered outside behind a small stone fence with Nujan. The slum was still on fire and, judging from the smoke, scattered fires were also raging inside the city walls. Outside the slum, I could see at least parts of the army, but it was too far to see what they were doing. Nujan claimed they had no idea what they were talking about when I asked them about their proclamation and looked so strained I did not push the issue. As the last clouds disappeared in the east, the light and heat started increasing rapidly. It was quickly becoming unbearable, but before we could reach the shelter of the cellar, the heat spiked. For a moment I thought I would be roasted, but the air cooled again almost immediately and the crimson ribbons in the sky started to dissipate.

A strange calm fell over the landscape as Ajaw dissolved, leaving a black, starless sky. The only source of light was the scattered fires still burning, the largest of them in the slum. Thankfully, they were all far enough away to not be an immediate concern. After a few minutes, the stars started to appear, nervously making their way to their familiar places. I could not see Kama and Taxini though. I considered going to the city to scout out what was happening, but decided it was more important to get some rest. Grogg would not go anywhere soon anyway. Nujan offered to hold the first watch, but the jaguar looked drawn and haggard and I sent them to sleep, taking the first watch myself.

Climbing into the tree were I found the child earlier, I considered our position. The dragons had been a truly awesome display of power, but Grogg had somehow been able to send Palongi back east. Nefalonia had said something about giants keeping the dragons at bay and Grogg had rambled about someone not doing their job while riding Wolfram back to the farm. I do not think we can do anything about that right now and we have more immediate concerns. Nujan's strange proclamation had disturbed them and they seemed unwilling to talk about it. I have not heard anyone talk about dragons possessing anyone, but who knows. Perhaps jaguars have a similar connection Ajaw as we have with the stars. Either way, I'll be happy to get rid of the stupid spear, though it certainly had not grounded Lunari. We still do not know where Mir is, but they would not leave large amounts of supplies in such a risky place if they did not intend to use them soon. Consequently, our best course of action is probably to wait here instead of wandering off on a wild goose chase in the desert. Nothing happened in the night, except the fires were still burning in Ur and after three hours, I woke Nuur-Karif and went to sleep.

Last edited by Stomoxys; 11-17-2020 at 10:34 AM.
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