We begin on the doorstep of the Academy, fraught with many questions. How long have we been in there? Where is Charlie? Where is Zani? Where are Kodro and the Lady Valiant? We also have a clear destination, the town currently known as Khaladun, far to the East and South, where we may find some help.
“The children play with him.”
After hearing that the nearmen have developed some sort of relationship with a dragon, finding Zani becomes our first priority. Halfway down the steep pony track to the farming crescent below, we are ambushed by a now dog-sized Zani, who smothers Shael in affection and rejoins our party. After securing horses, we set out through a dark archway mere yards from the doorway of the Academy, a mirror to the riddled portal near the magma river.
One by one we appear in the jungle-strewn heights of some unknown mountain range, and descend a narrow path towards the shimmering ocean. Two day’s easy ride brings us to a fork in the path. With the sounds of battle growing in the distance, our choice brings us unannounced to a desperate sight: a caravan is being ambushed by four enormous vulture demons. We take a breath and plunge into a tooth and nail fight. Thanks to Shael’s fiery spear from the heavens, the well placed taunts of Narya Sylandrian, a few lucky critical strikes, and Memnon’s tenacious ethereal scythe, we manage to pin them to the ground and wear them down to bone and blood.
Panting and lathered, we are met with applause from the dozens of townsfolk who bore witness to our struggle. We are greeted as heroes by Gluntz, a local merchant of substantial means who traveled from his largess to escort Balthazar, who introduces himself as a missionary of DIN. Riding beside these two men and their servants, we set off for the merchant city Bujara, the city on wheels. We glean from an eyebrow-less, white-robed servant of Balthazar’s that the year is 1576, some three years after Memnon and Wren set forth from Bujara to meet their fate in the desert. Pressing through the outskirts of town, we behold an aging castle atop a hill outside town. Gluntz informs us that this fort is haunted by the perennial Lich, and is therefore of little use to a potential occupying force. As we continue Memnon notes that an odd fashion trend has appeared in the clothing of the locals and Wren points out that all the grain and rice fields have been harvested some two months early. An inordinate number of people seem to be wearing unmarred silver or copper pendants at their shoulder. A brief investigation reveals that this historically neutral town is about to take sides in vast, intercontinental conflict for the first time. One bearing silver sides with the northern Servants of Din and their spiritual leader, while copper denotes allegiance to “The Sons of the South,” a scattered resistance movement emphasizing preservation of individuality. We forestall a much needed rest in Gluntz’s offered pavilion to enjoy a demonstration by Balthazar, who wastes no time in getting out the good word.
A large crowd gathers to surround a central stage flanked by a gallows and a chopping block. Balthazar and several attendants bearing clay jugs mount the platform and the audience hushes. No introduction is necessary for this man whose name is on the common tongue. A voice that seems to effortlessly carry across the sea of cloth and flesh radiates into each person’s ears as if it was intended for them alone.
“There are many rumors surrounding myself and the faith I profess. I would dispel these immediately and begin tonight with a demonstration. Have there been any husks today?”
A swollen-eyed woman approaches the dais and is led before Balthazar. She bears an infant in her arms, its body and face swaddled in cloth. With a compassionate nod, he gentle receives the child and uncovers its blue-lipped cherubic face. He holds the naked child aloft briefly then cradles it close to his chest and holds a hand over its forehead. After concentrating for a moment the child begins to squirm and when he removes his hand and raises the now-pink child overhead again, its cries can be heard unto the very edges of the massive crowd, which soon erupts in a broken-voiced cheering. The Voice of Din lowers the squalling babe and returns it to his mother, whose eyes shine with tears of joy as she leaves the stage singing, presenting the child to the audience, who seem eager to see the proof for themselves. After a moment, Balthazar casually raises his hand and the crowd quiets again. His face seems as joyous and awed as those in the crowd.
“It was nearly three years ago my sister’s child was born cold and silent. Overcome with emotion, I cradled the niece I would never know in my arms before they could bury her. It was looking down into that face, still wet with her mother’s blood that I first felt the light of Din flood within me and I knew, simply and absolutely that he acts through me and could answer this injustice. Her name is Tierlan, and she is very fond of flowers.”
Our party is suddenly aware of how few young children there are in the audience, and realize that the cries of this one child are the first they have heard since …
“Three years have we been wasted by this blight. Three years have we turned away from its purpose, from the reason it has infected us, and the only true and elegantly simple reply. Hers is not the first husk Din has touched through me, nor the hundredth, nor the thousandth. I have come to Bujara myself, not with a sword, nor even a shield, but with an answer, to show you that there is hope for us. There can be new life.”
As the next words fall from his lips, we notice some of the crowd nod as if recognizing the first chords of a favorite childhood song. Some people even mouth parts to themselves, as one sometimes does while reading alone.
“In ancient days before time was counted, and men still feared the wilds, there was a faithful missionary man traveling alone across the open plains. He feared the dark, and the things that make it their home, so he built a large fire to push back the night and take comfort in its warmth. Later that night, he was sitting on a stone, huddled close to the well-tended fire when he suddenly became aware of a figure sitting across from him. The flames were built high, and the figure’s face could not be seen, but he knew at once that this was Din, come to share his fire. In his haste to show proper respect, the man dropped to his knees from the stone, but left himself no place to press his forehead to earth. Din smiled, and said ‘why do you hesitate?’ With that, the first prophet lowered his face into the fire.”
He pauses. Somehow the look on his face reminds everyone of all the pain and struggle and fear they have seen over the years.
“When all have surrendered themselves to the freeing light,, this punishment will be retracted, and a new golden age shall be born. Any who would make their commitment a physical reality are invited to come up now.”
Soon a line of citizens forms and people wearing both color disks are led to Balthazar, who anoints there face in oil, sets it on fire, and has it immediately extinguished by an attendant.
After the speech, Shael turns to the first copper pendant he sees and asks, “so no children have really been born alive in three…” He trails off as his eyes move from the enormous copper plate pinned to the heavily armored shoulder of this tall martial figure, to the annoyed slitted eyes and wide, draconian head of this grim dragonborn warrior.
An altercation ensues. Shael is dumbfounded at first, staring wide-eyed at this increasingly gruff stranger, who labels the stage demonstration “pornography.” Thomas tries to step in and smooth things out, only to make things worse by insulting this demihuman and his three companions’ martial abilities, much to Narya’s amusement. Then Zani nearly brawls a doggish dragonspawn pet they have, and its owner spews degrading words on Shael, who this time replies boyishly in Draconic. A tense moment passes where the dragonborn draws his weapon, spits on the ground and says “it’s obscenity to have someone who looks like you speak our language.” He then reaches into his vest and pins an enormous copper pendant on Shael’s shoulder. “But you speak it so well.”
With a sigh of relief we head to Gluntz’s for a much needed drink and discussion. There Gluntz confirms our suspicions that no child has been born alive since the exact day of our arrival on this plane. We are informed of the exact nature of the geopolitical atmosphere, with the mighty north united as never before behind a faith of hope and peace, preaching an answer to the blight, now turn their armed masses to the south, claiming that there can be no future until all nations see the error of there ways. Meanwhile, the only southern people taking the prospect of invasion as a serious threat are the dragonborn, who have summoned a partly mercenary army to the land just south of Bujara in an attempt to plug this critical chokepoint. Their goal is to buy time for envoys to incite the other southern nations to band together and convene here in defense of their disparate ways of life. Gluntz acknowledges that the only way for him to keep his power and lifestyle, not to mention the city of Bujara together, is for the town to throw in with one side or the other and welcome their army with open arms. He is personally neutral in preference, and seeks our thoughts.
After much debate we decide to flip the town for the Sons of the South. Still undecided are the issues of how high-profile we want our support to be, in what capacity we will attempt to travel to Khaladun, and how much time, our most precious resource, we want to invest in securing this position for our touchy new friends. Wren’s suggestion was that we might have the easiest time getting to Khaladun with a certain head on a pike. We head off to have a few words with said head.
Balthazar, voice of Din, is found resting unguarded beside the stage, where acolytes continue to administer fiery late-night administrations. Thomas greets him, praises his intentions, if not his God, and parts with an embrace as friends of different faiths. Shael, pushing the awkward scene, asks at which point his quest might find an end. “When the entire world sees the truth, then perhaps we will shall forgiven.” Leaving him, we search out the envoys of the south in a likely place.
The tavern, if you can call it that, spreads out huge beneath multiple tents with long aisles of circular tables and no booths. In the center, near the bar are our targets. Shael, believing he has an “in,” strides off toward them, only to be caught by the arm by a passing waiter and drawn to a smoky corner. After a series of significant looks, he says “well, I’m at your service.”
We request information regarding the whereabouts of The Lady Valiant and Kodro, the prophecy that brought Memnon to the desert, and number of other things. We are informed that our airship has been seen pirating off the coast, raiding small villages, stealing and killing and perhaps even raping.
Shael again approaches the dragonborn table. After a halting beginning and some talk of murder, he suspects that they may intend to assassinate the vulnerable Balthazar. Believing that this would only serve to foment more violence Shael, with Thomas’s subtle assistance manages to convince them to wait a day on the assassination. If we manage to swing the city to the south, then perhaps a closer relationship may be formed. We close this scene with an embrace between Shael and the leader of southern resistance.