Monday, 6 May 2019

THE CRYSTAL SEAS... Episode 7: Into Okraha

"Are we there yet?"

The journey from the ancient tomb of the so-called Iron King to the village of Okraha had taken a little longer than previously anticipated. With the sun slowly shifting from before them to behind, it was not until it had almost sunk below the western horizon that they glimpsed the Okraha Oasis, distantly glistening in its dying light.

The party scrambled down a rocky gorge which seemed to lead down towards the small lake, around which the "village" of Okraha was arranged. In reality, the village was little more than a scattering of scores of tents, arranged in three distinct groups. On one side various figures clothed in white drifted between the tall palms fringing the lake's banks, their fires for the evening. On the other, a less homogenous group of travellers likewise prepared their camps for the evening. The furthest shore seemed to accommodate the animals of the first group, tended by dark figures in dull-coloured robes.

Before approaching, the lake, however, the party rounded a corner and were surprised to be greeted by a group of four smiling acolytes, clothed in sky blue tunics tied off at the waist with lengths of gold cord. Two youthful men and a woman shared the dark skin and handsome features of the people of the desert, but the fourth figure shared none of these characteristics: the figure had skin the colour of scarlet, bright white pupil-less eyes and two ibex-like horns extending from its head.

The three northerners immediately halted; only the native, Kuriakos, continued, albeit slowly. He spat on the ground, muttering the word Iblisi.

Urusla lent into Analicia's ear and whispered: "I think it means devil."

The group were smiling, unarmed, an appeared to be offering the party various gifts. They continued to approach, though imitated Kuriakos' caution. As they drew closer they suddenly realised they were in the presence of a great monument: so distracted had they been by the unusual creature before them, they had completely failed notice the looming statue behind it, carved directly into the cliff face.

Horace recognised the statue as Ishka, one of the many "old" gods worshipped in the south. She was a goddess of fertility, of love, and of water... but also a goddess of vengeance, lust, and the wanton destructive energy of the ocean.

The devil-creature approached, smiling broadly and with open arms beckoning them.

"Greetings, travellers!"

All could now recognise that this creature, while not human, possessed many female characteristics, and her voice was as gentle and sweet as a young woman's. She was accompanied by one of the young men, naked from the waist up, his shaven head dressed with a golden headdress. He proffered a silver platter, upon which lay several pomegranates cut into pieces.

All but Kuriakos partook of this exotic fruit, and were delighted that each piece contained scores of juicy arils, which were the finest any of them had ever tasted. The devil-creature introduced herself as Tyr, and her companion as Bartolemiu. Tyr invited the party to drink and wash themselves at the spring issuing from the feet of the statue, which they did gratefully. She explained

"We humbles servants of Ishka maintain the shrine at this spring. The spring feeds the lake, and thus the oasis that surrounds it. It was once a quiet place, but as you can see, it is a welcome break for many travellers."

The acolytes explained that although the communities were transitory, they nonetheless coalesced into three distinct camps. The white-robed travellers were humans of Kyran ancestry, desert nomad followers of the New Temple. Most other travellers gathered on the opposite bank, and comprised many different ethnicities and religions, although most belonged to the Thranian ethnic group, human followers of the Old Gods who returned to the desert after the fall of their empire. Finally, at the far side of the lake lived another group of Kyrans, though not followers of the New Temple. They were the servants of the god Belphegor, and maintained the latrines, animals and the graves. 

"The Kyrans are wary of outsiders, but those who serve Belphegor will tend to your animals. Please use the latrines responsibly. Enjoy your stay!"

As they led their animals through the Kyran camp, Horace and Kuriakos discussed the Iblisi woman, with Kuriakos explaining there were many like her in Port Aisha. It was rumoured theirs was an ancient bloodline, supposedly descended from those first humans to dabble in diabolical magic. The pair were interrupted by a familiar voice:

"You! Still want to sell me your griffin grease?"

It was the pistachio seller from Jehemen, although now dressed in the fine white robes of a Kyran merchant, and laden with gold jewellery. After a swift evaluation of some of Horace's treasure, they parted ways. Horace was not keen to become re-acquainted, despite the serendipitous encounter.

The sun had almost set as they arrived at the far side of the lake, where amongst the braying camels and horses, a shadowy figure emerged...

The woman, dressed in black robes, took care of the party's mounts. Analicia attempted to haggle, the woman was unmoved.

"Take it or leave. It is all the same to Belphegor."

Taking their leave, they rounded the lake and happened upon the largest camp, seemingly home to large numbers of Thranian tribesmen and women, but also a small foreign contingent. For a short time, a young boy and his puppy showed off some minor magical skills, before disappearing into the camp. They elected to pitch their tent.

Witrh Kuriakos resting and Horace assisting Ursula in the translation of some of their recent haul from the tomb of the Iron King, Analicia wandered off alone. She briefly had a peek at the young sorcerer-boy, who seemed to be happily playing with his family, before happening upon a group of foreigners. A group of guards, dressed similarly to the Prince of Jehemen's own troops, were stationed outside one particular large tent. A white-skinned man in yellow robes chastised a bored looking teenage boy. More children appeared to be struggling with the baggage train, which for some reason was not kept at the far side of the lake with the other animals. Except... those weren't children, they were something else...

As Analicia tried to discern the nature of the strange, yellow-eyed creatures tending to the beasts, a dark-skinned man approached. Despite his ancestry, Analicia nonetheless detected something familiar about him, in spite of only having been in the south for little more than a week.

"Ah, you look lost! And surprised that I speak your language!"

To outsiders, what followed was an utterly mundane, though at times bizarre conversation, occasionally trailing off in non-sequiturs, but always returning to the topic of wives and womanhood. To the participants, it was something else: an exchange in the secret cant of the underground.

Analicia learned that the man was none other than Markos De Fiore, an associate of her clan, somehow disguised as a Thranian native in order to trail Dr. Ignatius Maus of the Old College. Ostensibly, the Old College was part of the triple alliance alongside Analicia's family and Horace's church. Nonetheless, Ignatius was not trusted by Donna Serafina, and so Markos had been trailing him. He advised Analicia to share this information if somehow she returned to Jehemen before he did.

Markos also advised Analicia not to trust Urusla.

Horace had been slowly and methodically teaching the complex dwarven runic alphabet to Urusla, who had already complained that he was making it unnecessarily complicated. Analicia came and sat down with them while Kuriakos snoozed. They were not allowed to relax for long, however.

"I heard you were all... here... tell me: what did you find in Thamiel's tower? and the tomb of the Iron king?"

Ursula panicked, standing almost to attention as the yellow-robed, balding, middle-aged man approached the campfire making demands, flanked by two of Prince Atembe's guards. It was Dr. Ignatius Hieronymus Maus, learned sage of the Old College of Freeport.

As beside him a teenage boy shuffled uncomfortably, Maus attempted to solicit information from Analicia and Horace. His efforts were met with deliberate resistance, with Horace more or less stating that Maus was not his boss. Throughout the exchange, Ursula addressed Ignatius Maus as "master", yet her nervous etiquette courted nought but bile from the yellow-robed man. Even her efforts at introducing herself to Maus' new apprentice were slapped down.

"Greetings broth-"
"He is not your brother, girl; bring your papers and let us discuss our task away from your insolent companions!"

The yellow man and his entourage stormed away from the party's camp. Urusla gathered her things and followed suit, leaving Horace, Kuriakos and Analicia alone. Horace pondered the silence of hios own organisation, when it appeared that the Old College and Analicia's family (the Varanesi) had been so proactive. Nonetheless, the remaining party agreed that tomorrow they would proceed as planned, towards the Sunken Citadel, somewhere in the mountains towards the south west.

Before they retired, however, Ursula had returned: crestfallen and dejected, she had not brought her papers back with her. Nonetheless, she was joined by two new companions. One was a local hunter by the name of Zadu, who was to lead them across the desert. The other was the young apprentice of Maus...

"My master has a new apprentice now, and has asked that I take care of Bolg from now on."

Analicia and Horace were reluctant to take one so young on their next expedition, but Ursula reassured them that he would remain outside. He had already been travelling across the desert with her master for a number of weeks.

It was settled. At first light, they would begin their journey across the desert, towards the sunken citadel...

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