Bone and Salt
The rain continues to gently patter down as the party returns to the bone house to wait out the storm. Akram tells them that their next move should be to travel to the Flameford, an encampment deep within the Sklar-Quah lands and the rally point for the clan as it prepares for war. He believes the Flameford Sun Shaman, who has a powerful respect for tradition, will be most receptive to accepting that the Crimson Blades have followed in Skurak’s footsteps to shed their tshamek status.
Shadowcount Sial congratulates the adventurers on their achievement. He tells them that he and Asyra will have to take their leave the following morning. They have seen enough and must report back to their superiors in Nidal.
“Say hi to Laori for us,” Slim asks.
“Of course,” Sial grits.
The next morning, the skies are clear of the barest hint of clouds. After everyone has left the bone house, Sial shrinks it down to the size of his palm. Then Asyra curls her arms around them and both seem to fade into shadow and disappear—a variant of the wind walk spell, Zandu surmises. Free of the Kuthites for the first time in two weeks, the Crimson Blades and Akram set out across the red desert towards the Sklar-Quah lands to the northwest.
Scouting ahead, Roc-Egan and Kyra come across a wide expanse of salt flats. Poking through the chalky surface here and there are enormous bones—femurs the size of a man’s leg, skulls that could be mistaken for boulders, finger bones that could double as clubs. Akram identifies the salty expanse as the site of a great battle centuries ago, when the stone giant chieftain Ortugg was slain by the combined might of the Lyrune-Quah and the Sklar-Quah. It was said that the giants wept a lake of tears that day and when the lake dried up, the salt flat was left behind. Ashla asks if they should worry about the bones rising to attack them, but Akram says he has heard no tales of restless dead in the salt flats—though he would advise against tasting any of the salt.
After passing through the flats, the party makes camp for the night. The evening is warm and clear enough that rather than setting up their usual bunker, Egan merely raises a wall of stone to give them some privacy while they sleep in the open air under the stars. They tether their horses outside, Zandu casts a few alarm spells, and they drift off to bed on either side of the walled enclosure. Kyra cuddles up next to Zandu, while the two paladins bed down near the door. Badger the raccoon curls up with Ashla, while Majenko roosts on the wall. Outside, Reno snoozes among the horses.
Shortly before midnight, with a crescent moon hanging in the sky, several of the Crimson Blades are awakened by snorts and whinnies of alarm from the horses outside. They grasp for their weapons and stumble bleary-eyed to their feet, all of them save Ashla clad only in their bedclothes.
Peering out the archway in their wall of stone, they see three tall, spindly shapes against the darkness approaching the horses tethered outside, triggering Zandu’s alarm spell. One after another, the spindly shapes lash out with their curved, jagged claws, striking Irabeth’s destrier Princess, Zandu’s horse, and Remmy’s mount Pony. The latter two horses collapse with terrible screams, while Princess rears up and kicks back at her attacker.
Egan rushes outside and casts spiked ground to surround the horses. This leaves the gnome druid standing out in the open when two shapes step out of the shadows to either side of him, wielding familiar sawtoothed sabres. They lacerate the Egan, who calls out to Arlynn for help.
“Not these guys again,” Slim groans.
Arlynn, Ashla, and Slim all strike at one of the Red Mantis assassins from the archway, rapidly overwhelming him with a flurry of blows. Zandu, still reclining in the corner, dispatches the assassin with a flurry of magic missiles. Irabeth vaults over the body to attack the Giant Red Praying Mantis that threatens the bleeding, whimpering form of Pony.
Reno, Egan’s riding dog, harries the remaining assassin from behind. Slim dances forward to jab over Egan’s head at the remaining assassin, then dodges backwards out of reach of a counter attack. Akram remains in place and instead calls on Desna to protect her servants, tilting the scales of luck in favor of the party. Kyra vaults over the wall to help Irabeth against her mantis, firing her crossbow.
The assassin chitters something to the Giant Mantids, dispatching the one attacking Zandu’s horse to fly over the spiked ground into the walled enclosure. The creature then lunges out to attack Akram, badly lacerating him. In a whirlwind of steel Ashla, then cuts the giant mantis threatening Akram into a dozen different pieces.
The Giant Mantis attacking Princess flies over the warhorse to land atop Zandu’s dying horse—but the paladin’s destrier hammers it with her hooves as it flies past. Nonetheless, the Giant Mantis is able to lash out with one jagged red claw to seize the badly wounded Egan in its clutches. The giant insect fighting Irabeth grabs her as well, dragging her into the spiked growth.
Akram attempts to channel positive energy, but he is interrupted by two swift strokes from the sawtoothed sabre of a third Red Mantis assassin that steps out of the shadows inside the enclosure. The old Truthspeaker collapses into a pool of blood, on the verge of death. Remmy charges over to attack the assassin, while Arlynn channels to save the old man’s life. Zandu, still lying down, casts fly on himself and drifts upward. On his way up, he whispers something unsettling to the assassin.
Grasped in the claws of a badly battered Giant Mantis, Egan wildshapes into a giant porcupine, spearing the big bug on his spines. Inside the walled enclosure, Ashla, Remmy and Arlynn close in on the assassin threatening Akram. The killer melds into the shadows, but from his vantage point Zandu can see a glint of moonlight on his chitinous armor. The sorcerer launches a lightning bolt at him and the electrified assassin staggers around babbling incoherently. Before anyone can object, Ashla puts him out of his misery.
Outside, Slim out-fences his Red Mantis assassin and lays him low. Kyra fires a crossbow bolt into the eyes of the last giant mantis, which releases Irabeth. Slim helps the grateful half-orc limp back across the spiked growth. Stark with fury, the rogue then asks to borrow her longsword, which she gives to him quizzically. As he walks off, she realizes she’s wearing nothing but her torn undergarments and immediately retreats behind her shield as if it were a bath towel. Slim takes the sword and methodically beheads each of the assassins and places their heads on the spiked growth as a warning.
Akram nods approvingly. “It is good.”
See the Scenic Cinderlands
The party gets a late start the next day, sleeping off the last ill-effects of the previous night’s ambush. Once their little caravan gets moving, Roc-Eagan and Kyra once again fly out ahead of the main group. They come across a circle of blue amid the red wasteland—an oasis. A herd of aurochs clusters around the water. The enormous beasts look up warily as Roc-Egan circles above them, but the druid manages to allay their fears. His calming influence continues as the rest of the party arrives and the aurochs pay them no mind.
After weeks of hot, dusty travel, the adventurers let out a whoop at the sight of the pool of crystal clear water and the ring of hearty green trees surrounding it. The Crimson Blades take this chance to bathe in the cool waters. Kyra strips out of her clothes and does a cannonball into the water, while Irabeth and Remmy each seek some privacy. Ashla hands the paladin a palm frond for coverage, while Remmy relies on her Maiden’s red cloak. Even Akram takes the opportunity to clean himself off.
The following day, Ashla—growing tired of the spicy sustaining spoon rations—splits off to hunt for food. Roc-Egan and Kyra continue their reconnaissance ahead of the main body of the party. They spy a broken and weather-worn statue, looming thirty feet off the desert floor. All that remains today is the lower half of a robed man and part of his arm, which clutches something that might have been a sword or a scepter. There are no traces of the missing pieces or any other ruins in the immediate vicinity. Taking a closer look they see some runes at the base, but Egan can’t make heads or tails of them.
“It’s Kelesh to me,” Kyra agrees, and they return to the party to bring in an expert.
Roc-Egan swoops down to pluck Slim up in his talon’s much to the rogue’s surprise and dismay.
“Do a barrel roll!” Kyra urges the druid, who proceeds to perform a series of aeronautical maneuvers while the halfling laughs wildly and Slim tries to hold down his lunch.
They land at the statue and Egan returns to gnome shape. Slim immediately challenges him about the the abduction.
“It was all Kyra’s idea!” insists Egan.
“You’re both going to be waking up with sand in your blankets, or worse,” the rogue threatens.
“Totally worth it,” Kyra snickers.
Slim then proceeds to translate the Thassilonian runes on the base of the statue, which read: “Hail Runelord Karzoug, Master of Shalast Now …and Forever.” As the rest of the Crimson Blades arrive, Zandu gets in on the examination. He notes that despite the damage, the statue seems to have aged very little since it was first laid down thousands of years ago. But all he can recall is that some Thassilonian ruins are said to be remarkably resilient to the passage of time. Slim asks the Truthspeaker about the statue’s significance and Akram says it is a monument from the lost glory of the Azghat, whose honor the Shoanti seek to restore by holding true to their traditions.
As they travel, Slim questions Akram about the reception they are likely to receive at the Flameford. The Truthspeaker is confident that the Sklar-Quah will recognize the adventurers are no longer tshamek—otherwise, they will all be disemboweled for trespassing on Sklar-Quah land. The party is somewhat alarmed that this possibility is only being mentioned now.
Slim also asks whether it would be possible for them to join the Sklar-Quah, which Akram agrees is their right once they are no longer considered tshamek. But whether the Sun Clan would be willing to accept them is another matter.
That night, Ashla returns with fresh cuts of meat from a lone aurochs she hunted. Kyra, likewise excited to have something other than a magic spoon to dine on, cooks up steaks for everyone with a blend of herbs and spices. She adds an extra bit of Varisian spicing to Slim’s piece. Then she salts the remaining meat and stuffs it in the party’s bag of holding to preserve it.
As the sun sinks down below the horizon and twilight begins to blanket the landscape, the Crimson Blades realize that theirs is not the only campfire lighting up the desert. Large fires or clusters of fires can be seen on the hills all around them, concentrated in the direction they are traveling. Akram says that it is the various tribes of the Sklar-Quah, gathering for war.
The following morning, Egan and Kyra wake up to find sand in their boots. The fires on the distant hilltops are gone and no trace of the Sklar-Quah can be seen. It takes the party another couple hours before they encounter to first members of the Sun Clan, a patrol of burnriders led by Sefah. She smirkingly asks if they abandoned their quest before or after the Cindermaw chased them from its lands. But a look from Akram drains the mirth from her face and she instead escorts them to the camp.
The Flameford camp is in a very defensible spot, nestled in the middle of a field of razor-sharp slash rock at the edge of an 80-foot-high cliff. Sefah leads the adventurers along a winding, nigh-imperceptible safe path through the jagged stone. The campsite itself consists of over a dozen yurts, a large central fire pit, and a stable for the tribe’s horses.
The entire camp, more than 50 people, gather to stare at the newcomers. The onlookers include the bald, tattooed Sun Shaman, the clan chieftain, and Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills. Akram presents himself to the Sun Shaman, recites a formal greeting, and then declares his status as a Truthspeaker and questions if any challenge it? The Crimson Blades notice that Krojun seems to consider speaking up, but declines.
Once he is satisfied that none will challenge him, Akram launches into an account of the party’s actions at the House of the Moon and against the Cindermaw. He requests that the Sklar-Quah join him in acknowledging that the five who were swallowed and then freed from the Cindermaw are no longer tshamek. The Sun Shaman and the chief retire to a yurt to consult.
In the awkward silence that follows, Zandu sizes up the ladies (with an added dose of sparkles from Egan). Meanwhile, Irabeth and Slim have a tag-team staring contest with Krojun.
After an hour, the two leaders emerge and the Sun Shaman calls each of the Crimson Blades by name. He declares that by virtue of their accomplishment reenacting the legend of Skurak five times over, all of them—even those who were not swallowed by the Cindermaw—are no longer tshamek and may traverse the Sklar-Quah lands freely. A ripple of barely contained fury runs through the crowd, but none openly challenge the shaman.
The Sun Shaman says that the guest yurt is open to the party and looks at them expectantly. Slim and Arlynn tell him that they have come seeking answers about Midnight’s Teeth. The Shaman shakes his head and says that while they are no longer tshamek, neither are they Sklar-Quah and he cannot share this history with any outside his clan.
Slim then petitions to join the Sklar-Quah. The shaman, a look of quiet amusement on his face, grants that if they can overcome the Trial of the Totems they would be made honorary Sklar-Quah and he could share his secrets with them. Looking quietly amused, the Sun Shaman explains that if they can pass the Trial of the Totems, they will be welcomed as honorary Sklar-Quah and he will be able to share his knowledge with them.
This is too much for Krojun, who storms off with a couple of burnriders. Slim sniffs that he thought the Sklar-Quah would be more welcoming. The shaman reminds him that Korvosa, the city the party represents, “turned the graves of our ancestors into a sewer.” Such grievances run deep and it is only through extraordinary effort that the party is even tolerated here.
The shaman says the Trial of the Totems will begin at dawn. Akram tells the party he must take his leave, as tradition forbids him to share a sunrise in a Sklar-Quah camp. The Sun Shaman promises to send an escort of three burnriders to accompany him back to the Lyrune-Quah.
With their long journey through the Cinderlands almost over, the Crimson Blades bed down for the night, wondering what the Trial of the Totems will entail.