Around the Bone Council Fire
Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills and his companions depart soon after the last sredna match is concluded. The party spends the rest of the afternoon lounging around the guest yurt provided to them by their Skoan-Quah hosts. Finally, as twilight descends, Thousand Bones calls them to the Bone Council Fire. The rest of the Shoanti have retreated into their yurts, leaving only Thousand Bones, Chief One-Life, and an elderly shaman woman named Ash Dancer.
Thousand Bones begins by warning that the Sklar-Quah are preparing for war, having concluded that the death of King Eodred and the reports of a plague-ravaged city are a sign that the time has come to retake the green lands from the tshamek. The old shaman believes this war would be disastrous for both the Shoanti and Korvosa. But he knows that the party has not come here because of the Sklar-Quah war chants.
Arlynn and Slim warn that Queen Ileosa has acquired an artifact of terrible power and ask Thousand Bones what he knows of Midnight’s Teeth. The shaman admits he knows little about the artifact, though he has heard it mentioned by Sun Shamans of the Sklar-Quah. Unfortunately, the Sklar-Quah are unlikely to share this information with tshamek outsiders. Thousand Bones stresses that while individual tshamek might win the respect of the Sklar-Quah, the Sun Shamans would not share this information—the very heart of their clan—with anyone tainted with tshamek status.
When asked about ways to shed this status, Thousand Bones tells the story of Skurak, a legendary Sklar-Quah warrior who was cast out from his tribe after being accused of a great crime. Skurak sought out the terrible monster Cindermaw the Clan-Eater, allowed the creature to swallow him, then cut his way out of its burning belly. He returned to the Sklar-Quah and said that he had been cleansed of his tshamek status in the fires of the Cindermaw and been reborn. If at least one of the Crimson Blades could repeat this feat, it would be enough to shed them of the tshamek taint and allow the Sun Shamans to share their knowledge.
Arlynn asks about the Cindermaw and learns that it is a legendary creature of immense size that hunts in the northwest Cinderlands, where the territories of Shoanti, orcs, and giants intersect. Few have witnessed the creature and lived to tell the tale.
But the Sklar-Quah will not accept a story from the adventurers, they must have a credible witness. Ash Dancer suggests that the Crimson Blades recruit a Truthspeaker, a Shoanti of unimpeachable integrity who is bound by oath never to tell a lie. Unfortunately, the Skoan-Quah have no Truthspeakers among them and the Sklar-Quah Truthspeakers won’t give the party the time of day. But Thousand Bones says that there are Truthspeakers among the Lyrune-Quah, the Clan of the Moon, who also dwell in the Cinderlands near the Wyvern Mountains to the west. At this time of year, the tribes of the Lyrune-Quah gather at the House of the Moon. However, they are unlikely to trust tshamek, much less offer the services of one of their Truthspeakers.
Thousand Bones says that unlike most Shoanti, the Lyrune-Quah do not venerate their ancestors but instead worship Desna, goddess of dreams, stars, travelers, and luck. A Shoanti priest of Desna discovered an artifact sacred to her—a globe—deep within an ancient Thassilonian ruin known as the Acropolis of the Thrallkeepers. Those who follow in the priests footsteps and touch the globe are said to receive the Sphereseeker’s Mark. The mark is considered so sacred to the Lyrune-Quah that they would welcome even their most hated enemy were he carrying it.
Zandu nasally asks if there’s any way to simply pay off the Sklar-Quah for the information instead of jumping through all these hoops. Slim takes a different approach, producing his Thassilonian medallion. He gives it to Thousand Bones, asking the Shoanti shaman what he thinks of it.
The Skoan-Quah elder inspects the medallion and hefts it in his hand. “It is very shiny. May I keep it?”
Slim explains that the medallion could give its owner claim to Korvosa and all its holdings. He asks if that would be enough to sway the Sklar-Quah. Thousand Bones is skeptical that the golden disk could have such power, noting that the Shoanti have been presented with false baubles before, and says they will have to return to the medallion later.
Off to the Acropolis
Arlynn speaks up, saying “We need to have a little pow wow among ourselves to discuss this.”
“A pow wow?” Slim and Egan snort.
Stepping away from the fire, the Crimson Blades huddle together to consult over whether to take up the Shaman’s offer. Kyra notes that the Shoanti outcasts she’s dealt with always want to do things their own way, according to their own schedule, but when they make a promise they keep it. Zandu grudgingly acknowledges that there doesn’t seem to be a way to bribe the barbarians. Arlynn then offers her own view.
“It seems like the only way to help the people of Korvosa,” the paladin says. “While I’d like nothing more than to drive my sword through the Queen—”
At this point, Remmy leaps forward to confront Arlynn, hand on her sword, prompting Irabeth to reach for her own sword. Before matters can escalate further, Slim intervenes and manages to persuade Remmy that Arlynn merely misspoke and that the Crimson Blades are committed to freeing the Her Radiant Majesty from the evil crown. Having averted a duel, the party concludes that they will follow the course Thousand Bones laid out for them.
The shaman does not know what awaits them at the Acropolis of the Thrallkeepers, but he presents them with gifts to help them make their way, including five pots of enchanted Shoanti war paint. He also assigns four boneslayers, the warrior-priests of the Skoan-Quah, to act as their guides through the Cinderlands. In return, he asks only that when they speak to the Sklar-Quah that the adventurers try to persuade the clan that war is not in their interest. Slim and Arlynn assure him that that they will.
After a night spent in the Kallow Mounds village, the Crimson Blades set out on what their guides say will be a six day journey across the Cinderlands.
Late on the first day, as the sun sinks low on the horizon and the party is looking for a place to camp, Arlynn sees a shadow moving across the landscape. Looking up, she sees an enormous shape swooping down towards them with the sun at its back. Kyra seizes the reins from Zandu and takes their horse to the other side of the caravan. The enormous roc, its wings 80 feet across feather tip to feather tip, dives out of the sky and grabs the horses out from under Slim and Remmy.
The creature then begins to fly off with its prey. Egan tries to cast dominate animal, the words pouring out of him at remarkable speed, and ensnares the mind of the great bird. At the gnome’s command, the roc gently sets down the two horses and then flies away, never to return.
The Shoanti say that a roc hunting this close to the Kallow Mounds is a bad sign. It must have been driven from its usual territory, which means the emberstorm season has started early this year.
A Crowded Desert
On the second day, Slim briefly glimpses a distant group of riders who appeared to be trailing the party. The boneslayers are not concerned. They believe the riders are other Shoanti, who either mean them no harm or will attack and be killed. The Crimson Blades, however, are unsettled at the thought of being followed.
The boneslayers also pause at one point to gather leaves from a galtroot bush. Slim surreptitiously gathers a few leaves for Egan as well. The leaves contain a powerful narcotic, with uses both medicinal and recreational.
On the third day, the caravan approaches the Yondabari River, the same river that spills over the side of the Storval Rise by Kaer Maga and the same river the party sailed up to reach that city. The boneslayers led the party to a ford, but even so it would require swimming the horses across. Instead, Egan uses wall of stone to create a bridge across the murky water—leading to grumbles from the Shoanti about tshamek using their foreign magic to build things in the Cinderlands.
On the fourth day, the boneslayers stop abruptly to inspect a grisly totem. The severed head of a Shoanti brave, two red crossbow bolts jammed in each eye, has been mounted on a pole that is wedged in a cleft between two rocks, jutting out like a flag from a building. The boneslayers say it is the work of a “tshamek devil” known as the Cinderlander, who for the past few years has stalked the wasteland killing lone Shoanti braves with a “sideways, screaming bow.” These severed heads are his signature. The Skoan-Quah think he might be the ghost of a Korvosan general seeking vengeance for the soldiers he lost to the Shoanti. Based on the head’s state of decay, the Cinderlander has not passed this way in some time.
The boneslayers cut the head down. As they don’t know the name of the brave, he cannot be interred at the Kallow Mounds. Instead, they hold a different ceremony, burning the head, scattering the ashes and burying the skull under a cairn of stones. After the ceremony, Arlynn asks the boneslayers how far they will be escorting the party. The Shoanti braves say that they are willing accompany the party as long as they are needed. Concerned about the warriors’ safety, the Crimson Blades ask the boneslayers to return to the Kallow Mounds once they reach the Acropolis.
A Trap is Set
On the fifth day, as the party comes within sight of the Wyvern Mountains, Ashla spies the strange riders in the distance, still following them. That night, the Crimson Blades decide to set a trap. The party sets up camp as normal, but has Egan burrow through the floor of their shelter, emerging at a vantage point some ways away. While the rest of the camp beds down, the non-spellcasting Blades—Slim, Kyra, and Remmy—take turns standing watch to see if anyone approaches the false camp.Towards the end of Slim’s watch, he sees two figures approach the camp, but stop well short of Zandu’s alarm spell. One of the figures is dressed in robes, while other one cuts a feminine figure that glints in the moonlight. The two appear to confer for a moment, then proceed to walk westward past the camp in the direction of the Acropolis. Slim attempts to follow them, but their tracks abruptly end about 150 feet away from the camp.
Kyra and Remmy witness no further activity during their watches. The following morning, the party reemerges in camp and Slim tells what he saw. The boneslayers note that the two people on foot could not be the Shoanti riders who were following them, because the riders would leave no tracks.
On the sixth day, the party approaches the foothills of the Wyvern Mountains, but the boneslayes grow alarmed at a dark cloud rapidly growing on the horizon.
“Emberstorm!” Hargev shouts. “We must seek shelter in the Acropolis!”
With an added sense of urgency, the party rushes towards the ruins. Above ground, all that remains today is a partially collapsed tower bearing the mark of the seven-pointed star—the Sihedron Rune. Just to the side of the mark, a pair of 20-foot-wide stone doors stand ajar.
Below, the acropolis is lightless, its black granite walls inscribed with intricate rune patterns of Thassilonian writing extolling the virtues of Runelord Karzoug and the power of Lissala. After descending down a grand staircase, the party arrives at a wide hallway that opens onto a large vaulted chamber with a great pool of murky water at its center. Egan and Zandu cast light on the two paladins’ armor.
Meet the Kuthites
Leaving the boneslayers with Majenko and Badger to guard the horses, the Crimson Blades venture deeper into the chamber. Arlynn suggests splitting into two groups to investigate the stone doors to either side of the hall. The senior paladin, Kyra, Ashla, and Zandu explore the narrow northern hallway and come across a side room featuring a brilliantly colored bas-relief carving of an alluring mermaid. Arlynn believes the figure is connected in some way to the faith of Lissala, the now dead goddess of Thassilon. Zandu and Kyra, meanwhile, are more interested in the tiny shards of gemstone scales embedded in her tail.
Slim, Irabeth, Remmy, and Egan, meanwhile, investigate the southern hallway, where they hear the sound of someone walking on the other side of the door. The paladin enters first, her armor shimmering with a light spell, and slowly strides up the hallway before stopping after half a dozen paces to challenge something lurking in the far darkness of the hallway.
“Who goes there?” Irabeth shouts, her half-orc eyes piercing the dark. She relays her discovery to the others. “I see a robed man with a spiked chain and a woman wrapped in chains.”
“You have keen eyes, ser knight,” says the man, stepping forward into the dim glow from Irabeth’s armor. “I am the Shadowcount Sial of the Umbral Court of Nidal. This is my bodyguard and companion, Asyra. Do not fear, we mean you no harm.”
“More Kuthites?” Irabeth grumbles.
Slim asks Sial if he knows Laori. The Shadowcount admits that the cheerful elf woman is “a colleague” of his. He notes that she drew a sketch to identify the party, which he dismissively displays for them. Slim asks whether the two of them were the figures he spotted last night. Sial admits that it was them; they had been led to the Acropolis by divination magic and were trying to pin down the party’s location. Finding no one in the camp, they left to wait for the adventurers to arrive at the ruin.
Alerted by Irabeth’s shout, Arlynn and the others arrive. The senior paladin asks what Sial and Asyra are doing here. The Shadowcount says that the party may be involved in matters of interest to the Church of Zon-Kuthon. He has come to observe them to determine whether this is so. He insists once again that he means them no harm and urges them to simply ignore him and Asyra and proceed about their business in the Acropolis.
Irabeth is wary of working with the Kuthites, particularly after identifying Asyra as a chain devil, but Arlynn notes that Laori kept her word. Slim, Egan, and Ashla are also willing to tolerate the priest’s presence and so the adventurers continue to explore the ruin while the Kuthites watch them from the shadows, occasionally scribbling notes.
The Cursed Whip
In the adjacent chamber, the party discovers a five-foot-diameter hole in the center of the floor, surrounded by a ring of wavy runes. Inside the hole, a shaft filled with brilliant emerald light drops into the depths. Translated by Slim, the runes invite supplicants to step into the “illumacone” to descend to the lower level.
In a smaller nearby room, the Crimson Blades find a strange bronze statue depicting a half-snake, half-human creature with the lower body of a serpent coiled about a stand and the upper torso of a slender human woman. Her hands are crossed over her chest to clutch two objects at her shoulders—the right hand holds a large quill, while the left holds a jade-handled whip.
The runes identify her as Lissala and commend the Acropolis to her protection. Searching the statue and its base, Slim makes two finds. The first is that a hidden compartment in the base contains a 4-foot-diameter circular frame containing several wedge-shaped metal plates, each punched with its own intricate design. Slim deduces that assembling wedges in the correct fashion and placing the circle over the illumacone will reveal a map of the Acropolis. He doesn’t test this theory, having become fascinated his other discovery.
The jade-handled whip in the statue’s hand looks as if it could be pried free. Slim asks Irabeth to help him take it, but the half-orc thinks stealing the goddess’ weapon is a bad idea. Slim says that Lissala is a dead god of a dead civilization.
“Even dead gods can still exert power over the world—save Aroden, of course,” Irabeth warns him.
With a great deal of effort, Slim wrests the whip free of the statue and quickly has Zellara identify it through her Harrow deck. He learns that the whip is a powerful magical item infused with the essence of Order—but that it is also cursed and if not returned to the statue’s grasp, will slowly drive its bearer mad with paranoia. Irabeth gives him a knowing look.
Slim decides to hang onto the whip for the time being, figuring it might come in handy deeper into the facility. He plans to return it to the statue once they are ready to leave, but Arlynn floats the idea of trying to get the curse removed.
Writing on the Wall
Leaving the statue and the illumacone behind, the Crimson Blades and their Kuthite observers venture into a chamber whose walls are decorated with six life-sized bas-relief carvings that depict a diverse collection of priests, each adorned in billowing robes draped in Thassilonian runes. An intricate scripture winds around each carving, coiling around them and along the walls like an immensely long tangle of ribbons.
Slim and Zandu attempt to decipher the runes, but the text proves devilishly difficult to parse, though they get the sense that it’s a warning of some kind about a great danger within the Acropolis. As they spend the next half an hour trying to puzzle out the runes, Arlynn eventually decides to swing by the mermaid and Lissala statues again, hoping to find some secret passage or other connection between them. She is joined by Kyra and Egan.
As the paladin reexamines the bronze statue, the quiet of the Acropolis is shattered by boisterous Shoanti voices near the entrance.