Rumors of War
While the rest of the adventurers were chasing after Raven and foiling Rolth’s ambush, Kyra was chatting up the locals at the Sorry Excuse. Once the Crimson Blades have reunited, she shares what she’s learned.
There are three Clans (or “Quahs”) of Shoanti inhabiting the Cinderlands. Thousand Bones belongs to the Skull Clan (Skoan-Quah), which is considered the friendliest. Though they are nomadic, there are always at least a few Shoanti camped at the Kallow Mounds year round. The Moon Clan (Lyrune-Quah) are a reclusive bunch who should be somewhere in the western Cinderlands this time of year. Finally, there’s the Sun Clan (Sklar-Quah), the most warlike of the bunch, who are said to be massing somewhere in the Storval Plateau for an attack on Korvosa. The Kaer Magans have been bystanders in fights between the barbarians and the lowlanders before, so their primary concern is that this might disrupt trade.
But angry savages aren’t the only dangers. Rumor has it that there’s something new stalking the Cinderlands, something that displaced a flock of gargoyles from their territory in the Ash-Blown Lands to the southwest. And of course the blasted landscape is treacherous enough to navigate on its own.
Kyra made a few discrete inquiries and reports that so far, no word of the various bounties on their individual and collective heads has reached the good people of Kaer Maga—though that’s only a matter of time.
The party returns to the Common House, where they hire a priest of Cayden Cailean to cure Slim of his blindness. The rogue’s letter gets dispatched with Shar and Ser Arlynn Farima makes a few quick purchases before the party beds down. At dawn, the party rides out, heading east towards the Kallow Grounds.
Across the Blasted Desert
Though it is only late spring, the parched and broken flats of dark volcanic soil already radiate heat as the sun glares down like a stern and watchful eye. Yet Ashla and Egan conclude that it is still wiser to travel by day. The main concern is emberstorms, fiery gales that can sweep across the scrubland without warning, although the height of fire season is still more than a month away.
On the second day, the Crimson Blades find a range of low black hills slicing across their path. Strewn all around them are teardrop shaped stones of volcanic slag, which the gnome and the half-elf recognize as “Sarenrae’s Tears,” dangerously volatile debris ejected by volcanic vents known as Cinder Cones. The party spends the day circling around the cinder cone field. They finally make camp by the side of a rocky hill, where Egan uses shape stone to carve out a hut for them from the volcanic rock.
Things That Go Bump in the Day
The next morning, Slim sleeps in while the two paladins pray in the shade and Egan and Ashla commune with nature. Zandu pokes around outside while Remmy trains in her armor and Kyra prepares a hearty breakfast. It is Egan who first notices the horses whinnying with fright, while Arlynn catches a glimpse of a mysterious dark beast moving among the rocks near the camp.
In a calm clear voice, Arlynn calls out: “I hope that big pineapple breakfast is almost ready!”
“Just opening the can now,” Kyra replies.
Ashla rises up and draws her swords, casually calling Remmy to join her for some sparring practice. Kyra cheerfully fusses around the campfire, not missing a note as she draws and loads her crossbow. Arlynn and Irabeth shift their prayer stances so that their swords are ready in hand. Slim sleeps on and has a disturbing dream about horses.
The cinder wolves stalking the camp begin to creep forward among the rocks. Egan decides enough is enough and throws up a barrier of spiked thorns between the main group and the camp.
“Slim! Get up! Things have gone all pineapple!” the gnome shouts.
One of the cinder wolves sees an opening and charges Kyra, but she is able to fend them off. As Ashla and Remmy move to help her, the rest of the pack circles around the other side of the thorns. Zandu starts dishing out magic missiles while Arlynn draws her bow and Egan wildshapes into a dire tiger. Soon, Ashla is chasing after a wounded wolf to the southwest while Tiger-Egan and Slim have moved to the southeast.
That’s when the other half of the wolf pack comes over the hill, dragging Zandu down and biting him with their fiery mouths. But will a few well-placed arrows from Remmy and Kyra and some well struck blows by Arlynn and Irabeth, the wolves are driven away.
The Skull Clan
After healing their badly singed sorcerer, the party continues on their journey eastward. Towards the end of the day, they come across four riders garbed in the blacks and grays of the Skoan-Quah. Initially suspicious, the Shoanti’s concerns are allayed when they learn that the tshamek have come to speak with Thousand Bones. The warriors agree to accompany the party to the Kallow Mounds, which they say are still a day’s ride away.
That night the party camps and Egan builds a new stone structure. The Shoanti refuse to take shelter in it and the gnome overhears them chuckling about the frail and frightened outlanders cowering in their stone house. The warriors clearly seem uncomfortable with their presence in the Cinderlands.
The next day, the four braves are mounted and ready while the party is still preparing breakfast and praying for divine guidance. By midday, the odd procession has reached the Kallow Mounds, a series of cairns that have held the remains of Shoanti ancestors for the past 300 years. A camp of several dozen yurts and a temporary paddock has been pitched at on the western edge of the barrows.
Their escorts lead the Crimson Blades through the camp, while barbarians of all ages gather and gawk at them as they pass by. All of the Shoanti have the same ruddy complexion, while the adults are also bedecked with tattoos and all the men and women of fighting age have their heads completely shaven.
On the far side of camp, the adventurers spy a wingless dragonne sunning itself on a cairn overlooking the chieftain’s yurt. They meet Chief One-Life, leader of the Skoan-Quah, who greets them rather stiffly as “tshamek” (outlanders/intruders). Thousand Bones arrives soon after and welcomes them more warmly. Zandu and Arlynn present the shaman with Rolth’s body and he is pleased that justice was done to the defiler of his grandson’s corpse. The Shoanti drag the body off by the ankles, promising to display it as a warning to other enemies of the Shoanti such as “that devil tshamek.”
Thousand Bones says that they can take up their business at the Bone Council that evening. In the meantime he has the guest yurt prepared for them and offers to take them to the cairn where Ghaeken is buried. They accede to his request and Zandu delivers a short statement of respect in the Shoanti language, while Arlynn holds her tongue so as not to offend her hosts with any reference to a foreign goddess.
Returning to the camp, Zandu delivers a compelling story of the party’s adventures since their recovery of Ghaeken’s body, speaking in Shoanti and using his disguise hat as a prop/special effect. He attracts a sizable audience and afterwards is praised as the rare tshamek who practices the true art of storytelling rather than merely locking tales away in lifeless ink and paper.
The Gauntlet is Thrown
As Zandu is wrapping up, a troop of seven riders approach the village from the north. These braves, led by a giant of a man with an enormous warhammer slung over his shoulder, are burnriders dressed in the bring reds and oranges of the Sklar-Quah. They are accompanying an eighth horse, which carries the body of a deceased Sklar-Quah warrior, Belak, for burial. They hand the body over to Skoan-Quah bearers, but the group’s enormous leader spies the Crimson Blades and his eyes flare with rage.
“That one is Krojun Eats-What-He_Kills,” Thousand Bones whispers, “a great hero of the Sklar-Quah and one of the loudest voices for war against the tshamek. He wishes to confront you, but stay your hands. Spilling blood in this place could unravel the frayed threads that bind the Quahs together.”
Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills spends a few moments sizing up the adventurers with a sneer before turning to address Chief One-Life: “Why do the Skoan-Quah harbor tshamek trespassers?”
As Chief One-Life struggles to find an explanation that won’t further enrage the towering visitor, Thousand Bones nods at the giant’s words as though considering them carefully, but then responds sharply, “Tell me, Krojun, when did the Sklar-Quah become judges of who trespasses on the Kallow Mounds where the ashes of our fathers lie?”
“Your words change the question, Thousand Bones,” answers the Shoanti hero with a snort. “These ones bring trouble to the Cinderlands, and you know it. The coming days shall reveal to us all who is right about them.”
“Perhaps,” answers Thousand Bones. “But not today, and not here. Would you have word of Berak’s burial tainted by bloodshed get back to your Sun Shaman?”
Krojun pauses, the cords in his neck straining, but then he exhales and grins. “You misunderstand me, Thousand Bones. My grief has wounded my words. But see to it that no tshamek defiles our memories here.” His smile broadens as he pulls a thin leather loop from one of his packs. “Certainly, though, guests of the Skoan-Quah must be brave to come this far. You wouldn’t mind if I tested the courage and strength of your guests, would you?”
“I never refuse any trial,” Arlynn volunteers, stepping forward.
Recognizing the strap, Zandu explains it is a prop for a Shoanti game of strength and fortitude known as “sredna.”
“Ha!” snorts Krojun. “So there is one among you with courage! Are there any others, or do you worry that your soft tshamek hands will get dirty?”
Slim takes a look at the barbarian and recalls seeing the same brash pose on the Paladin card he drew during Zellara’s Harrow reading. Confident that he has the measure of the man, the rogue steps forward. “I’m in.”
Irabeth steps forward to stand beside Arlynn. “As am I. Servants of the Inheritor do not shrink from a challenge.”
“Good, good!” Krojun shouts with a grin. “Are there any more brave souls among you?”
Zandu begins to decline, citing his preference for magic over strength of arms, but when Krojun suggests that it’s a wonder that a “little man” like him survived this far in the Cinderlands the sorcerer changes his mind. “I’ll do it.”
“This one has the heart of a warrior after all!” Krojun laughs.
Let the Half-Orc Win
In sredna, two opponents face one another on their hands and knees with their foreheads spaced just over a foot apart, with a thin loop of leather cord placed behind the ears of each player so that they are bound to one another. When the game begins, each player stares his opponent in the eye while slowly attempting to crawl backwards. The resulting tug-of-war results in extreme pain as the leather digs into the soft part of the back of the neck and skull. At some point, one of the competitors relents, acknowledging defeat by bowing his head, causing the strap to roll over the top. Points are awarded to the players who offer the most aggressive displays and who tug their opponents the furthest.
Krojun gives the four challengers the choice of who to face him. Zandu goes first and attempts to psych out the barbarian, but is instead shaken by the frenzied look in the massive man’s eyes. The sorcerer manages to last three round before collapsing to the ground. Krojun helps him to his feet with a chuckle.
“Almost as good as an aurochs calf. Nothing to be too ashamed about.”
Next is Slim, who is able to surreptitiously slip the leather cord into a more advantageous position. This allows him to last four rounds before giving in.
Krojun again helps him up and claps him on the shoulder with one meaty hand. “Stubborn as a mountain goat, this one!”
Slim cheerily agrees, then turns to rejoin the rest of the party, muttering in the Shadowtongue about why he even bothered with the game.
Irabeth steps forward after Slim and plants herself firmly on the ground. After they are looped together, Krojun smirks that he’s wrestled prettier boars. Irabeth simply snarls back at him with enough ferocity to cow the barbarian. As the match begins, she digs in and simply won’t be moved.
After four rounds of fruitless tugging, Krojun topples to the ground with a roar of rage and rolls about in the dust for a moment. By the time the barbarian has regained his feet, his roar has turned to laughter. “You pull like an aurochs dam in heat, little tshamek. Well done!”
“Irabeth is just making friends with all the boys,” Ashla mutters from the sidelines.
Finally, Krojun faces off against Arlynn. The two seem evenly matched, but after six rounds of back and forth, the barbarian unleashes his inner rage and gets the upper hand. Arlynn is finally overcome on the eighth round.
Nonetheless, Krojun declares that the party clearly has four members worthy of traversing the Storval. He is confident they will not defile the graves of his ancestors with their presence and hopes to see them test their mettle again some time.
As the big Shoanti ambles back to join his companions, Zandu says that he honors his ancestors.
“You do yours no shame either, little man,” the Shoanti agrees.