RECAP: B Team, 6-9-19

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Back at Master Bashir’s, the sobering reality of what had transpired finally hit home. Kazeer, dead; others, disenchanted. No one expected to retire in the Master’s service, of course, nothing like that, but still.

Master Bashir was, of course, suitably chastened by the loss of Kazeer, and when they party was escorted into the villa, the agents were denied nothing. Bashir instructed his cadre of servants to attend to the party and ensure they had anything they might require. Further, when Bashir saw the burns on Fiats’s face and neck, he clapped his hands twice, summoning a pair of his personal physicians. They assisted the halfing away, to a different wing of the villa, where he would be treated.

It was morning when the party, though you wouldn’t know it from the weariness on their faces. Bashir bade them eat – a table thick with fruits and cut vegetables, chilled prepared meats, and fat rounds of hot bread and clotted cream had already been prepared – and after a unusually silent late breakfast, Bashir ordered them all to various rooms, for a few hours sleep.

For most, their sleep was heavy and dreamless, and when they awoke the sun was well on it’s way to the horizon. At dusk, as the time when the traditional Qadiran evening meal took place, Bashir’s servants approached each room with quiet knocks, alerting each person in turn that dinner would be in one saah of the hour candle. There was plenty of time for ablutions, and fresh clothes of appropriate sizes awaited in each closet.

The hour passed, and soon all were gathered in one of Bashir’s dining rooms – the agents, Bashir himself, his domo Sarir, as well as other senior members of the merchant prince’s staff. Servants began the evening sup immediately, bringing first chilled bowls of minty cucumber soup; those were followed by small plates of fruit – oranges, wedges of lime, pale pears and ruby plums. Next, the servants brought several icy bottles of pale white wine, which they uncorked en masse with a laughing flourish. Served with small squares of flatbread and a savory hummus, the wine both cleansed the palate and enervated the spirit.

The fish course was next, long white slabs of grouper roasted over boabab-root and garnished with a Taldan garum that was both piquant and astringent. Another selection from the cellar followed, this time bottles of a Chelaxian vino nobile, tart and dry but perfectly matched with the enormous skewers of roasted beef that came next, crisp seared on the outside but blood red inside and surrounded by smoking cuts of orange pepper, green melon and eggplant courgette, drizzled with rich olive oil and vinegar as dark as the night outside the windows. The servants brought still more fresh bread, warm yet from the ovens, accompanied by an array of fruit and herb jams.

Soon, most were emitting light groans, with bellies brimming and heads just barely starting to reel. Immense carved wooden bowls were laid on the table, filled with tomato wedges, knobs of smeary cheese that smelled like pinebark and barley-nut, strips of arugula, and more herbs. Small earthenware dishes of oil and salt were filled and placed at each person’s left, and the custom was to select choice morsels from the common bowl using a longish wooden brochette, then dip into the oil and eat straightaway. Dessert was modest by comparison: a treacly plum pudding festooned with tiny grapes, crunchy and cold from being held frozen in Bashir’s ice-cellar. Small spicy cakes were served as well, on plates made of tortoiseshell, sweet and peppery all at once.

Once it was plain that no one could possibly eat another morsel, the plates and dishes were cleared away in a trice and large hookahs were brought out, packed with pipeweed, and lit with bright coals the size of a infant’s fist, filched from the kitchen fires with long iron tongs. As the room filled with fragrant smoke, more wine was brought, plus other drinks as well, cordials and brandies, as suited each individual’s taste.

Bashir cleared his throat, exhaled a wide plume of purplish smoke, and stood. “I will miss our comrade, Kazeer ibn Hassan el Keleshi,” Bashir said gravely. “He was a doughty warrior, trenchant in defense of his comrades, skilled with blade and bow. He faced many men and evil creatures on the field of battles, and was victorious in all those contests, save only his last.”

“All respected him as a soldier… but I knew him, as did some of you, as more than that,” Bashir continued. “A warrior, yes, but also a scholar. I had an affinity for him from the start, as a fellow southerner… but it was only after he spent time in my service that I learned of his other passions. Languages for one, of which he knew several well and many just less so. And he shared my love of poetry, and the beauty and power of our native tongue. He shared with me once a poem from his homeland, which I will now share with you…”

Love happened at last,
And we entered Gozreh’s paradise,
Under the skin of the water
Like fish.
We saw the precious pearls of the sea
And were amazed.
Love happened at last
Without intimidation… with symmetry of wish.
So I gave… and you gave
And we were fair.
It happened with marvelous ease
Like writing with jasmine water,
Like a spring flowing from the ground.

Bashir laid down the small bit of parchment that held the poem, and one hand came up to wipe at his eye. Bashir was old, in his seventh decade, and old men tend to find their tears coming unbidden, though whether it is from the weight of years releasing all those disappointments that, in youth, were swallowed and borne with a rough stoicism, or whether those same years become a lens through which every emotion is focused, like sunlight distilled down to laser by a child with a magnifier, none can say. Whatever it was, none stared directly at Bashir as he pressed a lone tear away from the edge of his eye, out of courtesy for the most part, girded with just the faintest whiff of shame. For they had seen Kazeer die, on that broken road, and shed no tear for him then, digging only his shallow grave to hold his looted corpse and carrying on with the mission at hand. And yet here, surrounded by opulence, a man of wealth and influence eulogized his employee after feasting with his comrades, allowed himself the burden of a tear or two in memory of the dead.

“You,” Bashir said pointing to one of his servants. “Gather ten men and go to Geb, to the place where they buried Kazeer el Keleshi. Take what tools you need, retrieve his body, and bring him here. ” He looked at the party. “He will be reburied here, in my personal cemetery, with full honors.” Bashir sat and toyed with the mouthpiece of his hookah for a moment, regarding the memories that came to him of Kazeer, and all those like him who, perhaps, had also fallen in the Master’s service. All those names and faces and memories that time, in it’s slow but inexorable way, had eroded until those names were forgotten, those faces erased, those memories lost in a sea of years.

There was a bit of silence, punctuated only by the weirdly distant burble of smoke drawn through water, and the low sound of exhalation. After a few moments, Nolan placed his pipe gently on the the damask-covered table, and stood up.

“Master Bashir,” he began, as every eye turned toward him. “I am sorry to say that I must leave your employ.” Bashir’s forehead furrowed and mingled confusion and surprise, but he said nothing. “Since we’ve returned, I think of nothing but how close we all came to sharing Kazeer’s fate, how close we are all to the dread hand of Pharasma’s keeping.”

At this, Sven also stood: “I share Nolan’s thoughts, and his purpose,” Sven said. “Master Bashir, I am sorry, but I too must leave your service.”

Bashir frowned, and his lips thinned to near invisibility. He stood, and walked to where the two, and stopped in front of them. Even aged, even small of stature, as he strode toward Nolan and Sven all could see an echo of what Bashir must have been like as a younger man, in his prime, running a merchanting empire that spanned the Inner Sea.

For a moment, everyone still sitting wondered if Bashir might strike the men. But instead, he reached out both his hands and took Nolan’s within them. “You have served me well, Nolan, as have you, Sven. It pains me to see you leave… but if you must, then you must.” He hugged Nolan, then broke off to go to Sven, whom he gave a kiss on each cheek. “Your rewards for retrieving Rijanna’s books will be waiting for you when you depart… as well as something from me personally, to assist you in your future endeavor. Fare well, to you both! Call on me when you are in Katheer.”

Bashir clapped them each on the shoulder and bade the door servants escort them to their rooms to collect their things. He came back around to his chair and sat.

“Now then back to business,” Bashir said. “I want to take this moment to formally introduce you to an associate of mine, one who has been in my employ for several years now. He has told me of all the things that you did for him in Geb’s Rest, and how you save the lives of everyone in the entire town. He’s expressed in may that he is personally your debt, and he came to me was a request: that he might join you on further missions as one out of the agents in your group.” Master Bashir looked at each of them in turn. “In light of the recent departures from our little group, I have decided to allow Solarian to join you. I will miss him, however! Shall REM is an expert hunter, and for many years he has provided for my table. No one else in my employ has ever been as deft with an arrow as Solarian.” He turned to the elf. “It’s my fervent hope that you have trained your apprentices well, Solarian,” Bashir’s said. “If they are not up to your standards, we may have to go back to purchasing game in the marketplace!” He let out a good-natured laugh, which everyone at the table joined in after a brief moment.

An hour later, all of them yet remained around the table, but the sun was ling under the horizon and most were thinking of taking their aching bodies and bleary eyes to bed. The thought of a huge wooden tub, the presence of which he inferred by the volume of servants he’d observed earlier carrying steaming barrel-stave buckets of water boiling in cauldrons pressed tight against carefully tended fires, preyed on Bjorn’s mind specifically. He worried too, about his small, foolhardy friend, for whom neither demon nor undead seemed to hold any horrors.

Fiat in battle

A servant entered (no surprise there, they’d been kept hopping most of the evening), crossed to bashir, and whispered something in his ear. “Waht, at this time of evening?” asked Bashir. The servant nodded in commiseration. “Well, I suppose you should show them in.”

The servant made to leave, when Bashir spoke again. “Wait – let him wait for a moment. Before you show him in, go find John Hile and bid him join us. Escort him here, then you may bring in our unexpected visitor.” The servants nodded and hurried out, leaving a room where conversation had mostly ceased, and more than one raised eyebrow and curious glance was passed about, like a fresh baby in the nursery.

A few minutes the same servant escorted in the eponymous Mr. Hile, and it was all everyone could do not to emit a series of audible gasps. Mr. Hile, as it turned out, was quite possibly the most handsome man any of them had ever seen. Tall but not gaunt, long and lean, with a fox’s angularity, Mr. Hile didn’t simply walk into the room – he glided. He was dressed in a frock coat and doublet of midnight blue silk, with trousers snug enough that those sitting near Lama heard her draw breath and loose it slowly in an low, appreciative growl. His boots were of soft leather but shone like patent, and his long fingers moved as deftly as any conjurer’s.

But it was Hile’s face that drew the greatest volume of attention. Masculine but without being too simian, chiselled but without being too stern, his was a face that surely had broken every servant girl’s heart this side of Oppara. He wasn’t originally from Qadira, that was clear – his skin was unsullied by the sun, and he did not seem to have a single pore. His mustachio was faint and perfectly trimmed, which gave him an air of adolescence, but his eyes were large and dark, with the faraway look. His black hair seemed perfectly, yet effortlessly coifed, and it shone with health and vigor. Quite simply, John Hile was the perfect blend of those physical traits, both masculine and feminine, that made up the sum of physical attractiveness.

All eyes were upon him as he made his way over toward Bashir, who again rose, placed one hand on Hile’s shoulder…

(“Ahhhh…” whispered Lama huskily)

… and greeted him warmly. “Welcome, John. I appreciate your joining us so late in the evening. Shall I introduce my agents?”

“You needn’t, Master Bashir, their excellent reputation precedes them,” Hile said, his smooth, mellifluous voice just exactly the right timbre to capture each ear in the room and hold it prisoner. “I am pleased to see you’ve returned. It’s my understanding your last exercise on behalf of our employer was quite difficult and not without some terrible losses.”

No one seemed capable of speech, so Bashir interjected. “Hile has worked for me for several years…”

“That has been my singular honor, sir,” Hile said smoothly.

“… he is incredibly knowledgeable in the law…”

Phineas beamed, making mental plans to address Hile at some future point on that subject.

“… and the workings of government agencies and law enforcement He has been invaluable to me in the past, and I’ve called him here this evening due to the nature of our guest.”

As if on cue, the servant from earlier entered. “Master, may I present the Honorable Sergeant Gillingham, of the Royal Qadiran Harbor Patrol.” In walked a pepperpot of a man – short, sandy-haired and red-faced, a bantam rooster of a man, sporting a red coat and a serviceable cutless, the scabbard of which bumped against his leg as he walked. He pulled off his black kepi, and tucked it under one arm. “Forgive this intrusion, Master Bashir. Iwould never disturb you at this hour were it not of the utmost importance.”

“Please, Gillingham, sit.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Gillingham, and he plopped down on the banquette, tossing a thirsty gaze at a nearby wine bottle. He looked embarrassed to be there, and his already red face deepened in color.

“You there,” said Bashir, addressing a nearby servant. “A glass of nobile for the good Sergeant.” Immediately the servant produced a goblet and filled it from a bottle at the sideboard, placing it in front of Gillingham. The harborman took a long pull of the rich wine, and looked incrementally better for it when he placed the cup back on the table.

“Thank you, sir,” Gillingham said, the word ‘sir’ coming out a bit like ‘sah’ and betraying the man’s northerly roots.

“You’re a long way from your ocean, Gillingham, so let’s come to the point,” said Bashir with a smile. “How may I, a humble merchant, be of service to you and the Harbor Patrol?”

“Master Bashir, you’ve been a friend to us for decades, no one knows that better’n I,” said Gillingham. “I’ve come to you tonight because I have something of a problem, and it’s beyond my ken. You’re an intelligent man of science, with resources and men…”

Gillingham looked around the table at the staring faces.”

“… and the nature of my problem is such that you, and your agents, might be of huge help to me and my lads.”


“Out with it, Sergeant.”

“Of course sir. You see, there was an incident this morning – a ship appeared in the harbor…”

“Ships appear in your harbor quite often, Gillingham,” observed Bashir with a wry smile.

“…. that’s quite true, Master, quite true. But this particular ship, well, it didn’t sail into the harbor, so much as it materialized.” Gillingham paused. “And it’s like no ship I’ve ever seen, sah.”

Bashir was intrigued now. “Speak freely, man. If we’re to help you, we need to know as much as we can.”

With a small sigh, the man began. “The vessel first appeared at second watch.” Gillingham explained. “No one saw it enter the harbor and there was no warning of its approach through the Flotsam Graveyard. One instant the harbor was clear and the next instant it was, well, it just faded into existence there in the water. Our gillmen and Wave Rider scouts reconnoitered it, initially, and reported there to be no signs of life on its decks and that it was seemingly constructed of a single piece of seamless, opaque white crystal.” Gillingham paused for a drink of wine. “None of that was very comforting, as you can imagine.”

“The Harbor Patrol and Wave Riders immediately set up a cordon sanitaire around the vessel to contain any threat,” Gillingham continued. “I sent runners out to ensure the City Constables and Astrologer’s Guild were placed on alert. But when no threat appeared imminent, we sent a Harbor Patrol boarding party. They reported the top decks to be completely deserted and all access to the ship’s interior to be blocked off by two sealed portals. So of course I had the men reconnoiter the ship. Glyphs are incised all over the ship’s hull, even the decks. I had the men take copies to the sages, and they say the script is Olde Azlanti. The glyphs on the bow where the ship’s name ought to be translate as ‘King Xeros,’ so that’s what we’re calling her for now. The sages said there was stories of a ghost ship that wandered the Great Beyond, sometimes referred to as the King Xeros of Old Azlant, supposed to be a magical vessel launched by the Azlanti shortly before Earthfall. Some of my boys are thinking that this could be that very same vessel here in our own harbor.”

“This is where you lot come in,” Gillingham continued. “If this damnable ship is indeed self-same King Xeros and an artifact of the ancient Azlanti, we’d need to get inside it and find out what secrets it holds and if any danger exists. The sages want a crack at it, but we think it’ll take more than just brains to get into it, as it might be trapped or guarded.”

Gillingham looked a bit abashed. “I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t hand, ‘course,” he said hastily. “You fellows have a reputation for knowing how to deal with this kind of stuff and handle yourselves in a tight spot, so that’s why I’m turning to you. The last thing I need is a dozen dead scholars and some monstrosity from beyond time unleashed on the city.”

Gillingham turned to Bashir. “I need your agents to get on board that ship, find a way inside, do a bit of poking around, and figure out if this is something I should be worried about or if it just happens to be the discovery of the century,” he explained.

Bashir turned to the rest of the table. “You’ve only just returned, from an arduous mission on my behalf and, frankly, I’m a bit reluctant. However…” Bashir scratched at his beard in thought. “… at the same time, I am inclined to assist the harbormen. What say you?”

“Most of us could do with a night’s sleep,” admitted Leinard, who had himself just stifled a yawn. “Tomorrow, at the earliest.”

“And what do the harbormen have for breakfast?” asked Phineas. After the evening’s feast, he’d been looking forward to a substantive morning repast in the villa.

“The harbormen know how to break a fast, I assure you,” said Gillingham. “Curled pastries and honey, boiled pork and apples on pata, breaded and fried tomatoes, excellent sausages and dwarvish coffee in mugs twice the size of your fist.”

Dwarvish coffee?”

“Oh, aye,” said Gillingham with a nod. “Black as tiefling’s heart, and a third again portion of uiscebeatha, distilled in the Iron Hills.”

“I suppose we’re in then.”

The deal struck, Gillingham was escorted out, and the festivities of the evening ground inexorably to a halt. Hile was the first to leave. “You know what to do, then,” Bashir had told him, and he nodded enigmatically. “I shall see you in the morning then – pleasant dreams to you all,” said Hile, and once he’d departed, the room felt six feet smaller.

The next morning, an escort of some dozen members of the Harbor Patrol, led by Gillingham, were waiting for the party in the frontmost courtyard of the Bashir’s villa. They’d brought horses, so the party’s own mounts got a welcome respite in the rearward fields, gorging on fresh grass and enjoying a professionally-delivered currying. Hile was with them, dressed s if he might vaguely consider an outing this day – a long leathern jacket and trousers of only slightly-less tautness than the previous evening, a bleached linen shirt, and a necklace of pink-orange coral. At his lean hip hung a black leather scabbard (which perfectly set off his hair, tied back casually with a leather strap) into which was set a long, black iron dagger of exquisite craftsmanship.

They set off quickly and without preamble, and the entourage proceeded at good clip through the city. Gillingham kept up a steady stream of half-told tales – detailed descriptions about the functions and remit of the Harbor Patrol, legendary boats and captains of his acquaintance, the friendly rivalry between the Harbor Patrol and the city constabulary (“… they like to say our jurisdiction ends at the sand, but let me tell you, the ocean is a lot bigger than their city!”), largish fish he’d either caught or seen caught, and similar subjects. What Gillingham didn’t speak of, obvious to all by it’s very absence, was talk of the Azlanti crystal ship.

They arrived at Katheeran docks and, at first, noticed nothing amiss. Schooners and caravels danced about, seeking a berth or escaping one, while larger ships lumbered toward the deep-water piers to be swarmed by sailors and stevedores like ants swarming a fallen fruit. Gillingham ordered a swift turn, and the entire entourage headed southward along the wharfs. The view as they all made their way toward the waterline was startling. For decades, Katheer had made herself know as the “Gateway to the Southern Ocean,” but like most of these sorts of sobriquets most everyone assumed that the reputation was self-given and self-promoted. But as they made their way down to the southly wharf, everyone realized that it was as near to the truth as mercantile propaganda every approaches. From here, they could see miles into the ocean, with ships of every size and shape licking at the wind, seducing it into their sails to push them out into the vast sea lanes and toward their destinations. Dozens of masts, bearing the flags of every seafaring nation on the inner sea, danced around the port of Katheer across a sea as emerald as the commerce they drove.

Nearer, they saw what looked at first like a wall of ships, but what turned out to be a circle. And in the midst of it, what could only be the source of Gillingham’s consternation: a large ship, with decks cut like battlements, seemingly made from a single colossal piece of milky-white crystal.

It was an astounding site – no ship any of them had seen came close to exhibiting the sort of alien grace that this ship had. It rode light in the water, like an unladen caravel, but at the same time seemed to evince a tremendous mass. The crystalline superstructure was cause enough to draw stares, but there was more: aft, nestled into the white crystal where a rudder might be, was housed second, obliquely cut black crystal, two stories tall and thrust deep into the water. And in the bow, something even stranger: what might, very loosely, be called sails, but like no sails any sailor had ever seen. More like the wings of a locust imagined by someone who’s only tool for cutting was a laser, these twin wing-sails jutted out at angles from the boat, at loggerheads with the wind and seeming not to care.

It was a beautiful and majestic ship, but one that seemed ill at home on an actual sea, a sea made of water and salt.

Silence had descended over the group, with only the creak of the wagon -wheels punctuating their progress. Phineas was the first to speak after they’d all had a look at the ship.

“The Azlanteans considered themselves a multi-planar society,” Phineas said, his voice low but perfectly audible. “Like the Melniboneans of legend. Before Earthfall, it was said that they had great cities not only in Golarion but on the Astral plan as well, rivalling what now are the cities of the Gith. The Gith were yet slaves of the ‘flayers then, and would be for several centuries to come. Brass existed, but was merely a trading post of small repute. It was Azlanti trading ships, flying up to and passing through huge Astral gates lodged permanently in the sky, that plied the trade routes both in Golarion and on among the planes.”

No one said anything in response.

Small skiffs were waiting for them at the shore, and they piled into them, two each plus a harbor Patrol rower, and they soon passed through the cordon into the center area where, placid and soundless, rested the boat. Now that they were closer, they now see the ship was covered in runes – literally covered. Not an inch of the vessel’s hull was bare.

“What do they say, Phineas?” asked Snapper.

Phineas squinted, trying to section off a portion of the runes for specific study, the whole of it being overwhelming from a translation standpoint. “I don’t speak or read Azlanti – few do,” Phineas said after a moment. “But Azlanti influenced many of the runic languages of the Inner Sea. Osirion has a runic version of their language, as does Keleshi. These are cryptic, to say the least,but…”

He hesitated. “Out with it, man,” said Snapper encouragingly.

“… these seem – seem – to tell the story of the ship.” Phineas said. “It’s travels, it’s ports of call. The ship is indeed called the King Xeros, and it talks of many places, none of which I can identify. And if I’m reading these at all right (which is not guaranteed), sometimes it refers to itself – ‘King Xeros did this, King Xero went there,’ and sometimes it refer to itself in the first person.”

“What do you mean, ‘first person’?”

“Sometimes, in the runes I can see, it refers to the ship as ‘I’. Like, I took part in the battle, I came to rest in Brass and took on cargo.”

“What the hells kind of ship is that thing?” asked Rindle.

Phineas shrugged.

They reached the Harbor Patrol’s deck ladder, around which were tied three of the same skiffs the party themselves rode,

At first, the noises coming from the deck seemed inconsequential. A popping sound. Something of a hiss. More pops. It was only when they heard the first scream that anyone began to imagine something was wrong. the Harbor Patrolmens’ eyes widened in surprise and worry for the comrades.

“What’s happening?” they asked. They looked around nervously, unsure of what to do.

“C’mon, Bjorn” said Lama, who reached for the rope-and-pipe ladder that was hooked onto the top of the deck. She yanked herself up, and Bjorn followed, drawing his longsword once is boots reached the deck. And nearly fell on his armored ass – the deck, made of the same crystal as the rest of the hull, was slippery under the northman’s armored sabatons. Lama’s softer boots gripped the deck a bit better, but it was clear that she distrusted it, and walked carefully over to the body that lay on the opposite side of the ship. A man, in the livery of the Harbor Patrol, lay there smoking, his face and hands covered with charred flesh. A good portion of his hair was burned off, leaving a bright pink weal on his skull.

As the rest of the team clambered aboard, they could see the others: another on the main deck, two more towards the bow, another near the vertical black crystal. There was no sign of who or what had done this, but it was clear that, whatever had occurred, it had occurred swiftly. “It wasn’t a Flame Strike,” observed Rindle.

Leinard raaised an eyebrow at him in a ‘do go on’ fashion, so Rindle explained: “First, we’d have seen it. Second, it would have burnt these men far worse then they are,”

“They are dead, Rindle, and quickly.”

“Oh , indeed. But look at this…” Rindle kneeled next to one of the dead men, and gently pulled his blackened lips open with the dull side of a small knife. “Look at these blisters, on the inside of his mouth. His gums have come away from his teeth, and are blackened as well. I daresay if we were to split open this poor bastard’s gullet, we’d find char and blistering in there as well.” Rindle removed the knife and stood. “These boys were killed by fire, but it was small and focused, not a big concussive blast. They breathed it in.”

“There’s glyphs on that black stone,” said Solarian. “The radiate magic, to my eyes.”

Snapper stepped nearer to take a look, his eyes rolling white back as he invoked the nature spirits. “Warding magic, by the looks of it, although it’s difficult to tell. This whole ship radiates magic like a monkey radiates stink.”

“He’s right,” said Leinard, who had come up to examine the intriguing black stone as well. “Those are warding glyphs, or something akin to them. But they show no sign of evocation magic, which would be required to enact the deaths of these men by fire. It’s protective magic… like, to protect this stone from damage or malfunction.”

“What is it’s function, do you reckon?” asked Snapper

“I know not,” Leinard said.

Back amidships, Lama kicked at a crossbow, laying on the deck undisturbed near one of the dead men. “Look here,” she said. “They didn’t have a chance to even fight back.”

“It might have been fired…?” observed Hile.

Lama bent down to rub the bowstring between her thumb and forefinger. “Nah, it’d be looser if t’were fired,” she said with the certainty of a professional. “Whatever hit them, it didn’t give them a chance to fight back.”

Lama made her way aft, as Phineas began softly crooning that comforting song he loved to play when things began to get uncomfortable:

Revvin’ up your engine
Listen to her howlin’ roar
Metal under tension
Beggin’ you to touch and go
Highway to the danger zone
Ride into the danger zone

Lama jumped down to the lower deck with a start. “There’s doors here!” she called out. And indeed there were. As the rest of the group began making there way rearward, Lama examined the doors. They were identical; oval, about 2/3 the size of a man, and filled not with the normal wood or stone of a portal but a field of shimmering force, that was opaque but wavered like heat off the stone-flagged roads of Osirion.

“Abjuration magic, and strong,” said Leinard matter-of-factly, looking at the portals. “Whatever it was made these, they wanted to keep people out.”

Hile, to the consternation of the rest of the group, placed his hand on the portal. He withdrew it quickly, leaving a strange, grayish handprint in the center of portal’s shimmer.

“It… it told me something, something I couldn’t understand,” Hile said, a little unsteadily.

Phineas stopped singing, “Repeat it, and quickly, as much as you can remember!”

Mix ba’a ti’, mina’am u talamil,” Hile said, carefully pulling the words from his memory. “Ingrese je’el bix béeyak.” He paused, then looked at Phineas. “That’s what it sounded like.”

“That, my new friend, is Azlantean,” said Phineas. “It doesn’t translate directly, even with Comprehend Languages, but what I get from it is that it is saying that you may enter.” Phineas paused. “That’s incorrect – what’s it actually saying is that you are qualified to enter. I’m not sure of the functional difference.”

They looked back at the portal, and the grey area which, at first, had only shown the outline of Hile’s hand, now nearly encompassed the entire portal. Soon it had taken over the shimmer entirely.

And then, something very strange happened to John Hile, all in the space of about ten seconds. Hile shuddered a bit, craning his neck to one side as if stretching a bit to relieve some stiffness. He then hunched toward the group, his shoulders craning low and forward, then slowly moving back.

And then, something… overtook, John Hile. Atop him, surrounding him, within him, was some sort of… creature. At first, several thought he might be a werewolf, attempting to change despite the lack of the presence of the moon or the blood of a lawful man. But Hile wasn’t transitioning – he was still very much there, with his arresting face and his courtier’s clothes. No, this was something else, something with a long, almost delicate snout and needle teeth, not vulpine at all. It was ruddy and and eagle-eyed, and it seemed to both sit atop the diplomat and meld with him at the same time.

“Come, Lama,” he said, reaching out his hand (paw?) to take hers. “Let us enter together.”

“What if I get decapitated?” she asked. But Hile only smiled and led her into the portal.

Hile (and whatever thing it was that was riding him) passed through the portal easily and Lama hesitated only briefly at the field before passing in herself.

Solarian leaped to grab onto Lama’s other hand before it disappeared into the field, and was successful. But as Lama’s hand passed, Solarian’s hit the portal with a crack. The shimmering field reappeared in an instant, and the elvish hunter drew back his hand, rubbing at it with his fingers. The rest of the were silent for the space of two, perhaps three heartbeats, then Leinard said:

“Bjorn, come with me.” Leinard reached his own hand toward the portal, touched it as Hile had, and heard the Azlanti words in his head as well. The barring shimmer again turned to a more welcoming gray. Leinard reached out to grasp Bjorn’s gauntlet-covered hand, and they too disappeared into through the portal…

… and they immediately crashed into Lama and Hile, who were stopped ona downward-facing set of stairs.

Those left above began preparing to emulate Hile and Leinard – approaching the portal, meaning to pass through. But they would not get teh chance. The popping sound, that they’d heard just before boarding the ship (and even more salient, that had preceded the fiery death of the harbormen), was heard again. Snapper and Rindle, who were on teh amidships deck, turned toward the sound to see two small humanoids, made of some rose colored metal, which immediately began moving toward them at an alarming pace. Even more alarming, they both noticed at once, was the fact that instead of hands, these small constructs had open tubes, with soot-blacken rims.

Behind and below, near the portals, they had another visitor: a large man-like creature, seeming made of dross or clay. It was man-shaped, but certainly no man – it’s features were thick and with detail, it’s eyes mere pits in the thick colorless flesh that comprised it. It had no mouth, and made no noise save for the clank of it’s armor and the whistle of it’s sword exiting its sheath. The weapons, unlike the creature, seemed well made and strangely ornate, and notable by the difference between them and their bearer.

Below, on the stairs and unaware of the predicament the rest were facing, the four people that had passed the portal – Hile, Lama, Leinard and Bjorn – faced a similar problem. At the bottom of the stairs stood another of the clay-men. It barred their way down with a herculean axe, made of translucent crystal and exquisitely carved. But even this danger seemed pedestrian compared to what was behind it: emerging from looked to be a rupture in the glassy was an immense, swaying plant, with dozens of tendrils waving with an odd intelligence. Several of those tendrils had turned towards the stairs, licking at the air like snake’s tongues as if trying to somehow sense them.

Chucks of the crystalline floor were visible near the broken areas at the base of the plant, and it was clear that it had broken through from below. If that was indeed the case, though Leinard, there was a great deal more plant underneath.

“There’s something on the other side of the plant,” said Hile, speaking with more calm than he surely felt. “A creature…”

Lama squinted past the writhing plant. Indeed, there was a creature there, small and catlike… but with far too many eyes, and far too many arms. It sat insouciantly in the rear of the room, staring at the crowded quartet on the staircase. It’s spider-set of black eyes were devoid of anything approximating terrestrial emotion, and it’s lack of movement seemed to indicate a general disinterest (or certainly a lack of fear), but nestled within it’s web of arms were two small bows, made of some orange wood and nocked with small arrows of some sort of carved stone. The arrows glistened wetly, with some sort of gel smeared carefully over the points.

The clay-man brought his crystal axe high toward Lama, but flung his columnar arm outward at Hile and connected with his shoulder and neck with a meaty smack, which drove him into the white quartzite wall. Ever the diplomat, Hile yelled out “Does anyone wish to speak to us?” It was clear, however, that the blow had knocked some of the gentility loose from him.

Leinard took up the case: “We are not your enemies!” he cried out in Terran, the languages of the creatures of the earth, with whom he’d had business historically. “We’re here on a discovery mission!” To Lama, however, he said: “Attack the plant.”

“The plant?” Her eyes followed the clay-man’s axe like a predatory animal tracking prey.

“Call it a hunch,” said Leinard. He reached out to touch both Lama and Bjorn, and Dimension Door’d them to the other side of the room. Both looked shocked to find themselves so close to the cat creature, and it responded to their sudden appearance in two ways: first, it brought it’s twin bows up toward them with an almost dismissive slowness, as if it were tired of the charade and simply wished now to rid itself of this distraction and return to it’s previous business. Second, it started to become translucent, becoming increasingly insubstantial with each passing moment.

Lama needed no further encouragement, and recovered her wits quickly. She drew her hand’a’half and slashed away at the plant, slicing thick bundles of fronds from the thing and driving back it’s increasingly curious tendrils, which had whirled to follow them as they had when they group was crowded on the staircase. Bjorn took two steps forward and swung mightily at the cat, but his Ulfen longsword passed through the creature as if it weren’t there.

On deck, and different sort of madness was transpiring. The clay-man had jumped down to the midden deck and was laying about with his sword and forearm, leaving bits of clay in it’s wake. Amidships, Rindle was burned badly, but Snapper cast Create Water and doused one of the little metal homunculi, eliciting a hissing gout of steam but creating a pool of slippery water on the rune-carved deck…