MAIN SAGA PEARLS OF PERSIA | IC

Kabboom

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Alim Arslan Yafir

Ananias Square. Belatsunat. Araia. Nimra. Baal. All these names were new to Alim. All of them, boring. If he's not stealing it, selling it or smuggling it, it doesn't matter. Thus, intellectual trivia like this went in one ear and right out the other, clean as honey. The names that stuck were ones of real, tangible cities: Cairo, Isfahan.

Razin's words clawed through his ears like a blade. Weighing both options without committing to one or the other, then an annoying praise of that disgusting food (in the air? Disgusting!) before squirreling out of the room. She had just enough presence to be heard, but useless enough to provide nothing of substance; like a cat's paw on a fresh clay tablet. She even spilled some food on her father! The insolence...

Weighing the words of the others, the man took some time to weigh the options. Unlike Errol and the scholar, Cairo was a very useful place to Alim. He'd cut his teeth in the place with smuggling and peddling all kinds of wares - from weapons to drugs to counterfeit money, even smuggling illegal friends in and out of the city. Araia's "ne'er-do-wells" could be bought or bluffed or taken care of with whatever he can find in Cairo. Only issue is, they don't have time or privacy in Cairo.

Araia it is. The cultists there can try him - he'll give a lethal gift for each and every one who does.

As the Puntling creaked out of the room, his voice cracked up. "Given that we are being pursued, we should stop at the temple itself. Haste is our biggest advantage right now. We go in fast, and we do not stop. And besides, I cannot guarantee that I'd stay with you wonderful companions should we land in Cairo. Not a very good reputation with the locals there."
 
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Takumi

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Emry had been quiet as the others spoke, having stopped to get a bowl of stew on the way. Though, he didn't get much he figured it was enough for now.


His gaze landed on Alim for only a second as he moved to finish his first meal of the day, noticing that the man looked a bit ill. He hoped the man wasn't sick, and sharing a space with someone who was sick even during a short trip wasn't exactly ideal.


He listened instead to those that spoke, even as the Goat Aspect's eyes were on the soft glow of the Sumerian text almost entranced by it despite not knowing what the text said as he was no scholar, yet his ears were at attention as his employer spoke of someone entering his home and trying to steal from his study this morning. Habbas was,, essentially, giving them the choice whether to head to Cairo or straight to the temple of Araia first, followed by his kinsmen and a few others in their motley crew as they expressed where they wished to stop first.

Emry turned the options over in his head, teeth sinking into his cheek as he thought.

Their reasoning regarding their choices did not sound bad to Emry. The Nauder boy had a point as well, and yet…


There were pros and cons to both choices, of course, and no one knew what laid down one path if they explored another.


"I do not mind going to the temple first." He answered simply. Personally, he did not mind either option, though going to Cairo first and then essentially circling back didn't sound all that great.
 

Kuno

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HABBAS

In his days amongst the Ghulam, the zealous hunters of evil, Habbas had taken part in many a discussion such as this, though perhaps with less input as this. Dissenting opinions had not been tolerated from lesser men among their fold, a sentiment he had taken much umbrage with. Every man and woman deserved a voice; to every life was tied a heart, and it would be heard, no matter how “irrelevant” their rank and creed had deemed them in society.

He’d said as much when Naudar had pressed him earlier on the importance of garnering everyone’s input. This was as much an assignment for the boy as it was a learning experience. Intellect and prestige were not married together; he would have to realize this soon enough.

Naudar bristled, this wayward pupil of his, at the objections to his scholarly opinion. First Razin with her quizzical nature–and clumsy hands. The whisper went to Habbas’ ears, and his face remained impassive, betraying nothing, though his eyes followed his daughter for a while, unreadable.

Naudar’s tongue loosened at Errol’s input. “We will not stick out, if not for-” He began sharply.

“Ahem.”

Owlish in the light, Naudar’s eyes went his teacher’s way, and he quieted as Habbas gestured silently towards the rest of the room. An unspoken rule: all would say their piece.

The majority, as it came to be, stood to follow the professor’s way: to head to Araia’s temple first, as Emry had so simply put. Asra exuded enough trust in their final decision to soon after take her leave, and even Alim was refreshingly agreeable, though not without a qualifier of his own…naturally. However, his cousin had raised several points of his own. Several good points, to be perfectly plain. The cultists were no secret, and the inclusion of Nimra was a worthy addition; Habbas, too, had raised a similar query about other villainous figures to Naudar’s ears. But Naudar, he…

He could sense the wheels turning in Naudar’s head, and Habbas watched the boy silently, mouth twitching against a smile.

This would be good for him.

“I’m very confident,” Naudar began slowly, frowning. “See here: the Sumerian text for ‘bled’. Limited though they were linguistically, the Sumerians equated this form of bleed with the term ‘menses’, or–”

Abruptly he paused, eyes darting to Razin with sudden awareness.

“A woman’s cycle,” He eventually finished, looking down and away. “And not to mention that in Persian towns intrinsically tied to her rule, it is forbidden to speak of her. Nimra, on the other hand…A good contender, yes. But subjectively in the shadow of his mother’s wickedness.”

“You do raise a fair point, cousin. Nimra may be a part of this too.” Habbas, long quiet, finally chimed in, and nodded appreciatively at his student. “You all speak wisdom–better to rule out the temple first than leave something behind to be found. Naudar? Is that now agreeable to you?”

“Yes, teacher.”

“Good.”

It was growing late. With a sigh, Habbas followed the example of his brethren and removed the turban from about his hair, placing it beside him. The years wore on him; what was once ebony black was now mottled with silver, reducing the overall color of his hair to a muted gray. He tugged absent-mindedly on his beard, thinking.

I have news, Habbas. Urgent. Razin’s voice chimed in his head.

A heavier sigh escaped him.

“The hour draws late,” Habbas began, “and I know it’s been a long day for all of us. I’ll tell Tinka to make headway for the temple. In the meantime, get some rest. If you have any more questions, I am here, as well as Naudar.”

 

Kuno

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SAFE AND SECURE

With little preamble, most of the assorted party took their leave, no doubt going after some of Tinka’s stew. Alim was one of them; Habbas' eyes lingered on him, shadows lingering beneath his brows.

"Alim," the professor suddenly said, and Naudar's gaze went to him, curious. "Wait a moment. Please."

The shorter, younger, grumpier man stood in his tracks. His eyes ran from Habbas’ face to Naudar’s, then to the door, then back to Habbas. Alim’s hands leaned against his own chair - still left ajar with no signs of eventually being put back in place - and his shoulders tensed like a cat. Habbas had his attention.

Grim even in repose, the older man's face was made unnaturally harsh in the room's shadows. He studied Alim a moment, eyes intent.

"Naudar. Give us a moment."

Naudar appeared surprised. His mouth worked, but he opted to say nothing, standing with some reluctance. Habbas spared him not a glance as the boy left, closing the meeting door shut behind him.

They were alone.

"Forgive me. I don't want to keep you from your rest, but I thought it was important that we had a moment to talk," Habbas finally continued. "First - I'd like to thank you for accepting my invitation to come. I am aware that trust is not easily gained by you."

A simple nod acknowledged the words. Alim remained immobile, eyes and ears open. His eyebrows furrowed ever so slightly, though his mouth gave no smirk or grimace.

Undaunted, Habbas pressed on.

"If I may ask, what exactly is it that you do for a living?"

Finally, a twitch of the eyes from Alim.

“I do various things. What exactly compelled you to ask me?” One of his hands reached up to gesture vaguely in the air. “I assumed you knew of my work when you asked for me by name.” To Alim, this was an unusual development: when someone asks for him by name, they know what he’s capable of, and usually want him to do more of the same. But to have his employer ask him this? Now, of all times?

Those nefarious brows of Habbas' furrowed. "I know that you possess skills that could aid us, yes; of criminal nature, yes--but what you said about Cairo concerns me. I don't need to know the intricacies of your line of work, Alim. You are owed your own privacy. However…"

The blackened pits of his eyes were unyielding.

"If your reputation will pose a threat to our mission, I must know. Now."

Cairo. Alim’s eyes narrowed to a squint. “We are headed to Araia, are we not? How will Cairo affect us now?”

"I prefer to cull issues before they take root and grow further."

Patience was a virtue, and Habbas was not in short supply. He did not so much as blink at Alim’s evasiveness.

Satisfied - and trapped - Alim’s shoulders loosened. Lying wouldn’t do any good, especially to his source of pay. “I see. Then, Cairo. I am afraid it will be an issue, if I am seen with our… team.” His hand gestured vaguely in the direction of the other passengers onboard, even if they were absent. “What now? Do I get thrown overboard?”

The weighty pause that followed made it seem like Habbas was considering it. But no; his demeanor shifted.

"No. We'll handle that when we get to Cairo. I can make arrangements now that I'm aware." Hands folding in front of him, Habbas met Alim’s eyes, his gaze searching.

But, ah; Alim was a hard read, even for his knowing eyes. The professor looked away.

"You must be hungry. Tired, too; I don't want to keep you from rest."

Alim’s hands hadn’t lifted from his chair. “I have a question. Or a worry, rather.”

His eyes ran quickly, landing on each of the chairs in the room. “Our group is packed rather lightly. I have yet to see any proper weaponry in our possession, other than my own. What exactly are we expecting to encounter on this journey?”

His question marked him as shrewd. The old man made a vague gesture with his hand. "Not much more than the typical dangers set along the road. Hama mentioned the cultists at the temple, but I recall that they are a fairly harmless bunch. Surely not a people that can't be reasoned with."

Ah, but the question stood. And Habbas' retirement from the knighthood had not rendered him oblivious to danger.

He went on.

"We have firebombs for golems, and swords available for any able-bodied person who would feel more comfortable with them. Unless we are deliberately traveling into dangerous territories, I don't expect any more trouble than the usual ruffians."

Alim’s eyes softened when the firebombs were brought up, yet that comfort went away with every word that came after. Aside from the firebombs, he noticed they had no other projectiles - unless the Puntling had a secret shot-putting hobby, Alim’s sling would be all there is. No armor, either: as far as he’s concerned, he’s the most well-armored man out of the bunch, and that would not help him sleep easy tonight (not that he ever sleeps easy). Habbas’ mention of ‘dangerous territories’ tickled him the most - when is a desert walk not dangerous?

“Do you still feel the same, knowing now that we have a tail?” Alim didn’t let go of the issue.

"Believe me, Alim. I share your concern."

It was better to show than to tell. The old man rose from his seat, smoothing down the front of his robes.

"Come. Let me show you something."

(a collab with @Kabboom )

 

Red Thunder

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a @Kuno / @Red Thunder collab
The meeting adjourned, Razin had flitted off to find something with which to occupy her time. Habbas had looked- well, more preoccupied than usual, and she'd caught his significant looks at Alim. Always meetings with that man. Always a veil of secrecy. Everything had to be played close to the chest.

The wind called her name, and she answered. After wandering the corridors of the airship, she'd found herself back on its deck. It was dark now, the sun having gone to her bed, though she still painted the sky at the horizon with warmth. She sat in the middle of the deck, staff across her lap, and watched the colors with admiration and awe.

Everything had to be close to the chest, she mused. Given the break-in, given the nature of their quest, given- well, given her. Old Habbas had to be careful. She just wished he wasn't so careful with his daughter.

Razin had intended to give Habbas forty-five minutes to conclude his meeting and to settle in his quarters. She'd really meant to. But the wind shifted with the full onset of night, and so too did her impatience take hold. Half an hour after leaving the meeting, Razin knocked aggressively on Habbas' door and let herself into his room. He was reading, of course. Likely some tome or other to help them in the ancient ruin they were soon to explore.

"Good evening, Abba," she said, bowing her head, though her tone belied her respectful manners. "Have you a moment for the fruit of your loins? Or are the ramblings of the long dead of more import?"

"I'll trade one rambling for another," Habbas intoned dryly, closing his book shut. Indeed, "ramblings" was apt; the historian Biaankhi was unnecessarily verbose. Intelligent–but long-winded.

He placed the nameless book atop of a stack of papers besides him. His hands rested on his knees, his head motioning towards the bed for Razin to sit.

"Something on your mind?"

"Mm? Ah. Of course." Propping the staff carefully against the wall, and closing the door behind her, Razin stepped over to Habbas' seat. A small stool squated nearby, and she sat on it. "Do you know we have an atena with us? A very beautiful one, too. Pink as the sky at dawn."

"Airships do tend to attract them," Habbas replied, smiling a bit. "I hope you didn't let it get too close. They like to take things, even from pockets."

Razin waved her hand dismissively.

"No no, this one was curious but never came nearer than to touch the hem of my clothes as the wind caught them.

"No, but there seems to be- perhaps it is nothing. Yet, 'A crack in the plaster may only be of age, but better to check for earthquakes anyway'. Atena parrot that which they have recently heard, yes? Errol and I heard it as he admired its beauty." Concern leeched into her carefree, playful expression, and perhaps even a touch of fear. "'Follow them. Beautiful djinn.'"

Her approximation of its voice was surprisingly accurate, the quality of the echo of an echo conveyed better than the human voice should manage. She fell silent, and her concern, her fear was now evident.

Habbas studied her carefully.

He didn't doubt her words. Razin was mischievous in her own right, but lying had never become her. Brows furrowing, he sat forward.

"I've had Tinka surveying the skies. A pursuer would be impossible to miss," Habbas responded, "though this is…troubling, to say the least. I've never heard of an Atena retaining words nor following human direction. Unless…"

Unless.

Suddenly, his gaze sharpened.

"Razin, what did you see in my study? Anything in particular altered or missing?"

"Uh-" It'd been, oh, years since she'd seen that look. Moving past the surprise into the palace of her mind, she considered. "The map I found torn? I glued it together onto leather and returned it to you, if you recall. There was some mention of a witch or other…"

Her voice faded, her memory reaching more deeply, seeking detail. The day had been chock full of events, people, and nonsense that Razin had to ply her memory as the merchant plied the streets.

"Tehran and its road were removed somehow. Someone also scratched out an X by the sea and labeled it 'Cursed'. But what has any of that to do with a spy aboard? For surely that's what it is."

"It's not a spy that I'm worried about."

Habbas was on his feet now. The aforementioned historical book was shoved aside as he rifled through the papers aboard his makeshift desk, eventually stopping once he got to the map.

He unfurled it across his narrow bed.

"I take meticulous notes. They took it, of course–I would have, certainly…" Without looking up, he traced the area where Tehran once lay on the map, the words that surrounded it having since been blotted out. He looked at his daughter, his expression grave.

"Razin, did you notice anyone following you today on your way to the docks?"

She blinked, again searching her memory.

"Not that I can recall, and I did look." A sneer crossed her face. "Your resident criminal was particularly paranoid about being tailed, so I doubt that we were.

"Why?"

"No, I imagine not. A blessing that Alim was with you."

Whatever Habbas had seen had stirred a fire in him. Deep lines set in his face as he frowned, the map coming into sharp focus.

"When we get to Cairo, you are not to leave my side. Someone's watching us, and apparently has been for a long time…perhaps, even years. They took Tehran and the notes about it; I worry that–"

He broke off, his features darkening.

"You worry too much."

Razin had glided over to his side, where she stood, hands clasped beside her. A smile replaced the sneer: wholesome, kind, and genuine.

"Come, Habbas. Not leave your side? I can handle myself." She snorted. "This beside, we would already have been dead, both of us, had someone known I was-"

"Hssst," Habbas hissed. "That is enough."

The reproof held no bite. A cautionary glance had been thrown towards the door, and though the only sound that surrounded them was the whistle of wind beyond the ship, Habbas still brought a finger to his lips.

"The walls have ears, Razin. We must be careful. You must be careful." He looked pleadingly at his daughter, worry entering his eyes for the first time. "Please. Heed my words, just this once."

"Very well. I defer to your wisdom." She wrapped her arms as far as she could about his shoulders and gave him a squeeze. "And to your love. Thank you."

Without awaiting a reply, Razin left the room, a leaf on the wind, soaring.
 

Kuno

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Secrets, Secrets...


–to which I ask again, old friend, as to the importance of this matter. I have never doubted you, but this direction seems–

Strange. It seemed strange.

Sighing, Habbas let his pen drop, the sentence on the letter remaining unfinished. It was long past nightfall; everyone else was presumably asleep, save him. There’d been too much to consider, and he found as he got older that he needed less and less of a night’s rest. Best to be industrious and make use of the hours he had.

But as of yet, the words to his fellow Sigil member eluded him. Phineas was often direct in his letters, but this last one had been worded…oddly. A few words had accidentally slipped into Greek, something Habbas had learned the man only did when he was not paying attention. And how often was it when he wasn't paying attention?

Something was quite obviously troubling him, but he had not bothered to elucidate. Added, too, the discovery of their “followers” cottoning on to the significance of Tehran, and naturally–

It was just strange.

With renewed conviction, Habbas brought pen to paper again, scribbling madly into the night.

—------------------

Seventy cubits tall and one hundred and thirty cubits wide of limestone and glazed bricks greeted those blessed few permitted within the Golden Palace's inner hall. A glow, contained by the walls and emanating to the massive concave ceilings, had laid alight each turquoise stone, the golden bases of the pillars erected throughout radiating an ostentatious air. Firepits accompanied each pillar in tandem along the center; the flames made the lights dance with unusual character across the waxing iridescence. Life was given to the hall, and when Shazzar stepped foot past its gilded threshold, its breath held, waiting.

"Impossible. They wouldn’t."

“Ah, but it is so, my lady.”

He had requested an audience with the shah and his councilors. Vanushe was neither the shah or his councilors, but as shahdokht she was the second highest ranking royal in the Palace. It was the second meeting he’d had with her in lieu of the shah himself. Shazzar’s eyes slid her way, cutting.

He supposed she would have to do.

“Well go on, then,” the shahdokht urged him. “Where was he found?”
“In a bag delivered to the Eastern gate. We found his wife and child to identify him…it was indeed the consul’s head, my lady.”

“I feared as much.”

The shahdokht was as kind as her mellifluous tones implied. The years, however, had not returned the favor; the lines etched about her eyes bespoke of age beyond her thirty-eight years. Silver had flecked her thick black brows, and her once voluminous long hair had thinned noticeably.

The shah’s daughter had not bothered to don the extravagant jewels and headdresses beholden to their house. The breach of fashion could perhaps be attributed to the late hour…or to the fact Vanushe did not deem Shazzar important enough to don formal royal attire.

Perhaps the latter was an overreach of his imagination. But he still suspected as much.

“I hope you realize that an attack like this is an act of war.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Vanushe said dismissively, and Shazzar frowned. “We still don’t know who killed him.”

“My lady, he was in Nubia at his post when he was murdered. The Nubians in the past have…dispatched of foreign ambassadors in the same manner. It is a clear message of–”

“A clear message?” Vanushe repeated. An edge had bled into the shahdokht’s dignified tone. “Councilor, you seem eager for war.”

His gaze shifted. “No, my lady. Though I believe it is correct to assume the message behind it. Consuls are beyond the lines of conflict; by sending this, the Nubians seem eager for war.”

Not that a pretty, pampered woman like her would know a thing about it. He paused, the wheels in his head turning.

“Where is the shah? We must act on this now.”

Vanushe stared, her eyes tired. There was something unspoken in her gaze; words, desperate to be released, struggling under the weights and chains of months of silence. The woman’s lips parted, and the chains rattled.

“Focus on finding who left the consul’s head. I will speak to the shah.”

“Where is he?” Shazzar repeated, bewildered. “This is a matter of urgency!” Forgetting himself momentarily, he stepped in as she stepped away.

A mistake. He found a rude wall between them, and Shazzar backed away quickly from the glaring man.

The palace guard had looked at him like he was a dirty rat that had somehow scurried its way into His Majesty’s opulent hall. No amount of wordplay and simpering had eased the glower from the man’s face; Shazzar did not belong there, and both he and the guard knew it.

He would just have to make do with her answer, however unsatisfactory it was. With an ill-graced bow, he left them. Vanushe looked after him, her calm facade cracking only when the man disappeared. Immediately she put a hand to her mouth, panicked breaths shakily escaping through her fingers.

“My lady?”

”Shush.”

Her mind raced. For a moment, she stood there, attempting to rein in the wildness of her thoughts. He watched as she gathered herself slowly, order and calm returning to her. As if she hadn’t been on the verge of a breakdown moments before, she turned away, her face still.

She left her secrets in the silence that followed.


 

Kuno

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Temple of Araia


By night, there had been naught but the skies. By dawn, the forests of Persia bore through the cumulus canopy; as sunlight filtered through the gathered clouds, Dimeria descended slowly. Tinka had culled the furnace entirely and stood at the balloon’s levers, periodically releasing steam from its massive folds. Too little too early would have them land much further from their mark; too much at a time would force a speedy landing. Timing was key to managing an aircraft, and Tinka was studied in his patience, cranking the pressure lever every odd minute or so. Once, twice, thrice…

He found a small clearing besides a river cutting through the deciduous foliage. One could touch the spindly branches from the edge of the ship as it floated down, and in so doing the birds of heaven, disrupted, dispersed in a myriad of colors. No sooner had the Dimeria made landfall and been secured to land than Habbas had quickly made his exit, eager to be on solid footing.

The temple of Araia was shrouded in the foreground. Beyond the treeline, no more than two leagues from where they’d disembarked, its ancient entryway gaped like a giant maw, the massive white pillars guarding it having since grayed with age. Vegetation had claimed fringes of the walls and tiled, cracked floors up until the threshold. Then the march of nature abruptly stopped, abated by something…or someone. In the immediate atrium of the temple, lightly dusted and colored by the sun, an intricate sculpture of a veiled woman rose upon her foundation, with hundreds, if not thousands, of poppies growing between the cracks in the stone of her base. It was a wondrous sight.

“But none more so than the face of Araia, as the mythology goes,” came Habbas’ deep timbre, reverberating low within that stone cavern. “Despite being the goddess of beauty, she was said to cover her face with a veil as a show of humility. It’s why the Cushite women covered their faces long ago…much unlike Belatsunat.”[/i]

His eyes drifted away. He had changed remarkably in appearance. Gone were the sumptuous robes of a scholar, instead replaced with a garb familiar perhaps only to Hama or Razin’s studied eyes: the light armor of the sultan’s guard from Arabia. It was an older version, yet the deepened red of the leather overlaying his robes was unmistakable. Less noticeable was the sheathed sword that hung at his waist.

A mere formality, he assured them. Cultists hadn’t been sighted there in over three years.

“Our best bet is to map out the prison entirely first before we can begin searching for leads…though I suppose the goals aren’t mutually exclusive. Perhaps we can accomplish more through a two-pronged approach. Light every lantern and sconce you come upon–the clue can be anywhere.”

Without further ado, he separated their party into two teams: Asra, Errol, and Alim would be accompanying him, and he placed Emry, Naudar, Hama, and Razin into the second exploratory group. Naudar and Hama could be trusted to have enough knowledge to note signs of import, and of his daughter, guilt had filled somewhat at his previous restrictions upon her travel. Still, he issued a firm warning to her before they separated: behave yourself.

As it stood, the temple’s massive foyer split beyond Araia’s statue down two separate halls: one to the West Wing, and one to the East Wing. Curiously, light illuminated the ancient archways of both halls.

The sconces to the entryways were already aflame.


Teamwork makes the dream work. Get out there and light some, uh, lights!

 
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