Dunecrawl - the Invisible Hand, sessions 1 & 2

The first (of hopefully many) session reports in my Seas of Sand setting.

Dramatis Personae

Hanid, an ex-pirate kerosene-refiner. Aspiring war criminal/profiteer and oil-field magnate; ship's extremely thorough quartermaster and book-keeper.
Isfandiyar, ex-pirate scavver. Mostly in it for the cash and the tattoos; ship's backup book-keeper.
Nadeera, trained academic "archaeologist." Interested in seemingly everything, lots of connections; hopes to maybe help Khalkadinn, her home city.
Rahmuna, ex-noble ex-circus performer acrobat. Mostly running away from her problems; ship's helmswoman and de jure captain.
Selb, trained blacksmith-turned-brawler. Strong and silent type; arguably the most level-headed of the crew.
The Invisible Hand, the crew's Qasiran ketch, plus Malik, a loveable-yet-foolish deckhand, and Saranah, a grizzled and well-worn helmswoman for when Rahmuna's not around.

Res Gestae

First Days Out
The crew began in Qasira, city of merchant-princes and ascetic philosophers, having recently returned from a complicated piracy-capture-hostage situation (that shall remain firmly in the backstory). They had several hundred silver between them and a ship, and so it was decided that, for the time being, they would be merchants.

After some discussion and checking of prices, the crew opted for a cargo of wine, a couple hundred gallons, plus cords of cheap "scrapwood"—driftwood, recycled ship hulls, and other bits of flotsam (ordinarily trash, but still quite valuable in a giant desert that's traversed using wooden ships). They set sail the next morning for Khalkadinn, an oft-oppressed city famed for its academies and apiaries, and Nadeera's hometown. 

Over the first couple of days, they didn't encounter much, just some spotty jagged stones and some sand-kelp (which can be mystifying—the tops of kelp stalks sticking out from the sand resemble nothing so much as a field of tiny waving blades).

The next few days were dry, hot, and empty. The sailing was smooth over the sugar sand, and there was absolutely nothing to do. Eventually, the crew settled on several long games of liar's dice, gambling over the crew's least-favorite tasks. A classic, honestly; sailors are not known for their ability to occupy their minds.

The Oasis
On the seventh day, getting closer to Khalkadinn, the crew had a sudden stroke of extremely good luck: they found an oasis. It was a small one, set inside a marshy atoll-like island, but was lush, green, and teeming with animals: camels, goats, foxes, gulls, crocodiles—all manner of predator prey, happily co-existing at the water's edge. The pool itself was clear and deep, descending ever downwards, so deep they couldn't see the bottom.

The crew, happy for a respite, made the most of the water. They bathed, drank, swam, splashed, and lounged, enjoying more water than likely any of them had seen in a very long time. All except Hanid, who stayed on the Hand, claiming he didn't trust the water.

He was right.

All seemed well that evening as the crew settled in, and they filled several casks with the oasis water. Discussion broke out quickly: should the crew haul the water as cargo and sell it? Should they let others, like Khalkadinn, know about it? Should they move settlers out to the oasis and start their own town? Should they hire mercenaries to guard it, keep it secret? Should they just offer a prayer of thanks and move on? All relevant questions, but no good answers. The crew resolved then and there to stay for at least a day to make further plans and barrel more water. 

That night, the lighter sleepers among the crew awoke to the sound of footsteps above them, on the deck. They woke the rest of the crew as the footsteps faded, and they all went topside. It was difficult to make out details, but some unknown person was clearly running up the swampy side of the oasis' atoll, to reach the water within. 

A quick headcount was conducted, and it was discovered that Malik, the crew's hired deckhand, was missing. They called out, and the figure climbing the hillside responded—but then continued. The crew scrambled, using the ship's mirrors (ordinarily used for long-distance signalling) to light up Malik, and Rahmuna and Isfandiyar chased him down. 

After tackling him, it became that Malik wasn't hostile, per se, or even really upset, he just claimed that he desperately needed the water from the oasis. It was a compulsion, a strange kind of urge, that pulled him back towards the oasis. The crew eventually elected to lock Malik in the ship's cabin, and post a guard to make sure he didn't break out. 

Malik spent the night moaning, howling, weeping, crying for the water that he couldn't get to. They offered him regular water, and even the oasis water they'd put in the casks, but none of it was good enough—he explained, eyes wet and throat raw, that he needed that oasis water. 

Over the course of the morning, others among the crew began to act strangely. First it was Isfandiyar, arguing that maybe they should stay, that he could take Malik to the water's edge; then it was Nadeera, claiming that, well, there were perhaps advantages to staying close to the oasis; then Rahmuna, who didn't really bother with talking and just took off running for the water.

Hanid, Selb, and Saranah all seemed unaffected, and began trying to make plans. A ketch takes three to crew, so they could, theoretically, abandon their crewmates to their inescapable paradise and take off. The three of them went back and forth, discussing plans and possible options, until it was decided for them—Saranah suddenly turned from the conversation, vaulted the ship's sides, and beelined for the oasis. 

Hanid and Selb were trapped, stuck with five people who couldn't bear to leave their precious oasis behind. Furthermore, Selb had drank the water, and thus it was unclear how long her mind would remain her own.

The Beast
Still, the five ensnared crewmembers were still more-or-less in control of themselves. They couldn't leave the water for long, but they were still thesmelves. Rahmuna set about investigating the pool itself; with the help of a diving barrel, she dove deep into the oasis. She swam ever deeper, and the circular walls of the cavern slowly tapered towards a point—where that point was, though, was near-impossible to tell, as Rahmuna had dove so deep that all light had faded away. Rather than risk whatever nastiness lay at the bottom of the pool, she instead turned and moved back towards the surface. On her way up, her foot brushed against the cavern's wall, and she made a startling discovery: the interior wall of the "stone" cavern was soft, squishy, like it was flesh.

As soon as she reported this, Selb took a blade and began hacking away at the undergrowth and ground beneath; what the crew had thought was simply soft marshy soil was, in fact, the flesh of some huge beast. After a minute of cutting, Selb came away with a chunk of flesh, big as her hand, bloody and raw.

Naturally, the crew began cutting their own bits of floor-flesh away as well, and it wasn't long before Isfandiyar, perhaps the most naturally-curious of the group, sampled a bit of its blood. In that moment, he had an odd revelatory feeling, as if some bind passed from his mind. He informed the group, and everyone had a few drops of the blood, thus clearing their minds.

At the conclusion of this, with bloody cuts still lining the floor of the oasis-atoll-beast, there was a tremor, and the whole of the oasis shook for a several long moments. The crew opted to leave immediately, but Hanid had other ideas.

He cut down every tree on the oasis, and began building several long pyres across the top of the hill, cutting long trench-like cuts in the beast's flesh, and then dousing the pyres in kerosene. After the third trench was cut, another tremor shook the oasis, and so Hanid wisely opted to set his existing pyres aflame, and run for the ship.

This time, the tremors didn't cease; the quaking continued, and a long dull roar began emanating from within the oasis. Some of the animals began to scatter, but others remained, stupefied. As the ship pulled away, the whole of the oasis and surrounding hill lifted up out of the sand, quaking, and then sunk with a roaring crash deeper into the sand, forming a huge pit. Sand began to rush and whirl around this pit, coalescing into a rapid whirlpool, pulling the Invisible Hand with it.

Rahmuna and Saranah, both still recovering from the oasis water, wrestled desperately with the helm, doing everything they could to bring the ship back on course, out of the whirlpool of sand. With the roaring still around them, the two helmswomen managed to wrest control and use the whirlpool's own speed to break free of its grasp and launch themselves away from the pit.

Reaching Khalkadinn
As if G_d was offering them some recompense, two days after the oasis, just a day out from Khalkadinn, it rained. It was only for an hour, and the rainfall wasn't heavy, but still—it rained. Barring a failed attempt to hunt sand turtles and a run-in with some spidery crabs drawn by the rain, there wasn't any more trouble.

The next morning, the crew reached Khalkadinn, the city built on a marshy oasis, sprawling and wide, long oppressed by its neighboring cities, Qasira and Din Deresh. As the Hand reached the city, the crew split up, first to sell off their wine and scrapwood, and then to spend a few days taking in the city.

Saranah and Malik, now paid, opted to go and get stinking drunk as best they could—Rahmuna went with them, glad to take her mind off the troubles of the journey there. Nadeera elected to go find some of her old archaeological comrades, former classmates and professors, to learn about any new findings. Selb and Isfandiyar, faced with fending for themselves in an unknown city, tagged along with Nadeera, trying their best to get quite drunk while still not annoying Nadeera too badly. She learned that some set of ruins had just been discovered a few hundred miles to the northeast of, in a stretch of kiln sand.

Hanid, for his part, set out looking for a canter (sailors' term for magicians) who could locate crude rock oil in the desert; some canters can find water via magic, and Hanid hoped for the same, but for oil. No luck, however, not even a rumor. Instead, the next day, he went to the geological departments in some of the academies in Khalkadinn and, by expressing interest in faculty researched, ascertained the location of several distant oil locations.

The rest of the crew spent the second acquiring additional goods to sell, primarily honey. Khalkadinn is famed for its apiaries, and some of the nearby-ish towns, Habba and Khemu, might pay well for such luxuries.

Because the ruins Nadeera had learned of were located somewhere near those two towns, a plan was made: the crew would set sail to the nearer of the two towns, sell a chunk of their honey, go to the ruins and investigate, then head to the second town to sell the rest of their honey. From there, they'd see what goods they could acquire, and figure out their next location.

Habba and Beyond
After picking up some passengers to earn a few extra coins, the crew set sail for Habba. It was only about two days' journey there, and those days were largely uneventful. The second night, however, an odd phenomenon occurred: sparkling lights. in green and blue and pink, appeared across the surface of the cooled sand. First it was just ones and twos, then a dozen, then suddenly hundreds and thousands of these tiny twinkling lights appeared all across the sand. Beautiful, in a strange and somewhat-alien way. None of the crew were quite sure what these lights were; some speculated they might be tiny insects, others thought perhaps some kind of plant, or even just magical glowy grains of sand.

The following morning, the Hand reached Habba, and a chunk of honey was sold. After restocking with a bit of food and water, the crew set out eastward for a large stretch of kiln sand. Kiln sand is dense, heavy, and crusty, almost more like dried clay than proper sand. It can support a huge amount of weight during the day—nigh on 300 pounds—but is so dense that ships are slowed significantly while sailing through it. It's beloved by travellers and soldiers and settlers, but hated by sailors. Still, the crew had to pass through it to reach the dungeon, and so onto the kiln sand they went.

Barring a strange message-in-a-bottle covered in distant foreign runes, the first thing encountered was an old ruined tower, crumbling and weathered. Inside, there was a strange figure, squat and heavy, made entirely of rough-hewn sandstone. The crew attempted to talk to this figure, and realized quickly that while this figure was very much alive and extremely talented in molding sand, it was also extremely grumpy and not very talkative. Nobody quite knew what it was, though legends of sand-fairies that grant wishes or curses are well known.

Hanid and Nadeera both spent a while talking to this figure, and Hanid, ever the ambitious member of the crew, made a deal: if he could take a perfect sand sculpture and make it more beautiful through fire and glass, the sandstone-fairy-thing would owe him a wish. If Hanid tried to make this sand sculpture more beautiful but failed, he would owe the sand fairy ten years of servitude. The squat stone creature gave Hanid a small, perfect cube of sandstone, and told him he had a year and a die.

After leaving the strange creature and its tower behind, the crew nearly ran afoul of a sandstorm. Sandstorms in kiln sand won't choke or drown like other sandstorms, but will instead heave huge clumps of clay-like sand through the air, whizzing and hurtling like cannonballs. Rather than try to brave this, the crew attempted to instead outrun the sandstorm, sailing as quickly as they could perpendicular to it.

The gamble paid off, and while they suffered heavy winds and were coated in clay and sand, the crew managed to avoid the worst of the storm, reaching the edge of the ruins at the end of the day.

This ran longer than expected, sorry. Hope you enjoy it regardless.


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