Overview of the adventure
The protagonists are hired as guards by two river-merchants from Deliverance who have a letter of introduction to one of the Houses of Sardonyx. Once in Sardonyx, the merchants find their plans for trade foundering, and decide to steal a casket of priceless gems. The entire party is forced to flee across the desert west of Sardonyx, where greed and the self-preservation soon take their toll on civilized conduct.
[This section can be read or paraphrased to the players.]
After your last adventure you spend some time in Tamary looking for employment to take you back downriver to Deliverance. A few days later you are shopping for food in the market. It is still early morning, but already the bustle of traders and carts has raised a choking red dust from the city streets. Sweltering in the heat, you are finally forced to take refuge in the shade of a tea-seller's awning where you order a refreshing flask of the local tekoa brew.
While sipping this sweet aromatic tea you are approached by two men who have the look of river-merchants. They smile and nod, then seat themselves on stools beside you. The tea-seller scurries to take their order, but one of them tosses him a couple of silver Gentins and waves him away.
"Allow us to make our introduction," says this man. "I am Sootan Rinder and this is my brother Seedob. We are merchants from the coast, as you may have guessed from our garb." He indicates his thick fustian tunic, adopting a rueful smile as he mops his damp brow with a silk handkerchief. "Not entirely appropriate for this clime, but it is important to present a prosperous image in our line of business."
"Let's come to the point," interjects Sootan, who is clearly less patient and easy-going than his brother. "We hear you've been looking to sign on a boat heading downriver. But how about upriver? My brother and I, we did a service for an old Sardonny who lives down Lamentation way. Got him out of a spot of bother. The fact is it was us that got him into the bother in the first place, but there you are. Anyhow, being so grateful and all, this fellow gave us a letter of introduction to his family in Sardonyx. We're going to see if we can establish a trading depot there. It would be the first Sovereign depot established in Ancient territory, so we're talking big business. Other merchants around here have got wind of it and are getting green with envy – poisonous green. That's why we need guards with a good rep to see us safely in Sardonyx. People like you."
He grins and puts a fat bag of gold dust on the table in front of you.
Everything these two have said is true. They are prepared to pay the protagonists eight Argurs a day each, plus shares in any spoils that happen to accrue along the way. By "spoils" they mean any plunder there might be from river-pirates or the like. They are not offering a share in their mercantile profits, and they will make this very clear. They have a legal document which sets out at length the full terms of employment. This is binding throughout the Sovereign states. Unless one of the protagonists has the Lawyer skill, assume that the Rinder brothers can use this document to get their own way in any dispute over contractual arrangements. This means that the protagonists will be assured of 8 Argurs a day and a sixteenth share of spoils (the minimum recognized as "a share" in law) but nothing else.
Sootan is quiet, even-tempered and thoughtful. He is the brains of the team, and often needs to exert a calming influence on Seedob, who is the more charismatic and abrasive of the two. Both have no loyalty other than towards each other, and will cheerfully treat any companion or employee as expendable if they perceive a chance to turn a profit.
They have a team of low-class servants to act as bearers and have chartered a barge for the journey to Sardonyx. This is crewed by ten Tamary boatmen who should be treated as average 6th level Swordsmen in the event of trouble. In addition, the Rinder brothers are accompanied by a bodyguard called Hodansyr Pallisade.
Hodansyr belongs to an impoverished cadet branch of one of Deliverance's noble families. He is an expert swordsman and a feared veteran of many duels, but he is an alcoholic. The brothers know that as long as they keep him away from the bottle they can rely on him for their personal security, but they need men and women of the protagonists' caliber to see to the more unusual obstacles that might arise. Portray Hodansyr as a foppish dandy, fastidious about his looks and ever ready to erupt into hot temper at the slightest hint of an insult to his honor.
THE JOURNEY UPRIVER
Though the players will hopefully be anticipating trouble, have the voyage to Sardonyx pass without serious incident. You could throw in some minor encounter if your players need the exercise, but remember that the main thrust of the storyline revolves around the transformation of this venture from a simple trading expedition to a raw, tooth-&-claw struggle for survival. Any significant threats arising before they reach Sardonyx would only dilute the effectiveness of the plot.
The journey takes about a week. For most of this time there is nothing for the protagonists to do as the boatmen have everything in hand. The weather is idyllic: a cloudless blue sky overhead, sparkling amber river and fertile green fields to either side. A gentle breeze prevents the heat from becoming too stifling. They can spend the days dozing on the deck, fishing, drinking, chatting to the Rinder brothers and gambling with Hodansyr. Most of the protagonists will probably be able to swim, and this is an ideal way to cool off in the hottest part of the day, just before lunch. The Scarab River is in fact inhabited by crescta: river-dwelling carnivorous reptiles looking something like a ray or a waterborne pterodactyl. These might give chase to a swimmer and supply a moment's frisson of fright. Players could believe their characters do be in real danger, but in fact you should ensure that the crescta's prey manages to scramble back on board before the creature catches him. Such an encounter will be more effective if it ends with a snapping of frustrated fangs and a gale of relieved laughter than if you turn it into an underwater battle like something from a Tarzan film.
As the barge travels upriver, they pass the fields where the Ancients' habdigar thralls work at the complex irrigation systems devised long ages past. The protagonists will have seen habdigars before, but to see them teeming in groups, engaged in such a commonplace activity as farming, sets them in a cultural context which to humans must seem eerie.
Eventually, around midmorning on the fifth day out from Tamary, they round a bend in the river and catch their first glimpse of Sardonyx. Coming into view to on the starboard bank there are the extensive poppy fields from which the drug omatique is produced. Beyond lies the city itself, its white and rose towers slender as needles against the clear azure sky. In the far distance, miles beyond the city, a line of silvery grey demarks the arid plateau of the western desert.
Part 2 in two days.