After paying off Anjalik's creditors, the group decided to head over to the space-port, which Anjalik identified as the largest center of civilization in the area. On the walk over, Anjalik explained a bit about how the Vrun (the largest local human population) now lived in the remains of an earlier and much more glorious civilization founded by their ancestors. She attributed this preference to the Vrun's generally obedient and literal-minded personalities. Slunk and Merope eventually came to understand that Star Port used to be a working dockyard for metal ships that came from the sky (like the Wrecked Ship,) but that it had been innumerable generations since anyone on Urutsk had the ability to fly between the stars. The Vrun now saw a return to their ancestor's former glory as a kind of species-level or civilizational project. The Star Port itself had been transformed into a major city, with old working buildings being repurposed into homes, government offices, and bazaars.
Upon arriving at Star Port, Anjalik offered to help the pair get "credit bracelets" that would track their finances, and to introduce them to some of the guilds and "caste-clans" that organized employment throughout the Port. Anjalik revealed that she herself was a member of both the "Free Scouts" and the "Red Blade" guilds, and offered to vouch for her new friends if they wanted to join. Merope decided to get inducted into the Free Scouts, and also gained a contact with the "Scout Services" who said they planned to keep an eye on her. Slunk was interested in the "Esoteric Order of Starry Wisdom," and found that the guild was quite interested in learning more about his travel between dimensions, and about the Red Cube that had brought him to Urutsk.
It was soon time for Anjalik to return to Trade Tower, but Slunk and Merope gifted her with a sliver chopstick-like wand she could use to create an illusion of black skulls, spiders, and bats. Anjalik was very pleased, and tucked the wand into her hair before departing.
Slunk and Merope explored a bit, including touring a bazaar inside a huge lobby-like room. They found that anything left over from the past was incredibly popular with the Vrun, in particular "Ancient Grains" granola bars.
The pair first visited the Esoteric Order of Starry Wisdom's guild headquarters, where Slunk shared more of his story and was invited to browse some of the guild's spell books. (Which resulted in both silt-blooded Slunk and ice-blooded Merope selecting spells from Wizards of the Coast's free Elemental Evil Player's Companion.)
Next they visited the base of the Free Scouts, who threw Merope an induction party that involved drinking a cloudy white hallucinogenic liquor. Merope drank deep from the ceremonial cup, and entered a dream trance where she described a "shining obelisk on the edge of the waters" and then pinned a marker to a map, revealing the location of the spot she had envisioned. This session drew to a close with Merope drifting into a stupor, while the Scouts around her raved about the accuracy and potency of her vision, and made preparations for her to travel to her dream site.
Merope awoke the next morning with a splitting headache, and found the Free Scouts still eager for her to initiate herself to their order by completing her dream quest. She and Slunk decided to hire a couple of mercenaries to join them, and after asking around a bit, settled on Lairnos (a proud young woman armed with a bow) and Vard (a slightly pudgy, devious looking man with a pair of knives.) They explained their plan to travel through the jungle to the Ancient site.
The group set out into Urutsk's jungle again, following the trail the Free Scouts had plotted to the location of Merope's dream site. Relatively early on, they were ambushed by a pair of brightly colored humans, one with orange skin and one with green. The green-skinned human was shorter, and reminded Slunk of the cannibal he'd met in the jungle. Merope, Slunk, and Lairnos quickly defeated the highwaymen, and realized that Vard had disappeared during the fight. They called out for him a few times, and he came loping back from the brush. He claimed that he'd been circling around to attack the bandits from behind, but had fallen in some quicksand. Merope and Slunk felt skeptical of Vard's story, but left him with Lairnos while they followed the trail he pointed out to them. A few minutes later, they found a pit of quicksand, seemingly vindicating Vard's story, although the friends considered him to be much more probationary than Lairnos.
They continued traveling, but were intercepted again, this time by a giant white scorpion, at least 30' tall. This was obviously an alien monster, and it reminded both Merope and Slunk of the robotic centipede they'd fought on the wrecked ship. The scorpion towered over them and both incredibly dangerous and heavily armored. Slunk and Merope quickly agreed that they couldn't hope to prevail in test of sheer strength, and that they'd have to out-think the alien with strategy. Unfortunately, the monster seemed to have some kind of psychic powers that let it anticipate and foil any plans the group made. Vard quickly gave up any pretense of loyalty, and openly ran for his life. Lairnos offered to retrieve or kill the cowardly man, but Merope and Slunk urged her to stay and help defeat the scorpion.
Finding themselves unable to penetrate the beast's armor with most of their attacks, Merope and Slunk hit upon a risky strategy of incapacitating it, by turning the ground beneath its feet to mud and then freezing it in place. This plan required both to spend dearly of their elemental blood, weakening them further, and the strategy failed with the monster danced out of reach just as the ground froze where it had been standing. In a last desperate attempt to stay alive, all three moved underneath the monster's belly, out of reach of its great claws and stinging tail. This last idea finally bought them victory, as they attacked the relatively vulnerable belly of the creature, while staying out of reach of its worst reprisals. A lucky break as Merope fired magical missiles at the monster allowed her to hit it with critical accuracy, and when combined with her mutant vision that let her see the microscopic weaknesses in things, the magical damage was too much for the beast to survive. Merope, Slunk, and Lairnos emerged shivering and on the brink of death from beneath the carcass just before it collapsed to the ground.
Merope tasted some of the alien meat, and believed that if she continued tasting unusual dishes, she might learn some resistance to dangerous substances. Slunk got Lairnos to help him carve huge flank steaks out of the beast, planning to offer them to the Esoteric Order, or sell them to the highest bidder back in the Star Port. Too weak and too tired to continue on their journey, the trio returned back to the city, wondering what had become of the traitor Vard.
Merope and Slunk didn't think much of their battle with the alien scorpion. It was a setback on their journey to the Shining Obelisk by Crystal Waters, certainly. It was yet more proof of how dangerous and untamed the wilds were here on the alien world of Urutsk. And perhaps, it was a relief to come away alive after their second encounter with one of the conquering aliens who had devastated human civilization here.
But to Lairnos, the battle was a revelation. She had just survived a battle that she should not have walked away from, against an alien enemy that no one who wasn't part of a guard battalion should have defeated. Her employers, although strange, were obviously much more competent than they appeared to be. These foreigners, who seemed ignorant of the Vrun and the Star Port itself, who seemed not to fully understand the importance of their victory, also must know more than they seemed to, maybe know more or different things than the Vrun themselves.
When Merope and Slunk went to market to resupply and hire more mercenaries, they found that rumors of their victory had spread across the Star Port overnight, fueled by Lairnos telling enthusiastic tales over drinks at the bar and by shoppers encountering the startling proof in the form of Slunk's discount scorpion steaks appearing alongside the other wares in the marketplace. Much quicker than they expected, the pair hired "Inky" (a heavily tattooed assassin type,) "Blinky" (a nervous fellow,) and Clyde (big, dumb Clyde.) Although they were nervous about whether or not Lairnos would rejoin them after the disaster the day before, they found her absolutely eager to resume the quest.
The newly enlarged group of adventurers set out on the same trail as the day before, following the route Merope had mapped on her dream quest. Near the site of their first ambush, they found a rusted out antique air car. The car was covered in vines, and inside, they saw the duplicitous Vard, looking pale and bloated like a corpse. The dead bodies of the orange and green assassins lay in the back seat, and Vard, despite being dead, also appeared to be moving and attempting to exit the car. The group doused the vehicle in lamp oil and setting it on fire.
Continuing on their way, they eventually came to the site of their battle the day before. The white shell of the scorpion was there, and the ground nearby was littered with the corpses of dead animals, all scavengers and predators that must have come to taste the alien meat. Slunk felt a little nervous about having wholesaled so much of the meat to the Star Port merchants, but their newest hires were simply staring in awe. "See, I told you," Lairnos whispered to the others, as she recounted the fight again for a breathless Inky, Blinky, and Clyde. Merope and Slunk began to appreciate that their exploits were having an effect on the local balance of power, and that the consequence-free life of the itinerant treasure-seeker might not be what was in store for them.
The group continued following the trail in Merope's mind, blazing a new path through the jungle. By evening, they arrived in clearing filled with ruined buildings and curling vines. They also spotted a large, slow-moving herbivore munching contentedly at the vines, and a jaguar-like predator stalking it. The predator looked annoyed when the group entered the clearing, and broke off its hunt to get away from the humans. Approaching the herbivore, the adventurers realized it was mildly psychic and mildly (very mildly) intelligent. "Nummy!" the herbivore said to them all telepathically, and nodded at and pantomimed eating a particular berry, "Nummy nums!" Merope decided to try one of the berries, and Lairnos followed her lead. Both discovered that the nummy berry made everything else around them smell and taste delicious. (And Slunk discovered that the berry had an intoxicating effect, seemingly reducing the intelligence of anyone who ate it. He tried to communicate this fact to Merope, but found her temporarily too impaired to understand.) Merope and Lairnos gorged themselves on rations, vines, and other local greenery, all while conversing with the contented herbivore. Slunk decided that the nummy berry might make an excellent cash-crop. He collected samples of the berry, vines, and roots, planning to start a garden back in the Star Port, and hoping to sell the berries as some kind of (expensive) novelty appetizer.
|The herbivore appeared somewhat menacing to Slunk ...|
|... but looked much friendlier to Merope.|