Chapter 1- A Growing Shadow Falls Across the Land
Our story begins with the desert ranger Kahotep wandering through the Grand Bazaar of Zusu. Dazzled by the swirling colors, sights, sounds, smells and press of humanity, so different from his scorched and empty desert home, Kahotep takes it all in with one hand on his small pouch of silver and a bemused expression on his face. Stopping to sample a delicacy, candied scorpions, he notices a bedraggled boy of perhaps 10 summers scurrying through the crowd, a wrapped package clutched tightly to his chest. Kahotep is startled when the boy, looking over his shoulder, runs headlong into his chest. The boy stares wide-eyed up at Kahotep and then, making a decision, presses the package into his hands, whispering, “Give this to Big Matta. Please.” Then he is gone.
Only a heartbeat later, four big bruisers come into the courtyard, pushing their way past the crowd, weapons drawn. The leader’s eyes fall on Kahotep and he demands the package. A brief scuffle ensues during which Kahotep uses his dervish dance to make the men look foolish, stumbling over each other and knocking over stalls. The fight is joined by a mysterious thief named Sliver who was also tracking the package and Tandaji, who was waiting for delivery of the package to his boss, Matta Isef, only a block away. The thugs are defeated; the leader is left alive for questioning, but he is struck by a poisoned needle from the crowd before he can give away his bosses. The other thugs know nothing.
After the fight, Tandaji explains that the package belongs to his employer and the other two should come along to meet her in case there might be a small reward for their help. Since both Kahotep and Sliver have an interest in the contraband artifact trade, they agree.
Matta Isef is a large, imposing Sphinxblood and madam of the largest brothel in Zusu. She is both wealthy and connected, although her tastes in makeup and clothing can strain the eyes. She receives the package, and questions Kahotep and Sliver, finding out more about them than either of them intended to give away. Eventually, she offers them the hospitality of the brothel for the rest of the afternoon and an invitation to dinner that evening.
Later that night, a small group of people are gathered for a sumptuous feast. In addition to the hostess Matta and the bodyguard Tandaji, Kahotep, Sliver, and hard-looking man named Muwaqqit are in attendance. Matta makes small talk, seemingly oblivious to the fact that most of her guests are dour and silent.
After dinner, the group adjourns to Matta’s private quarters, which Tandaji considers very strange, especially when he notices that she has no other security. She assures him that it is part of her plan. After everyone is settled, Matta reveals the purpose of the meeting. She feels that a shadow has fallen over the land; she is not sure of the end game, but there are disturbing trends in the slave trade, artifact trade, government and religion in Ath-Thurraya, and she is looking for people to investigate. She senses that it is all connected and may be a unified plan to destroy Ath-Thurayya. At worst, Matta will find out what is going on and the characters have a chance to resolve some personal concerns; at best, the investigation might disrupt something sinister that could threaten the Blooded and the stability of the region. All agree to the pact, and Matta reveals that she has heard of a junk merchant, Oman Ri, who might know something about the artifact trade.
The group descends on the junk shop of Oman Ri, a cluttered mess of lamps, decorations and other furnishings. They start to question Oman about his involvement in the artifact trade, and when he is reticent, they use the bad cop/worse cop strategy, reducing him to a blubbering coward. Just before he can spill his guts, the group is attacked by blow-gun and kukri-wielding assailants who managed to sneak past their sentries. It soon becomes clear that these are a different group of attackers; less thug, and more acrobat-assassin, and their target is Oman Ri himself. Once the group realizes that the attackers are trying to kill Oman Ri for the information he might share, they rally around him. Several assassins are knocked out, a few are killed and the rest flee. It is discovered that the assassins are bolstered by some kind of ritual magic; there are unfamiliar symbols written on their foreheads. Unfortunately for the assassins, it appears that in addition to whatever else the symbols might do, they are also a safeguard to prevent questioning, for when the symbols fade, the person dies.
Oman Ri is saved from death, but only barely. He eventually is well enough to explain that his job was just to hold the artifacts. They were delivered by people coming down the river or from the desert and picked up by agents not unlike the men who attacked the group. The group is housed at a warehouse down by the docks and their leader is one of those despicable pirates from the Shark Spur Islands. Where the artifacts are taken from there, he does not know. Oman does admit that he is probably already in trouble with the pirate, since he sold one of the artifacts he was holding to the agents of the Vizier a few days ago. The group shakes him down for the one remaining artifact he has on the premises, a brass plate with ancient writing on; according to Muwaqqit’s innate knowledge, it is a portion of some powerful illusion spell from the time of the Wizard-Kings.