It was an ordinary day in Northport. With the nightmare of the city’s destruction in the back of his mind, John Carmichael tried to focus on his daily routine running a private investigator’s office. They had a variety of cases and jobs — tailing the Carringtons, keeping an eye out for gifted youngsters, chasing the Angel Killer, and trying not to get devoured by an ancient nightmare curse. So it was a welcome distraction when John’s cover identity of “Severus Snape, Doctor of Antiquity” received a note from his colleague, Dr. Orlen Strickland. “Meet me ASAP at my office. Urgent business.”
At the university, the well dressed and awkward Professor Snape sat down to discuss business with Dr. Strickland. The older gentleman closed the blinds and conspiratorially checked the room for spies and eavesdroppers. Satisfied that they were not being watched, he produced a manilla envelope and dumped its contents onto his desk: a series of black and white photographs. “These came in from the Southwestern provinces, just this morning.” They depicted a dusty street in a dusty desert town by a train depot. Eventually they showed a small store and several artifacts, including a double-headed eagle key, obsidian mask, magnetite figurines and other curiosities. Dr. Strickland explained that these were Zoquian artifacts from the last expedition of the legendary adventurer, Edmund McHarrold. Oren shared the sordid tale…
After the Great Conflict, Edmund McHarrold emerged not only as a war hero, but as a famous adventurer. He traveled all over the world, riding the steppes, battling raiders and brigands, and sailing every sea. More than anything, Edmund was famous for finding the tombs of pharaohs and kings. Eventually this led him to the greatest lost civilization of them all — the Sunken Circle of Tlacaelel, the Last Zoquian Emperor. The sinking of the circle was said to be a prophetic foretelling of the Zoquian Empire’s fall after they fell into decadence.
Edmund traveled all over the jungles searching for clues. He found two key artifacts — the Key of the Thunderbird and the Mask of Zoque. Each of them contained poetic references to a particular arrangement of stars. With the complete poem, one could calculate when and where the stars would appear in that exact configuration and thereby deduce the location of the legendary Sunken Circle. All he needed was the last of the three great artifacts — the Jade Jaguar, an axe of extraordinary beauty.
On his last expedition, Edmund left in a hurry. He traveled to the south and boarded a now infamous vessel, the Rampant Froth, certain that he’d deduced the secrets of the Sunken Circle. His voyage was highly secretive, but what is certain is that the worst hurricane in recorded history blew in off the ocean right as he arrived in the southern continent. Nobody ever heard from or saw Edmund McHarrold again.
Oren believes that Edmund had found the Jade Jaguar and was racing to the secret location of the Circle when his ship encountered disaster. The photographs, recently acquired, revealed that Edmund passed through the border town of Liyota before leaving for his destination, where he consulted with a mysterious local. This new clue could reveal where Edmund was looking, lead to the discovery of his expedition’s remains, and perhaps to the Sunken Circle itself.
“Dr. Snape” agreed to join the expedition as the Zoquian expert, but they would need funding and other personnel. Aloysius Carrington expressed interest in the operation, and Dr. Strickland secured his financial support in exchange to access to their findings. To lead the team, they turned to the famous contemporary explorer for hire, Ian Fletcher. Dr. Strickland arranged a meeting at a fancy restaurant.
Ian was used to these sorts of arrangements — escort a bunch of bookworms somewhere dangerous, make sure they can do their bookworm thing, go home, get paid, get laid. He didn’t assume too much about Dr. Snape when they were introduced. Fletcher had a strong knowledge of Zoquian and Pre-Zoquian antiquity, combined with street smarts and survival skills. He’s interested in knowledge for its own sake but finds academics impractical.
In the middle of their discussion, an uninvited guest introduced himself. With a charming accent and a gorgeous dame on his arm, Ian’s notorious rival treasure hunter, Drakken Devries, exchanged quips with the expedition leaders. He let them know that he was aware of their endeavor and intended to get there first. “I’m not sure which is better,” he smirked, “you think you’ll find the Sunken Circle at all, or that you think you’ll get there first!” Ian retorted: “That’s some nice looking company you’ve got there Drakken. Lot more wholesome than your normal partner. They know about each other?”
Observing silently, John found Drakken’s beautiful companion troubling, and not only because of how she fit into that dress. There was an air about her, compelling and attractive, clear signs of wealth and confidence, but something else—something overwhelmingly hungry. He couldn’t place it before the two made their departure. Upon inquiring, John learned that Drakken Devries is not only a treasure hunter — he’s the companion of the mysterious and fearsome Castor, an undead gunslinger whose brutal efficiency inspired horror stories throughout the world.
Oren and Ian glowered at each other. Somewhere in their circle of confidants, there was a mole; how else would Drakken know about their secret expedition? Oren promised to investigate the museum board to see what he could learn, and urged Ian and Snape to hurry. “If Devries is after the same quarry, I’m going to need a team— the best of the best.” Dr. Snape humbly recommended the services of one Chester Morton, a bounty hunter who’d worked as a body guard in the past.
Of course, Chester knew John’s identity of “John Carmichael, PI.” She also knew that John wasn’t exactly an ordinary private eye—after all, she’d participated in the raid on the Special Projects Pavilion. Right away, John let her know that he was doing this job incognito, and she gave it a shrug. Chester was on board as muscle.
The next recruit was Quincy Jean, an airplane mechanic who worked down in Dockside. When Ian and “Dr. Snape” arrived, Quincy was yelling at the other mechanics on his team. They were busy retrofitting airplane parts with experimental prototypes. Quincy wasn’t just a senior technician, he had a reputation for unique knack at the job. When Ian made Quincy an offer, the mechanic seemed reluctant—John picked up on subtle indicators that Quincy is hiding something. John tailed him to a hidden hangar at the airfield, where Quincy met with another inventor, Virginia Mumphrey. Some large craft was hidden under a tarp. Quincy told Virginia that he was going out of town for a while on a job—the payoff would be big, but she would need to “keep this going” while he was out. After settling those affairs, Quincy returned and agreed to go along as the expedition’s mechanic. John filed this little intrigue away for later, focusing on the task at hand.
At last, they were ready to find the Legend of Edmund McHarrold. The team loaded up a water plane, boat and other equipment on to a private train and set off across the Commonwealth. They passed through fields, over mountains, across forests and beyond rivers on their several-day journey to the arid Southwest. At high noon, just a few hours from the border town of Liyota, dust clouds emerged from the rocky desert hills — Jeeps! Desert bandits, wearing goggles and scarves to filter out the sand, descended on the train. Armed with submachine guns and dynamite, they tried to jump on board the train, blow apart the couplings, and steal the equipment. Passengers ducked as bullets shattered the windows and explosions went off all around. It was all Quincy could do to keep the cars from being separated while Ian, Chester and “Dr. Snape” returned fire. The counterefforts were surprisingly effective — jeep after jeep keeled out of control, exploded, or fled. Nobody suspected supernatural assistance, for the Professor kept a low profile as he worked his magic. Ian suspected Drakken Devries’ for the attack.
They arrived in the small border town of Liyota, a place of dusty streets, telephone poles baking in the sun, adobe houses and oil wells. The expedition looked for the antiquities shop Edmund had visited years ago. On the way, John realized that they were being followed—not by Drakken’s hired thugs, but by professionals. Government professionals. This feeling never really went away, but nontheless they met with Celi Rain, proprietor of the Antiquities shop. Ian asked about the old expedition, and Celi confirmed that Edmund passed through many years ago, and that he had the Jade Jaguar. Celi’s father helped the explorer translate and decode the star charts, which led Edmund to a hidden cove to the far south. There, at high tide on a full moon, one could sail through the jungle to find the sunken circle.
John noticed a family portrait of Celi, an unknown husband, and a little girl with a fierce expression and no family resemblance to the Rains. Upon inquiry, he learned that the girl was a young Nancy Rain! Celi’s father found her on an expedition to the jungle, alone and being raised by wolves. The rains smuggled her back to the Commonwealth and raised her as their own until she left for Northport to become a police officer. The stories people told about Nancy were true! John filed this away for later and they departed for the jungle, switching to the boat they brought when the train reached the coast.
The star charts led them to a treacherous lagoon, filled with sharp rocks, hidden coral reefs, and a very unlikely number of large, hungry sharks. The wreckage of the Rampant Froth lay below. “Dr Snape” asked to be part of the diving party and was rejected — Chester, Quincy and Ian were to descend. Fuming, “Snape” retired to his quarters. IN reality, he worked up a sonic charm that drove back all the sharks, allowing the dive to proceed safely, then transformed himself with the power of the black dragon so he could enter the water safely and stealthily.
Strands of fate magic leaked from the old ship like an oil spill. John followed them to their source — the Thunderbird Key, the Mask of Zoque, and the Jade Jaguar, all found with the corpse of Edmund McHarrold. John analyzed the magic on them: they bore a powerful curse to anyone unworthy of their power. For some reason, John was not afflicted, so he quickly scooped them up and switched them for fakes (thanks to his briefcase). He fled before the real diving party could discover his presence, but just then, the party left up top spotted a zeppelin descending from the clouds! It bore the skull and crossbones insignia of Max Wreckage & Maisy Mayhem, infamous air pirates!
Biplanes launched from the zeppelin to attack the expedition. John returned to the surface, rising as a terrible beast wrapped in magic. Over the sound of Max Wreckage’s furious voice, amplified over the loudspeakers and shrilly screeching from above, John destroyed plane after plane, leaving the pilots to crash land (hopefully but not always away from the circling sharks!). To make things worse, the diving expedition had found the fake artifacts, but the shipwreck started sinking deeper, tossing them around. John teleported them to safety (still within the water) and vanished to avoid suspicion (but not confusion).
Max Wreckage cursed and vowed revenge as his zeppelin retreated. The diving party made it up to the surface thanks to Quincy’s ingenuity. The expedition sailed the damaged vessel into the swamp as far as they could before taking to the seaplane to cross one no-longer-passable section of swamp. They flew over clouds and mountains before beholding a sight nobody had witnessed in years: The Sunken Circle of Tlacaelel!