I told the Nauripides Daughters story again, only this time it saved my life. It saved all our lives, actually.
I’m getting ahead of myself, as usual. Let me start over.
(And for the record, I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing these journal entries to you, Mother Evette. I mean, we are heading to Tyr and everything, only I’m certain that when we make it across these bleached Tablelands – if we make it across this blasted landscape, that is, and based on today’s events, that outcome seems unlikely – I’m not likely to show you this journal. If I do, though – or if by happenstance my remains and their effects make it to you and your house – know that I had you in mind as I was writing these words, both because of what happened, but also because of what you said so many moons ago…but, again, I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Nibenay after dark was bustling. Sage’s Square filled with countless citizens, rich and poor, all thankful for the relief from the day’s oppressive heat – a record, according to the quickly spreading rumor. I was simply content to drink it all in, thankful myself for the almost moderate temperature, as well as the booze, which was plenty, and the women, who were likewise.
I quickly found myself drawn to the western edge of the square, where I caught a sight most strange: beyond market sights familiar was a stage with a couple of troubadours busking for the crowd’s delight. Or I should say for the crowd’s near delight. This odd pair – a gaunt, tall, ashen-faced man delivering a series of strange tales of sights and details so familiar yet faintly wrong was standing alongside an alabaster-skinned lute player, so intent on the fingerwork on the struts of her instrument that she never seemed to notice the crowd throwing more ceramic in front of her over her companion. For my money, however (though not literally, for I wasn’t given the chance, as you’ll soon see), the ashen-faced man’s tall tales – of plentiful forests, a moderate sun, and other unusual, fantastical delights – were going unnoticed and unloved by the crowd, and as I was going approach him to tell him so, I felt a heavy-handed slap-tapping on my shoulder.
Wheeling around, I saw a face familiar to me – Komec, as it turned out; uncle’s fourth wife’s brother, or somesuch. I remembered him vaguely through my dehydration and diminishing drunk, but he smiled, reminded me, quizzed me on my stay in Nibenay, and ribbed me for not seeing him sooner. He was blithely ignorant – and, to be honest, remains so – of your advice to me, following Razul’s challenge: that a man, a Sandstone man, needs to find his own way in the world. I was trying to live by your words, Mother Evette, honestly, and that was why my week-long stay in the city had remained largely unannounced.
Regardless, Komec invited me to grog and conversation, and he talked promise and power when I intimated that I was striking out on my own. He brought up my Incident, briefly, which I shrugged off, and when the conversation returned to my desire to make a name, he began mouthing off about Tyr and the recent unrest there. Komec being Komec – boisterous, belligerent, with that belly-aching laugh that shakes the table when he overstresses it – we quickly attracted attention, particularly that of a lanky Elven female.
She insinuated herself in our conversation, particularly at the mention of enslavement, and things between her and Komec quickly became heated. Before I knew it, the Elf had Komec against a wall, hand tight around his throat, and Komec quickly responded with a blade pressed against her ribs.
I was, to be perfectly honest, shell-shocked.
I knew I was no match for this Elf, even if it was Komec and myself facing her, but I also knew this scene of revelry and joy could soon turn sour. Komec and the Elf exchanged words, and eventually the posturing ended and we all sat. This Elf, Kahvi by name, was interested in knowledge of her enslaved tribe who hailed from Tyr; Komec implied such knowledge, but it came at a price of a hundred gold – a price I thought steep, but a price I was hoping the Elf would pay, as the scenario had me intrigued.
After excusing himself for a brief spell, I engaged Kahvi to offer her some exchange, since I had an interest in making it to Tyr myself and would need a guide, having never made it past the Stormclaws. Komec quickly returned, interrupting our conversation and bottom-lining it all – he would offer us five-hundred gold apiece for Kahvi to lead me in an expedition across the Tablelands, with the promise of more gold when we report back to him the state of play in Tyr. Having done all that, his only other condition was a job-to-be-named later.
With the job laid out, Komec explained the information Kahvi sought – that he knew of an Elven tribe from around the time and location she described; she pressed him for information about a “little jewel” he described at the auction, one who, as it turned out, had stark-white hair and was sold to a prominent family in Tyr, the Dyans, for some…nefarious purposes.
Hearing little more than “gold,” I’m sure, the alabaster lute-ist and her storyteller – Anansi and Pan, I’ve come later to discover – insinuated themselves into our conversation, offering their services. When their apparent skills of lute-playing and storytelling were dismissed, they insinuated more…devious skills, to which Komec asked for a demonstration.
Offering a mystery at first, Anansi directed our attention to a waitress, left with her down an alley, and then the waitress subsequently returned – speaking with Anansi’s voice. If you can believe it, Mother Evette, then your skepticism is weaker than mine and I was there!
Regardless, it seems Anansi has the power to become other people in physical form – some sort of arcane metamorphosis which one is more likely to read about in the histories than to see in real life.
This power demonstrated, and Pan’s intimated at but vouched for by Anansi, we had our party. The particulars of our journey escape me as of this writing – I was deep into my third or fourth mug of grog by this point and, other than setting the agenda of meeting by first light for provisions and reconnoiter, I have only a vague recollection of how that first evening with Komec ended beyond my offer of my share to the minstrels.
At the time of this writing, though, I’m only sure of the events of the next morning – this morning – and the rest of this horrible, horrible day.
I pause in my narrative at this moment to remind you of the events of last year – of Razul’s birthday festival, my house arrest following the Incident, and the last time you and I spoke before your departure to Tyr and everything that’s transpired since then.
You remember, don’t you Mother?
It was one of Razul’s lavish affairs, trying to get all of Balic to celebrate the wonder that is him. I felt fortunate that the culminating festivities were held at our family villa, since my punishment following the Nauripides sisters was four months in the villa with little contact from the outside world, and I was still weeks away from that particular enforcement being lifted – the Veiled Alliance isn’t kind when their patrons are…wronged, are they?
We met in the library, if you recall. Shelves filled with more books than I can ever recall seeing anywhere before, or since. Razul’s desire for possessions as a show of wealth and success certainly overwhelms his intellect – many of the spines cracked as I opened them and read them, having settled since their original owners and writers bound them to begin with.
You met me in there, we exchanged pleasantries, and you immediately started in on the Incident. But what you said to me that night, I’ll never forget – and it actually led to my conversation with Razul, his obsidian gift to me, and started me on the year-long journey that led to the fantastic events of the day.
You said, “Samael…Sam. Sandstone men are a greedy, lustful sort – their hearts are set on the moment, their minds set on self-interests, their hands on whatever feels most soft, most pleasant, most comforting. Temporary things, Sam. Now before you object, before you counter with what the Nauripedes sisters meant to you in your heart, before whatever false platitudes and excuses you’ve been giving yourself and everyone else these past few months, consider this:
“Mathias Sandstone – this house’s founder – thought moves ahead. He saw the way the Balic houses were going to shift power between themselves and he made sure – he charted his path – to ensure his safety no matter the outcome. His savvy – and it was savvy I saw in your uncle, Razul, when we first met – was to see the opportunity, the potential business to be found in the writing on that wall.
“He was a man who charted his own path, Sam. And in doing so, he founded his own house.
“He wasn’t full of excuses; he didn’t offer any bribes to city Templars to forget about embarrassing details of erdlu; he didn’t allow rumors to exist beyond him simply because he was a bored, pampered little brat.
“He found his own way in the world. And I think you should live by that example. And if you live by that challenge, I promise I’ll do the same – and we will meet again, in a year, to see how well we both have lived up to that.
“Think you can do that, Sam?"
The morning light was barely breaking.
I was haggling with a vendor over the price of day rations, hoping to knock a few coin off here and there, but figuring Komec’s name would bring the prices above fair market value. Packing my purchases, I looked across the dusky, dewed square to witness my-soon to-be companions:
Pan, convincing a kank herder to purchase a strange creature Pan called a “horse” – a sort of long-faced, four-legged mount, looking capable of a rider, some provisions, and speed, but probably not built for the Tablelands;
Kahvi loading her kank with fat saddlebags, so full and prepared that it looked almost overloaded, with little room for a rider;
Anansi, arguing with a small, long-tailed Tyrian monkey – whom we had met the night previous, knocking over a stall and scaling a building to its rooftop, fruit and tobacco in hand, arms raised in victory. This was Professor Monkeyarty, as Anansi had explained, an odd name, I thought, and an odder monkey, one who’s painfully addicted, as it turns out, to smoke.
These were the people whose lives I was leading into certain danger, and whose lives I was entrusting with mine.
This should have been my first warning.
That said, the day started out strong, with Kahvi leading us through the morning- and noon-day sun toward Bremil Pass, from which, she assured us, she could lead us west across the Tablelands, shaving a few days from what was certain to be a twelve-day journey to Tyr.
It was Bremil Pass, however, where all the trouble started…
Riding through the cool of the pass, with the two-o’clock sun at our sides, we came on Bremil Pass and a guard tower lying in wait at a choke point in the terrain. As we rode up, the guard stopped us, surveyed us, asked for our point of origin. When we told him Nibenay, his mouth creased into a smile and he demanded gold from us each as a new, regional tax being imposed on the tower.
Anansi, quick with a bargain or a bluff, engaged this extortionist guard, after a quick, whispered consultation among many of us familiar with the area yet unfamiliar with the tax. Our attempts to sway him, to let him pass, even to offer up the family name as an example of our influence were for naught, and as we were trying to decide the next move, that move was decided for us.
Just as Anansi noticed Professor Monkeyarty was absent from the party, we heard a commotion, noticed an arrow whizzing past us from the second story window, and saw his little monkey body scurry up to the roof of the guard tower, clutching what appeared to be a cigar box to his chest the way a mother would cradle and infant from a burning building. As soon as we could yell at Monkeyarty to stop his…ahem, monkeyshines…the battle was joined.
The extortionist guard took a swipe at Anansi, felling her with one blow knocking her prone to the ground; his fellow guards, including a Captain, quickly filed from inside the tower and began to take positions; Kahvi darted forward, and she began to engage two of the guards only to get knocked down herself; inexplicably, Pan — who was riding beside my own erdlu mount and myself — disappeared in a puff of smoke, the smell of brimstone, and a flash of black light, only to reappear a few yards away, engaging with a guard at the furthest flank on the battlefield.
Feeling emboldened and fresh, I took a shot at Anansi’s foe, striking my quarry with an initial hit from my greatbow. Even with two companions down, my first strike was making me feel enlightened, making me feel battle-ready, making me feel bold and decisive. I offered a few inspiring words to my companions, hoping that my encouragement would help them back to their feet, hoping that shouting formations I had read in my studies in the stacks would help turn the tide against these five, lone, human guards.
Do you remember, Mother Evette, the summer when I was twelve and I stayed with you and Razul when the two of you still lived in the villa on the eastern edge of Balic? How Razul kept me with Icher, his mul master-at-arms, during the bulk of my days, and all I did whinge and complain bitterly about the heat, and I would beg and plead for the shade and the cool of Razul’s library, of the crisp feeling of parchment beneath my fingertips? And do you remember how Razul caught Icher, on a particularly blustery day, beating me with my own palmwood shortbow, the string snapped and slapping me like a whip? How he stood there, leaning against a pillar, watching this mul wail and wail at me with my own weapon? How I didn’t fight back, how disappointed Razul’s face was, and how he sentenced the mul to a death in the desert despite my failings?
I only mention this story, Mother Evette, because I wish now, today, that I had listened more closely to Icher, that I had heeded his teachings a bit better, that I had practiced my bowmanship as he taught me, and that I had learned to hit a target just a bit better.
My skills, Mother Evette, are sharp — I will give myself that much credit. And to their credit, I am able to be an effective leader of men — my time in some of Razul’s caravans over the last year has taught me that, rousing the troops against the odd baazrag or wild boar attack.
But facing five highly-trained Nibanese guards with nothing but a ragtag group of unproven mercenaries, scouts, and brigands? Not knowing if I would survive the next twelve days let alone the next twelve minutes?
Well, that must have affected my resolve more desperately than I thought, for each successive arrow I nocked, each fletching I let fly, flew further and further from the targets I called. Here, my battlemates were valiantly swinging — wildly in some cases, fighting for their lives — while I comically zig-zagged across the pass on the back of my preening crodlu, arrow-after-arrow missing the mark by inches and, oftentimes, by feet.
Embarrassing doesn’t begin to cover it.
I saw some amazing things in the midst of this battle, displays of courage from my companions that came from wellsprings I know not of — Anansi and Kahvi repeatedly being knocked back off their feet, fighting for their lives until they saw an opening for an attack or to regain their footing; Pan striking his foes using arcane methods, surrounding them with thick shrouds of shadow which would then explode around them like thunderheads breaking free; even the enemy, fighting for their lives, would strike boldly and bravely, swiftly changing angles of attack, taking every advantage at their disposal.
None of this — none of this — equals some of the sights I saw in the final moments of battle. You know I know of magic — Uncle Gamelin, as you well know, has his entertainment routine which he registers with the Veiled and keeps current and up to date, though I think it’s merely prestidigitation and charisma and not arcane forces; I had a friend who dabbled when I was still a boy; and, of course, the Nauripides incident involved some of that. Regardless, despite my limited experience with magic, the stories I’ve read and the things I’ve seen all pale in comparison to what I witnessed at Bremil Pass.
As if the teleportation wasn’t enough, I swear when I looked across the battlefield I saw this happen with my companion, Pan — as true as I am sitting here in a slaver camp, free as a bird, writing this entry to you, my dearest aunt. Pan was wounded, staggering, slumped, and breathing bloody bubbles but still bravely facing his foe, sword at the ready. At his enemy’s next strike — a blow I would swear to you should have ended Pan’s life where he stood — Pan readied his weapon and delivered a punishing blow in kind to the enemy…and then dropped dead where he was.
Knowing I had seconds to spare, I immediately steered my crodlu across the path and shouted my own impossibly worthless words of encouragement to Pan, someone who, I believe, has a more interesting story than anyone you or I know in the heavens and in the earth combined. I witnessed this man — this man who, hand to the dead gods, had just died, regain his footing, cast another black cloud over his foe, and proceed to explode those clouds and the person encircled within.
This was happening, by the way, simultaneously and concurrently to events which were technically closer to me, as Anansi yelled a curse at one of her nearby foes, seemed to summon dark energies to not only produce eldritch tentacles wrapping up said foe and felling him, before using that dark energy to teleport herself to the top of the tower next to her monkey. From that vantage, she rained down eldritch blasts on our foes — none of them effective as best as I could tell, but the confusion and the distraction proved a boon to Kahvi and myself once we engaged the remaining soldiers, including the Captain.
Kahvi dispensed a few of them once she found her footing, and Pan found his second wind by this point, wrapping his foe in clouds. She stood her ground, took aim at the Captain, and while hitting, knocking him back, and staggering him into the possibility of one of Anansi’s blasts, the Captain stood, wavering.
Ready to fall.
I steadied my greatbow, thought of Icher and the feeling of my shortbow cracking against my ribs. I held my breath. Steadied my aim further. And then released a shot which stood straight into the Captain’s right eye.
At this point, Pan’s foe exploded in a flash of searing blacklight, and the dust around the battlefield settled quietly among four…make that five dazed adventurers.
So if our day was one, why do my feelings sound so hollow? Why does my account ring so hopeless?
Soon after our pyrrhic victory, our party began a brief argument – largely between Anansi and myself, as she was interested in picking the place clean, Pan didn’t seem to care and Kahvi was staying largely aloof as well. Ultimately, I advised Anansi to loot the materiel that could largely stay untraceable – gold, odd assortments of innocuous goods, and the party decided that a cask of water would be advisable as well, which Kahvi strapped to her much-burdened kank.
I then advised Pan and Anansi, in no uncertain terms, that their magic usage needs to be curbed as much as possible – I knew full well what such unfettered displays of arcana would do to them, and to us for harboring them as well. Pan agreed in a sort of noncommittal way; Anansi barely acknowledged her agreement, as she worked a signet ring off the dead Captain’s corpse.
Watching her over the body of our fallen foe, I looked down at him, remembering his own lack of success in battle, his own frequent misses, and I wondered if one day Anansi would be working some trinket off of my own corpse.
I couldn’t linger too long in this reverie, as Kahvi alerted us to an advancing force – thirty-odd soldiers, she said, a detachment coming back from patrols, by the looks of it. Anansi took one look at Kahvi, one look at the dead Captain, and instantly shifted her looks like putty to appear as the Captain. Pan intuited her strategy, but pointed out that the body was right there, and wouldn’t the soldiers suspect something was amiss if a corpse and a person shared the same face?
Almost without thought, Anansi produced a small ampule of alchemical fire which she threw down, shattering it against the Captain’s chest and immediately catching the corpse in flames. I watched for a moment while my companions mounted their steeds, and then I likewise mounted mine as Kahvi led us west, skirting the northern edge of the Stormclaws.
Our path was treacherous, slowed somewhat by our scout doubling back to cover our tracks, or slow us down to find terrain ample to leave no trail. Pan and I covered for her while she was on our flank, and it was in the midst of this process that I spotted some tracks ahead of us and pointed them out to Pan.
We both examined them, but the best we could determine is that they were heading in the same direction as ourselves, they were numerous, and they were of mixed creature types. Not having much to go on, Pan and I stopped the rest of the party, while Pan went to retrieve Kahvi, to let her determine the nature of the tracks.
Slavers, she determined, pointing out the telltale signs of kank and shod human feet on the outside, joined by barefeet human tracks in the middle. She guessed a total party of about forty or so, half-and-half by number, with about eight kank riders astride.
Way, way, way too many to be a viable number for a physical confrontation.
We quickly decided on a plan of Kahvi scouting a half-mile ahead, following the trail which continued in the direction she was already leading us, with Pan taking up the middle signal position, while I kept Anansi and Monkearty company in the rear.
Evening was rising around us, the desert starting to cool, and this process was slow and tedious – particularly with a bickering changeling and monkey couple in tow behind me. After one of our many check-ins as a group, it was decided that we needed to make an end-around, try to take our path in a wider arc around the dunes to, hopefully, overtake our quarry and move on past them, putting a sizable distance between ourselves and the group we were following.
As dusk settled, Kahvi risked cresting a dune in order to get a sense of our position relative to theirs. In the fading light, she spotted some sentries silhouetted by the setting sun, only they spotted her immediately, too, and gave chase. She retreated back to the party, indicated a desire – nee, need – to run and run quick, and we harem-scarum retreated to the shelter in the lee of a neighboring dune, hunkering down and remaining deathly silent, hearing the maneuvers and searching of the sentries on the settling air behind us.
Night settled as we waited, all the light draining from the desert, with the only available light the poor-quality blue cast down from Ral, ascendant and full, and Guthay, in transition and one-quarter. I was virtually blind, and I imagine some of my other companions were as well, but given Kahvi and Pan’s level of alertness, I could only gather some natural abilities they possessed which I lack.
Just as things seemed to settle and our need to make a next move became apparent, Kahvi and Pan froze, trying to direct our attention to four kank spearmen cresting the dune to our north and settling on top. One of the three introduced himself as Tosh, the Captain of the contingent – known as the Dune Riders – and he asked our business.
Anansi, unprompted, stepped forward, still wearing the visage of the Bremil Pass Captain under her desert clothing. She introduced herself, in a male persona, as the captain of the guard tower, and tried to turn the conversation back on Tosh, insinuating his guilt in the party’s crimes. Tosh released a hawk into the night sky, and then engaged Anansi in conversation. He revealed the dead Captain’s name – Franco – and that he had just been fleeced by Franco and his men earlier that evening, and Anansi revealed her new visage – presumably just created – and name as ‘Ibenay,’ having just replaced Franco following today’s…incident.
Tosh remained skeptical of our story, buying into it some but seeing opportunity where we saw none – our hope was that Anansi’s bluff would convince him, and our story held water, but he kept pointing to myself and Pan as the odd-men out. He believed that ‘Ibenay’ would have a elven desert scout to help them on night maneuvers tracking down the arsonist raiders who took out the guard tower, but he didn’t buy why an odd pairing such as Pan and I would be with the group. He insisted we discuss the details back at camp, and in shackles.
At that moment, the hawk returned. And behind us, four more kank spearmen flanked us from the south.
We were destined to be enslaved, it seemed.
Without much of a choice, I stepped forward and introduced myself. Fully. Not being familiar with the Dune Riders at all, it seemed a fair possibility that Tosh would have worked for – if not directly, then indirectly – cousin Komec, and would certainly know Razul by reputation. Their association with slavers would have brought these guys into their influence at some point. Tosh immediately suspected me, asking for proof to my Sandstone heritage.
All I had was this obsidian knife Razul gave me, and the story attached to it. Neither of which impressed Tosh at all. Even namechecking Komec seemed points against us, as Tosh identified him as a filthy degenerate – an accurate description, and one I wasn’t apt to disagree with.
Just when all seemed lost, just when we could feel the bite of the shackles on our wrists, just when we could imagine the years of toil and pain that went with it, inspiration struck Tosh.
“You weren’t the Sandstone…the one with that incident, were you?” I knew exactly what he was talking about, Mother Evette. My biggest brag; my biggest shame. He started relating fragments of the story – the fragments that he had heard. I’ve heard enough variations to know which version he was familiar with – the strain that left out some of the Veiled details, but the one that added in the deviance and the erdlu. Names seemed fuzzy for him, so I figured concubines would do, and I knew exactly the story he wanted to hear – no matter how far from the facts it may have been.
He insisted we come back to camp, that I tell the story to his other slavers, that we have a jolly good time. He insinuated that I would, for certain, be his guest, and I made sure to vouch for my companions as well – valiant men, women, and monkeys who had ultimately saved my life that afternoon, and whose lives I had saved likewise.
I couldn’t abandon them to this…man.
So we returned to his camp. We put on a good show. As entertaining as it was – Anansi’s lute accompanying my ribald details which seemed to shock, horrify, and titillate the slavers as well as some of my companions; Pan provided some colorful interjections which, to be quite honest, weren’t entirely inaccurate while also being…creative…well, I couldn’t help but let my gaze drift to the twenty-odd, shackled figures sitting just outside the firelight, eyes burning hate into the sand as their naked figures shivered in the dropping temperatures of the night.
I could tell many of them, Kahvi in particular, were eaten away by such a sight, and it was a sight that, by all rights, I should be used to as well. So here I sit, having been relieved of first shift guard duty this first night with my new companions, in a slaver camp taking in their…hospitality…feeling dirty and wrong and sick about it all. I can’t sleep, so I thought I’d write to you, knowing that I’ve taken my first step. Knowing that heading towards Tyr, regardless of what Komec has in store for us, is the right thing to do, if only so that we can keep our appointment. Most of all, though, it’s knowing how close I was to enslavement – in spite of my family name, even – so I know that this business of ours…of Razul’s, of Komec’s…well, in many ways, it strikes me as a dangerous one to be in, right?
After all, every man charts his own path.