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Sunday, 23rd November, 2003, 09:23 PM #1
Gallant (Lvl 3)
Al-Qarin: Into the Desert (05-03-14)
Okay, this is my first attempt at a story hour. This particular world has served as the backdrop for five or six campaigns, some of which ended in complete character annihilation, others which just ended as players moved away. I'm currently playing the character Khalid, which is why the first part at least is written from his point of view. I'm writing a lot of this from memory, as we actually started the campaign a few months ago, but it's pretty close to the actual game sessions. Comments are welcome, and both the DM and I check the boards so we'll be more than happy to answer any questions. So sit back, and enjoy.
(PS: I wanted to call the thread Al-Qarin, a tale of Arcanomancers, Adventurosity and Ambition, but my DM wouldn't let me )
(PPS: I realized the chapters thing wasn't going to work in the title, so I changed it anyhow.)
* * * * * * * * *
CHAPTER 1: INTO THE DESERT
Khalid ibn Bahir, whose name meant eternal brilliance in the old tongue, sat in the gloom and stared at the pages before him, his brow furrowed in concentration. Around him were strewn the accoutrements of his art: musty tomes, quills and vials of ink, and pages upon pages of arcane formula scrawled out in his wavering script. Thick, acrid smoke hung heavy in the air, emanating from a bubbling pot suspended over a small charcoal brazier beside Khalid. The glow of the brazier and the feeble shafts of sunlight that poked through the slates of the ramshackle walls barely managed to light Khalid's tiny, dingy hovel. Slowly, like a man awaking from a deep sleep, Khalid straightened up in his chair and glanced around the room, aware for the first time of an incessant hammering on his front door.
"Ah, yes, who is it?" Khalid croaked, his voice hoarse after hours of silence.
"Khalid? Open up the damn door, it's Gorak. I've got your plants."
There was no mistaking the thick growl of Gorak, a long time business associate of Khalid's, and the closest thing he had to a friend. Khalid hurried to the door, an easy task considering the size of his tiny hovel and flung it open.
"Please, come, come. Yes, you have it? Two blooms, yes?" Khalid asked.
"Of course" Gorak growled, "picked fresh last night."
Gorak was forced to turn slightly as he entered, to fit his massive shoulders through the door. Standing beside Khalid, he was as night to day. Khalid was tall and slight, his hair shaved down to his scalp with a long flowing black beard squared off neatly at the bottom. Gorak was shorter, but twice as wide, with thick rippling muscles. He sported no beard, but his thick matted dreadlocks gave him a feral appearance, enhanced greatly by the thick tusks that jutted up from his lower jaw. His obsidian skin glistened in the morning sun that now flooded into the tiny one room shack. Gorak drew out two small flower blossoms from a small sack and handed them to Khalid.
"Ah, yes, excellent, these will undoubtedly further my research. Yes, quite."
"Research? So that's what that stench is." Gorak rumbled.
"Yes, ah, no, ah that is my lunch. Perhaps I could offer you some?" Khalid said as he moved towards the brazier.
"No thanks. This is Shayla by the way, she's an old friend of mine."
It was at this point that Khalid noticed a petite woman standing hesitantly outside the doorway. Her face was framed by a tumbling mass of auburn ringlets, which descended past her slender shoulders. Her green eyes seemed to sparkle of their own accord and her pert nose and generous lips made her undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women Khalid had ever seen. A stunning figure that was barely concealed or even contained by the flimsy silk halter and skirt she wore only magnified her beauty.
"Ah, yes, please come in, my lady. I am truly sorry that you must be forced to endure such deplorable surroundings, yes, quite, but, ah, I am a man of meager means I am afraid, yes, quite." Khalid stammered, his habitual stuttering increasing a notch.
"Oh, I don't mind." Shayla said as she practically glided into the room.
Even her voice is beautiful, thought Khalid, as he closed the door behind her, and then opened the shutters to allow more light into his tiny home. Gorak set down an enormous wicket basket beside one of the few chairs in the room, then sat down himself. The chair gave an ominous groan, but much to Khalid's surprise, didn’t shatter under his weight.
"Mind if I take Sousee out?" Gorak muttered.
"Ah no, not at all, yes ah…" Khalid replied hesitantly.
Sousee was Gorak's pet, a monstrously large snake that he took everywhere. "Ah, yes, I'll retrieve your payment, you had no trouble, I hope?"
"Naw. Dad's got the tribe camped out at the eastern oasis, and the stuff grows around there." Gorak's tribe, unlike most of his kin, had more or less permanently settled near the sprawling city of Gem-Sharad. They made their living hunting game for the great arena, and occasionally obtained rare plants and other items from the desert for wealthy sages and alchemists.
"Ah, yes, the price was five sultanas* I believe, yes?" Khalid fished the golden coins out of a pouch at his waist, and handed them to Gorak.
"Ya." Gorak absently bit one of the coins, then dropped them into Sousee's basket.
"Yes, ah, there are a few, ah, other items I need you to…" Khalid began, when he was interrupted once again by a pounding on his front door.
"Khalid ibn Bahir, open up in the name of the White Tower," a voice from outside demanded.
Even Khalid's tanned skin couldn't hide the fact that his face had gone deathly pale. The White Tower was a place all too familiar to Khalid. It was a place of learning and study, where students came to learn the mystic arts. But more importantly, it was a place of power, ruled by old men steeped in experience and knowledge. Demands from the White Tower carried only slightly less weight than edicts handed down from the Sultan's palace. Khalid had been a student there, enrolling two years ago with the small inheritance left him by his parents. It had not been pleasant. Always at the bottom of the class, ridiculed for his perceived lack of ability and awkward social graces, it was a constant struggle for Khalid. The arcane formulae taught by the professor's simply would not stick in Khalid's mind. When he uttered the words, his stutter intruded; when he tried to recall a formula, it always came out wrong. Then, a year ago, everything changed.
One morning, classes were interrupted when a messenger arrived, speaking of a strange black cloud hanging over the eastern mountains. As the students rushed to the windows, Khalid hung back and watched as the professor, a powerful wizard named Halaal, conferred with the messenger, a look of deep concern on his face. Classes were canceled for the day. Then again the next day, and the day after that. A week passed, and rumors began to circulate through the dorms. Fear and doubt settled into the White Tower, as heavy and pervasive as the ominous black cloud that continued to linger over the eastern mountains. Powerful magi and sages from the surrounding cities began to filter into to Gem-Sharad, and immediately vanished into the upper levels of the White Tower. Then suddenly, the Tower was closed. The students were turned out into the streets, without any explanations or answers. Khalid was despondent, for even the poorest apprentice of the White Tower was a cut above the average rabble. Without purpose or direction, Khalid took the last of his inheritance, and rented a tiny hovel in the worst slum outside the walls of Gem-Sharad. With nothing to occupy his time, he turned his attention back to his studies.
Three months went by. Then suddenly, the black cloud was gone, blown away like any other storm cloud, but still the White Tower did not open. Rumors had now begun to spread among the cityfolk. Wild speculation that the wizards were fighting some terrible evil, or were gathering together to cast some awesome dweomer. But no one knew the real truth; no one that was, but Khalid. His formulae were no longer inert, were no longer just scrawls on paper. Instead of struggling each day to commit meaningless words to memory, the words now leapt off the pages of his spellbook and burned into his mind. What's more, he could feel it now, the weave of magic wrapping around him, and when he beckoned it, it came. The rules of magic had changed somehow. All those that had studied and learned the old ways had lost their link to the weave. Khalid frantically redoubled his efforts, filling his spellbook with new spells as the months passed. Minor magics, he knew, but working spells nevertheless, something that no other wizard in Gem-Sharad could boast. Not only did Khalid have spells; he had something immeasurably more valuable. He had the way to translate the old into the new. He had the Key.
The Key! Khalid looked frantically around his hovel while the hammering at his door became more insistent.
"Khalid ibn Bahir. We know you're in there, now open the door!"
"Ah yes, one moment," Khalid stalled. He frantically raced over to his desk and began stuffing papers in the brazier. When it was full of smoldering papers, he jammed the last handful into the bubbling stewpot and picked up his spellbook. "Ah, yes, they must not find this. It is, quite valuable, yes quite."
At this point, Shayla who had been silently watching Khalid's unexpected behavior spoke, "Why don't you put it in Gorak's basket. Whoever's out there won't search that too carefully."
"Ah, yes, quite, Gorak could I perhaps trouble you to, ah, keep this safe for me? I'll pay you, ah say two sultanas." Khalid reached for his purse again.
"Sure, I guess." Gorak rumbled, as he took the book from Khalid with one hand and picked up Sousee in the other, and deposited both in the wicker basket.
"Khalid. Open the door this instant or we'll kick it down."
"Ah yes, of course." Khalid said as he opened the door.
Standing there were two young men that Khalid instantly recognized. Hazal and Belil had been the two best students in Khalid's class and would have been offered a place within the ranks of the White Tower without a doubt. Hazal was large and athletic, built more like a gladiator than a sage, and Belil was only slightly smaller. The two had been the primary instigators of most of the ill will directed at Khalid during his brief period as a student. Hazal was scowling and idly fingering a slim wooden wand tucked into his belt. Both had the emblem of the White Tower pinned to their robes. As soon as Khalid opened the door, they pushed their way inside his tiny hovel, making its cramped confines that much more crowded.
"Khalid, we're here to escort you to a meeting with Halaal. He's requested your presence," demanded Hazal.
"Ah, yes, may I ask why I have been summoned into his, ah, august presence?" Khalid asked.
"You'll find out soon enough, now make yourself ready so we can get out of this disgusting place." As he spoke, Hazal glanced over at Belil who had moved towards Khalid's tiny writing desk. Belil shook his head slightly, and the scowl on Hazal's face deepened.
Belil had turned away from Khalid's desk, and was staring intently at Gorak and Shayla. "What are you two doing here?" he demanded.
"We're friends of Khalid's," Shayla replied.
"Friends of Khalid's? Why don't you be my friend darling? I assure you I'm much friendlier than Khalid," said Hazal. Both men began to laugh crudely, then stopped abruptly as Gorak growled deep in his throat, and began to rise.
"Ah, yes. Gorak, I'll meet you in the market tomorrow for breakfast at, ah, the vendor which sells the delightful smoked fish? You, ah, know the one?" Khalid asked, trying to head off the imminent destruction of his tiny house.
"Ya, I know the one," Gorak rumbled, still eyeing the two apprentices. Gorak and Shayla stood up and left the tiny hovel, Gorak's gaze never shifting from Hazal until he was out the door.
Khalid followed the two apprentices out the door, and locked it behind him. They walked in the fading late afternoon sun towards the richest part of town, where the White Tower rose high above even the golden minarets of the Sultan's palace. The surroundings gradually changed as they moved towards the heart of the city. Soon the beggars and mendicants of the poor quarter were left behind, replaced with merchants hawking wares from booths lining the street. They moved through one of the largest markets in the city, past vendors selling food and weapons, incense and wine, and just about anything else that could be bought with sultanas, viziers or califs. The marketplace was left behind, and the street-side vendors were replaced with shop fronts of well to do merchants. As they walked, Khalid tried hard to ignore the barbs and jibes of Hazal and Belil, until finally he could take it no more. As they approached the low wall that separated the White Tower from the rest of the city, Khalid spoke just as Hazal stepped forward, "Ah, yes, Hazal, be a good fellow and tell them that I'm coming."
Hazal shot a look filled with malice at Khalid then spoke, "We return to the White Tower bringing the former apprentice Halaal wanted to see."
The guard, oblivious to the not so subtle exchange taking place, simply nodded and opened the gate. As they passed into the broad courtyard of the White Tower, Hazal hissed, "Keep your mouth shut until you see Halaal."
Khalid simply smirked and took in the surroundings. It had been almost a year since he had set foot on the beautiful grounds of the White Tower, and although he had lived here for almost a year prior to that, he had never considered it home. It felt even less inviting now, as the trio moved towards one of the low outbuildings surrounding the tower proper. Hazal knocked on the door, then entered. Khalid moved in behind him, absorbing the surroundings carefully.
The first thing he noticed was Halaal, a large, rotund man sitting comfortably in a large, leather backed chair. Halaal was in his late fifties and had not aged particularly well. His tanned skin was wrinkled and leathery, and his once impressive physique had run to fat. His beard was shot through with gray, as presumably was his hair, although Khalid had never seen him without his customary silk turban. As Khalid entered, Halaal smiled, a strange expression on his normally dour face. The room itself seemed to be a small workshop. Alchemical tools and apparatus lined the tables along the walls. Directly behind Halaal was a large rack of what Khalid could only presume were scrolls. Halaal himself glittered with gems and precious stones, which adorned both his robes and his fingers. He seemed perfectly at ease and almost cordial, which only made Khalid more nervous.
"We found him, Master Halaal. There were two others with him," said Hazal, and much like Belil had, he shook his head slightly. Khalid realized that handing over his precious spellbook to Gorak had been a wise move after all.
"Ah, Khalid. It has been too long since you have visited us here at the White Tower," began Halaal. "I thought perhaps that you would appreciate the opportunity to come and discuss your research. I have been looking over some of your old notes from when you were an apprentice, and I think that some of your ideas may have merit."
"Ah, yes, quite. I have a number of projects, yes, a number of projects underway at the moment," replied Khalid, somewhat cautiously.
Halaal smiled. "Yes, of course you do. And these two acquaintances of yours, are they assisting you with your research?"
"Ah, no, not really. They are, ah, business associates. I had them obtain a rare herb for me, the desert rose, you have, ah, heard of it?"
"Desert rose," Halaal mused, "yes I believe it’s a fairly common plant, found on the border of the near desert. A main ingredient in love philters if I'm not mistaken."
Hazal snickered and muttered something to Belil who grinned maliciously. Khalid flushed and glanced around nervously; that wasn't what he'd thought it did at all.
"Yes, quite. Ah, as I said, it is, ah, only one of many projects. Yes, quite," Khalid stammered.
"Hmmm. Well I have no interest in that aspect of your research. I am however, interested in obtaining some working formulae from you, assuming of course you have some that work," Halaal said, raising an eyebrow as he spoke.
There was no doubt now what he was looking for. Khalid's mind began to race as he frantically tried to think of a way to protect his spellbook and the knowledge he had obtained. Halaal had always treated him as though he were worse than dirt, and Khalid had no intention of simply handing the man the key that would allow him to regain his power.
"I think, ah, that we may be able to reach an amicable agreement, that is, ah, beneficial to both parties, yes, quite." Khalid played along.
"Indeed. I would pay two hundred and fifty sultanas for whatever research you have accomplished thus far. Assuming of course, you have anything of interest for me." Halaal's tone left no doubt that he knew exactly what Khalid had to offer.
"Ah, perhaps a small demonstration, then, yes?" Khalid asked, as his fished around in one of the many pouches that hung from his tattered belt. He hesitated slightly, debating what spell to cast. He longed to cast a detect magic, to see what power Halaal had at his disposal, but opted instead to cast light, a spell much less likely to irritate Halaal. Khalid focused his concentration, then released the constraints on the formulae burning in his mind. The words rolled out of him, in a clear, confident voice so unlike his normal tone. When he finished, a tiny ache of loss filled him briefly which was replaced with pride. The golden sultana in his hand now shone as brightly as a torch.
"Hmmm, yes I can see some of the differences. The formula is not so different as I had first thought. Well then Khalid, as I said, I will offer you two hundred and fifty sultanas for your research."
"Ah, yes, quite generous. Yes, quite." Khalid replied, "Permit me a day to consider your offer, and compile my notes."
Halaal considered Khalid's request, eyeing him carefully. "I suppose that is acceptable but I assure you, my offer is more than generous."
"Yes, ah, well there are forms of compensation which would be more useful to me than sultana's alone. Yes, quite." Khalid said his gaze lingering on the many scrolls behind Halaal.
"Mind your place!" barked Hazal.
"Yes, I shall certainly remember my place when you come to fetch me tomorrow." Khalid retorted. Hazal flushed dark red at the jibe, but held his peace under Halaal's disapproving gaze.
"Well then, I'll send Hazal and Belil to your abode tomorrow. Say, shortly after sundown."
"Yes. Until tomorrow then."
* * * * * * * * * *
*Sultanas = Gold Coins
Viziers = Silver Coins
Califs = Copper Coins
*Khalid really does talk like that. And yes, it does annoy the other players
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