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Barsoom Tales II: Romance, Revolution and BLOODY REVENGE!!! -- COMPLETE

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Big trouble. Little heroes. Welcome to Barsoom.

It's not my style to offer long-winded introductions to a story, but for those of you who can't bring yourselves to read Season One of Barsoom, here's a quick round-up of pertinent facts. If you're joining us for the first time, that's fine; I'm going to make this Story Hour as self-contained as possible. While I hope you DO take the time to read the original "Barsoom Tales" story hour, I will try to assume you haven't. While not pissing off anyone who has with excess exposition.

Our heroes, in the employ of the del Maraviez family, sail across the Inner Sea towards the desert nation of The Narid, where they plan to sell a cargo of rifles and ammunition to Naridic warriors resisting the invasion of The Kishak empire. They are:
  • Isaac del Valencia, the Saijadani swordsman, revealed as a disgraced son of a disgraced (and executed) noble, has embarked on a mission of revenge against the powerful del Orofin family, blaming them for the disgrace of his own.
  • Elena de los Santos, a Saijadani woman with a dour temperament, has discovered mental powers she never knew she possessed. She can affect the minds of others and even move objects around, with mysterious abilities she does not yet fully understand.
  • Nevid, the enigmatic representative of the del Maraviez family, hasn't always exhibited what might be called heroic courage, but his quick wits and natural caution have gotten the group out of trouble more than once.
  • Etienne, the half-Kishak street kid from the great city of Pavairelle, is nimble and reckless and full of bravado. He's had to be rescued by the others a couple of times already, a pattern that looks to be establishing itself.
  • Arrafin al-Fasir beni Hassan is a young scholar from the Narid who has uncovered a tome of arcane formulae that apparently provides the secrets of sorcery, a science unheard of amongst the civilized nations of Barsoom.

This crew was wonderfully illustrated by our very own Claudio Pozas:




A few things have become clear:
  1. Although scoffed at by most Barsoomians, sorcery clearly DOES exist. Not only have spells been discovered, recorded in mathematical formulae, but strange creatures have emerged, unnatural and twisted. Sorcery is also clearly very very BAD. Death and madness seem to follow in its wake.
  2. Barsoom's history is a murky and confusing tale, one that differs wildly depending on who's doing the telling. This lack of reliable narrators will come to concern our heroes in the tale that follows.
  3. There's no shortage of unpleasant, self-centered, completely mad and incredibly powerful individuals lurking about in the shadows of Barsoom. That trouble lies ahead seems certain.

I will be posting once a week with new episodes, probably on Wednesdays. I expect the entire tale to take about a year to tell. In deference to Eric's Grandma, some language will be replaced here and there with asterixes. I will be collating the episodes into downloadable text files -- note that those files will NOT include the asterixes, so if you are offended by foul language, stick to the online posts.


More info on the setting.

Note that this story veers even more drastically from the actual events of the game than most of my Story Hours have. The games were played six to seven years ago, and the campaign itself was much broader, more confusing and complicated than I could possibly set down here. Many events that proved to be pivotal in the actual campaign have been left out here in the hopes of creating a more coherent story, and other events and characters have been combined, altered or shifted around freely in this narrative. This story bears the same sort of relationship to the original campaign that Oliver Stone's movies have to history.

I like to say: "Inspired by actual imaginary events" :D

That said, none of this would have been possible without the tremendous creativity and effort shown by my players, who created such wonderful characters and took all my goofy ideas with just the right amount of seriousness. Everything cool that came out of this campaign came out of our interactions, and I most certainly couldn't have done it without them. They rule.

I do hope you enjoy it, and that you'll post your comments here. I'm honest enough to admit that positive feedback is a reason for doing this at all, so it means a lot to me to have folks tell me they're enjoying it. Thanks!


The whole thing is attached as RTF files to this post, if you don't want to page through the thread. Read Canto 01, then Interlude 01, then Canto 02, then Interlude 02, then Canto 03.
 

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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Another Fine Mess: 1

Arrafin held her breath.

Her huge round eyes widened even more than usual as she concentrated. She knew she had to relax, to open some non-existent portal inside herself. She didn't know exactly what would happen, but she'd prepared.

She'd studied. She'd read the translation provided by Blood Sister Kimiko Torokan, read and re-read and made notes on and sat up late nights as the ship heaved around her, ignoring her sea-sickness as she puzzled at the devious passages and strange mathematical formulae that filled page after page in the Blood Sister's neat handwriting.

She'd made the figure. Bound of twigs and twine, it was a crude humanoid form, only a couple of handspans from head to toe, lying on the floor in the middle of her tiny cabin.

She'd investigated. Although Arrafin's specialities at university had been history and language, all students at the University of Al-Tizim were expected to excel in all subjects, and mathematics had come easily to the quick-witted girl. Her skills were stretched to the limits as she tried to comprehend the complex notation and strange equations in the ancient text, but in the end she was pretty sure she'd gotten it figured out.

She hoped. All indications were that whatever she was about to attempt, it was deadly. The text was filled with dire imprecations and warnings of terror and horror and madness and pain and death.

She tried to relax.

Inside her, outside her, something opened. Something emerged. Something leaked into existence.

For less than a heartbeat, Arrafin felt panic. Her spine shuddered with cold darkness and an empty, gaping hunger that roared to life inside her. Her wide eyes crawled with blackness and shadowy tendrils roiled outward from where she sat on her narrow cot. They licked at the floor and spread in a circle around her, drifting right through the partition walls of her cabin.

For less than a heartbeat, panic pushed into Arrafin's brain. She began turning the complex equations over, solving them for the values that rose up, unbidden, in her mind. The concentration required, the intricate patterns that appeared within her consciousness, consumed her utterly and panic slid aside, driven out by the cold perfection of mathematics.

Outside, the night-time darkness hid the strange shadows, and the crew went about their business unaware of the supernatural events taking place below.

*****

Isaac leaned on the stern rail, staring off into the dusk. Next to him, Elena did the same. Around and above them, the crew of Thuria's Dream bustled about making the ship ready for the coming night.

Elena voiced her troubled thoughts.

"Why are we working for these people?"

"Who? The del Maraviez family? You mean besides the fact that they're rich, powerful, well-connected and completely ruthless?"

"Yeah. Besides all that."

Isaac turned around and leaned back against the rail. Elena looked up at her friend, curious at his sudden silence.

Isaac was not the most handsome man she'd ever seen. His face was blocky and his nose appeared to have been broken at some point in the past. He scowled constantly, usually chewing on the dog-end of an old cigar. He was powerfully built with broad shoulders and large hands, but Elena knew he was capable of moving with stealth and silence.

He looked across the ship to the far horizon where the setting sun blazed in its final, bloody fury of the day.

"I owe them a lot, Elena."

He chewed his cigar.

"My family was destroyed by the del Orofin family. My father was convicted of treason and executed. I was sent to prison. Even that wasn't enough for them. They sent a man into the mines to kill me. I got away.

"When I got back to my family's estate, the house had been looted, and the property was tied up in some sort of legal mess. I was still a fugitive, an escaped prisoner, so I couldn't even look into it. My mother was gone. I never found out what happened to her.

"Isabella contacted me in Mataleo. She knew the whole story, she knew the del Orofin had managed the whole thing so they could get their hands on Father's trade concessions in Caedmon. She kept the law off my back, put money in my purse."

Isaac shrugged.

"So I work for her now."

Elena studied him for a second, then turned back to the water. She was a solidly-built young woman, with the same Saijadani darkness to her features and skin as Isaac, and like him, tended to scowl most of the time. Around her eyes she appeared to have a delicate tattoo filigreed into her skin.

They stood in scowl-faced silence for a while as the ship heaved and creaked around them.

"Do you trust her?"

Isaac considered.

"I don't know if I think she's always honest, but I don't think she would betray us. I definitely don't think she'd betray us to the Kishaks."

"Lying is a form of betrayal, Isaac. Or Philip. Or Dominic."

"Dominic, if you please. We might as well try to maintain the fiction. The del Maraviez went to a lot of trouble to set it up."

"But who knows what they're really up to?"

"Ah, you're too suspicious. Why wouldn't the del Maraviez want to help Naridic rebels against the Kishaks? We've fought those red bastards before, you know. If we don't stop them in the Narid, who's to say they won't invade Saijadan again?"

Elena's scowl deepened.

"I don't trust them."

"I don't trust anybody."

Elena's eyes flicked over to Isaac, or Dominic as he was now called, then returned to studying the red-flecked waves around them.

"I don't trust them."

*****

"The coastline all along the nor' coast of the desert 'tis nothing but shoals and sandbars, me lad. We'll no get this deep-bellied lass within two miles o' the shore, I'm telling ye."

The captain of Thuria's Dream, O'Shannon, was a Shaeric ex-mercenary whose past had proved every bit as ill-starred and chequered as Nevid had expected of a gun-running smuggler willing to dodge Kishak galleys for a promise of gold. He and Nevid studied a hand-drawn chart of the southern coast of the Inner Sea, where the calm green waters met the endless sand dunes of the great desert of the Narid.

Nevid shrugged. Nautical details were of no interest to the small, serious-looking Saijadani youth.

"Yes, well, you have a rowboat or something to take us ashore? With the rifles?"

"Aye, that we have, lad. But should ye find trouble, we'll no be able to provide assistance, that's what I'm saying."

"I don't anticipate any trouble, sir."

Captain O'Shannon considered the confident young man.

"Ye've not done this afore, have ye?"

Nevid was about to respond when a shriek came from out on the deck. Nevid moved faster than the captain and saw the source of the trouble right away.

A small figure was walking across the deck with stiff, awkward movements, like an ill-handled puppet. Apparently formed of twigs or sticks the figure made its unsteady way towards Nevid.

Mastering his astonishment, Nevid looked down the length of the ship to where Arrafin stood, eyes wide, watching the figure with obvious awe and delight.

The figure reached Nevid. Sailors all around withdrew, muttering dark curses and dire warnings. The crudely-fashioned head tilted up at him and one arm lifted to wave, back and forth. The twigs rustled and snapped as it moved.

Nevid looked around at the fearful faces and groaned inwardly. The sailors were horrified at the sight. They'd never seen anything like it before.

The young Saijadani raised a foot and brought it down on the little waving figure, stomping it savagely until the bundles came untied and fell apart, leaving just inert sticks scattered across the deck boards.

Arrafin cried out in hurt anger.

"Nevid!"

The Saijdani stormed over to her and took her thin arm.

"Arrafin, what are you thinking? These sailors will think you're a witch or worse! Think for once, why don't you!"

Arrafin glared at her colleague for a second and then shook herself free of his hand and raced into her cabin, slamming the door behind her. Nevid shook his head as Isaac and Elena joined him.

"Honestly, she's got to think. She can't just be... casting spells."

Isaac took the cigar out of his mouth.

"On the other hand, she's casting spells."

"Yeah, well, that frightens me, too."

Etienne had been in the rigging, trying to learn how to navigate by the Sentinels, and arrived with a thump.

"What's all the fuss? Hey, who dumped those sticks all over the deck?"

*****

In her cabin, curled up on her narrow cot, Arrafin hugged herself, outrage and hurt feelings quickly replaced with a fierce, exultant joy. It worked. Sorcery worked. And she could do it. She could learn this wild physics. And while animating tiny figures might seem a small accomplishment, Arrafin's quick mind raced into the future, seeing possibilities opening up before her.

Her homeland need not suffer for all time under the yoke of Kishak oppression. Her people could rise up and take back their freedom, no matter how many legions the Tyrant's Shade threw into the desert. They could win.

If someone would lead them. Someone with power.
 

shilsen

First Post
*pulls up a seat and pops some popcorn*

I'm in. And all I can say is, if there ain't any stewardesses, there damn well better be some dinosaurs!
 

Avarice

First Post
As good as ever, barsoomcore. Tell me, though, just how often is that artwork going to need to be modified over the coming weeks? :p
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Another Fine Mess: 2

In Nevid's mind, ten thousand doomed souls wailed. Smoke and flame rose, taller than city towers, taller than the mountains in the distance, stretching up to reach the clouds, swirling upwards in a great pillar of horror and destruction.

The city tore itself into scraps and fragments, whirling and shrieking with the force of a hurricane. Centered around a tiny speck of crimson, a figure that stood with arms outstretched, black hair towering above a dazzling gown of red and gold.

It turned to face him. Reaching. Beautiful. Laughing.

Nevid awoke, sitting upright on his bunk. Beneath him, Isaac snored his deafening rumble. Their tiny cabin, grey with half-dawn light, echoed with unfamiliar noise and activity. Wiping strange images and unnameable fears from his mind, he lowered himself to the deck and made his way outside, where the crew rushed about.

He spoke to a nearby sailor.

"What's happened?"

The sailor pointed across the waves to the shore.

"We've arrived."

*****

Of all the sights beneath the pink sky of Barsoom, the northern shore of the Narid was not, decided Elena, among the most picturesque.

She'd been expecting majestic sand dunes, palm trees clustered around oases, everything golden and beautiful.

Instead, she found herself considering a seemingly endless straight muddy beach behind which lurked grey gravelly plains, pale and indistinct and featureless. Clouds hung low and gloomy over the scene, as long rollers broke in dull, monotonous thunder across miles of mud flats. Seabirds and dactyls keened overhead.

The only note of interest in sight was the flat-topped rise a mile or so inland, upon which lay (so they were told) the home of the man they sought.

Thuria's Dream could not come too close to the shore, unable to press very far into the gently shelving shallows. She lowered anchor and swung to, rolling in the gentle surf. Sailors bustled about lowering the ship's boat and swaying up the massive crates holding the rifles and ammunition.

Elena watched the proceedings with interest but not much comprehension. Some of her comrades, especially Etienne, had spent the last few weeks learning seamanship, but she'd been content to sit out of the way and discuss the many strange things she and her friends had experienced in the past months.

She and Arrafin had speculated a great deal on the nature of some of those events. They carried a marble skull that Arrafin believed had once belonged to the great Naridic king, Sulekar ben Azan, and that held remarkable properties, able to heal injuries and detect the presence of undead creatures. Undead creatures such as Laughter of Stones, a sad but noble dark-skinned warrior doomed to spend eternity hunting down and destroying some near-extinct enemy race, and Mara, a terrible vampire child who'd seemed unstoppable until Elena had struck her with an ancient black blade taken from the tomb of the legendary Essermane Varag, terror of ancient Al-Tizim. Elena rested a hand on the guard of that sword, which was too big to carry in a scabbard and instead leaned against the rail next to her, wrapped in a nondescript rug pinched from Marques' storeroom in Pavairelle. Arrafin had been so excited to find the tomb of Essermane Varag.

Arrafin. Elena shook her head to herself as she watched the skinny girl with the massive tangle of curls on her head describe the history of this particular stretch of Naridic coastline to Isaac and Etienne. She gesticulated as she spoke, slender fingers dancing in the air as her soft Naridic accent rose and fell. Neither of the two young men displayed much real interest in her tale, but they listened and nodded politely as she carried on most of the conversation by herself.

Nearer the stern, Nevid stood with the captain, finalizing details for this trip ashore. Their companion Nevid (Elena couldn't bring herself to call the incommunicative young man a friend) was certainly resourceful, and clever enough, but Elena often wondered where his true loyalties lay. His ties to the del Maraviez family were much tighter than the rest of them, and sometimes Elena got the sense that he was watching them, filing reports for his Familias bosses. She scowled as his slender form, elegantly fitted in a fine dark suit, leaned out over the rail to call out some instructions to the sailors in the boat below.

Soon the heavy crates lay secured in the boat. Elena nodded at a gesture from Isaac and came forward as he and Etienne clambered down to where sailors held the boat steady. Nevid followed them and then it was she and Arrafin. The Naridic girl considered the climb down with discomfort.

"Gee, Elena, that's, um, that's a long way down. When you really look at it. Isn't it?"

The rail of Thuria's Dream was a spear's length or so above the gunwales of the boat.

"Isaac will help you down. Won't you, Isaac?"

"What? Oh, of course. Here, Arrafin."

Isaac reached up and Arrafin swung herself gingerly over the rail. She gulped as Isaac's big hands took hold of her, nearly encircling her about the waist. He chuckled, swinging her easily down into the boat.

"Good grief, girl, you weigh less than my cigar case. We're lucky you didn't blow overboard on the trip."

"I hung on tight. Thank you."

With laborious strokes the sailors heaved the little boat through the rollers towards shore. Waves that had barely rocked Thuria's Dream sent the longboat pitching and heaving, and whitecaps cresting over the stern showered all the passengers with salty spray. The sailors pulled on their oars and soon the boat's hull scraped on wet gravel. Everyone except Arrafin and Nevid jumped out and began running the boat further up into the shallows.

Elena, pushing at the gunwale, frowned at Nevid. The young man was studying the seat in front of him with furious concentration.

"You okay, Nevid?"

"Strange dreams. Strange dreams."

*****

"You're going to get us all killed, Tariq."

"Nonsense. God is with us, you coward. We are working in the service of faith, Israhel. No harm can come to us."

"We're all going to die."

"Another word, Israhel, and you will die here and now, I swear so upon the hilt of my saber. Another word, and I strike, and may God have mercy upon you. If you will have no faith in me, have faith in God who watches over us. But know that I have planned for these dogs. They will not return home."

Fayeeda watched Israhel subside. The beni Rifaa were not famous for their courage, but she couldn't blame the young man for backing down in the face of her uncle's blustering menace. Tariq al-Musharran beni Howetait carried all the wild violence of the Howetait tribe, mixed with a crazed sense of self-confidence that indeed got people around him killed as often as not.

Tariq chuckled as he watched the rowboat come towards the beach, weathering end-to-end sprays as waves rushed past it. Armed men jumped out and ran the boat up as far as it would go, and Tariq started forward. He waved his crew to come with him.

"Help these lazy northern dogs unload, you useless banth droppings."

He spread his arms as a big Saijadani man, cigar clenched in his teeth, approached. Tariq laughed and called out in Imperial Kishak.

"My very good friends! How delighted I am to see you! God smiles upon us today!"

The Saijadani man grimaced. He and Tariq were well-matched both in size and evident menace.

"I'm sure. You Achmed?"

Fayeeda startled at the mention of her father. The man with the cigar took no notice, but the broad-shouldered Saijadani woman behind him narrowed her eyes at the girl. Fayeeda looked away, surprised to note a Naridic girl among the strangers, peering past the frowning Saijadani woman. Beni Howetait, to judge by her dark skin and wild curls.

Tariq laughed more.

"Not I. Achmed, that shiftless vulture? Ha. No, I am Tariq al-Musharran beni Howetait, Achmed's brother, and you are my guests and business partners. You bring the guns from Pavairelle, yes?"

"Where's Achmed?"

"Tragically captured by a Kishak patrol only days ago. I have taken over in his absence, with God's blessing."

The Saijadani man looked back at the rowboat with a frown, noticing how Tariq's gang were unloading the heavy crates there.

"You owe us some gold before you can take those guns, you know."

"Of course, my friend. But first, why not take some refreshment in our village atop the hill you see just behind me? Surely we can discuss business there? Why all this seriousness, my friend? This is an occasion for joy! Together we shall smash the Kishak bastards and drive their red filth from the desert, God willing."

"You do have the gold, yes?"

"Of course! As God is my witness."

"Perhaps you could show it to us?"

Tariq scoffed, pretending insult. He reached into a shoulder bag and displayed a thick golden ingot.

Another Saijadani man, much smaller than the first and with the appearance of a clerk or a scholar, stepped forward.

"May I have a look?"

Tariq tossed the bar into the air. The young Saijadani stepped back to let it fall into the wet sand, then crouched to study the gleaming bar. Fayeeda considered the young man. He was handsome, in a delicate way. He straightened and nodded to the larger man.

"It's Kishak. Looks genuine."

The big Saijadani man turned back to Tariq.

"So where's the rest? You've got the guns."

Tariq grinned as his men staggered past, carting the heavy crates of weapons. The boat was already empty and the guns well on their way.

"Yes, thank God. We have the guns. And I'm afraid, my northern friend, that you now have all the gold that we possess. I thank you for your generosity. You are beloved of God."

To Fayeeda's surprise, the Saijadani man just nodded. He didn't seem angry or even surprised. He stepped forward. With a gesture, Tariq called up his three bodyguards, savage Howetait warriors who spoke to no one save their employer. These men raised their rifles to their shoulders, all three weapon barrels trained on the big Saijadani man.

He made no move for the pistols at his belt. He just shrugged. His casual lack of concern impressed Fayeeda. She hadn't thought northerners could possess that sort of courage.

"We didn't come here to fight you. But we aren't leaving without that gold. That would irritate our employers. And trust me, you don't want to irritate them."

Tariq bowed.

"I have no wish to irritate anyone beyond the Kishaks and their seething lapdogs. Come. Come join us in our humble village, and we will tell you the tale."

"This had better be good."

The Saijadani woman stepped up to her friend and spoke quietly, but Fayeeda could just hear her.

"You're going to get us all killed, Isaac."

"Didn't you hear? I am beloved of God. You lot can look out for yourselves."
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Another Fine Mess: 3

"The truth is, my friends, that only my brother Achmed knows where the gold is."

Tariq beamed around at his guests as the setting sun emblazoned his tent. Outside, riding gallos rasped at each other, rattling their hobbles as they shifted, restless and surly. Some group of herders were sharing songs off at the edge of the camp, their ululating voices lending a quiet undercurrent to the conversation.

Out beyond the tent flap, the flat surface of the tall mesa they sat atop lay steady beneath a whirling flow of dust devils, shimmering like a curtain before the vista of the endless desert far beyond.

Etienne leaned forward, his brow knotted in cautious suspicion. Sand crusted on his dark leather garb. He toyed restless with the hilt of a dagger at his belt.

"Your brother Achmed who was captured by the Kishaks only days ago."

Elena sniffed.

"Tragically captured, I think he said."

She had to give it to Tariq; the man was utterly without scruples. There was no chance of them getting those guns back now. They sat surrounded by his warriors, and Elena knew that it was only their tenuous connection to the infamous del Maraviez family that had kept them alive thus far. One false move could doom them all.

"And you're afraid to go rescue him?"

To Elena's surprise, it was Nevid who had spoken. He studied Tariq with the same intensity he'd been studying the rowboat seat earlier, and Elena wondered just what the dreams he'd had were about.

Tariq simply stared in disbelief at the slim young man. Then he threw back his head and roared with laughter.

"I, Tariq al-Musharran beni Howetait, afraid? Impossible! Afraid. You do not understand the insult, civilized fool, and so I forgive you this once. God wishes us to be generous to our guests."

Arrafin scowled.

"God also wishes us to sacrifice our own lives for our brother's. Do you forget the passage from the Sayings: 'For he who gives up all that God has given to him for the sake of another is redeemed by God and made a prince in His grace'?"

It had been over a year since Arrafin had studied scripture, but her mind was not one to let quotations or facts drop aside. Her anger at Tariq's theft and his carefree manner with religious dogma made her smoulder with suppressed fury as she glared at the man.

At last Tariq betrayed a flash of irritation. He scowled at Arrafin.

"Do not trouble me with scholar's jibes, girl. I have the scars of seventeen Kishak sabres on my body. God has granted me strength to slay eighty-one of those red bastards, and I pray he will send more my way!"

He raised his hand in a devout gesture and the warriors around him cried out in joyous uplift.

"Then why not rescue your brother?"

Tariq spat and stood, towering over Arrafin and her friends where they sat on the rug. He shook his fist at them.

"Why not? You ask me why not? The Kishak lapdogs are fortified behind tall walls, foolish girl, with guns and towers. We will not throw our lives away so uselessly. No, if God wants Achmed out of there, he will send us a sign. We are well enough without him."

Elena looked over at Fayeeda, who sat with them as well. The younger girl shrank back from her uncle's rage.

"How was your father captured, Fayeeda?"

Tariq sat down in a pout as the beni Howetait girl found her voice and spoke.

"The mercenaries. They patrol on armoured beasts, with many guns. They. We could see them riding around the hudra here, we shouted to warn them, but they couldn't hear. They ran into the mercenaries. We could hear the guns. Many fell. Father."

She drew a breath.

"He was alive, pinned beneath his gallo. They dragged him out and they took him."

Isaac took the cigar from his mouth and picked at a bit of leaf that had come loose. He spoke without looking up.

"Who are these mercenaries? Naridic?"

Every Naridic person in the tent, including Arrafin, gasped. Tariq grabbed a knife and stabbed it into the rug, cursing.

"I would gut you for that, Saijadani, were you not my guest."

The many warriors around them pressed in, murmuring among themselves. Elena shot Isaac a look of exasperation. He returned it, then turned back to Tariq.

"So, they're not Naridic. Who are they?"

Tariq snarled at Arrafin.

"You are beni Howetait. Why do you travel with these dogs?"

"I am beni Hassan. Who are the mercenaries?"

Tariq blinked in surprise.

"You look beni Howetait. Truly, you are beni Hassan?"

"Truly."

Arrafin relented to Tariq's curiousity, sensing that this conversation was serving to relax the tension in the tent.

"My mother was beni Howetait. Of al-Hourani's tribe, west of Tallal. My father was beni Hassan from Al-Tizim."

"Of course you are from Al-Tizim, your voice tells me so. But you are still of the desert, yes, child?"

Arrafin nodded carefully.

"I love God."

Fayeeda mustered the courage to speak.

"I have never been to Al-Tizim. Is it very beautiful?"

Elena settled back on her pillow as Arrafin began describing the endless marvels of her ancient city. She leaned over to Isaac and Nevid.

"We still don't know who these mercenaries are."

"Shaeric. They're with Laird Connaught's army, probably either the Fourth or the Sixteenth company. Musketeers and lancers, mostly, hired by the Kishaks to pacify the northern marches. Savage and merciless, but not very well-disciplined."

Elena blinked at Nevid.

"I'm not even going to ask how you know that."

"Arrafin's not the only one who studies, you know."

Isaac leaned back, his voice a dark rumble.

"What I'm more interested in is how the mercenaries knew to put together that ambush. Certainly seems like our friend Tariq has benefited from the event."

Etienne listened with half an ear to both conversations. Arrafin's descriptions of Al-Tizim's vast markets and great avenues filled him with homesickness for his own Pavairelle, now far behind them across the Inner Sea. He thought of their last sight of the Free City, burning in the fires of revolution as the citzenry at last overthrew their Kishak overlords.

He thought of his last visit to the Blood Council's sanctuary, and of Blood Sister Torokan's forbidding seriousness.

"Etienne. Thank you for coming. I know that you and your friends are busy in these days, but there are words I must speak to you."

The half-Kishak nodded, trying to give off an air of nonchalance.

"I know. Arrafin. And sorcery. And that Laughter of Stones guy. What was he? Some kind of immortal warrior, right? Does he hunt down sorcerers? I should try and protect Arrafin. I need to be watchful."

Torokan's severe expression softened.

"Etienne, listen to me. You must be cautious of your friends. Sorcery is very dangerous. Arrafin may lose control at any moment. I wish for you to help me. To be my eyes and ears among your friends."

"You want me to spy on them?"

Torokan pursed her lips and straightened just a bit. She was about to speak when Etienne shrugged.

"Sure. What do I have to do?"


Etienne recalled Torokan's instructions as he watched Arrafin describe the Plaza of Kings before the great Palace in the heart of Al-Tizim.

"That pool is supposedly the pool where Suelekar Ben Azan was annointed King, you know. Some scholars think it's been rebuilt many times since then, but the legend is that not a stone has been replaced."

The thin Naridic girl touched the strange amulet at her neck. She started as Tariq shouted.

"Suelekar Ben Azan! The King of Kings! Praise God!"

All around them warriors echoed Tariq's cry. Arrafin blinked.

"Yes. Praise God."

*****

Fayeeda had never known an evening like this one. There had been guests in the camp before, of course, even foreigners, but always Father had controlled every gesture, every nuance of conversation. Fayeeda would never have dared to speak in front of Father, and any guest would have sat in polite humility before the great chieftan that Achmed al-Musharran beni Howetait was.

Or had been. Fayeeda scarcely knew what to think. But these foreigners were not swayed by Tariq's bluster. The big one with the guns stood up.

"Fine. Achmed knows where the gold is, Achmed's in the fort, let's go to the fort."

Fayeeda clapped a hand to her mouth to prevent herself from crying out. The others simply shrugged, even Arrafin, and rose. Tariq laughed in disbelief.

"You are fools, and you should thank God that when he made you fools he made you unmanly, so that you would not beget more fools."

Fayeeda couldn't keep quiet any longer.

"But you'll die! How can you possibly get in to the fort?"

Isaac gestured.

"If Nevid there can't talk us in, well..."

Arrafin giggled.

"Maybe Elena can... attract one of the guards."

Elena scowled ferociously at her friend, but Arrafin only snickered louder.

The five were heading for the tent flap, stepping over incredulous warriors, when a sudden cry from outside stopped them. Four turned to Arrafin.

"What was that?"

She frowned.

"Somebody's coming. Foreigners."

Her eyes widened and she whirled on Tariq.

"You told them we were here! You betrayed us!"

Tariq laughed.

"Of course. I have invited our Shaeric neighbors to join us. They were most anxious to meet you, and God wishes us to be hospitable to our neighbors. It seems that you, my friends, are captured."

Etienne sighed.

"Tragically captured, I think you called it."
 


barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Another Fine Mess: 4

Captain Fintan Garrickson looked up at the uproar near the gate. Patrol returning, he decided, and settled back to his study of the latest Naridic prisoners as they hauled wood into the center of the camp.

Two of the younger women were worth his time. He pointed them out to his aide and turned to the gate as the armoured parasaurs came in, the immense beasts as large as houses, plated howdahs hanging off either side to shield musketeers. Flags fluttering from the beasts' crests indicated prisoners, and further, the need for a Nevakada interrogation.

Garrickson cursed. While Kishak coin paid as well as any other, working alongside those cold-hearted Nevakada bastards would curl the spine of any man. The agent assigned to their operation, Kan Koshar, had a superficial politeness and civility that only made his cruel sadism even worse. Garrickson preferred a more straightforward approach. Some were strong, and some were weak. Those who lacked the wit to understand when they were outmatched, well, the world wouldn't miss them at all. No reason to go around poking at people just for the fun of it.

The Shaeric captain grinned as he saw one of the Naridic women he'd picked screaming, trying to fight off the soldiers who'd grabbed her. Some older man tried to interfere and took a pike haft to the face for his trouble. The woman didn't stop screaming or thrashing as they dragged her across the compound. A firey one for tonight would be just the thing.

"Ye'll want ta watch yerself with that one, Cap'n. Sahra's a real she-banth, she is."

Garrickson laughed and clapped his aide on the shoulder.

"Ah, ye know the lasses always calm down when I've explained the manner o' things ta them. Sahra'll be no trouble, for all her caterwauling."

"Aye, sir."

The two men, comfortable in their mail and open-faced helms, strolled towards where their soldiers were disembarking from the parasaurs. When the flags called for Nevakada investigation, it always profited to be present to see the wares before they were investigated.

Garrickson's eyebrows rose as the prisoners were filed out.

Only six. But of the six only two were Naridic, both of them young women trying not to look frightened. Garrickson felt a broad smile spread across his face, and did nothing to hide its predatory smugness.

The others included three Saijadani and one Kishak, to Garrickson's astonishment. He stopped where he stood and stared at the strange crew.

These were not the usual prisoners brought in around here. Not only in their nationality, but in their insouciant stance as they looked around, taking in the layout of the fort.

"Never ye mind them Saijadani fools. Have the skinny brown lass brought to me room. Tell Sahra it seems her lucky night."

"Aye."

*****

It was only once they'd reached the crucifixes surrounding the fort that Isaac stopped cursing Tariq's name. There had been no point to resisting; the Shaeric numbered some thirty or forty, riding in the strange howdahs they hung off the sides of the parasaur's high ridged backs. Snug behind armour plate they'd be near-impossible to hurt, and with their long-barrelled muskets it would only be matter of time before Isaac and his friends lay bleeding on the ground.

Tariq's smugness did nothing to ease the pain of capture. The gloating beni Howetait chieftan called out insult after insult as the Shaeric mercenaries deposited Isaac and his friends into tight cells aboard the beasts, taking their weapons and sparing no thought for their prisoner's comfort.

The only surprise, once he'd understood Tariq's betrayal, was Fayeeda's angry repudiation of her uncle's arrangement. For her righteous fury she was scooped up by the mercenaries, and had only her uncle's mocking laughter for a farewell.

They could smell the fort even before the first of the crucifixes came into view, but then they passed between dozens of tall poles from which hung horrid corpses, pecked and torn, some rotted, some still with the evidence of their tremendous suffering still visible on their hollow faces. The reek of blood and bile and rot filled the air.

The Kishak Empire sought control through terror and domination. The Tyrant's Shade, the undead creature who sat upon the Iron Throne of Kish, understood no other language.

They passed through the terrible forest and entered the gates of the fort.

The cell he crouched in was flipped open and, stretching strained legs, Isaac emerged into a dirt courtyard. Behind him the gates swung shut, pushed by a line of mail-clad soldiers. Before him the courtyard spanned a hundred paces; to his left a two-story building of dark cedar planks rose up, surrounded by a wide verandah; straight ahead in the open courtyard sullen Naridic people he assumed must be prisoners piled cordwood up in a tall cone, presumably in preparation for some large bonfire; and on his right a series of low, long huts lay in rows.

His attention turned to a heavy-set man whose more elaborate helmet and shoulder sash suggested a rank above the majority of the soldiers around them. Their guards saluted him as he approached. He sneered at the new prisoners.

"Ye're a sorry lot, aren't ye? Well, look to find no mercy here, I can tell ye that. If ye've got some fool to ransom ye, perhaps there's hope, or if ye know something and have the wit to conduct yerself well, perhaps ye'll do well enough. But I'll not hold my breath to it, I can tell ye that."

His gaze came to rest on Arrafin with a lasciviousness that enraged Isaac immediately. The burly Saijadani stepped forward with a snarl, but a pike head pressed against his chest stopped him. He glared in furious impotence.

Garrickson enjoyed the thin girl's expression of horror as she watched him approach.

"Sir. There must be a mistake. We are not -- "

She cut off as he pulled her against him and ground his mouth against hers. She tried to scream and push him away, but he paid no attention to her efforts. His hands slid down her robes, rough and grasping.

Elena watched in stunned horror as the soldier molested Arrafin right in front of them all. Isaac was about to impale himself on Shaeric pikes if something wasn't done, and to tell the truth, Elena was no less enraged than he.

Arrafin's delicate build and her ever-cheerful nature had endeared her greatly to Elena, whose own nature was sour and cynical, and who knew she brooded too much on things past. Her friendship with Arrafin had given her a great deal of solace over the weeks of their journey, and she cherished the younger girl like a little sister, one who was still a child. To see a girl she considered so innocent treated in such a violent manner infuriated Elena.

She reached out with her mind, trying to distract the soldier with her mental powers, but before she could make contact with him, another figure strode up to join them.

"Garrickson. Cease at once."

The Shaeric man turned to glare at the newcomer. This man was a Kishak, darker red in skin than Etienne, and dressed in a formal-looking harness of leather straps and jewels. He bore a slim rapier at his side. Elena couldn't help but admire his well-muscled torso, well-displayed in the Kishak traditional lack of dress. He turned grey eyes on them all.

"Interesting. Sent by the del Maraviez, isn't that right?"

Etienne started to speak. Isaac smacked him.

"We're not saying nothing to no one."

The Kishak smiled.

"You already have."

*****

"That bastard. How does he know everything? And if he knows everything, why is he asking us?"

Isaac scowled and picked splinters out of the floorboards of the narrow hut they'd been sealed up in after their harrowing interviews with the Nevakada agent. Kan Koshar had proven a skilled interrogator and had drawn out every detail of their mission. Isaac glowered.

Missing shingles overhead left the night sky visible to their view. He sat with Elena, Etienne and Nevid around a cold fire-pit. Arrafin sat at the far end of the hut, arm around a shivering Fayeeda.

While the Nevakada agent had interfered in Garrickson's assault on Arrafin, he'd done nothing when the Shaeric general had taken Fayeeda to his office. Arrafin listened to the younger girl sobbing with a sick helplessness in her heart.

Nevid looked up at Isaac.

"Because he's trying to determine how valuable we are to him. What we need to worry about is how we're going to find Achmed. He must be somewhere in this camp."

All four sat in silence, remembering glumly how poorly they'd managed to avoid the issues Kan Koshar had been interested in. Etienne turned to stare worriedly at Arrafin and Fayeeda.

"Are they alright, do you think? That bastard."

Elena nodded.

"Yeah. Hey, Arrafin."

The girl did not respond. Elena, frowning, got to her feet and crossed the room to her friend.

"Arrafin?"

Elena stepped back instinctively as a nimbus of black writhing tendrils suddenly erupted around her friend. They disappeared as quick as they had come, and Arrafin raised a tear-streaked face.

"I'm okay."

"What. What are you doing?"

There was a sudden flapping at the roof and a tiny bundle of fluff swept past Elena to land in front of Arrafin. The Saijadani woman stared.

A miniature owl sat there, appearing to study Arrafin. With its puffy feathers and wide eyes, it looked not entirely unlike the Naridic girl. The girl and the owl stared at each other.

"Arrafin? What is that?"

Arrafin's held a flat, hollow tone Elena had never heard before.

"His name is Gral. He's going to help me."

*****

Lying on his back, hands clasped behind his head, Captain Garrickson recalled the skinny frame of the Naridic girl he'd held earlier, the one Kan Koshar had forbidden him to have contact with. The local girl had been satisfyingly terrified, but he still longed for that slender girl with the Al-Tizim accent.

The Nevakada carried the authority of the Tyrant's Shade with them wherever they went.

But it was a long way from Hudra Keffil to the Iron Throne. Garrickson rolled up and called for his aide.

"Aye, sir?"

"Get that Achmed. Time he made his self useful. Tell him ta bring that skinny lass to us. And no need fer much fuss, is there?"

"Nay, sir. Aye, sir."
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
Just a quick question. I realized suddenly that you were typing parasaurs not parasaurolophuses, and I guess I was somehow mentally filling in the rest of the syllables without realizing it. What is a parasaur?
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
If you had to work with them all day, I figure you'd get pretty tired of saying "parasaurolophus," too. They're mostly just called "paras", just as gallimimus is shortened to "gallo".

It doesn't REALLY make sense that they would use the Latin species names anyway, but what the heck. It doesn't make sense that they're speaking English, so you gotta draw the line somewhere...
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
No, I'm with you there; I just wanted to make sure that I was picturing the right dinosaur in my head when I was reading there. Because y'know---having the wrong dinosaur in mind would be really really bad.
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Another Fine Mess: 5

Love.

Love was all Gral knew. Love for HER.

The awakening that had come upon the tiny owl held nothing of surprise for the creature; he was incapable of questioning what had just happened to him. Or even consciously understanding that anything had happened to him. He knew only that he loved HER and that he would reflect HER voice back to HER.

When SHE held him, peace overcame everything, even hunger. Cupped in HER warm hands, Gral did nothing but look upon HER face, content to know that SHE was with him, that SHE needed him, and that he could be of use to HER.

*****

"So you have a pet owl now. What's that all about, exactly, Arrafin?"

Etienne listened to Elena and then chimed in with his own question.

"Yeah, does he have any friends? Maybe a bit bigger than him? More useful? We could get them to attack the guards."

"He's not a pet. He's a familiar. He's mine."

The others looked blankly at each other, shrugging in confusion.

"Okay. Does that help us? Somehow?"

Arrafin held the little grey-brown puffball to her face, kissing the tiny bird tenderly. She did not reply to Etienne's questions. The half-Kishak shrugged again.

"Well, we have to get out this hut, first of all. There's no way we're going to find Achmed stuck in this rat-trap."

There was a knocking at the door.

"My friends? It is Achmed al-Musharran beni Howetait. May I come in?"

Elena scowled at Etienne.

"Anything comes that easy, you know we're going to pay for it."

Etienne glided over to the door and pointed at Isaac. The big Saijadani grimaced, but called out, "The door's locked, Senor. We can't open it."

"Please do not worry. I have the key. Just a moment."

Rusty iron rattled and the door swung open, Etienne drifting back to take up a position behind it.

Standing in the doorway, silhouetted by an immense bonfire behind him, stood a lean, weathered Naridic man of middle age, with narrow eyes and a suspicous expression on his face.

Fayeeda stood up.

"Father?"

Achmed shook his head, startled. He stepped forward, into the hut.

"Fayeeda? How are you here?"

"Tariq. He made a deal with the mercenaries -- "

Fayeeda cut off as her father stepped up to her and backhanded her savagely across the face.

The cigar dropped from Isaac's mouth and he lunged forward, wrapping his powerful arms around Achmed.

"Steady there, Senor. None of that."

Elena knelt beside Fayeeda as Achmed spewed invective at his daughter.

"Whore! Did you spread your legs for him, you slut? Did you lie beneath him? My brother?"

Fayeeda cried out in desperate denial, but Achmed was clearly having none of it. His arms pinioned by Isaac, he kicked out at the girl, his cursing and anger overflowing him. Isaac lifted the smaller man from the floor and flung him aside.

"Enough. We're here for the gold. Tell us where it is."

"You'll never get it. The captain has it in his chamber. It's guarded around the clock."

Isaac grinned.

"Finally, we get to the killing."

Behind him, Arrafin got to her feet. The little owl sat perched on her shoulder.

"Yes. Time for killing."

The slender young woman, her eyes burning with certainty, walked out the door of the hut.

*****

The Shaeric soldiers not on duty lounged around the edges of the bonfire, laughing at the flames and the occasional collapse of burning wood. Many had a Naridic woman or boy beside them. None took any notice of Arrafin's slight figure as she strode across the dark compound, the massive fire reflecting crazy and brilliant in her eyes.

Behind her Isaac, Elena, Etienne and Fayeeda followed with less assurance, keeping to the shadows as much as they could. Nevid had simply walked off into the darkness without a word and the others, used to their friend's occasional disappearing acts, made no effort to follow him.

Achmed lay half-conscious on the floor of the hut, knocked senseless by a grimly enthusiastic Isaac.

Arrafin made for the large two-story building where the unit had their headquarters. She was thirty paces from the steps to the verandah when two soldiers emerged from the gloom beside her.

"Here now, lass. Where ye think ye be heading, now?"

She kept walking and one put a hand on her narrow shoulder.

"Here, now. Ye'll do best to stay with us, lass."

Arrafin turned to him and threw up a hand. Gral flew up into the night as a sudden eruption of darkness billowed up around her. The two soldiers, feeling their muscles weaken and their blood chill, stumbled back.

"What is -- "

Their words were torn from their throats as their very bodies seemed to stretch and rip, releasing howling sheets of gore that whirled up into the air, becoming a massive whirlwind of dark mist that towered up into the night air. With a shriek Arrafin gestured and the pillar of swirling blood roared overhead.

The two soldiers dropped to the ground, bleeding and dazed.

Her friends behind her just stared. What they were seeing was impossible, beyond any imagining. A few days ago Arrafin had animated a little stick figure, but this. This was something else.

Etienne recovered first, turning as he saw a pair of Shaeric soldiers rushing forward. He had no weapons but by the time the soldiers knew he was there, he had one's belt knife in his hand and plunged it into the man's side. Then Isaac was there with a heavy log and the second soldier lay on the ground.

Swords were grabbed and the next soldiers coming forward were met by better-armed resistance. Elena and Isaac fought with Kishak sabres, but Etienne had a knife in each hand and twisted and spun on the edge of the fight, somehow staying clear of the melee even as he darted in and out, his edges licking along throats and wrists, leaving long gashes. The fight was his kind of fight, half-lit in the red flames of the bonfire, confused and misdirected, enabling him to step up to his enemies before they knew he was there.

Elena and Isaac stood side-by-side and, heavy sabres held before them, kept the soldiers from Arrafin with desperate parries. Unskilled with these weapons, they could only defend themselves as Etienne, a whirling dark ghost, emerged from the shadows again and again to cut and stab.

Each wound he opened revealed a new horror; the blood shed by his victims came rippling up into the air to join swirling into the wild hurricane of bloody mist above them.

The house was almost completely obscured by the howling storm Arrafin had conjured. Voices came shrieking out from that cruel whirlwind, terrified and pleading. Arrafin stood with her feet widely planted, hands held up before her, her robes flying in the wind generated by the vortex. Her eyes were glassy black orbs.

Fayeeda had fallen to her knees, praying incoherently.

Prisoners and soldiers ran in all directions; screaming and shouting orders or panicky questions. Beneath all that noise the howling of Arrafin's storm grew steady and terrible. A sudden crunching told of the whirlwind reaching the house and tearing at the cedar planks.

Figures came stumbling out of the wall of blood, clutching at their eyes and staggering, falling to their knees.

Elena fought, keeping her focus on the next swordblow, deliberately ignoring the hellish sounds behind her. Suddenly there was no next swordblow. The remaining soldiers ran for the house, reaching for their blinded friends. Panting, she turned to Isaac.

"Now what?"

They both looked at Arrafin. The house, engulfed in her gory whirlwind, shuddered as though in an earthquake. Shingles tore from the roof and spun up into the dark sky. The stink of blood filled the air.

Arrafin turned to her friends. They stepped back at the sight of her eyes, and the thin dark veins crawling over her face. Gral dropped out of the air and settled on her shoulder.

"He's around the back. Trying to sneak away. Get him. He's blind."

She turned back to the storm.

Elena and Isaac looked at each other. Another squadron of soldiers approached, cautiously but with clear intent.

"Now what?"

And the gatehouse exploded.

*****

"He had a knife, Arrafin. We didn't have a choice."

Arrafin glared at Isaac. Her eyes had returned to their normal brown, but the strength and power in them still caught him off-guard.

"I wanted him alive."

They stood next to the body of Captain Garrickson, his throat a dark ragged grin.

"Well, he's dead."

Beyond them soldiers screamed. The Naridic prisoners had broken into the fort armoury and fallen upon their captors. Crucifixes were being assembled and retribution taken. Young boys hefted hammers and drove spikes into Shaeric wrists and ankles. Mothers shrieked encouragement and threw stones. Some cried out for the Kishak, seeking the most hated enemy of them all.

Arrafin's storm had spun itself out, but the fort still stank of blood and terror.

Nevid emerged from the darkness with a blanket-draped figure in tow. The young Saijadani's clothes still bore the burns and stains from the explosion he'd triggered at the gatehouse, hurling a torch into the magazine when the guards rushed off to save their captain. He pursed his lips and made a tiny gesture of his head.

"Who's that?"

Nevid grimaced at Arrafin's loud tone.

"It's Kan Koshar. He was injured by your storm. We need to get him out of here."

The others studied him for a few seconds. None of their faces showed the slightest concern for the Kishak's fate.

"Right. Get him out. Or, bonfire."

Nevid sighed at Elena's angry reaction.

"He's Nevakada. He knows valuable information. We need to send him back to Saijadan. The del Maraviez can take him."

Arrafin scowled but nodded.

"Nevid's right."

She looked down at Garrickson's corpse.

"I wanted him alive."

She choked and nearly sobbed. Elena put an arm around her friend's shoulder, sparing a glance for Isaac as she did so.

"Come on, Arrafin. Let's get out of here. There's enough blood in this sand for one night."

Arrafin turned a tear-streaked face to her friend.

"In the Narid we say, 'The thirst of the desert is never satisfied.'"

Her little owl fluttered its soft wings and pressed against her throat. Arrafin pulled herself from Elena to fuss quietly over the bird. Fayeeda whispered a prayer as she watched.

The bonfire painted them all with its lurid gleam. Isaac watched Arrafin for a second, then shook his head.

"No offense, Arrafin, but your country is full of crazy people."
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Another Fine Mess: 6

The sun rose over a ruined fort. Dying soldiers, hung from tall posts, begged weakly for death, their voices a terrible dirge hanging over the smoking ruins.

Arrafin seemed to have recovered somewhat from the night's trauma, and chatted quietly with Elena as they rode away, through the rocky valleys of this part of the Narid. They'd acquired two paras from the mercenaries' stables, and shared this one with Nevid and his sullen prisoner, as well as several cases of gold ingots. On the other para rode Isaac, Etienne and Fayeeda.

The latter had scarcely spoke since her encounter with her father in the camp. He had ridden off on some of the mercenaries' gallos with a number of savage-looking men, swearing vengeance against his treacherous brother, without a single glance for his daughter.

By mid-morning the little group had reached the stretch of beach where they'd first landed. There was no sign of Tariq or his camp. Flags waved aboard the Thuria's Dream, far out to sea, and a longboat put off from the merchant ship.

The riders dismounted, huddling close together in the chilly, spray-filled wind off the breakers.

Elena sighed and broke the silence.

"So we got the gold. That's good. And a prisoner."

Others mumbled agreement.

The longboat drew nearer.

Arrafin squared her shoulders and lifted her head.

"I don't want to go back. I want to go to Al-Tizim."

Nevid frowned.

"What? But we have to return the gold, take this Nevakada back..."

"No. The captain can do all that. I want to go to Al-Tizim. I want. I want to help."

Elena put a hand on her friend's shoulder.

"Arrafin, you can't fight the Kishak Empire by yourself."

Isaac nodded.

"Let's go home, Arrafin, and figure out our next move there."

"Go home? Al-Tizim IS my home, Isaac. Or Philip. Or Dominic, or whatever your name is. I am home. How can I leave? Look at what's happening here. We could make a difference. A big difference. For a lot of people. We could help."

Etienne chimed in, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Arrafin, it's not that simple. I lived under the Kishaks all my life. But revolution takes time and sacrifice -- "

"You think I don't know that? Do you think I'm not ready to sacrifice? You don't know anything. You don't know anything about me, so shut up."

The young woman's uncharacteristic outburst startled the others. Etienne shook his head and walked away, muttering.

The longboat was now passing through the high rollers that endlessly roared up the beach.

Nevid drew a breath.

"I think Arrafin's right. I think we should be in the middle of things."

He turned to Arrafin, ignoring Isaac and Elena's startled looks.

"But we can't be a revolution ourselves, Arrafin. We all want the Kishaks out of the Narid, but we have to be smart. We have to wait until we have enough power and support to act."

The Naridic girl nodded.

"Power. Yes."

She turned her head to study her little owl, and it almost seemed that the two of them were having some sort of conversation. She nodded to the bird and then to Nevid.

"Let's go. It's at least a week's ride from here."

The longboat scraped on the beach nearby and sailors came running up through the shallow water. Nevid met the first mate.

"We're not coming aboard. But here's a Nevakada agent for Isabella del Maraviez. And the gold."

The first mate took the news very well. Elena wondered if maybe they were just as glad not to have Arrafin the Sorceress on their ship again. She sighed inwardly, recalling that impossible whirlwind of blood the girl had summouned last night.

And the way Arrafin had said, "Power," to Nevid just now did nothing to ease her concern.

Fayeeda stepped forward, staring at Arrafin.

"Take me with you. Take me to Al-Tizim."

"It'll be dangerous. The Kishaks are coming there."

"I want to fight. I want to fight the Kishaks."

Fayeeda's quiet voice rose up in a sudden snarl.

"Don't you understand? My father was working with them. So was Tariq. They're traitors to our people. They. They don't care. They just want to kill. I can't not do something. Please. Let me come with you."

Bewildered, Arrafin turned to the others. Isaac shrugged. Nevid appeared to be studying the waves. Elena nodded, and answered the girl.

"Of course, Fayeeda. You can come with us."

*****

They were not alone in the desert. As dusk settled over the dunes, they heard the rattle and clang of riding gear and a small caravan of two paras and a dozen gallos came around the heel of a dune and into the hollow where they'd made their camp.

Hands went to swordhilts, but Arrafin rose and went forward.

"They're merchants, don't worry. Maybe they have news of Al-Tizim."

They did.

The leader of the caravan was named Serrus al-Farani beni Rifaa, and turned out to be a good-humoured middle-aged man who travelled with his entire extended family. Children, wives, sisters, brothers, and one elderly aunt all rode along, and their presence enlived the little camp as the sun set.

Serrus settled himself at the fire with Isaac and the others.

"Tell me, my friends, what brings four foreigners into the desert?"

Nevid spoke.

"We are travelling to Al-Tizim."

Serrus made a gesture of warding.

"Do not, as God is my witness! Things are terrible in Al-Tizim at this time. Terrible. No, turn around my friends, and go back."

Arrafin pressed forward.

"What do you mean? What's happening?"

"The Kishaks are in the city. The Emir is executed. Sharina al-Sharina's army is nowhere to be found. No, Al-Tizim is no place to be right now. May God have mercy on the City of Kings."

Serrus shook his head sadly.

"This is why I am here, now, with my family. Thanks be to God, we escaped just ahead of the Kishaks. I only hope that God will see us safely out of this country."

"The Kishaks are in Al-Tizim?"

Arrafin's voice was a whisper.

"Was there a battle?"

Serrus chuckled.

"In the streets, there was slaughter, child. We met some who had escaped after the Kishaks came. All who resisted have been killed. The university has been turned into a barracks, professors strung from the rooftops."

Arrafin gasped and Elena took hold of the girl.

"My father. My father."

She burst into terrified sobs. Elena addressed Serrus.

"Her father is a professor at the university."

"Oh, child, I am sorry. Many escaped, dear girl. God has not abandoned us. He may have preserved your father. We will endure this test if we have faith."

"Faith."

*****

Etienne ignored the sudden crowd. He'd found a position dug into the crest of a dune where he could survey the camp and watch the surrounding desert. The stars shone with enough brilliance that he could see the grains of sand around him.

He'd never seen anything like this in all his years on the streets of Pavairelle, he had to admit that much. The open desert was beautiful in its spare purity. That terrible whirlwind of blood last night still burned in his memory, but staring up at the stars helped to ease his mind.

And he felt a deep sense of security at the thought that he would see anyone coming from miles away. Nobody could possibly surprise them out here.

*****

Arrafin had at last fallen asleep, exhausted by the last day and a half of terror and death. Elena sat by the dying campfire with Isaac. Neither Nevid nor Etienne were anywhere to be seen. Fayeeda was talking with one of Serrus' daughters.

"What do you think, Isaac? I mean, Dominic."

"What do I think? I think we're missing every other word in this sentence."

"Yeah."

Elena looked over where that little owl sat next to Arrafin's sleeping form.

"I've decided I don't like sorcery."

"At last, we agree on something."

"But it does seem effective."

Isaac poked at the dying fire.

"Yeah, but what's the cost? Arrafin's changing."

Elena nodded in silent agreement, unable to put her fears into words.

"I'm not crazy about walking into a war zone, either."

Isaac grunted.

"On the list of stupid things we've done, it doesn't really rate."

Elena chuckled at that, and was about to reply when the night tore apart around them. The sputtering light of the fire revealed dark forms suddenly emerging from the night, shadows boiling and hissing up around them. Immense, hulking forms with axes. Surrounding a scowling Lohanese woman in some sort of weird whore's outfit, showing off her legs and cleavage.

The woman laughed.

"We have come for the Talon of the Raven. Surrender it at once, or die."

She considered that, surveyed the waking camp, and laughed again.

"To hell with it. We're just going to kill you all anyway."

Isaac got to his feet.

"Great. I prefer things straightforward."
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Early post this week since tomorrow: GenCon!

Two posts in a row without adoring commentary? People, you're making me feel unloved! :(
 

Mahtave

First Post
Fear not Barsoom, here is a comment! :)

This is a great read, I am especially interested to see where Arrafin and her quest for more "power" leads these group. That is assuming they survive their night time surprise!
 

shilsen

First Post
barsoomcore said:
Early post this week since tomorrow: GenCon!

Two posts in a row without adoring commentary? People, you're making me feel unloved! :(
*smacks barsoomcore*

Stop being a prima donna! You know we love your stuff! And you know it's your own fault anyway. Two updates without dinosaurs? Come on!

And he felt a deep sense of security at the thought that he would see anyone coming from miles away. Nobody could possibly surprise them out here.
:D

Isaac got to his feet.

"Great. I prefer things straightforward."
Man, you just described most of my PCs!
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
There may be a bit of a dinosaur hiatus. But I promise to supply plenty of horrible potential death (and worse) in future updates. Things on Barsoom are about to go very, very twisted.

And it's important you remember: NOTHING of what is about to happen is my fault.
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Another Fine Mess: 7

In the midst of battle, of wild desperate combat, there are occasional moments of lucidity and calmness that startle the one who experiences them.

It seemed to Elena that for just a heartbeat, the world slowed down and she had time to look around at the pandemonium that had engulfed their campsite, see the defenceless merchants and children cut down, hear their screams, and think very clearly to herself that she had more than heard enough of innocent people dying.

Blood splashed on the sand in thick cascades. Blades bit into bodies, cracked on bone, and tore leather and fabric.

Guns went off, Isaac cursing and scrambling backwards from a massive heavy-muscled figure with a two-headed axe. Elena caught a glimpse of Nevid holding the staff he'd taken from Essermane Varag's tomb, fending off another one of their attackers while an old woman wailed behind him.

Elena had a chance to reload her crossbow and she put a quarrel into the man attacking Nevid. He dropped, kicking and spasming, and she saw another collapse to the sand in front of Isaac. She set about reloading, steadying her nervous hands.

Children were still screaming.

*****

Fayeeda shot to her feet at the voices. Shadows swirled and somebody laughed. She heard the butcher shock of steel on flesh. Naridic people were dying.

Her father, knocking her down and calling her names. Her uncle Tariq's foul cruelty. Crucified children crying helplessly. The Shaeric captain and his laughing assault.

Fayeeda had had enough. She grabbed a stick of firewood and charged.

"God is great!"

She never saw the axe. The first thing Arrafin saw upon waking was Fayeeda's head tumbling to the sand.

Of course, Fayeeda. You can come with us.

*****

Etienne woke up to the sudden shrieks. Down below him, he could make out swarming chaos in the camp. Furious that enemies had somehow got past him, the half-Kishak drew both knives and plunged down the side of the dune, silent in the soft sand.

He saw the woman standing with her arms held out, watching the battle with satisfaction, and rushed towards her, ready to take her unawares, plant his blades in her kidneys. He wasn't sure what she was doing, exactly, but she looked just like an evil sorceress ought to look.

He might possibly have been distracted by the provocative getup. Or it might have just been the wild swirl of the melee, Isaac's guns going off, or the darkness. Whatever the cause, he almost completely failed to notice the large Hinsuan man with his equally large polearm. Only a last-minute flash of steel saved Etienne's life, and even as he dodged aside, he felt a banging impact and hit the ground heavily, his knives falling from his hands.

The woman turned and saw him for the first time.

"Well done, Deepek. Now find the Talon."

She laughed and held up what to Etienne's dazed eyes looked like sewing needles.

"Embroidery?"

*****

Isaac held his sword out, staring down the other guy and trying not to shake. Killing the first one had cost him and he knew he was bleeding badly. Elena was somewhere behind him.

"What the hell is the Talon of the Raven?"

"How should I know?"

He took a second to consider their situation. Not great. But they'd been in worse spots, he decided, remembering the horror of their flight from the town of Chimney. At least these guys COULD be killed.

Two of the bad guys were down, leaving two still standing, as well as the slutty-looking Lohanese woman who seemed to be boss.

Nevid was alive, having suffered one of his rare bouts of courage. He crouched behind a dead gallo, with some survivors huddled beside him. Bodies lay strewn around the campfire. Isaac couldn't see Etienne anywhere.

"Three against three, lady. You still like your odds?"

Arrafin stood up. Her eyes burned.

"Four against three."

The Lohanese woman smiled. Isaac just had time to note the flash of metal in her hand before she gestured at him. Searing bolts of pain tore through him as tiny wounds opened in his arms and torso. He fell to his knees, unable to remain standing. Teeth gritted, he groaned against the agony stabbing into him.

Elena's crossbow went off and suddenly there was a quarrel sticking out of the woman's side. She gasped and fell back, caught by one of her guards. Her hand flew out in a gesture and dark shadows coiled around her. Elena heard Arrafin cry out in warning but then the sand erupted at the woman's feet. Like the bow wave of an invisible ship the explosion tore through the desert floor straight at Elena.

She felt the ground beneath her ripple and fling her into the air, her arms pinwheeling in helpless circles. Her impact with the ground knocked the wind out of her.

*****

Sorcery. The woman was a sorceress.

A sorceress of power. Arrafin stared as the Lohanese sorceress cast some kind of spell that sent Elena flying, her concern for her friend lost to her excitement at the thought of new spells.

She faced the sorceress, who was sagging now from Elena's crossbow quarrel.

"You want the Talon? What is it? Why do we need to fight?"

The woman laughed again, but a little less smugly this time. She pointed.

"That. My mistress demands it."

Arrafin turned to see the nine-foot-long, cloth-wrapped sword that Elena had been carrying since Chimney. It lay propped against a pile of firewood.

"How many spells do you have?"

The woman stared.

"You know sorcery, child? Who taught you?"

"I taught myself."

"You taught yourself? Interesting."

"Hold a minute. Maybe we can reach an agreement."

Elena had gotten shakily to her feet and turned in astonishment at Arrafin's suggestion.

"First, release our friend."

The woman waved a hand and Isaac collapsed, moaning. Arrafin watched for a second as her friend pushed himself up. He stumbled to where Arrafin and Elena stood, the three of them opposite the campfire from the woman and her guards.

"Arrafin, what are you doing?"

"We don't have to fight. We could give it to them."

Isaac groaned.

"But they're bad guys, Arrafin. We don't give ancient magic weapons to bad guys."

"How do we know they're bad guys?"

"'We're going to kill you all' was the first thing they said."

"But they didn't know us."

"I think that strengthens my argument, not yours."

Arrafin sulked.

Nevid stood up from behind the dead gallo and stepped forward.

"Madam, is it necessary that more people die?"

The woman stared at him for a second. A look of shock came over her face and she burst into laughter.

Elena's eyebrows rose.

"Maybe she does know us. At least, Nevid."

The woman pointed at Nevid and said something incomprehensible. She turned to her guards and exchanged quick words.

"You will surrender the Talon to us? There need be no more fighting."

Elena shrugged.

"Arrafin, you really want to just give it to her?"

"No," Arrafin shook her head, "I don't."

She turned to the Lohanese woman.

"We won't give the sword to you."

The woman frowned.

"We'll trade it to you. We'll trade it for spells."

Elena nudged her friend.

"Uh. What did you just say?"

Arrafin ignored her. She kept her eyes on the woman, ignoring the corpses and groaning injured around them. Ignoring Fayeeda's severed head. This was about power. The power to resist the Tyrant's Shade.

"Is it a deal?"

Elena tried again.

"Look, ask her what's up with Nevid."

"You ask her."

"Hey. What's up with Nevid? Why did you laugh at him? I mean, besides the obvious."

"He is. He possesses something I recognize."

"A ring? A hairstyle? A certain stylish charm?"

The woman chuckled.

"Nothing like that. It's hard to explain."

"Oh."

"So will you trade? Spells for the sword?"

The woman nodded at Arrafin's insistent questions.

"I think so. But I must speak with my mistress first."

She looked over Nevid once more, then turned her attention back to Arrafin.

"But perhaps she will find you interesting."

Something made her smile, a wild and savage smile that raised the hairs on the back on Isaac's neck.

"Yes. I'm sure she will."

For a second Arrafin's certainty foundered.

"Oh. Uh. Who is your mistress? Is she a sorceress, too?"

The woman laughed.

"She is Madame Yuek Man Chong. She is alabaster death. Come. I will take you to her."

"Okay."

Etienne lifted his head.

"Gonna need a little help here. Axe. Or something."

Isaac watched Nevid, Arrafin and Elena step forward and took one last stab on the part of sanity.

"Arrafin. Bad guys. Bad idea."

"No, Isaac. This is important."

Arrafin turned back to Isaac, her eyes pleading. She ignored Fayeeda's body still oozing blood into the sand. The desert had soaked up far more in its ages.

"Please. This is power, Isaac. Don't you understand?"

"Nope. I don't."

The big Saijadani sighed as he helped Etienne to his feet.

"But that's never stopped us before."
 
Last edited:

Avarice

First Post
Oh boy. Bad career move there, Arrafin. I'm guessing that's not quite the way you envisioned that encounter playing out, barsoomcore?
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Avarice said:
I'm guessing that's not quite the way you envisioned that encounter playing out, barsoomcore?
That's putting it mildly. This moment is where everything started going completely off the rails. Everything I had planned for Barsoom fell apart right here.

At this point in the gaming, the real plan was for the party to get involved in dealing with the Tyrant's Shade. Kani the Cranky Sorceress was just invented on the fly to give a quick encounter during an otherwise uneventful trip to Al-Tizim, where the "real plot" would begin to develop. Two things happened during this session:

First off, Nevid's player played the swashbuckling card "We Meet Again!" -- and so I had to invent some reason for Kani to recognize him. At the close of the session I still hadn't figured out what that was, exactly, but I decided it was some mystical hoobajoob to do with, maybe, a ressurrected soul or something.

Second of all, Arrafin's player decided to make a deal with Kani, which completely threw me off. See, when I was planning this session, I made up Kani's statblock with no real notion of who she was -- I just wanted someone to show up and try to steal the Talon. I realised that if I made the NPC powerful enough to find the Talon in the first place, they'd be powerful enough to smear the party around (these guys were about fourth level at this point), so I made the encounter be a minion, forgetting that minions must have overlords.

When somebody asked Kani who she worked for, I had no idea. I quickly took the name of my favourite Hong Kong actress, Cheung Man-Yuek, and flipped it around and just said, "Yuek Man Chong." I then hurriedly jotted that down next to Kani's statblock so I wouldn't forget, in case it became important later.

Hoo boy.

In future episodes we will see one other critical swashbuckling card played and the final piece of set up for Season Two will be in place. Barsoom will never be the same again.
 

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