WHEN THE ESCAPEES are all aboard, Njitra casts off from the steep bank and another masked Lakshari – presumably Chandur – rows them out calmly but strongly into the sluggish current. Njitra hands the party members muted brown cloaks and masks to cover their pallor and their wounds. Carwyn does her best to comfort Hamber, whose initial wailing turned to terrified silence as the guards were killed around him. Tarai looks up at Rian, eyes wide, and says, “Men go?”
“The men won’t find us,” Rian responds wearily, not sure whether the little boy is asking about the guards who died or the ones who remain. “We’re safe now.”
“Ri hurt,” Tarai says, pointing to the blood on her face. His translucent features are screwed up in an expression of concern as he pats her cheek.
Rian unexpectedly finds herself remembering her beloved little brother Asiran and closes her eyes. “Shh, now, little one. I’m all right. I’ll keep you safe.”
Even in the small hours of the morning, the Shanyang River is far from empty. Just upriver from the tumultuous tidal wedge, dozens of fishing boats lie at anchor, their crews dozing before the pre-dawn catch. With Chandur at the oars and Njitra at the rudder, their craft weaves deftly through the maze of little boats and heads for the fishing dockyards. Njitra is uneasily watching the skies, and has one hand clasped tightly around an amulet on his neck.
They land on a small, ramshackle dock below the ruins of the Sufza qohei. As the party disembarks, Chandur uncorks a jar, drops a lump of greyish-white salt into the boat, and splashes water onto it. The Northerners jump as the siseo laou smokes and hisses to life, eating swiftly through the hull. Black river water gushes up into the boat and Njitra kicks it back into the current; it is already half submerged as the party strides briskly up into the dark alleys of Tziwan.
TWICE NJITRA GUIDES them into abandoned hovels, where he produces a glowing, reddish powder from a pouch at his belt and sprinkles it liberally over all the party members. Little Tarai stares in mute wonder at the tiny embers drifting around him. “It’s like pepper for dogs,” Chandur explains through his mask. “But, you know, for mages. Throws them off our scent.”
They travel a contorted, seemingly random path through Tziwan, sticking as much as possible to back alleys where no city watchmen go; soon even Meeshak and Ash are hopelessly lost. The starlight barely illuminates the rough, muddy roads, and the exhausted Northerners frequently stumble and fall. As the first slivers of moon rise in the night sky, they finally arrive at a grand-looking teahouse and inn. Njitra, relief evident in his face, leads them to the rear of the building and taps gently on a doorframe. “Master Zhensu. We’re here.”
The door slides open, and an aged Xaimani beckons them in. His silks and linens are caught up in a practical knot, like many of the innkeepers the party saw on the slave road. “Welcome to my lowly abode,” Zhensu says once they’re all inside. His warm, throaty voice and kindly face set them at ease. “I’m sorry you can’t stay long this time – my inability to offer you food is my shame. Please follow me.”
The escapees follow Zhensu down two flights of stairs, into a cellar room whose door and walls are painted with odd, elongated Xaimani characters. The hair stands up on Rian’s neck; she recognizes them as Radiant Path runes, the archaic script used to write words of power. The last time she saw them was on her great-grandfather’s scroll case.
“Please stand in front of this mirror, all of you.” Old Zhensu pours an assortment of exotic-looking powders and feathers into his palm, closes his fist, and mutters an incantation under his breath while walking around the party. When he flings his hand open, it is empty. His face creases with an extremely smug grin. “That should have Kesh’ao chasing his tail for a while. Now, I must send you out again, my Northern friends. I’m sure you are bursting with questions – as am I, please believe me – but we must get you underground before the sun rises or the watchmen begin combing the streets.
“The Minister will be reluctant to make his humiliation widely known as long as he thinks he can hunt you down with his mages, but by dawn I think they will be forced to acknowledge their failure and call out the watch – perhaps even a Legion or two. When the search has died down, it will be my great pleasure to offer you hospitality here again.”
“Thank you, sir,” Meeshak says fervently. Whoever you are, and whatever is going on here.
WHEN ZHENSU REOPENS the rune-covered door, there are two people there who weren’t before: another masked swordsman like Njitra or Chandur, and a young Szianar girl, about Rian’s age, with one side of her face terribly scarred as if held too close to a fire. The scarred girl has wide, angry eyes, and is wearing a brown cowled robe like the party members.
“Shihara has just been rescued from the Seko Estate,” Zhensu murmurs. “She will be joining you in the safe house.” Njitra nods and beckons the girl over. The growing group of fugitives ascends by a different succession of halls and stairways to emerge in a narrow building across the street from the inn. They dive back into the alleyways again, this time staying close to the immense wall of the first tier of Tziwan. Ash gets his bearings and decides they are walking north, close to the Slave Market where they were first sold. They bear east, past the grand Slave Gate into the upper city, then head into the Lakshari qohei where Ash and Meeshak ran so many errands.
Finally, just before daybreak, the exhausted party members duck into an alley behind a derelict Lakshari temple. Chandur guides them into a half-collapsed building, kneels to feel around between piles of rubble, and finally pulls up a well-concealed trapdoor in the floor. The lower side of the trapdoor is covered in protective runes. Pulling off his headcover, Chandur leads the escapees down into a warm and well-furnished cellar, where a meal and drinks are already set around a long, low table.
Njitra closes and bolts the trapdoor behind them, then bows to the party, removing his mask to reveal a brilliant smile. “Welcome, friends, to this safe house. Allow us to extend to you the indefinite hospitality of the Dragon Path.”
“THE DRAGON PATH?” Ontaya echoes cautiously. They’ve never heard of such a Path, but they have seen sculptures of the flying, maned serpents of Xaimani myth, considered to be the noblest of beasts. “Isn’t the ‘dragon’ a symbol of the Emperor?”
Chandur laughs. “And the Imperial Order. Incongruous, yes. If the Path hadn’t been founded by three high-born Xaimani, I’m pretty sure we’d have chosen a different mascot.”
“It is allof our hope – not just the Founders’ – that the Xaimani Imperial Order can be transformed into a truly just and harmonious system,” Njitra corrects his friend. “By our nature we have to break the law, but only because the law has been built around a monstrous injustice.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Rian says wearily. “You’re not just another lot of Lakshari rebels?”
“No, my lovely – though as your friends know, I’ve moved in those circles,” Chandur replies, gesturing them all toward the breakfast table. “But I was only up there because we knew that they were going to lose. Our interest wasn’t in stirring up rebellion, but in the men who lost. The best of them are with us, now.”
“Slavery,” Meeshak says with dawning realization. He looks over to the quiet, scarred girl Shihara who joined them in their flight. “You’re freeing slaves.”
AS THE PARTY members wearily sink onto the cushions around the low table, Njitra and Chandur begin to explain the underground emancipation movement known as the Dragon Path. It is led from Tziwan by a former general (Tan Li Sheng), a high priest (Haitze), and a renegade archmage (Zhensu). Motivated by a common loathing for the inhumanity of the slave society, these three eminent Xaimani used their wealth and knowledge two decades ago to set up a secret Path, dedicated to discreetly freeing slaves and training them in other, more honorable livelihoods.
The Dragons disregard all of the traditional Xaimani taboos: they remove slaves’ brands, arm some with swords, and teach others to channel their sorcerous talents. The most capable freed slaves – former bodyguards and gladiators, well-educated Slavemasters, newly trained wizards – complete their training on special missions for the Path, seeking out treasure, magic, or knowledge that will benefit the cause. The Dragon Path now comprises thousands of freed slaves all across the Empire, and has rapidly developed parallel institutions – its own small army, spy network, trade guild, priestly order and college of mages, operating secretly within the other, Imperially sanctioned Paths.
“And you’ve been able to keep all of this a secret?” Carwyn asks in amazement.
Njitra nods. “So far. Just about everyone involved has a life-and-death interest in not being found out; we keep a low profile, and the Founders have the connections to supply us discreetly. The Emperor’s spies are still mostly focused on uprooting rebel movements out in the subject nations; within Xaiman, they spend most of their energy monitoring discontented noble houses. Meanwhile, Tziwan’s most skilled Rumormaster is working for us, covering our tracks.”
“You’ll meet him soon,” Chandur says warmly. “He’s more worried about the Shrouded Path than about the Imperial Spymaster, frankly. The thieves’ guild has the Empire’s best information network, and it’s not at all clear what they would do if they found out we exist. We think we’ve managed to evade their notice so far.”
“And what happens when the Empire finally does find out about you?” Ontaya inquires. “No matter what Imperial myth you name yourselves after, you’ve created an absolutely foundational threat to its existence. Are you prepared for the forces they’ll unleash to destroy you?”
“We’re still fragile, and wouldn’t welcome the overt conflict at this point – but yes, we’ve prepared for what it will take to survive it.”
“What about winning it?” The Northern paladin’s eyes and voice are fervent. “Are you prepared for that?”
Njitra smiles, but looks troubled. “I certainly believe we will win. For all their loyalty to the Emperor and their preference for peaceful transformation, the Founders have been building a movement that can win a civil war if the day comes.
"But as for what comes after... there, I can’t say we are prepared. For all our high-minded ideas, we have no first-hand model for a society built without slavery. We have debated for years what elements of today’s Empire will be carried over to the new Order, and... let’s say there are some very different visions. So you can understand how fascinated we were when we found out about the slaveless Northern kingdoms. Finding a way to free you became our highest priority.”
“Did you also rescue Atrix and Darren from the Imperial Palace?” Carwyn asks eagerly.
“No – we haven’t yet managed to plant a reliable source inside the Palace,” Chandur admits. “Your friends managed to escape on their own, somehow. We’re trying to find them, like everyone else in Tziwan… but as far as we know, they’ve managed to stay hidden.”
THE FREED SLAVES finish wolfing down their food and lean back, trying to take in everything they’ve just heard. “You really are free – all of you,” Njitra insists. “If the Northerners among you wish to return to the North, the Dragon Path will assist you as best we can. However… we do sincerely hope that you will choose to join us and work with us in the South for at least some time. We could use your strength, and above all your knowledge.”
“Well, obviously, we need to stay here until we’ve freed or found the rest of our friends,” Meeshak replies. With vivid immediacy, he finds himself remembering his dream from the slave cages, in which he was called to bring hope to the bound and despairing. “After that... I don’t speak for my friends, but I believe Ain – I mean, Ii – would want me to remain and help you. Slavery is an abomination, and I can’t think of any worthier cause than helping to end it across Xaiman.”
Ontaya nods emphatically. “We have an absolute duty to help you. The Imperial Order is a travesty – they’re justifying the worst kind of oppression in the name of Ii. It perverts and debases Ii's order into a bastion of evil.”
“It has to stop,” Carwyn says simply. “The bastards can’t keep getting away with it all. I’m staying. We’ve got scores to settle back North, but they’ll keep.” And of course, whatever we can do to challenge the Empire might protect the North from another attack, too.
“Well, that makes it unanimous,” Ash affirms. “How could we say no? We’ll do whatever we can to help you, no matter what happens.”
“Rian?” Carwyn asks anxiously, turning to her new friend.
“Don’t worry, I’m staying,” Rian says at once. Until I’ve paid my life-debt to Ash, and repaid Meeshak and these Dragon folk for saving me. “I owe you all far too much to walk away now.” The scarred Shihara nods silently in her corner.
Chandur’s smile splits into an irresistible yawn. “Delightful! Welcome to the Dragons. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m badly in need of last night’s sleep. Bunks are through that door.”
FOR SEVERAL DAYS, the party rests and recovers in the Dragon Path safe house, never opening the rune-covered trapdoor. The Laksharis prepared well, stocking the cellar with food and drink enough to sustain them for weeks. No noise penetrates from the street above, and Chandur assures the party that the babies’ crying won’t be heard outside either. From this tranquil sanctuary, it’s hard to imagine the magical and military forces of Tziwan scouring the city for them.
They pore over the few reading materials in the safe house, including a map of the Xaimani Empire which finally gives them a sense of where these countries they’ve been hearing about are located. (“This one was drawn by the Xaimani priests, not the Legions,” Njitra warns wryly. “Don’t use it to gauge travel distances – they make the subject nations look about half their real size.”) Naturally the escapees also get to know the two young Lakshari men with whom they are sharing the cellar. Both joined the Dragon Path as free men, though they’ve been captured and branded temporarily on past missions. (“Occupational hazard,” winces Chandur).
Njitra is a proud, charismatic idealist whose lifelong contempt for the Lakshari caste system led him to likewise reject the Xaimani slave system. A mercenary since his teens, he betrayed one of his Szianar employers a few years ago, turning a blind eye while a dozen of the man’s slaves escaped. The Dragon Path team who were facilitating the escape noted Njitra’s aid and discreetly recruited him afterward.
Chandur, by contrast, is an unscrupulous charmer, brilliant and mercurial. He isn’t moved by the grand vision of a slavery-free world, but was drawn into the Dragons by more personal motives: his beloved sister was taken as a slave by an eminent Maharana. After a failed rescue attempt, the twelve year-old Chandur was saved from the Lakshari lord’s prison by a Dragon Path mage. Unfortunately, his sister was soon sold on, and Chandur has so far failed to locate her again.
THE YOUNG SZIANAR Shihara remains mostly silent and withdrawn. “I was sold a year ago to Minister Seko’s estate,” she says bleakly when asked about her past. “My old home doesn’t matter. My family would sell me again if I returned.” Rian nods in wordless commiseration. No one asks about the scars on Shihara's face, and she doesn’t volunteer an explanation.
“I just realized I recognize you,” Chandur tells her one morning.
“You must be mistaking me for one of the many, many other women of your acquaintance,” Shihara retorts, plainly weary of Chandur’s flirtation with every female in eyeshot.
“No, really. We were asked to find a fresh corpse of roughly your description last week. Weren’t you locked up and awaiting Radiant Path attention?” Shihara glares furiously at him. “Yes, I thought so. Your Slavemaster thought he’d seen you curdling the milk or causing the cows to run backward or something else vaguely sorcerous. If he’d been able to articulate himself more believably, they’d have sent a mage to check you sooner, and we wouldn’t have got to you in time.”
“You somehow replaced her with a corpse?” Carwyn says, eyebrow raised.
“One that now looks like it died from a very badly miscast fire spell,” Chandur confirms. “They’ll pay more heed to the Slavemaster next time, I’m afraid, but you can’t just make a mage-blood slave disappear without a plausible cover.”
“And how exactly does one go about finding a corpse of a certain description in Tziwan?”
The young Lakshari gives an almost-amused snort. “Where can’t you come by a corpse, lovely Carwyn? The slave market, the tilehouses and lotus houses of the Shroud qohei, the arena, the vascars... this damned city kills people every day. Pose as the servant of a mage or a priest, and you have every excuse to ask for one.”
Later, when Rian can approach Shihara in what privacy the cellar allows, she leans over and speaks in a low voice. “How did you know when... when you first found you had the power?”
Shihara glances at Rian, her caginess outweighed by her curiosity. “It just welled up in me. I felt it like... like I feel my arm, or my breath in my lungs.” She pauses. “And... you?”
“Reading scrolls. Old scrolls of my grandfather’s.”
“I taught myself,” Rian says matter-of-factly. “Perhaps I can teach you.”
A WEEK AFTER their escape, Njitra sneaks out of the cellar by night to reestablish contact with the Dragon Path. When he returns, he is not alone; a frail, elderly Xaimani wearing unassuming gray robes follows him through the trapdoor. This is High Priest Haitze, another of the Dragon Path’s Founders. He warmly welcomes them to the Dragon Path and lays hands on each of the escapees’ shoulders in turn, murmuring a complex prayer to Heal their slave brands.
“To conceal you Northerners, we’ll obviously need more than an unbranding,” Njitra says, producing a string of small pouches. “These two common spice-dyes will color your skin – the stain sets deep, though you’ll want to renew it every year or two.” The Northern party members have to choose between the light gold-brown tabal, which will help them look Chramic or Szianar, or the deep brown kaab-nut which will make them look Lakshari. Carwyn chooses the latter, earning her a wink and an optimistic grin from Chandur. The other Northern party members go with tabal.
Njitra informs them that the first fury of the manhunt has subsided. While it’s not yet wise for the party members to leave the safe house, more Dragon Path members will be coming to meet them. Their next visitor, arriving around noon the following day, is a middle-aged Szianar with grave eyes and a grey-flecked beard. He carries a solemn-looking baby girl.
“This is the Dragon Path’s Rumormaster, Chingan Dai,” Chandur declares, beaming. “He’s the man who does the most to keep the world ignorant of our existence.”
“You’ll already be aware that my young student tends to exaggerate,” Chingan Dai demurs. “I am just one man in an information network spanning the Empire.”
“The man who did most to create it, over the last decade,” Njitra counters. “Before you took over, with all respect, the Path was terrible at spying. At heart, the Founders are straightforward men.”
Chingan Dai waves away the Laksharis’ compliments and settles into a long, avid discussion with the party members about slaveless Northern society and politics. Meanwhile, Hamber and the Rumormaster’s little daughter Tiya play happily together in one corner. Rian, who’s mostly left out of the main conversation, brings Tarai over to join the game.
Tarai squirms away, looking upset and a little jealous. “Don’t like her,” he says, sticking out his lower lip. Rian suppresses a smile. “Tarai, it’s all right for Hamber to have other friends,” she explains. “You should try too.” When Tarai obstinately refuses to play with the other children, she scolds him and sends him to a corner of the far room.
SEVERAL HOURS LATER, Chingan Dai reluctantly announces that he has to leave. Before departing, he steps over to Shihara and produces a slim, rune-covered book. “We’ll be ensuring you get proper Radiant Path training,” he promises, “but for now, perhaps you could start by studying this.”
The scarred Szianar girl glances nervously over to Rian. Chingan Dai’s eyes follow hers, and he raises an eyebrow. “I also share Shihara’s abilities, I think,” Rian admits under her breath. Her fear that the Northerners will suspect that she Charmed Carwyn is outweighed by her eagerness to receive magical training. “And the little boy Tarai certainly does.”
“Is that so? Two new Path members with the Golden Blood, and one very early prodigy – the Archmasters will be delighted.” The Rumormaster deftly gathers up little Tiya and looks at the door to the room where Tarai is sulking. “We’ll make sure your little son grows into his skills. I’m sorry he didn’t seem to take to my daughter.”
“No, please – I apologize for him,” Rian says anxiously. “He just hasn’t had much experience with other children. I hope he didn’t offend.”
Chingan Dai laughs. “A child of that age can’t possibly offend. Please, don’t push him on it – if he gets too upset, his powers might manifest in destructive ways. Best to just let it go for now.”
Rian blinks – the idea that Tarai’s magic could conceivably pose a physical risk had not occurred to her, given how gentle her own awakening to power had been. To her mild surprise, the realization strengthens her protective instincts toward the little boy. “You’re very gracious. Thank you.”
THE MORNING AFTER Atrix and Darren redeem Lucian from the Arena, they hear of their friends’ bloody escape from the Tang estate. In a city still stunned from the shaming of the Imperial Palace and the burning of the Sufza qohei, the news hits like a landslide: in the middle of the night, a dozen Northern slaves killed their guards, fought their way out of the Minister of State’s home compound, and then disappeared without trace.
The Minister of Security, Goru, immediately announces that all Northerners throughout the Empire are to be beaten again; that they must at all times wear heavy metal shackles around their legs; and that their children are to be taken away from them and raised with other, less rebellious slave races. The main roads out of Tziwan are closed for a day, and a Legion is called out into the streets to join the city watch in hunting for the escapees. Grim rumors fly around Tziwan that one more escape will result in the excruciation of all remaining Northern slaves and a punitive re-invasion of the North.
Darren is the first to speak their more specific fear aloud: “They have to know that we were all sold from the same cage. So they’re sure to come hunting for whoever bought the White Death.”
The Northerners can do little but keep moving, following their plan of never spending more than one night in the same wayhouse. That first day, the watch searches every inn in Tziwan for escapees, but the three friends maintain their alibi as Chramic merchant-prentices well enough to fool their new innkeeper. He serves them wine and plies them with questions about their trading visits in the North – “Is it true that Northerners are so unruly that they settle all disputes by trying to murder each other?” – while the guardsmen scour every room in his hostelry.
After a few more days of lying low, Darren risks returning to the drinking houses of the docks to find Seraband, the friendly sea-trader. To his relief, as far as he can tell, no one has yet asked the garrulous Chramic merchant any questions about them. Despite his general anxiety, Darren’s fascination with ocean travel keeps him at Seraband’s table. He sips his rice beer and takes mental notes as Musfarzan, a Chramic shipwright, and Gatze, a Kardei ship’s mage, argue about the best way to proof a vessel against breaking up in a tidal surge.
AS THE FUROR over the second escape grudgingly subsides and the Legions return to their barracks, Atrix, Darren, and Lucian almost begin to relax. Then, eleven days after their triumph at the Arena, the three friends’ hearts are set hammering by an unexpected late-night knock on the door of their room. Lucian flattens himself against the wall, a sword-length piece of wood in his hand. Atrix cracks the door. He is both relieved and surprised to see Chingan Dai hovering in the hall; they haven’t seen the Szianar talemonger since Seraband introduced them in the winehouse more than two weeks earlier. “Sir?” he says politely.
Chingan Dai pauses, apparently waiting for Atrix to welcome him in. When no invitation is forthcoming, he nods slowly. “Seraband told me you were somewhere in the area, young man. I was wondering what you and your friend decided to invest in. There is a story going around that two young Chramics bought a slave called the White Death from the Arena. You will understand that when I heard that, my mind turned to you.”
“Ah,” Atrix says, trying not to sound flustered. “To be honest, we haven’t really decided yet what we're going to invest in.”
Chingan Dai smiles. “Of course. If it were high-value slaves... well, I don’t need to tell you that it’s a touchy time to be owning a Northerner, and I was wondering what I could offer you to take him off your hands. I know a man who could use a good bodyguard – the best the Arena has to offer.”
“I don’t want to waste your time, sir,” Atrix demurs, trying desperately to bluff. “We haven’t bought this Arena slave you’re looking for. Apologies.”
The graying Szianar nods again, chewing his lip and looking slightly puzzled. Then he blinks twice and looks up, his mournful eyes suddenly ablaze. Atrix feels the sick certainty that Chingan Dai has guessed their real identities. His hand is already going for his sword hilt when the Szianar speaks with barely contained excitement.
“If I told you that I’d heard about you from Ontaya and Ash, might that change your answer?”
CHINGAN DAI EAGERLY leads the three refugees to the Dragon Path safe house in the Lakshari qohei – and the party is finally reunited! Over several celebratory bottles of rice wine, Atrix and Darren tell everyone the epic tale of their escape from the Imperial Palace. (It's the first of many, many retellings, each of which will be slightly more exciting and elaborate).
When they get to their encounter with the gravel-voiced Beggarmaster of Tziwan, Chandur whistles softly. "Old Tchuchek guessed which sewer you'd drop out of? It's said he knows the underside of Tziwan better than anyone else, but that's so impressive as to be frightening. Surely he must have had help from some kind of Divination."
Chingan Dai's expression is grim. "We feared he'd caught scent of us. I wonder how many other escaped slaves that old wolf has left out as bait. The Founders need to know about this as soon as possible."
"What would it mean if the thieves did find out about the Dragons?" Meeshak asks.
"We don't know," Njitra replies, pensive. "Thanks to Chingan Dai, we know that Thieflord Zhenan of Tziwan has a secret understanding with the Minister of Security. The Shrouded Path carries out nasty little missions that the Empire doesn't want to dirty its hands with – or that the Security Ministry wants to keep secret from other Ministries. In exchange, Minister Goru keeps the Shroud qohei from being scoured too aggressively by the Watch. If Zhenan sees us as a threat to such a profitable relationship, he might set Minister Goru's minions onto our trail."
"While we're speaking of Goru's minions," Ontaya interjects, "there was a wizard at the slave market the day we were sold – Archmaster Orozu – who was the most thoroughly evil man I've ever sensed. They said he lived on the estate of Minister Goru."
Chingan Dai's voice remains steady, but the blood has visibly left his cheeks. "Since you will probably be caught up in these things, we should speak of them more clearly. Minister Goru himself is a corpulent, dissolute fool. When we speak of the Ministry of Security, we are really speaking of Orozu. If the Archmaster were not distracting himself by trying to replicate the greatest horrors of the ancient Empire, he might pose more of a threat to the Dragon Path than anyone else in Tziwan."
As a more somber mood settles on the room, Darren tells their friends about their failed attempt to rescue Kay from Graiqal. Fighting tears, Carywn implores Chingan Dai to find Lune – the last of their close Senalline friends to remain unaccounted for.
"We already have men working to find him, Carwyn," the Szianar spymaster assures her. "We must take great care in retrieving him, so as to not draw the attention of the Empire or the Beggarmaster. But if he's alive, we will save him – don't fear."
Much later, Meeshak privately comments to Chandur that Chingan Dai seemed intensely affected by the mention of Archmaster Orozu. The young Lakshari nods, looking bleak. "His late wife Ujeli, Tiya's mother, was a slave on the Goru estate. I helped Chingan rescue her – that was six years ago. Ujeli didn't speak of it, but I know she'd seen some of Orozu's... experiments, as closely as anyone can and still stay sane. I don't know what that dark bastard's doing, but he's killed literally hundreds of slaves to do it. Chingan Dai hates him worse than anyone else in the world."
FOR TWO MORE weeks, the party keeps a low profile in the shielded cellar. Atrix, Darren and Lucian have their scarred shoulders Healed, removing all trace of the slave brand. Several of the literate Northern party members begin learning to read and write Xaimani script. Rian and Shihara pore over their new spellbook, trying to memorize the long runic incantations.
Ontaya asks Njitra to help her read some books of religious lore, and eventually concludes to her satisfaction that the Ain of the North and the Ii of the South are One. The theology of the South is fairly sound by the standards of her paladin order – setting aside, of course, one appalling moral oversight. The Empire-wide institution of slavery seems like a far bigger evil for Ain to tolerate than even the tortures of the Sistechern Order; Ontaya is still amazed that the priests of the South have retained the blessing of Ain. She reminds herself that, according to the doctrine of her own Order, Ain does not promise to intervene on any question which His servants could settle using their own reason, conscience, and willpower. Slavery clearly must be such an issue.
Wholly bored by the theological discussions on the other side of the safe house, Chandur does his charismatic best to seduce Carwyn. She half-heartedly flirts back – he is a very pretty man, and old habits die hard – but ultimately resists his propositions, her mind still set on Lune. Her hope is rewarded one day when Njitra returns from a brief visit to Dragon Path headquarters. "They've found Lune. He's working a tile table at at the House of Shattered Knives."
For a second, Carwyn's whole body goes weak with relief; she almost drops little Hamber. "Is he all right?"
"He's had a hard time – I won't lie to you," Njitra sighs. "He's in one of the roughest gambling dens in the Shroud qohei. But he's winning money for his masters, and as long as he keeps that up, they're going to keep him alive."
Carywn groans. "Damn it. We can't rescue him yet, can we?" Hamber starts crying, half-understanding the desolation in her voice.
Njitra kneels in front of her, putting a hand to his heart. "Carwyn, as soon as the furor over your escape has completely died down, we'll find a way to extract him. I promise you."
NJITRA ALSO TOSSES a musty-smelling old book to Rian and Shihara. "Chingan Dai asks you to look after this for him."
"Really?" Rian says, surprised and excited. "We're still a long way from working our way through the first spellbook."
"Keep working on it," Njitra grins. "You couldn't get this one open if you tried. One of our questing parties retrieved it from a forgotten library in Niyon, and Zhensu asked Chingan Dai to send it somewhere safe – we try not to keep too many treasures in any one base. Can either of you read the seal?"
Shihara looks away, trying to hide her embarrassment, while Rian examines the weighty tome. A tarnished silver strap wraps around the book, with an ornate runic sigil at the clasp. "It looks like the runes for 'gray' and 'gold,' engraved on top of each other," she replies after a moment. "With slight priority to the first. So, Gray-Gold?"
"That's what Zhensu said. A lot of spellbooks will have a seal like that. The runes are usually a hint to the words that need to be spoken to unlock the book. If you tried to break the seal, it would destroy the contents. We're trying to Divine what the unlocking words might be."
"Ii usually doesn't give a plain answer to such questions, blessed be His confusing ways," Chandur chimes in, "but occasionally He renders a helpful hint."
"The runic script doesn't look quite right," Rian ventures. When she runs her hands over the cracked leather cover, they come away feeling tingly and cold.
"It's how they wrote runes about three hundred years ago," Njitra says, smiling. "Archmaster Zhensu was quite excited about it. He thinks it might be one of the lost books of the Gray Archmage."
"Really?" Rian gasps, feeling a sudden unexpected vertigo. She knows almost nothing about the Gray Archmage – just half-remembered fireside stories about a hero who saved the Empire by defeating three evil wizards. The idea that she could be holding a relic from that legendary age is absurd – and intoxicating.
"So he thinks. We'll see what the priests say. Meanwhile, would you look after it?"
"Of course I wi..." Rian breaks off as Shihara coughs pointedly. "Of course we will."
For anyone who was following this StoryHour... all my apologies for the six+ year silence! I'm afraid the reason I fell silent was that I began another writing project that drew in different ways on this D&D campaign: a game for Choice of Games.
Choice of Rebels, Game I finally hit the app stores in November. I'm now working on the sequel, so it will be a long time (if ever) before I find my way back to finishing this StoryHour. But in case anyone enjoyed what was here, you might want to try Choice of Rebels. The first chapter is free to play, so you can see what you think...