With Augt’s help, Faolan and Erogan managed to wrest some shelving from the wall to pile up against the entrance through which they’d arrived.
Sarai paced and prowled, recovering what arrows she could, before eventually making her way over to the king. There was a concerned, sleepy look on his face, in death, as though he were mulling over some troubling dream. The kobold bent down and gently tugged at a corner of paper sticking out from his vest.
The crunch of a boot nearby made her jump back, claws clacking against the pommel of her sword. Erogan was giving her a dark look, though the moment passed and he shrugged.
“Might as well, lizard. If the king is fallen and, I suspect, Munjim itself about to fall, we should take what we can. Someone will need to rally.”
Sarai nodded cautiously, relaxing her posture. She did not, however, move to the body, instead letting Erogan rifle the king’s corpse.
Faolan let out a muffled shout, which was almost immediately followed by a low rumbling. “Sarai’s right! Move!”
The path from the storeroom was short indeed. The four bounded up a short flight of steps, pausing only to let Augt crash through a rotted door shoulder first, and they were out in the night air. Cool, fresh air, and the rumbling, much louder now, greeted them.
A quick glance told them they’d come out of a small grotto right at the the innermost angle of the customs yard, leaving a flat expanse and abandoned carts before them.
Behind them, the mountain was coming down.
Sarai came to with a start.
The rumbling hadn’t ceased, which was either a good sign or a bad sign, depending on which way she looked at it. Good, because that meant that she hadn’t been out long after the rock had struck her in the back of the head. Bad, because the mountain was still gleefully throwing rocks at them.
Augt grabbed the kobold by the collar of her vest and hauled her upright. leading her out toward the far end of the customs yard.
Faolan was also bleeding from a scrape above his ear, but still grinning widely. The latter was likely due to the good-sized gold bar he held in one hand. “No one watching the carts. I figure we’ll need it for the road. We also found some dried meat and tack, and some sumac that perhaps we can use.”
“Good,” Sarai mumbled. “We should move as soon as–”
With a resounding crack, the roof of the cavern into which Munjim had been built gave way.
That would have been spectacle enough to draw their gaze, but along with it came a sick red light lancing out from the expanding dust cloud. It was a red that seemed to seep beneath Sarai’s scales, one that tugged at her. A slimy sort of red that stole her breath.
Even as the red sprang up, the stars went out. The blank darkness of the sky hurt their eyes to look at, but the blood-red moon drew their gaze all the same.
“The sand!” Augt cried.
The ground itself seemed to have caught the light of the stars, glowing a pale green-tinged white beneath their feet.
Sarai thought she might be ill.
They made it about a mile from the customs yard, with the last of Munjim still in view, before camping. Despite the evil quality to the night, that they had just fought their way through ruined dwarves and something which had only had the fair semblance of an elf was catching up with them.
Erogan volunteered to take first watch.
Sarai found it odd how little the death of their king seemed to affect the dwarves. Or perhaps it wasn’t that his death wasn’t affecting them so much as it seemed to have each of their minds spinning in different directions. Erogan, when he spoke, had shown great concern for those of his people who had survived, and by the time they settled into camp for the night, he had begun to speak of leadership.
Faolan, on the other hand, mostly seemed quiet and contemplative, though the crafty grin of his never seemed to leave his face for long.
By morning, some sense of normalcy had returned. The moon during Sarai’s watch had started to look like a moon once more, and Faolan, after sheepishly admitting to having fallen asleep during the final watch, said that the stars were once more starting to come out.
The next few days were ones of travel. The kobold was accustomed to such, and the minotaur seemed to plod on without much of a care in the world, though the dwarves did not fare as well.
After resting through the heat of the day the path they followed intersected and cleaved to a ravine through which trickled a meager stream. Sarai, from her travels, knew that the path to Fustat existed almost solely because of the stream, and that they would be able to follow it most of the way to the city itself.
In order to stretch their rations, Sarai attempted to show her travelling companions a trick she had learned with sumac, where a few berries would keep even the minotaur fed and on his feet for a day, but her words quickly failed her, and she resigned herself to simply making such for the group as needed to supplement their rations.
By the third day, all four were thankful for such, as their sole attempt at hunting had involved Erogan sending an arrow glancing off Faolan’s backside, who had, in his shock, then shot at Sarai.
Augt once more proved his worth by bandaging such scrapes.
It was a grumpy group that, on the eve of the third day, came across a snare set in the rocks by the ravine. Hastily set and empty, but a sign of fellow travelers nonetheless. They continued up the road more warily after that.
Some tack softened in water mashed up with berries did little to help raise their spirits, and exhaustion mixed with wariness made for poor conversation.
Before they could set a watch for the night, Erogan hushed them into silence Gesturing further down the road. “Fire?”
Sarai nodded. “A few, perhaps. Some of your kin?”
The dwarf nodded and reshouldered his pack. “We should see.”
There was minimal grumbling as they pressed onward through the gloaming. They skirted around a low rise as quietly as possible, though Erogan in his mail was having a hard time keeping from making too much noise, and after a particularly loud rustle, the fire before them was quickly doused, and they were dropped into darkness once more.
“Who there?” Came a low, urgent voice. “Many of us! Who there?”
Slinking past Erogan and making a sign for the others to wait, Sarai continued on. The dwarf had stepped in another small snare, so she supposed it had been these who had been setting them, perhaps hoping to backtrack the next morning to check for small prey. The others waited as the kobold continued on.
The low shapes were confusing to make out. The forms that were people were well dressed for the high desert, and their gear fit them so well that telling the two apart was difficult at best. Still, she counted three figures moving, supposing that they were either men or elves. Men, she hoped, as she was ill-disposed toward elves, after the events in Munjim.
There was another soft rustle and a curse behind her in Erogan’s gruff voice. The rustle from the camp sounded decidedly like arms being brought to bear on the sound.
Acting on instinct, Sarai stood up from where she had crouched and approached the group slowly, hands held out before her with palms up. “Hold! Nice to see some friendly faces, we did not mean to startle you,” she said in what she hoped was an affable voice, appending a hint of a bow and a flourish of the tail.
After a moment’s hesitation, the three men - for she decided they had to be men - lowered their spears and returned the bow with nods of their own.
“What business brings you to these parts?” she asked, masking a sigh of relief.
“Trade. Traveling. Goods.” The reply was halting and coarse, the accent rough, as though the lingua franca was still new to them.
“And you?” A smoother voice brought Sarai’s attention to the packs, where a lithe figure was unfolding themselves from where they were seated on the ground. “What business brings a kobold this far east?”
“Trade also. I am an envoy from my guild seeking to purchase emeralds.” She suspected this new voice belonged to an elf, but she also suspected the three men before her were perfectly competent with those spears, so she had no desire to come off as anything but friendly. She added in a lighthearted tone, “Do you have any to trade? I will pay competitive rates.”
“Of course, a kobold looking to trade.” The voice sounded amused, if tired. “Alas, but we have no emeralds. From whence do you travel, little one?”
Sarai stiffened and contemplated briefly how much to answer before waving vaguely northwest. “Just down the road.”
The elf seemed to be making his own calculation before he - and Sarai guessed it must be a ‘he’ - nodded and beckoned her with. “Come. I would like to take you to speak with our leader. We came from Fustat to trade with the dwarves at Munjim al’Jawahir, as we do regularly. You must excuse the men, the hill folk. We use them for wayfinding, but they are not much for conversation.”
“May I bring my traveling companions?”
“The loud ones?” The elf laughed. “Yes, but be forewarned that we are quite well-armed, should you have ill intent.”
Sarai trotted off to fetch Augt and Faolan, leaving Erogan to remain with the heavier gear. Sarai brought her bow, Faolan his rapier, and Augt his ironwood wrapped in the Munjim rug, of course. No reason to leave those behind.
By the time they made it back to the camp, the elf had managed to relight a brand from the fire, and she could see him for the trader he was. Coarser than the elves that had borne Rola Tabsh into the palace in Munjim, but still bearing the fine caramel skin and mien of his race. “A kobold, a dwarf, and a minotaur! Wonder of wonders. Come.”
The faint glow from over the next rise told the trio that the main camp had relit their own fires, and they were greeted with the sight of a large camp, crowded with men and elves, two carts at the center with two horses staked near each. Dogs barked at their arrival, alerting the camp.
The elderly elf who greeted them looked up in surprise at Augt. “Oh! You are slavers!”
The minotaur frowned, and Sarai could see him balling his fists at his sides, so close to her head as they were.
“Ah, forgive me,” the woman amended. “I forget myself, such is no longer legal. My apologies, beast.”
“I am known to my people and companions as Augt.” His voice sounded tight, strained. “You may address me as such. I travel freely with my companions Sarai and Faolan.”
The elf bowed. “Well met, Augt, Sarai, Faolan. You may address me as Kandake. How came you to this area?”
Sarai, seeing the finery of Kandake’s dress, gave a deeper bow and flourish. “We came from Aleawalim, bypassing Munjim.”
“Bypassing? Why not stop there?”
“We met Faolan on the road, and he has errand in Fustat, where we also seek trade.”
Kandake frowned and, after a few moments, nodded. “Come. Let us see your wares. Perhaps we could trade here before we we part ways.”
Augt, having relaxed, spoke up. “We have left our packs in hiding. We would need to retrieve them before trading more fully. However, as a token of our intent, perhaps we may make due with this?” He unwound the rug from his ‘staff’ of ironwood.
The elf’s eyes widened, and she made a quick chopping gesture with her hand. Sarai had seen such before, and quickly dove to the side, covering her face.
The flash was intense and the noise loud, and Sarai could sense, if not see, both Augt and Faolan stumbling back. “Wait! Wait! We come for trade! We mean no harm!”
“Then why do you lie?” Kandake’s voice remained steady and confident, and all the more dangerous for it. “You say you skirt Munjim, and yet bring Munjim wool to trade. Think carefully before next you speak, Sarai.”
“We…we came from Munjim, yes. We stopped there, and are traveling to Fustat for trade. You have our word.”
“Strange lights shine from the mountains to the north, and now strange travelers on the road, lying about where they have been.”
“I speak truth. We were were there to trade.”
“I know that,” Kandake snapped. “You are a kobold, you trade. It is in your blood. I did not ask why you were there. I want to know what the fuck happened.”
“There was an Elven ambassador. He promised riches. There was a giant party, then a massacre, and then the mountain came down around us. We saw the same lights as you.”
“Diplomats? A party? You may be telling the truth, but not nearly enough, Sarai. If you do not provide specifics, I will not hesitate to loose an arrow between your eyes.”
Faolan had recovered from the flash of the stunning arrow and spoke up next. “The dead rose! The mountain came down! There was a…a thing in the shape of an elf, shadow stuff that fought, died, and fought again. The moon turned red as blood, the stars went out and–”
Kandake held up her hand, and both her and the trio looked about, alarmed.
The men of the hill tribes had fallen to their knees as one and were keening toward the sky, arms raised.
Kandake stalked over toward the tribesmen and, grabbing the oldest by the collar of his shirt, hauled him to his feet. The elf was stronger than she had first appeared. “What is this? What’s happening?”
“The prophecy! The prophecy!” he wailed.
“The end times! Demons will come, souls will be consumed, flesh corrupted. A thousand years of darkness await us before the prophet comes.” His accent was thick, but he spoke more fluently than his kinsmen. Sarai supposed he must be the leader of the tribe.
Kandake whirled to face the trio, dragging the elder with her. “Did you have anything to do with this?”
Augt spoke hastily. “We were just there for trade, truthfully. We were as caught up in these happenings as the dwarves themselves.”
“Many escaped,” Faolan added. “Many ran, we must just be the first to make it this far.”
Kandake slumped, setting the elder tribesman down onto his knees once more. The howling resumed, quieter this time.
“I suppose I have no choice but to believe you.” A wicked grin twisted her features and she raised her hand once more. Two elves within the camp raised their bows to aim toward the travelers. “I’ve seen some crazy shit in my life. I’ll let you live, just give me the fucking rug.”
Augt stamped his foot and shouted, “You…you awful…”
Kandake’s grin turned to an amused smile, and then she laughed, loud and from the belly. She lowered her hand and shook her head, pacing back to the fire. She settled back to her seat and took a pull from what Sarai supposed was a wine skin. She certainly didn’t seem wholly sober. “Hell and shit, but you are fools. Tell me, Sarai, Faolan, does he always stammer when people fuck with him?”
Sarai shook her head in exasperation. Faolan only grinned.
The hollering from the tribesmen had calmed down to a low murmur of prayer. The language was familiar to Sarai as that spoken in the hills to the west of Fustat, though she had heard it as far north as Aleawalim. The hill tribes were a superstitious lot, largely keeping to themselves. She’d met them, but never had they offered anything to trade.
“You,” the Elder said, pointing to Augt. “I speak little of the common speech. I speak better of Minotaur. You. We talk.”
Augt and Sarai followed the man to crouch near the fire by Kandake.
“The prophecy says that God would grow weary of the wickedness in the world,” the elder said. Sarai spoke some minotaur, enough to follow, but Augt translated much of the conversation into the common speech for Kandake. “Out of his displeasure, he would send down angry spirits, who would consume our souls through idols. The world would be covered with blood, blood that would boil and corrode until it reduced the world to its raw form, that it one day be remade anew, when we are forgiven.”
“How are these spirits described?”
“They are incomprehensible to the minds of men. We cannot perceive their entirety. They come in many shapes and varieties.”
Augt mulled over this for a moment, perhaps thinking of what the elf beneath Munjim had become. Eventually he spoke once more. “Have any others arrived from Munjim? Any…spirits?”
“None,” the elder said. “We came from Fustat, and have seen no others on the trail.”
There was another silence, broken by Faolan. “Ask if he knows of this?” He reached beneath his shirt and withdrew a pendant, which he showed to the tribesman.
The elder stiffened and turned away. When he spoke again, his voice was carefully controlled. “When I was younger, we would carve these and sell them to the dwarves when we needed to trade. It says, ah…it says that the number of men who have lain with his mother is greater than the stars in the sky.”
Augt brought his oversized hand quickly to his muzzle as though to rub at his chin, hiding a smile as he did so. Sarai pretended to pick at her vest as the minotaur translated. “It is a blessing in their tongue. He says if you show it to a barman in some towns, you will receive a discount.”
Faolan bowed deeply and returned the pendant to his tunic. “Thank you, my friend.” To Kandake, he added, “We have one other in our party guarding the remainder of our packs. By your leave, I will go and fetch him and our kit.”
Kandake frowned, but waved Faolan on. the dwarf trotted out of the firelight, retracing his steps.
“I am Uhask,” the elder said once Faolan had left. “I am the shaman to my tribe. I lead my warriors to help the elf woman Kandake.”
“What is her errand?” Augt asked. “What are you doing to help?”
“We are but guides and guards. We do not ask questions, we are simply useful.”
In broken minotaur, Sarai asked, “On road to Fustat, any danger?”
Uhask shrugged. “Not so much, in these times.”
“Well, in these times,” Augt trailed off, simply waving northwest, toward Munjim.
Kandake, who had been paying little attention to the conversation in language she did not speak, sat up. “Is there anything left of Munjim?”
“Well, there is the customs yard, but the cavern city has caved in.”
“Is there no one to trade with?”
Sarai shook her head.
“Hell and shit,” the elf repeated, settling back against her pack. “We were already lost after the first incident.”
Augt frowned. “The first incident?”
Kandake sighed and prodded at the fire listlessly. “Two days back, our caravan was attacked. And only a day outside of Fustat. We lost two of our carts and Aran, one of our company.”
“I am sorry to say that we have not seen them.”
“There’s a bounty on their heads.” The elf laughed nervously. “Or there will be. I am looking for some help on the matter, perhaps your company would be interested? What are your prices?”
Augt leaned in closer to Sarai and asked in minotaur, “What do you think? Thirty a head? Fifty?”
“Seventy gold tekel a head,” the kobold said.
“Seventy, shit.” The elf spat at this. “I know those who would do it for twenty-five.”
“We are better than most.”
“You certainly did not show your martial prowess earlier.” Kandake laughed.
“We were acting on good faith,” the minotaur growled.
“No bandit would do that. How are you sure you would not be brought in by their honeyed words? Let me barter with the kobold. That is their role.”
“You speak of bandits. I know these parts,” Sarai said. “Bandits in the east, we could not do it for less than fifty a head.”
“Forty, but I will give you three hundred fifty for each cart that comes back.” The elf smirked. “Worst comes to worst, you die and I will not have to pay. You may stay in our camp this night.”
Augt nodded and stood, standing and stomping away from the fire to welcome Erogan and their packs, and relay the events of the night.
“So is he a slave?” Kandake asked.
Sarai shook her head. “No. A bit dim, perhaps, but a free creature.”
“I remember, years ago, the war. I fought for their freedom, you know. I regret it, now.”
Sarai said nothing. She was fond of the minotaur after their short time together, but daren’t risk their position.
“Ah! Another dwarf. We have made a small deal, my friend. I hear that you do a lot of damage.” The elf gave a hint of a bow. “I am Kandake. I hail from Ardu Alamuk, yet have been on the road these many years.”
Erogan bowed formally. “Well met, Kandake. I am Erogan Braeburn of Munjim al’Jawahir.”
The rest of the night passed without further event, other than Kandake’s jovial racism. With the tribesmen to keep guard, they bedded down for an early morning, intending to break camp before the heat of the day struck.
Their dreams were broken and disturbing images of chanting and prayer to greet a bloody moon.
Distressing dreams behind them, the travelers woke well-rested before much of the rest of the camp. Augt worked to rekindle the fire, mentioning that he would enjoy his tack and water warm for once.
Sarai scowled around the camp. The tribesmen were not to be seen. Perhaps one of them should have kept watch, as well. She clutched at her pack and dug for the sumac within, composing her words about the watch to Kandake.
Her pack was light. Far too light.
As a traveler, she knew her pack and kept it well organized, and as a merchant, she knew her wares. Thankfully, the emeralds were all there, as was the sumac and all of her tack and meat.
What wasn’t there, however, was the fine bottle of wine.
“Quick, check your packs! We’ve been robbed!”
Erogan shouted and leaped to his feet, hastily pawing through his satchel. He had been the least prepared for the flight from Munjim, and had the most to lose.
Kandake looked tousled and hungover as she stalked from her tent. “What’s all this, then?”
“We had a bottle of wine,” Sarai growled. “Which is now missing. Do you know where they might have gone?”
“Where who has gone?”
“Your guards! The hillfolk who were supposed to be keeping watch!”
Kandake shouted, hand flashing to the hilt of her dagger. “Awake! Awake!”
Noise filled the camp.
“How could this– Uhask! What in the name of hell are you playing at?”
The tribal leader strode slowly into the camp, hands shaking and bloodied, holding a finely wrought dagger. “I have done it. I have done it, and you must come and see.”
Leaving Erogan and Faolan to watch the packs, Sarai and Augt dashed quickly after Kandake.
The tribesmen were all dead. Their throats had been cut cleanly their mouths stuffed with cloth torn from their robes, and crude runes drawn on their foreheads in blood.
A moment’s horrified silence was shattered by yelling and shouting. Most of the elves looked horrified. Kandake looked furious. “What have you done?”
“I have given them one last night of joy,” Uhask groaned, tearing at his clothes. “And I have spared them from the horrors to come.”
There, beside the corpses was the bottle from Sarai’s pack, empty. She picked it up and shook it in her claws at the elder. “You…you stole from us and slew your own men! What madness drove you to this?”
Tears stained Uhask’s cheeks and he shook his head, stammering in both the lingua franca and minotaur. “The prophecy, the prophecy…”
The elves and Augt moved toward the bodies on the sand, and the elder cried out, “No! You can’t! you mustn’t!” To Augt, he gabbered in minotaur, “Please, leave them their dignity in death.”
Augt stood straight and held up his hands.
“Please, my lords, I will pay whatever you like! Leave my men. Please.”
Kandake leveled her dagger at the man. “You may only pay what is yours, worm.”
“I will give you the very clothes off my back, lord.” He scrabbled at his belongings, tossing the ritual dagger as well as his shield in the sand before them. This was followed, after some rustling, by a jingling pouch. “Fifty tekel, our wages.”
Erogan, who had run upon hearing the din, shook his fist at the man. “The trouble you have caused is worth more than fifty tekel. More than your life, perhaps.”
Uhask spat on the ground. “Mortal threats do not scare me. I care only for their souls.”
Kandake snatched the empty bottle from Sarai’s claws and held it up to the light. “Shit.” A look of renewed anger came over her face. “This was Muhit wine. A bottle such as this would have fetched several thousand tekel.” She sniffed at the mouth of the bottle, gave a wistful sigh, and lifted it to get the last few drops.
Eventually, Kandake raised her hand. “Here is what will happen. You will take Uhask as your servant and guide. Additionally, you will receive all of his and his men’s supplies. There should be several days worth of tack, beef, and water. Their tent and rope as well. You can even take that hell-begotten scroll they carry everywhere.”
Uhask stood with a shout, which Kandake silenced with a glare. “If I see you again, worm, I will drag you from Fustat to Ardu Alamuk behind my own horse.”
The elder subsided once more, though he looked profoundly unhappy.
“Consider that prepayment for your work. This worm and his goods would just be dead weight to us otherwise, and we would surely abandon him. Better that he serve you. You may also take one of the horses as payment for the wine.”
“Lend us one of your dogs as well,” Sarai said.
“My dogs?” The elf looked taken aback. “Why a dog?”
“To help us track, and to help us stay on guard at night.”
Kandake sighed. “So be it. Take Vershta. You must return him to me, though, along with the carts.”