2 of Marpenoth 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
I was sitting cross-legged on the stone floor with a scroll in my lap, cussing softly at the stump of a candle that was spitting hot stinging droplets of wax on my naked shoulders, which were already shedding pale strips of dead skin from my rapidly healing burns. My companions forced all of the remaining healing potions from Zaureen’s private supply on me, stating that without these I would be incapacitated for a very long time. The girl did not leave me alone until I swallowed the final drop from the last remaining bottle, and handed the small vial back to her, empty of its contents. The most obvious results of that preferred treatment were the horrible taste left in my mouth by the medicine, and the profuse itching in every scalded inch of my hide. All my objections fell on dead ears – she was firmly convinced that I needed the ‘extra care’, and I had no one but myself to blame for the exaggerated display of pain and suffering that I presented to wiggle out of the embarrassing situation after the kiss.
By the time that my overzealous associates finally allowed me to fend for myself, and returned to their chosen tasks, I was scowling darkly at all that unwanted attention. There was no need for this enforced show of solidarity over my initial refusal to drink the vile stuff. The human-brewed healing potions tasted abominable, and I was perfectly fine without my chosen group of comrades forcing me to gag on this apothecary bete noire that made my breath smell like a bouquet of raw onions and rotten fish. Even the accursed halfling had joined in the persistent chorus of appeals to my ‘common sense’, grinning like a benign toad, and that had really driven me mad. I had to respond with an appropriate remark. Some mild exchange of personal opinions ensued. Since then, nobody dared to enter my corner, and I was able to study my papers in peace for the rest of the day, while they were hauling the remaining gold, and other objects of questionable value from the bottom of the gorge.
To my utter astonishment, the twins accepted Omwo as a party member with relative ease, even though they should have remembered his role in their capture, and subsequent treatment at Zaureen’s hands. But, perhaps, that was exactly the reason for their tolerance - since they felt certain solidarity towards the fellow sufferer, who had also endured the effects of mental domination, and had had to live under it for so long. I had no such sentiments, and assured the little rascal of my reservations. He only shrugged and retorted with one of his salacious comments about my general appearance, sexual orientation, and personal disposition, which left me fuming with anger and embarrassment. Something had to be done about him, I thought grimly, and the sooner the better. Although, the twins seemed unconcerned and firm in their resolve to let him travel with us at least until we reach the Qian Hillfort – the first human settlement on the Tethyran side of the river Agis. Since I was not that sure about my own plans from there, the simplest solution was to stay silent and let them make all the practical decisions about the treasure, and our means of moving it out of the cave. All I wanted at the moment was some peace and quiet, and perhaps a bit of light to be able to study my finds.
I had attached the first candle to the narrow shelf on the wall right above my head a few hours ago, when it became clear that the daylight pouring from the central opening in the ceiling of the cave was fading as the desert outside was swiftly descending into another night. Since then, I had exchanged at least three of them. We found a stockpile of good quality wax candles in the Addazahr’s cache, and I saw no need to restrict myself in using these supplies. The rest of the cavern was cloaked in darkness, interrupted only by the soft pool of light coming from the central campfire. By the time I finished sorting through my precious pile of scrolls, and had them carefully separated and sorted out into appropriate stacks on the floor before me, my latest candle was reduced to a smoldering stump. My greatest chagrin at that point was lack of writing utensils. Luckily, my spellbook had survived the fire, and the subsequent plunge into the cold waters of the underground lake. The leather pouch provided by the water elemental, turned out to be more resilient than her other gifts.
I had lost both of my shoes, and my other garments were reduced to a few scraps of purple silk that barely covered my thighs, and other, closely related regions of my anatomy. No wonder the blasted halfling was so venomous about ‘the elven ambiguities’! I wondered briefly, if being recognized as one of the elven descent among the non-elven crowd meant enduring that sort of harassment all the time. If it was indeed the case - I did not look forward to it. Everything else of my attire was literally burnt to cinders, and washed away by the river currents. It was the second set of clothes I had lost in a matter of a few days. The adventuring business was a messy and expensive one, I thought sourly. That outrageous leather-strap outfit in Chyil’s closet suddenly felt like a good idea (or at least less inane than before), despite all of its ugly provocativeness. At least leather does not burn nor tear as easy as cloth, and no one would mess with someone dressed like that. I shrugged, banishing a sudden fit of merriment that came over me when I imagined the twins’ reaction to that thing, it surely was worse than their golden chainmail, though perhaps more intimidating.
But soon my thoughts turned back to my current situation. I still had my leather belt with the pouch and the dagger sheath attached to it. Inside the pouch, I found my intact spellbook, and the sapphire pin that was the last gift from Aluril, given to me together with the set of clothes. It was a lovely piece of jewelry – a perfectly polished blue stone in a silver-white setting, resembling a little sailboat. I wondered briefly, if it was perhaps a glimpse of another prophesy, or a simple allegory implying my future travels and the link to the Plane of Water. So far, I could sense no magic emanating from the small trinket, but perhaps my lack of mastery of the appropriate enchantment, and my pitifully small remaining knowledge of the magic lore, were the reasons behind my failure to detect it.
“Are you going to sit here staring at your navel for the rest of the night, sidi?” Kessen’s tone was undeniably ironic, even though he tried to subdue his irritation. “I’ve been watching you long enough, and decided you need a diversion after all.”
“What? Will I be interrupted at every turn again? Kessen, I have asked you and your sister to leave me alone. Please, understand it, or I will have to resort to more drastic measures!”
“Like what? Blasting me into smithereens or making me swallow a fireball? You cannot do it yet, admit it sidi, or that halfling character would have been history already.” Kessen smirked at me from the shadow outside my small circle of light. All I could see was a brief flash of his white teeth.
“The idea of an exceedingly hot and explosive object forced into one of Omwo’s many orifices sounds tempting enough,” I admitted with a grin of my own. (In reality, I could not do anything of a kind, if only because I knew I would not survive the aftermath – but I was not about to confess it to Kes.) “And since one of these scrolls that I extracted from the Naga’s belly was a fireball spell, I won’t even need a wand. But I suppose it can wait until a better opportunity presents itself. Now, if you don’t want to be the next on my list of potential casualties, sod off, and leave me to my studies.”
“Your speech shows some improvement after only a few hours in Omwo’s company, sidi,” Kessen chuckled in approval. “Did you notice the selection, and the outstanding quality of his obscenities? I wonder if bards have a penchant for this kind of language. If we work on you together, we will get you to the point of being able to say ‘shit’, without a blink, yet,” the boy probably noticed my expression of dismay. “Alright! If you want to starve yourself on top of catching cold, I will leave you be in a moment. But would you at least consider covering your sorry ass with something sturdier than a scrap of silk?” he asked laughingly.
“You are speaking as if we have any food or clothing,” I replied sourly. “Wait a minute...where did you get your clothes?” In the flickering light of my dying candle, I noticed that he was now dressed in his custom brown leathers, and a satin shirt of the same color. His disgusting chain pants were gone, together with his black velvet cloak.
“From the same place that produced these breaches and tunic,” Kessen dropped a bundle at my feet. “Henna’s saddlebags. These are my spare ones. I am not sure if Mirriam’s would not fit you better – you seem to be slimmer all around.” I remembered the virulent combinations of flowers and fruit on Mirri’s silken vests, and shuddered in horror. Kes looked at my face and laughed silently. “No offence sidi. She would have been more than happy to share her wardrobe with you, although I admit – her color sense is somewhat peculiar.”
“So, you’ve found the horse after all?” I asked eagerly, quickly appropriating the proffered goods. He was right – the clothes would be loose around the shoulders and in the waist, as well as too short for my longer limbs, but that was a minor irritant. “How did you get out?”
“Omwo showed us the way, of course,” Kessen replied in a slightly puzzled voice. “Funny you did not even notice. I did tell you - don’t you remember a thing? We were gone for hours. There is a hidden passage that ends in the middle of that funny looking forest of stone needles. Mir is still fussing over her precious pony. She made me haul enough water out there to drown the stupid horse in it.”
“She is right - that animal is our only hope to get out of here.” I muttered pulling on his leather pants.
“And get the treasure out,” he nodded suddenly turning serious. “We need to make it to the Marching Mountains, and find the eastern trail again. There is no way we are going back to Amkethran with all this gold.”
“And I doubt you will live longer than a day or two, if Farheed would have anything to say about it,” I replied with a nod. “That fellow did not strike me as the one who forgets his grudges easily.”
“Technically speaking it is all your fault, sidi,” Kessen chortled, and his brown eyes sparked with imprudent amusement in the semidarkness. “If you did not go out of your way to seduce my poor sister...”
“Kessen, please ...”
He could not hold it any longer and laughed openly. “I am not sure which one of you two is more amusing to watch, sidi. Since we have pulled both of you out of that hole, she is mooning over you like you are made of glass, and you are pretending not to notice she is there.”
“Kessen, I would really appreciate some discretion!”
“Fine, fine.” He shook his head still chuckling silently. “This is not my business I guess, although I would appreciate if you stop making eyes at her, if you don’t intend to follow with any practical moves. She is a nice girl, and I would not like it if you hurt her feelings.”
“What are you going to do about it then?” I replied sarcastically. “Beat me up for not having an affair with your sister?”
“Oh, I would not go that far, sidi. If you don’t like her there is nothing I can do, though I could have sworn to the opposite only two days ago. Just tell her off, fair and square. A pity, really, I like your company. I think you will bring us good luck if we stick with you for a while longer.”
“I have a feeling we are stuck with each other at least until fort Qian,” I responded acerbically. “I shall make a decision what to do next from there.”
“Maybe it will be a good idea to discuss it all with the rest of the group?” He suggested suddenly. “We’ve brought some maps. There is also a matter of magical trinkets from the treasure chests. I would like you to have a look at some of them.”
But when we reached our frugal campsite, the sight that drew my eyes that were smarting from many hours of scanning through the semi-intelligible arcane texts, was not a pile of various weird-looking artifacts scattered on the old woolen blanket, but the big black pot bubbling magnificently on the low iron tripod over the fire. The smell coming from that object, which at the moment was more magical for my eyes than the entire contents of Calim-Pasha’s treasury, was marvelous. I remembered the twins’ sparse rations, and speculated which one of my companions suddenly decided to take a more creative approach to the task of cooking our dinner.
As for myself, after sampling various human victuals in Amkethran and other Calimshite locales, I figured out that I had rather sophisticated taste. Very few of the local dishes made any impression on my palate. I also recognized the fact that I could not be bothered to spend my precious time on refining my food to the point when eating it actually became an enjoyable affair, and not simply a means to sustain oneself. The farthest I could go in my own preparation effort was to liberate a handful of nuts or grass seeds from their shells before swallowing them whole, or gut and scale a freshly caught fish, and bake it in the crust of clay. Most of the time though, I would not bother with that, and would keep going on the simplest of rations: those of wild-growing fruit, grasses and berries.
It did not mean I could not enjoy a well-prepared meal. As we had spent the last two or three days virtually without any sustenance, (the rat that Kessen had assaulted and killed in one of the tunnels, which remains were later split between the three of us and eaten raw on our way to the Naga’s cavern, did not count), my appetite was somewhat stimulated by the piquant aroma of the food. It looked like a stew of grains and vegetables, flavored with strips of smoked meat and some local spices. I wondered if while traveling outside my companions had collected some native flora, or if all these riches were in the pony’s saddlebags. Whatever the case – the result smelled exciting.
“Here comes the prodigal mageling, brought back by his empty stomach, and general sense of loneliness,” Omwo announced loudly, upon spotting my tall figure outlined against the fire. “By Brandobaris golden lockpicks - where is your fancy purple underwear, boy? Or did you finally choose convenience over fashion? Now you look like a perfect scarecrow, sonny. You know, if you ever tire of a career in the arcane field, you can always look for a position in the agricultural business. In fact, my family’s farm may be a perfect place for you. Would you care for a letter of recommendation?”
I suppose I did look rather comical in Kessen’s ill-fitted garments that were too spacious in some places, and too short in the others. Still, it did not make my opinion of his character any better, or help to improve my already sour disposition.
“Quit it, Omwo,” Kessen snapped angrily. “If you really need to know - Jon was the one who suggested that we spare your worthless life, and I bet my best scimitar over your old toothpick that right now he is feeling sorry that he did.”
“You will win,” I muttered quietly, lowering myself at the fire. “Watch yourself halfling – my patience is limited, and it maybe a bit shorter than the length of your filthy tongue.”
“And what would you do to me if I would not, mageling?” Omwo sang in his ever-changing, androgynous voice, “would you summon a mouse to gnaw at my boot-laces tonight? I’ve seen your puny magics, elf, and I think that even I can do better!” The halfling leered at me contemptuously, and produced a tiny clay whistle out of his pocket, playing a shrill, mocking melody that to my sensitive ears sounded very much like a buzzing of an angry bee.
“What are you trying to do, Omwo? Challenge him to a magical duel?” Mirri jumped to her feet and went to the pack with supplies on the other side of the fire. I could only see her back, with a long snake-like braid twisting slightly on her slim shoulders, as they shook with some suspicious tremors. Her voice sounded muffled, as if she was biting her lips from inside, so I could not discern if she was angry or amused. A wave of heat started to creep up my cheeks, as I remembered summoning small animals for her entertainment, during our training sessions in Amketran. What if she was secretly laughing at me too? The thought was humiliating.
Yet, I was too tired and hungry to let Omwo drag me into another round of verbal sparring. Judging from my previous experiences, it could turn into something really ugly. I shuddered, recalling my confrontation with Thick and his goons and its consequences. My tendency to slip into uncontrollable fits of cold rage, and the potential outcome of such occurrences was not pretty. The very idea of having another round of nausea and falling sickness, so shortly after the last one, scared me to the depths of my soul, which according to Aluril was human, and still in its newborn state. Moreover, if something of the kind happened in front of the twins, I would no longer be able to maintain my façade of cold superiority, and there was a great chance that either brother or sister would guess the reason behind my seizures. That mental process led me to a decision to restrain myself, and quell my raising anger. It was deeply depressing, but strangely satisfying. As if a conscious choice to control oneself when faced with deliberate provocation was something to be proud about. The mind could play strange games with itself, I thought somewhat puzzled with that newly found sense of content. Why would it ever feel good to be humiliated in front of others and not retaliate? And yet it did.
The girl finished her fumbling inside the pack, and produced a set of bowls and spoons that were immediately filled with stew that was distributed by Omwo, who actually turned out to be our mysterious chef. I suppose, I could have guessed the answer to my little puzzle, simply by looking at his rotund figure. Despite his weird appearance and noxious disposition, the little rascal was an excellent cook – I discovered that fact promptly after my first cautious taste of his concoction. The halfling only had our dried rations, and a few common condiments at his disposal, which made the result of his labors even more impressive. I was rather touched by the fact that they did not start the dinner without me - Kessen was obviously sent to parley my return to the campfire.
Somewhat mollified by the food, and pleased with my self-restraint I relaxed a little, and allowed myself to listen to my companions idle chatter about everything that had happened in the course of their trip to the surface: their speculations about the source of the bright fires that were burning inside the temple, and the strange blood-curdling cries coming from there, the little packhorse’s dehydrated condition, and the possible weather on the day of our departure. I was fairly distracted by their blabber, and mellowed by the warmth that spread through my tired body from the hot food, and the close campfire. So, when the next bite filled my mouth with an explosion of sharp, fiery taste, which took my breath away and brought moisture to my eyes, it was a complete surprise. I spat out the rubbery piece that stuck to my teeth. It tasted like nothing I had ever tried in my life. As a fit of severe coughing shook my entire frame, I could feel the hot tears flowing down my cheeks. The constellation of purple lights floated before my wide open eyes, doubling, and tripling before receding to bright specks. Someone was hammering on my back, while a small hand brought a cup of water to my lips, making me swallow a mouthful of blissfully cold liquid.
“Jon-Jon, are you alright?” Mirriam’s voice sounded concerned, yet, was suspiciously steady for my taste. I looked at her face- she was biting her lips again. “You’ve nibbled at a piece of the desert firepepper - that was all. Just try to breathe slowly, and it will pass in a few moments.”
I raised my eyes, still streaming from the aftertaste that the pepper left in my throat and mouth. It felt like my lungs were about to explode. Yet, she was right – the effect was wearing off swiftly. Through the thin watery curtain of tears, I saw Omwo smirking behind the green sleeve of his robe. A sudden suspicion rose in my mind, filling my chest with a wave of all-consuming fury, so hot that I knew I could not contain it even if I wanted to. I quickly lowered my eyes, preparing for an unavoidable explosion. My hands were still clutching at the bowl of stew, and my knuckles turned white from all the effort it took to keep my fingers from moving in a spell pattern. Then there was a flash of white light, and a sudden sense of emptiness. My palms collapsed around the curved outline of the crock that fell apart in my hands, and the next thing I saw was a handful of dust that burst between my fingers, and spread all over my lap.
“What was that?” they all seemed to cry out simultaneously, and “why did you do that – it was a perfectly fine bowl!” I looked at my hands again – the dish was gone, together with my food. In its place was a small pile of fine grey powder.
The expressions on their faces were such a curious mix of dismay and bewilderment, that I could not help myself - now my own lips were trembling in an unstoppable fit of mirth. That only deepened their consternation, but also brought a sudden flood of relief to my heart, soothing my wounded ego. The tingling sensation, which I had first experienced on the dusty street of Amketran, upon seeing a small white sheep wearing my stolen coif, had returned and soon left me weeping helplessly, as wave after wave of uncontrollable laughter shook my body.
“Would you please stop laughing and explain why did you destroy a useful piece of tableware?” Mirri said in a slightly puzzled voice. But her eyes were smiling, even as her lips moved in a pattern of chastising speech. I only shrugged my shoulders, grinning like a maniac. It felt ... good to be able to laugh instead of going raving mad. She turned to Omwo, who was twitching sullenly on the side of the campfire farthest from mine.
“I hope it was not your idea of a ‘good joke’, bard. We have a very limited supply of crockery, and the next place that sells durable goods is more than hundred miles away from here to the north.”
“I offer my sincerest apologies,” the actor squeaked suddenly, giving me a sharp look of his small eyes. “For that stupid joke, as well as for my previous ... remarks, wonder-boy. If you can cast disintegrate without opening your mouth ... Why you even bothered with the firewand? You could have finished that Naga without lifting a finger.”