The sun rises over the slow, muddy waters of the River Thebes. Out of the west, a caravan of proud camels, thirsty horses, and weary travelers reaches the end of its two-thousand kilometer journey across the desert from Pakesh. It is the 28th February in the 2477'th year after the founding of Endromis on the planet Clarus.
The journey across the desert has taken the travelers forty-one nights. Some days they spent lying in the heat beneath their canvas tents. Other days they spent in the luxury of the caravansaries along the road. The cold and the isolation of traveling at night, the constant threat of bandits, the ferocious sand-storms, and the restless days trying to sleep in the desert heat, have left them exhausted in body and mind. The sight of the water before them, abundant and deep, and the sails of the fisherman's boats, the farmers' hoes rising and falling in the fields, makes them laugh with joy.
Sax is a large country on its own maps, stretching far on either side of the River Thebes. But to the inhabitants of the desert, and to any who would rely for their protection upon the men-at-arms of Sax, the nation stretches hardly farther than the fields that nestle close to the river, irrigated by it and replenished once a year by its flood.
The caravan stops at the first river-crossing, and here the travelers rush to the river and plunge their heads in the water. Those who can swim do so for the thrill of it, despite warnings from the locals about the long dragons that live on the opposite bank, waiting to slide into the water and drag anything smaller than a camel into the deeps.
Among those standing thigh-deep in the river are three companions from a country at the other end of the road. They have never been so far from their home before. Hocus Pocus, graduate of the Pakesh School of Wizardry plants his staff in the mud and gazes at the opposite bank of the river.
"They're probably talking about crocodiles," he says.
Wicklow, man-at-arms, and until recently sergeant in the Varayan Army, sits down in the water and lets it lap around his neck.
"Oh, yes," he says, and closes his eyes.
Scythe, man-at-arms, and until recently, private first-class in the Varayan Army Espionage and Infiltration Division, looks down the bank at two young women washing clothes.
He says nothing.
These three have completed, or nearly completed, their first adventure together: a crossing of the desert in the hire of the caravan as guards. Their services were not called upon, for which they are both disappointed and relieved.
Later that morning, after crossing three waterways by barge, and two by causeways, the caravan enters the Satian trading city of Drakhma. This is not the capital city of Sax. The capital city and the palace of the River-God are a hundred kilometers up the river to the south. But Drakhma is where merchants bring their goods to trade with Sax, or pass through on their way to trade with Weiland in the East. The city has no walls, protected as it is on all sides by the river and the desert. Its markets throng with people, many of them foreign. There are dwarves from the mountains to the north-west, and swashbuckling mariners from Gastranoi, brightly clothed and ornamented, and merchants from Weiland, plump, sweating, and over-dressed.
But the eyes of our heroes are held not by these travelers from afar, but by the half-human, half-beast creatures mixed in with the city crowds. These are calipanti. They see a woman with a beak and feathers on her head reaching out a double-jointed arm and picking apples from a stand. Her voice is shrill and quick when she haggles with the fruit-seller. A slender, lion-headed man rushes by with a roll of parchment in his hands and a yellow silk sash around his waist. Here in Sax, close to the river, the calipanti are slaves. But out beyond the fields, in the barren desert, the calipanti rule.
The caravan merchants pay our heroes their fee: half a kilogram of gold each. That's enough gold to warm your hands on a cold day, but it's never cold in Drakhma, and our heroes keep their gold in their packs. They say goodbye to their traveling companions and go to the place that all adventurers go when they come to Drakhma, be they aspiring or famous: the Satian Arms, formerly the Jaguar, and still referred to as such by the old hands. The Satian Arms is what travelers call a hacker's inn.
The Satian Arms is near the edge of the city. It boasts a large garden, indoor plumbing, its own tavern, two dining rooms, and numerous verandas. But it is famous for its roof-top garden, where you can eat, drink, smoke and watch the sun set. Unfortunately, like all hacker's inns, the Satian Arms is expensive, and our heroes decide to rent a single room between them at a cost of three gold pieces a night, not including meals.
They set about the business of looking for work.
A few days later they meet Frank Goron, cleric of the God Dewydix. According to Frank, there is an isolated community of date-growers in a desert oasis about seven hundred kilometers to the south-east, and within fifty kilometers of the ocean. This community, he says, is in dire need of his assistance. He says that the people have been cursed with a plague by their god Six and her evil priestesses as punishment for rebelling against her cruel and inhuman rule. The community numbers some two hundred men, women, and children, and unless Frank reaches them soon, most of them will die, and those that remain will undoubtedly yield to Six's callous will.
Frank offers them four hundred gold pieces ($40,000) to take him to the Valley of the Seven Springs, so that he can diagnose their illness, try to cure it, and ingratiate himself with the people. Assuming they are successful, he will remain in the oasis, and our heroes will leave. He will pay them half the money up front, and half at completion. All expenses for the journey are to be paid by the adventurers.
The adventurers accept his offer.
Instead of attempting to cross the desert from Drakhma and go so go directly to Arras, the adventurers decide to go to the coast by stagecoach and sail to Arras. After two days on the stagecoach, they find themselves passing through the fertile, rolling fields of the Vale of Wortham. On the fourth day, they arrive in Gripp. Gripp is home of the Vatzit University, the second largest of the three schools of wizardry on Clarus.
"Torque Edwards, went to school here," Hocus says.
"Who's he?" Wicklow says.
Hocus give them a synopsis of Torque Edwards's early life while they eat lunch at the Delia Arms, a hacker's inn in Gripp. Later, they buy a silk balloon and a folding wicker basket. The balloon costs them ten gold pieces, and the basket another three. Hocus is pleased with the price. Buying a balloon was another reason to take this road through Gripp.
A fast day's ride in a six-horse coach brings them to the bustling port of Dimplow on the coast of Weiland. They arrive on the eighth of March. Here they buy passage on a ship bound for Phthisk to the south. Five days later, their ship drops them off at a small water-stop on the coast called Arras. It is a Calipanti settlement with a steady spring of fresh water.
Seven centuries ago, the Calipanti came from Calipan on the southern continent of Leaena. They came to fight along side the men of Weiland against Gelden's orcs. After the Reconciliation, many of the descendants of these Calipanti soldiers remained in the desert in which they had fought and died for so many years, and they remain there today. The Calipanti's domain on Idonius is interrupted in the center by Sax and the River Thebes, bordered on the west by the Ursian desert nomads, on the east by the sea, on the south by Phthisk, in the north-west by the Outlands, and on the north-east by Weiland.
Arras has one hotel with four rooms. Our heroes rent one of them. They do not speak the local language, but the barman and a few other locals speak Weilandic. They walk around the settlement, and release a scrying eye into the wind, through which they see the mountains of the Valley of the Seven Springs fifty kilometers or so to the west. The scrying eye flies with the off-shore breeze, and then rises into the prevailing wind to return to the east.
In the evening, the Calipanti men gather in the hotel common room to play backgammon, and it is here that our heroes meet Telligi, an ostrich-faced old hermaphrodite who is chief of the tribe. He speaks Weilandic, and Scythe crosses the room to sit with him.
Over a game of backgammon, Scythe tells the chief that he and his companions would like to go to the mountains to the west. Telligi says that the mountains are bad luck, and haunted by ancient, evil spirits. The desert around the mountains is cursed. "Why would you go to the Haunted Mountains?"
"There are things twe would like to see."
"What business have you with us?"
"None, other than that we want to cross the desert."
"You cannot cross the desert without our permission."
"May we have your permission?"
"You must take guides and camels, or you will be killed by our kin."
Our heroes debate at length how they should get to the oasis. They would like to balloon in, but they do not feel that they can trust the off-shore wind to take them all the way there, and if it drops them half-way, then what? They might be attacked by the Calipanti. If they were caught in the desert, walking across the sand, and they saw strangers approaching, it would take half an hour to inflate a balloon for escape. In the end, they decide that they would rather go with Telligi's blessing.
And so it is that our heroes agree to pay one hundred gold pieces for the use of six camels and two guides. The guides are two calipanti who call themselves brothers, although they don't look alike. Their names are Stigma and Dogma. The younger is seventeen years old, with a lion face. The older is nineteen with cloven feet and no boots. They are a cheerful pair. They speak no Weilandic, but they are energetic with sign language, and are clearly enthusiastic about their mission.
At sundown on the fifteenth of March, the group departs. There are eight camels in all, and Scythe, Wicklow, Hocus, Frank, Stigma, and Dogma. One of the spare camels carries the balloon and basket, which weighs only ten kilograms, but is large. Another camel carries two large bundles of wood. They make their way quietly across the desert, following their guides along the crests of dunes, and across flat planes of hard clay. Occasionally they hear the call of an unseen desert bird, or the slither of a snake. The padded feet of the camels are silent. When they cross open stretches of flat sand, the brothers choose their path carefully, winding back and forth, and they make it clear that all are to follow exactly in their camels' footprints.
At dawn they reach a muddy water hole hidden between two bright-red dunes. They dismount. Stigma and Dogma set up a canopy of black cotton cloth supported by four wood poles and secured by hemp rope. They spend the day beneath the cloth all together. They sleep and talk. The brothers play dice. At noon, a clan of forty or fifty brightly-colored and brightly-dressed Calipanti arrive at the water hole to drink. Our heroes watch them from the shade of the canopy. The men and most of the women are well-armed with swords and short-bows. After fifteen minutes, the clan is on its way again.
Scythe and Frank watch the clan until the camels disappear into the haze of heat that shimmers over the desert to the north.
"Are the people in the Valley of the Many Springs like that?" Scythe says.
"No," Frank says. "Maybe some of them. I don't know for sure. Most of them are sapien, I think of Satian descent." By Satian, Frank means native of Sax. "I would be excited to have such people among my flock." When Frank talks about his flock, he means the people he serves as cleric.
"Well," Scythe says, "You would have some real half-sheep to shepherd in that case, wouldn't you."
Hocus rises to his elbow and frowns. He is trying to sleep. He lies down again. The sand under his cape is harder than he thought it would be. He's tired, but he can't sleep.
At sunset, Stigma and Dogma take down the canopy and roll it up. The party mount their camels and set off around the red dunes to the west. The last glow of day shows the outline of a range of jagged mountains.
A few hours before dawn on the seventeenth of March, the party arrives at an oasis. They stop and eat a meal. Stigma and Dogma make a fire and boil water to make tea. The sky is beginning to brighten in the east when they leave the fire and continue on the last leg of their journey with their guides. The brothers bring them to the top of a dune, and as the sun comes up, our heroes see in the west, in the still dawn air, the orange sandstone mountains that, according to Frank, circle the Valley of the Seven Springs, and which Telligi called the Haunted Mountains.
Stigma and Dogma say goodbye. They leave some wood for the adventurers, but they take all the camels with them. Our heroes are left alone on the dune. They descend the north face a little way to get out of the hot wind. They set up the silk balloon with some stakes and the basket to act as a canopy. They settle down to take turns keeping watch and sleeping. Hocus prepares some spells.
At sunset, they set off on foot for the mountains. It is the night of the new moon, so it is quite dark. Their packs feel heavy, and they must take turns carrying the basket between two people. When they come to a flat plane of sand, they remember the antics of their guides, and tie themselves together with ropes. After a few hundred meters, Scythe, who is leading, finds himself sinking into the sand. He tries to go back, but the sand he steps upon to sinks as well. Within seconds, he has sunk to his waist, and any move he makes merely serves to send him deeper. He stops struggling. His comrades drag him out with the rope. From then on, Scythe goes carefully, testing the sand with Hocus's staff.
The sinking sand is common here, close to the mountains.
"I see why it is called unlucky," Frank says.
"It might take more than sinking sand to keep the Calipanti away," Scythe says.
Frequently they must go back and around large areas of the sinking sand. They have a compass, and they have magical lights by which to read it, and they have the stars as well, so they keep their direction and make slow but steady progress.
By dawn on the eighteenth of March, they are at the base of the mountains, and standing on sandstone. They make camp in the shade of a cliff, and spend the day resting and watching. They feel entirely alone. In the evening, Hocus sends up a scrying eye to measure the wind and to take a look around. The wind is out of the north-east, 30 kph. The eye flies right over the mountains and across the valley. They all look through, and see date palms, huts, and a temple on a hill. But the sharp cliffs and ridges of the mountains are everywhere, and they agree that a balloon flight into the valley would entail too dangerous a landing. They resolve to follow the foothills to the north. According to the Frank, the north corner of the oasis lies within one of his own god's temple plots. There, at least, they can be sure of summoning food. They might be able to do so here, but they would alert Six to their presence, so they dare not do so unless they lied about where they were. Frank is not prepared to lie.
Their way is barred frequently by sinking sands, and the crescent moon sets soon after sun-down, so they have only the light of the stars to travel by. They do not want to take out their own lights, because they do not want to attract attention, even though they have seen no sign of life outside the mountains.
They spend the nineteenth of March in the shade of another cliff. They explore the ground close to their camp, and find a few acacia trees, and signs of reptiles, birds, and mice. At noon, Frank measures their position with his sextant and consults his watch. He believes he is in Dewydix's territory. They summon a luxurious lunch, at a cost of ten gold pieces, to be counted among their expenses.
"You want us to pay for it?" Wicklow says.
"That was our arrangement," Frank says, "All expenses to be paid by you. But you did get to use my clerical discount."
"What a tight-wad you are, Frank."
"My Lord was clear about the terms of my mission, and I obey him."
"Then your god is a tight-wad."
"Please do not insult my God in my company. Nothing could be more crude and unbecoming to me in a companion."
"I'm sorry," Wicklow says.
But the lunch is delicious, and is accompanied by fresh-squeezed orange juice.
"Who knows where this came from," Hocus says, "It could be a hundred light years away. But it tastes good."
Hocus sends up a scrying eye. Through it the see that they have come farther than they had hoped. They are at the north-east tip of the mountains. They adjust the scale on their map. But they still see no pass through the mountains. Their attention is drawn to some large sandstone ruins on a flat summit not far to the south-west. Among the ruins is a hut, and from the roof of the hut comes a column of smoke. They decide to head for the hut that night, by going south and then climbing into the mountains.
It is hard work climbing over jagged rocks in the dark with a heavy pack on your back and a large balloon basket between you and your comrade. But our heroes persevere, and by dawn, they are up in the mountains, having followed several long, dry ravines, and scrambled over a few ridges. They find a pool of stagnant water and camp next to it. They fill their empty water-skins, and wash themselves. They have been watching their water carefully. They only have only two liters each left, which they count as one day's worth of water, and two days of rations, counting some they summoned the day before, along with their lunch. But now that they can summon food and drink, they are less concerned.
Hocus sends up a scrying eye. He sees the sandstone buildings again, and the valley to the south. No obvious path reveals itself, but he does manage to get the bridge to land within a few hundred meters of the camp, so, in the interests of not wasting bridge rings, all four of them set off to reclaim it. But when they reach the spot where it landed, Hocus can't see it. He looks through the other half of the eye, and sees movement, and a shadow.
An arrow thuds into Scythe's side. Wicklow turns and sees a grotesque Calipanti stringing his bow forty meters up the ravine, and kneeling behind a rock. Scythe takes cover behind a nearby boulder. He is so shocked, he does not notice the pain. His heart is pounding fast, and he reaches for his bow.
Frank stands bewildered. Hocus forces him down to the ground and drags him behind another boulder.
"What's happening?" Frank says.
"Scythe's been shot," Hocus says.
Hocus has figured out where the other half of his scrying eye must be. He passes a water skin to Frank. "Hold it firmly."
Wicklow runs towards the calipanti. Scythe fires as soon as he can, and the calipanti fires back. The calipanti misses, but Scythe hits him in the arm, drawing blood. They fire again. Wicklow is still running. Scythe grazes the Calipanti, and the Calipanti misses again.
None of our heroes is wearing his armor. Frank does not even have any, or any weapons.
Wicklow is within twenty meters of the calipanti when the calipanti takes a shot at him. The arrow grazes his side. Down below, Scythe fires another arrow, but his hands are trembling. He does not want to hit Wicklow by accident. He fires and misses. Wicklow closes upon the calipanti, who drops his bow and draws his sword without hesitation. Wicklow has never tried to kill anyone before, nor has anyone ever tried to kill him. But he does not stop to think about the novelty of his predicament, and instead strikes quickly and ferociously. Their blades clash and clash again. Wicklow forces the calipanti back a step.
"Right, squeeze hard," Hocus says, and holds his bridge to the spout of the water-skin. Frank squeezes.
From behind the Calipanti comes a hiss and a sudden acrid smell. Wicklow's sword scrapes down that of his opponent, and sparks fly from the hard metal blades. The calipanti, in fear of the noise behind him, jumps away. Wicklow drops down behind a rock. The acrid gas explodes. Wicklow looks up to see the calipanti picking up his bow and running. His clothes are blackened, and he is bleeding from several places, but he is running fast.
Hocus stands with a grin on his face, amazed that what he tried had worked. And so the water-to-fire magic of Hocus the Destroyer is born, in a moment, in the middle of his first fight.
Wicklow looks down the ravine at his companions. Scythe stands up, but he has an arrow sticking out of him. This is no time to give chase. We can follow his trail later, if the calipanti leaves one, Wicklow decides.
Scythe is grimacing in pain. Frank makes him sit down and examines one of the shattered arrows nearby. The point is not barbed. Wicklow joins them, holds Scythe down, and Frank pulls out the arrow. There is a spurt of blood, but it soon stops. Frank takes some of the blood and puts it in a vial. He steps aside and prays. A few minutes later, he comes back and binds the wound.
"I have passed a sample of your blood to my God. He will test it for poison. And if you like, I can later obtain for you a divine serum that will heal your wound in a single night's sleep."
"Great," Scythe says.
"That creature was trying to kill us," Frank says.
"He sure was," Wicklow says, "and I tried to kill him, too."
"How did that feel?"
They put their armor on and discuss what to do. They decide their options are to continue up the ravine in which they now find themselves, or to descend to the desert, or hide somewhere and rest. If they go up the ravine, they can try to follow the ugly calipanti's tracks, and also hope to find a way up to the sandstone buildings and a good view of the oasis, or find a pass into the valley. So they decide to go up the ravine.
The calipanti was bleeding from at least two wounds, and he was running away across the sandy floor of the ravine. Scythe follows his footsteps easily in the sand, and the trail of blood drops, and so tracks the calipanti up to the end of this ravine, over a low ridge, and into a wider ravine. Here the calipanti stops, then starts down the ravine, but changes his mind and starts up instead. He has tried to obscure his tracks with the help of a bush. They follow to the top of the ravine, where they are greeted with a stunning sandstone wall, fifty meters high and one hundred meters long. The wall blocks the top of the ravine, which perhaps was, without the wall, a pass into the oasis beyond.
The wall is made of large square-cut sandstone blocks, and is hundreds of years old, perhaps a thousand. They estimate that it would take a thousand men at least a year to make such a wall. The calipanti's tracks bear to the right, and start down another ravine. They begin to follow, but then see a long, rock-strewn slope, the result of a landslide centuries ago, at the top of which is a cliff leading to the plateau upon which they think the sandstone buildings must reside. More interesting is a man-made entrance in the base of this cliff, and at the top of the boulder-strewn slope.
They discuss whether they should go straight up to this hole in the cliff, but decide to follow the calipanti's tracks a little farther. Scythe is delighted with his success in tracking, and follows the trail down this new ravine, which heads to the north and downwards. But he loses the trail after another forty meters. The floor of the ravine is hard stone, and the blood drops have stopped. Perhaps the calipanti wrapped his wounds to stop them bleeding.
"I think I can pick up the trail again, but it might take me half an hour," Scythe says.
Hocus and Wicklow ascend the left slope of the ravine. The right side is so steep they doubt the calipanti went up it. At the top of the slope, they look down into a deep, acacia-filled ravine. They hear someone shout, but they cannot make out the words. There is no more shouting. They wait, while Scythe and Frank look for the trail thirty meters below them.
Scythe finds it a few minutes later. It ascends the gentle slope, and they see where it goes down into the fertile ravine. A piece of cloth hangs off the outstretched branch of a half-dead acacia tree. They hope to see the calipanti fleeing over one of the stretches of high ground visible from where they crouch, but they do not.
Wicklow had his doubts about the hole in the cliff, but he now agrees to return to it, and this they do. It takes them only ten minutes to ascend to it, and they see that it is two meters high and one and a half meters wide. The sides slope inward at the top, and are made of large stone slabs. The top is a horizontal slab of stone. Two meters inside the entrance begins a pile of stones that blocks the way inward. Upon further investigation, they see that a cave-in of the roof stones, which are too large to lift or move, has been augmented by smaller stones, put in place by some human agent, so that the combined pile of rocks reaches to the roof.
Frank summons a healing serum for Scythe and injects it into his bloodstream. Soon after, Scythe falls into a deep sleep. The other three takes turns to watch the slope leading up the entrance. They are glad of this place to rest. There is only one approach, and it is easy to watch. Hocus prepares a conjured-wood spell and makes four transparent shields. In each shield they put a stone, towards the middle, to give it weight. Each shield is 10 cm thick, 150 cm high, and 80 cm wide. After that, he prepares Flash and Choke, and then sleeps.
At midnight, Scythe wakes up. His puncture wound has closed, and a scab covers it. Frank wraps a bandage around his torso. Scythe says he had a great sleep, and has never felt better. Wicklow, on the other hand, is still wired from the fight.
They put up a curtain made of the silk balloon and their blankets. One of them sits outside while the other three, by the light of luminous stones made by Hocus in Arras, clear away the stones blocking the passage. The curtain, they hope, will keep the light hidden from outside. An hour later, there is a wide enough opening for them to crawl through, and this they do, after dismantling their curtain. They drag their shields and the balloon basket behind them.
The walls of the passage, and the ceiling are made of large square-cut slabs of sandstone. The ceiling appears to be safe. They proceed thirty paces, and enter a chamber. The passage leaves out the other side, continuing roughly south. The walls of the chamber are carved. They are crumbling in places, but our heroes see the remains of representations of men and women and trees. There is also writing, with an alphabet that appears to be a mixture between Greek and Latin.
But our heroes are more interested in a pit on the right side of the room as they enter. It is carved smooth at the top, and about four meters by three meters wide. They shine their flashlights down the pit, and see that it is at least fifty meters deep. At the bottom there is a pool of water. Hocus thinks there is a mysterious dark rock in the pool. They lower a flashlight on Scythe and Wicklow's thirty-meter ropes tied together, and look down with their binoculars. They see a flashing jewel and what Wicklow thinks is a dagger hilt.
They proceed down the passage, to see where it leads. It curves to the left, and after another fifty paces, ends with a pile of rubble from another cave-in, beyond which are some acacia trees and fresh air. They believe they have found a passage into the oasis. Surely this opening must be on the other side of the huge sandstone wall.
They go back to the chamber, where Wicklow holds the rope and Scythe descends to the pool at the bottom of the pit. It is a long way down, and he feels uncomfortable with the walls close around him. He fills eight two-liter water skins with water, having emptied them of the stagnant water they collected earlier. This water, he trusts, because he can see is seeping from the sandstone all around him. With the water-skins full, he pokes the black rock, and sees that it is the remains of a man-at-arms, whose chain armor has corroded to brown, brittle, powder. There are signs of a calcified skeleton beneath, but it crumbles at the touch. Nevertheless, he extracts the dagger, which, although corroded beyond use, is intact. It has a large ruby at the end of the pommel, which, although flawed in a few places, may be worth as much as four hundred gold pieces ($40k).
Hoping for more valuables, Scythe stirs the bottom with his sword, but touches nothing interesting, and ascends again to the chamber above, weighed down now by sixteen kilograms of fresh water, but pleased with himself.
Meanwhile, Hocus has been examining the walls with Frank. They cannot identify the script, but agree that it looks like it comes from the Dark Ages, and could be a thousand years old. The pictures, after close study, show people harvesting dates, and four taller people in robes standing around an alter of some sort, with a bolt of lightning descending from the heavens.
"The people probably harvested dates and gave them to the priests, who were held in high regard, as can be seen from their greater size in the drawing," Frank says.
Back at the Oasis-end of the passage, they think of going out, but Scythe hears the slithering of a large snake, and they decide to wait until dawn.
Since they have time, Wicklow descends into the pit and sifts through the sand and muck at the bottom of the pool of water. He finds forty ten-gram gold pieces (40 gp, or $4k) and a 200-gram gold chain (20 gp, or $2k).
"The hole in the cliff has been good to us," Hocus says.
"I admit that it has," Wicklow says.
21 March, 2477
Early in the morning, after a few hours rest, our heroes leave the balloon basket in the entrance of the cave on the far side from the oasis, and Scythe climbs over the rubble. He walks to the entrance facing the valley and as soon as he sets foot outside, a colorful snake charges out from under a rock and strikes at him. It has red, yellow, and black stripes, and is two meters long. It misses his leg, and Scythe, in one swift motion, draws his sword and chops it in two. He collected the snake's venom in a vial while Frank, Wicklow, and Hocus look out across the Valley of Many Springs. The upper slopes of the hills around the valley are dry, but covered with a sparse forest of graceful eucalyptus trees.
With the venom collected, our heroes walk down through the trees, with their invisible conjured-wood shields held before them. Behind them and to their left is the sandstone wall that barred their way on the far side of the cave. They descend for an hour and see ahead of them data trees and some huts made of wood and thatched with leaves.
They stop to discuss how to approach the huts. A tuft of black hair sticks out from some bushes nearby. A child is watching them. Wicklow wants to call out to whoever it is, but Frank says no, they should let him decide how their first meeting with the people should take place. He does not want any calling out to people or making demands.
"I want to enter without fear, and with confidence," he says, "It has been my experience that peoples' trust is best earned by serving them, not by asking them to trust me. And we must leave these shields here, hidden if you like, because they will terrify these people when they come into contact with them."
They walk to the first hut. A black-haired boy runs down the slope. It was he who was watching. His father emerges from the hut and greets them in a variety of Latin. Frank answers in his classical latin, and tells the father that he has come on behalf of another god, Dewydix, from the wide world beyond the mountains. "I have come to cure you of sickness. I would like to begin right now."
The father's name is Dongle, and his son is Trick. People from nearby huts walk up to stare the visitors. Dongle invites them to sit outside on date-tree logs. He serves them water and dates. Frank eats them without hesitation, and our heroes do the same. The dates are the best they have ever tasted, and they eat as many as they feel is polite.
The people say they are all date-growers. The mean wear only loin-cloths. The women wear course cloth around their chests and thighs. They tell Frank that they have rebelled against their god Six, and her high-priestess Abscess.
"Please tell me the story of your rebellion," Frank says.
From many voices, our heroes hear the tragic tale of the rebellion in the valley. The telling of the story takes over an hour, not because the story is so complicated, but because the date-growers speak quickly, and often argue with one another about the events they are describing.
"A year ago," Dongle says, "A young man came from outside the valley. His name was Jank. He was the one who started all the trouble."
The date-growers cannot agree about where Jank came from. Some say from the mountains, some say from a place where people are never hungry. But all agree that Jank had many things to teach them. He showed them how to keep chickens, collect their eggs, and raise more chickens. Until he arrived, the chickens would come from the Temple of Six on the other side of the valley, and the villagers would kill them for food, without ever a thought of feeding them and keeping them alive. Abscess disapproved of keeping chickens, saying it was unholy to keep animals. But many people did it anyway.
Next, Jank showed them that they could collect the occasional whole seeds of wheat and corn that were to be found in the flour they received from the temple. He showed them how to plant these sees in the ground, water them, and make them grow. Knowing that Abscess would disapprove, they grew a a patch of corn in secret near what they called the seventh spring in the hills.
One day, two moons ago, Abscess demanded something of the people that they refused to do. The visitors do not get a clear picture of what it was that she demanded. The date-growers are too upset about it to speak slowly. But they all agree taht Abscess had gone too far with her demand, whatever it was. Jank, who was now married, and his wife, who was a rebel in her own right, persuaded the people to go to the temple and capture Abscess and her two acolyte priestesses. This they attempted to do, all together, armed with slings and poles.
But Abscess locked herself in the temple, and, in the words of Dongle, "filled it with demons". The demonds in the temple fired darts at the rebels, wounding several of them.
At this point in their story-telling, the date-growers point to the arrows in our heroes' quivers, and discuss among themselves if these darts are the same as those used by the demons, and whether the visitors might be demons also. Frank convinces them otherwise.
Although Abscess was in the temple, her two acolytes deserted her and joined the people. But they did not have the blessing of Six, and no power remained with them to heal or bless the rebels. Days passed, and of course no food came from Six. Abscess remained in the temple with her demons. Nobody seems to have had a good look at these demons, but all are certain that that is what they are. Some say the demons are twice as tall as a man, others that they have faces like a dog's.
Jank convinced the rebels to band together and storm the temple a second time, demons or not. This they did in the middle of the night, but once more they were driven back. Three men were killed by the demon's darts, and Jank was wounded. Abscess spoke from the roof of the temple, saying in a clear voice, "Six will cause your unholy corn to wither."
A week later, the stand of corn near the seventh spring was infested with insects. Within a few days, it is was dead and the young corn chewed away.
Jank recovered from his wound, and became angry at two families who have left the rebellion. These two families camped outside the temple and were receiving food from Six to feed their sick children. Jank tries to persuade the rebels to go and kill the traitors, but the rebels refuse. Jank agrees to leave the families alone.
Perhaps a week later, all the date-growers' chickens die in their coops. They are bloated and black in the morning. Abscess says it is another plague upon the unholy products of the rebellion. All the story-tellers agree that it was a divine act, and they were afraid.
The two acolytes of Six, who remained with the rebels, are named Mantissa and Cuberoot. They are both women. Mantissa goes to talk to Abscess, and returns saying Abscess will forgive the rebels if they end their foolishness. After that, Mantissa goes back and forth between the people and the temple every day, carrying messages and trying to reach a compromise. Abscess Jank must come and talk to her, because he is the leader, but Jank laughs at the idea of entering the temple of demons.
Jank's wife falls sick. A week later she is dead, her body covered with sores and lumps. Ten days later, he and three others die of the same disease. One woman survives. That was a week ago, and now twenty people have the sickness. The acolytes say that no more than one person must tend to each of sick person, so that the disease does not spread. Some of the date-growers agree with her, but others say it makes no difference. They say the God of the Valley will kill anyone she wishes.
A young woman in a fine cotten robe walks up a trail to Dongle's hut. Her hair is long and shiny. She stares at our hereos. Dongle introduces her as Mantissa. Frank explains to her his purpose in coming to the valley, and the intentions of his god Dewydix. She listens without interrupting.
When he is finished, she turns to the date-growers. "We cannot be sure of it. They may be sent by another god, but to accept their help will damn us in the eyes of Six."
"You are already damned," Frank says.
"Not yet," Mantissa says, "We can still be saved."
"You are dying of plague. It will spread and kill all but a few of you. How much worse can your lives become, even if you are damned? Take me now to one of your sick and I will look at them, and take some of their blood by which my Lord may determine the nature of this plague, and tell me its cure."
Frank's argument convinces the date-growers. They lead the Frank to a hut where an old man tends his dying old wife. Frank enters alone. But the old man will not let Frank take blood from his wife.
"Now what?" Frank says.
"Another victim," Hocus says.
They go to another hut, where a mother tends her two-year-old daughter.
"Mother," Mantissa says, "allow him to do what he can for Tallis, for surely she cannot live without a miracle, and Six is not with us to provide them. We must try this man."
The mother agrees. Frank takes a blood sample from the silent, motionless little girl.
"I will be glad to save that little girl," he says when they leave the hut, "but we must be swift about it."
Despite protests from the date-growers, Frank and our heroes leave immediately after seeing the little girl. They pick up their invisible shields and ascend again to the tunnel. Trick follows at a distance. They stop only for a few minutes to let Frank pass the blood sample through to Olympia. Trick turns back after half an hour.
In the tunnel entrance facing the oasis, two hours after noon, Frank takes a sextant reading. They are in Six's territory. They move to the other entrance, and he measures again. He says they are now in Dewydix's territory. His margin of error must be ten kilometers or more, so it is pure luck, or bias, that leads to a decision either way. But the decision is favorable to Frank's mission. Because he is in Dewydix's temple plot, he can summon medicine to cure the plage in the valley.
All they can do now is wait. They pass the afternoon and the night resting.
21st March, 2477
Frank's pantheon says they will send antibiotic pills in the mid-afternoon. These pills will be effective against the plague spreading in the valley. Frank chafes at the delay, because they are worried about the little girl. But there is nothing they can do. Frank laughs at Hocus's idea of telling his god to hurry up.
The sun rises into the sky. They sit in the shade of the cave entrance. The only sounds are the wind and the calls of occasional crows flying overhead.
"Once you deliver me and the medicine into the valley, one could argue that your obligations to me are over," Frank says, "But I would appreciate your further assistance. I don't know what I'm going to do about Abscess and the demons in the temple."
"They're probably not demons," Wicklow says.
"What are they, then?"
"I expect they are summoned hellspawn, like orcs, bugbears, kobolds, or gnolls. Although gnolls are pretty stupid, from what I have read, too stupid to do service like this."
"Can you handle them?" Frank says.
"I don't know," Wicklow says, "May we talk privately in our own language?"
Our heroes talk Varayan among themselves.
"There's nothing wrong with distributing the pills and then ballooning away," Scythe says.
"No," Wicklow says, "But I think we will benefit in the long run if we build for ourselves a reputation for doing more than the bare minimum required by our contract."
They tell Frank that they will attempt to deal with the demons. They suggest dividing into two groups when they return to the valley, one group distributing pills to the sick, and the other going to the temple to see what it looks like, and watch for the demons.
"I would rather we remained together," Frank says, "both for our own security, and because I want to be present whenever we meet new people. First impressions are important, and I want to make sure they are managed the way I think best."
Hocus suggests that he block the entrances to the temple with conjured rubber. All agree that this is a fine idea, and Hocus prepares a variant of conjured rubber that will generate ten cubic meters at ten liters per second, with longevity ten hours.
Their plan is to go down into the valley, give their medicine to the little girl and the old lady, and then proceed at a quick walk to the temple. If they were to seek out the remaining twenty of so people who have the plague, they would be delayed past nightfall, and they want to deal with Abscess as quickly as possible, before she has had time to prepare for their attack.
"We want to block the demons in as soon as possible," Hocus says.
"I agree," Frank says, "and if one or two people die from lack of medicine, more lives will probably be saved by our prompt action."
Four hours after mid-day, Frank receives two hundred tablets. An hour later, he receives eight hundred more. Each tablet contains five hundred milligrams of an antibiotic effective against the bacterial plague present in the child's blood sample. For an adult, the treatment proceeds as follows: four tablets immediately, and one every four hours until twenty have been consumed.
"How much do they cost?" Wicklow says.
"I don't know, but you don't have to pay, even if you get sick yourself."
"Let's each take one as a prophylactic," Frank says.
They each take a pill.
"So, let's get moving," Frank says, "That little girl was very near to death. We must hurry."
They leave most of their equipment in the tunnel, taking only two liters of water each, as well as money, conjured wood shields, armor, and weapons. Frank has the pills. They jog down into the valley, arriving half an hour later.
Trick sees them coming, and calls to his father. Dongle emerges from his hut and stands watching them. He shifts from one foot to another. From nearby comes the sound of a woman wailing. Frank proceeds to the little girl's hut, where he finds her mother sitting outside, cradling the little girl in her arms. It is the mother who they heard wailing. They are too late. The little girl has died.
The mother looks up at Frank. "You killed my child!"
Frank stands in front of her. His lips move, but no words come out. He turns to the adventurers, shaking his head. He looks from one to the other. His face is pale, and his body trembles.
Dongle and a dozen other date-growers are gathered around. They carry their date-picking poles in their hands. They scowl at the visitors, but they keep their distance. The conjured shields have unsettled them, and the visitors carry swords and bows.
Mantissa approaches. "Your blasphemous needle killed Alicia!"
"It did not, madam," Frank says, "We merely came too late. We will go now to the old woman."
They walk to the old woman's hut. Mantissa and the date-growers follow them. Frank enters and persuades the old man, after some strong words, to give four pills to his wife.
Frank emerges from the hut. "We're going to the temple."
"What of the sick?" Dongle says.
"I will give you medicine to take to the sick." Frank hands out pills in sets of four. "Give all four pills to each person with the plague."
Frank, Mantissa, and our heroes proceed along a trail to the south. A few kilometers down the path, they come to the oasis. It is a pool of sparkling water a hundred meters long. They are tempted to linger there, so enticing is the sight of open water. The air is cool and damp. But they press on for the temple.
They meet a woman wearing a cotton robe similar to Mantissa's. She is standing in the road ahead of them. Her face is lined and darkened by the sun. When they stand before her, Mantissa says, "This is Cuberoot, once an acolyte of Six, now a rebel like me."
Cuberoot looks at Frank. "Were do you come from?"
"From beyond the mountains. We come to help you."
"Do you indeed?"
She moves pushes past him and steps up to Wicklow. "You are a man of war."
"What do you gain from your part in this?"
"I will be paid," Wicklow says, "But I will also earn the satisfaction of helping to cure the sick."
She turns to Scythe. "You also are a man of war. Do you think you can bring peace through war?"
She turns to Hocus.
"I am a magician," he says. He shows her his shield. "I made this."
She touches it, pulls her finger away, and touches it again. "Your powers are great."
"I will try to block the demons in the temple."
She turns back to Frank. "You say you have come to help, but I doubt you."
"We come in force to cure your sick. My Lord is a generous and considerate master. I intend remain here and care for you all. I will need help and cooperation, of course, but you will find my Lord Dewydix has none of the cruelty of your goddess Six and her diabolical priestess."
Two young men approach, carrying copper swords in their hands. They stand to one side, looking at Frank. He bids them to speak.
"We will fight with you," says one of them, "I am Kep, and this is my brother Dan."
Five more young men approach, also carrying copper swords, and declaring their desire to fight with the visitors.
"So be it," Cuberoot says, "You may fight together. You have my blessing."
"Thank you," Frank says, "What do you know of these demons?"
Cuberoot turns to Mantissa. "You were in the temple last night. Did you see the demons?"
"I saw one demon but only briefly. It withdrew into a chamber as soon as I entered. Its skin was like stone, and it wore a robe. There are five of them."
"How large was it?" Wicklow says.
"It was tall as a man."
"How did it move?"
Undaunted by the stories of demons, our heroes proceed down the path. Soon they come in sight of the temple. A little off to one side are the tents of the families who have returned to Six, but other than that, the low hill upon which the temple stands is bare. Kep tells them there is a small door at the back of the temple. There is a large double-door in front, and stained-glass windows are set in all four walls. There is another door in the cupola on top that leads out onto the flat roof, from which the priestess sometimes addresses the people, and from which the demons fired arrows at the rebels.
Our heroes send five warriors to watch the back door, and approach the front door with Frank, Kep, and Dan. They see a face looking out from one of the stained glass windows, but it ducks out of sight. They reach the front doors unmolested, and Hocus casts his spell. With a bridge ring on a short iron rod, he begins to cover the double doors with conjured rubber. When he is done, they go round the back and seal the back door as well.
"We should climb up on the roof and do the cupola door too," Hocus says.
Scythe throws his grapnel up on the roof and starts to climb up as quickly as he can, but he slips and falls. He is unharmed, however, and makes it up on the second attempt. He circles the roof slowly. There is nobody up there. Hocus makes a conjured rubber mattress on the ground to allow them to jump off the roof if they must, and he climbs up the rope. His hands are trembling, and the rope slips through his grip. He, too, falls to the ground. The people watching at the base of the hill gasp. But he gets up, grabs the rope, and climbs again. He is on the roof a minute later.
As Hocus seals the door in the cupola, Wicklow, Frank, Dan, and Kep climb up after him without incident. Scythe climbs up onto a higher ledge to gain access to the cupola windows. Hocus is climbing up after him while Scythe holds the rope, when an arrow thuds into the invisible shield on Scythe's back. Hocus looks up and sees a little dog-shaped green-scaled face in the cupola window.
"Kobold archer!" Hocus says.
Scythe pulls him up onto the roof. The kobold is about to take another shot, but Wicklow fires into the window from the roof below, and scares the kobold away. Close beside the wall of the cupola, Scythe lifts Hocus up and Hocus seals all the windows.
Hocus and Scythe drop down to the roof, and join their companions.
"If we could get some smoke in there, we could make life very uncomfortable for them," Hocus says.
But they cannot think of any way of starting a good fire inside the temple. The walls are made of sandstone, and our heroes have no tar or flammable oil.
"There is a great spell that would do the trick," Hocus says, "but I have never been able to prepare it successfully."
They look around them at the valley and the mountains.
"I like it up here," Scythe says.
"It seems like a good position," Frank says.
They spend the night on the roof. To keep a watch on the doors, they attach two flashlights to the walls above the doors, so that they shine downwards. At one point in the night, they hear the front and back doors shaking as if someone is trying to open them, but Hocus's glue-like conjured rubber holds the doors firmly shut.
They take turns to sleep, and Hocus prepares some new spells. At dawn, the rubber has decayed, and they are on their guard. It is as well that they are vigilant, because the kobolds appear silently in the cupola windows and suddenly start to fire upon everyone on the roof. Dan is hit in the side, and collapses to the ground. They move to the edge of the cupola, and Hocus warns them that he is casting his Flash spell.
There is a loud bang from inside the cupola, accompanied by a bright flash of white light shining out of the windows. They hear the kobolds inside twittering to one another and dropping down to the floor, then silence.
"Let's open the door," Wicklow says.
But Dan is badly wounded.
"I have to take care of Dan," Frank says, and pulls the arrow out of Dan's body. Dan cries out in pain. Frank applies a bandage.
"I'll get him a divine serum."
"Not here on Six's territory you won't," Wicklow says.
"You're right," Frank says, "I'll bind it and Kep can take him down to Cuberoot."
This they do, lowering Dan as best they can into Kep's arms. Kep is soon joined by other warriors, some of whom carry Dan away. The others ask to come up to the roof.
"Only Kep and one other," Frank says, after consulting with the adventurers.
When the two warriors are with them, they turn their attention to the cupola door. But it is barred on the inside.
"I'll open it," Scythe says, and takes out a thin metal shim, which he inserts between the door and the frame, and under the bar, which he lifts up and off the door. Hocus and Wicklow notch arrows and Scythe opens the door. Inside the cupola are a few cots and blankets, but no kobolds. A wooden staircase leads down. A woman's voice screams from within the temple. "Get up there and fight them, you mangy little runts!"
Our heroes laugh quietly. A kobold with a bow appears at the top of the staircase. Wicklow and Hocus fire upon him and scare him down again.
"What are you running from!" the woman cries.
"Let's go in," Hocus says.
Scythe and Wicklow charge down the stairs. They find themselves on a wooden walkway suspended above the temple floor. The walkway leads into the second-floor of some living quarters. As soon as they are on the walkway three kobolds fire at them from the floor below. Scythe is faced by two kobolds in the entrance to the living quarters.
Below them, on the alter, is an enlarging summoning bridge in a copper summoning frame. In front of the bridge stands Abscess the priestess. She looks up at them and Wicklow shoots her in the stomach. She stares up in astonishment and cries out. She collapses to her knees.
The kobolds in the hall fire back, and Wicklow takes a hit that penetrates his armor. "Let's get out of here," he says, and they run back up the stairs before the kobolds can fire again.
Back in the cupola, Wicklow says, "She's summoning something."
They hear a deep voice from within the temple, but they cannot understand it. The kobolds reply in their own language.
"Come on, you fools, there is no time to lose," Abscess cries.
"I thought I killed her," Wicklow says.
"It was a good hit," Scythe says, "She won't last long."
"We have to go in again," Hocus says, "I'll go in, if I must."
"Those kobolds will shoot us to pieces," Wicklow says.
"Can we fight them hand-to-hand?" Scythe says, "They're only carrying sticks for weapons."
"If we can close on them, that would be to our advantage," Wicklow says.
"Or why not withdraw from the temple and see what happens?" Scythe says.
"If we can destroy the bridge right now," Wicklow, "she won't be able to get any help."
"Unless she has another bridge."
The deep voice speaks again.
"That is a voice of doom from Olympia," Frank says.
They decide they should all rush down the staircase with their conjured shields in front of them, and force their way into the priestess's quarters. From there they can perhaps get a shot at the bridge, or another shot at the priestess. Failing that, they can exit by the back door, or descend to the temple floor and try their luck from there.
Kep agrees to come with them, but the other warrior does not have the courage. He is ashamed, but he is too afraid to move.
And so, with Scythe in the lead, and Wicklow in the rear, they run down the staircase and pound along the walkway into the priestess's quarters. But the beams that hold the walkway to the ceiling of the temple break, and the entire wooden structure falls down onto the alter and the summoning bridge, taking Wicklow with it. He rolls to one side, grabs his bow, and ducks behind the alter on the side opposite the kobolds.
There is no sign of the summoning bridge. It is buried and destroyed beneath the remains of the walkway. There is also no sign of the priestess, but the kobolds are there, on the other side of the temple, and they withdraw around the corner into a chapel on the far side.
Scythe looks out from the doorway of the priestess's quarters, and leads the rest of the party down another staircase to join Wicklow.
"The bridge is buried under the rubble," Wicklow says.
"How fortunate," Hocus says.
"What about the kobolds?" Frank says.
"I think they're with Abscess in that alcove over there." Wicklow points.
They withdraw to the front door behind the cover of their conjured shields, and open it, allowing more light into the temple. The people on the path outside cheer.
"What are the kobolds going to do?" Frank says.
"They will want to go home, I think," Wicklow says, "Now that Abscess is wounded."
Hocus says, "They can go home through Frank's bridge. It goes to the same planet. What's the difference?"
"You're right," Frank says.
And so they begin to talk with the kobolds, who speak in high-pitched, but clear and simple Latin.
"Pour out your arrows on the floor, and approach the bridge when we expand it, and you can go home," Hocus says.
The kobolds agree, but Abscess calls out from somewhere in the chapel. "Traitors! Traitors! Fire upon them you little devils. I'll see to it that you are all beheaded! What are your lives worth, you spawn of hell! Fight for your mistress!"
But the kobolds ignore her.
Frank consults with his pantheon, and they too agree to the arrangement. Frank and Hocus set up the bridge in Frank's summoning frame, and it soon begins to expand. They leave it half-way between the door and the chapel where the kobolds are hiding, and withdraw to the door. When the bridge is a meter across, they can see a circle of black velvet curtain.
"A divine curtain," Hocus says.
They do not know what the kobolds see on the other side, but whatever it is, it draws the little creatures out of the chapel. As agreed, they pour out the contents of their quivers, and one by one they step through the bridge.
Just as the last of them is stepping back to Olympia, Abscess crawls out of the chapel, clutching her stomach. "Wait, wait! Six, my lord, I am coming, take me now, I have served you well!"
Kep runs around the bridge, raises his sword, and strikes the old woman in the face again and again, until she is a bloody mess upon the floor.
The summoning bridge shrinks rapidly. Frank collects it and Hocus folds up the frame. They search the temple. In Abscess's quarters, they find fifty gold pieces and another summoning bridge in a metal box.
It is the evening of the sixth of April. Our heroes have seen the plague stopped, Frank installed as the new priest of the valley, and had their fill of dates. They have rested and relaxed, and their wounds have healed. Frank has paid them their remaining two hundred gold pieces. The date-growers have treated them like heroes. Tonight they sit by the oasis, after an evening swim, and drink fresh coconut milk brought to them by a group of adoring children.
"This is what it's all about," Wicklow says.
"What?" Hocus says.
"Being an adventurer. I think we made the right choice."
"I'll drink to that," Hocus says.
Later that night, the moon is rising over the mountains that surround the Valley of the Seven Springs. Our heroes are talking quietly, when they hear a sound like wind blowing through the leaves of a fir tree, coming from above and behind them. The sound grows louder, until all three of them can hear it clearly. Something is flying towards the oasis from the south. A black shape obscures the rising moon, and circles above them in front of the stars. They hear a deep voice utter a quiet word, and the shape descends to the far side of the oasis, and lands in the darkness by the water.
Our heroes discuss going to get their armor, and raising the alarm, but in the end they decide to just stay where they are, because whatever is at the other end of the oasis does not seem to be paying any attention to them. They hear the deep voice again, and a hand patting the hide of a large animal. They cannot understand the words the deep voice speaks, nor have they heard any language like it before. The large animal drinks at the edge of the pool. They can hear its mouth sucking up the water.
A few minutes later, they hear the rider issue a command, and the animal leaps into the air. Its wings beat twice but it sinks to the ground again. The rider laughs, and the animal leaps once more, this time the wind from its wing-beats shakes the palms nearby, and it rises into the air. When it drifts out over the pool, our heroes can hear the water on the surface churning. The wings beat twice a second until it has risen to a height of thirty meters, and then it begins to fly forward, turning in a circle, rising as it goes, and then is lost in the night.
In the early morning, our heroes inspect the mud where the animal and rider landed the night before. They see the marks of two large clawed feet and a ten-meter tail. There are also footprints from a large pair of heavy boots, so large, that they probably could not be sapien.
Today they are ready to leave. The wind is Southerly, so they sit and wait. The inhabitants of the valley give them gifts of dates, water, and copper trinkets. Hocus makes a dozen dyed conjured rubber balls with which to determine the wind direction, and releases one every few hours.
Westerly wind, 10 kph. Say goodbye, and lift off in the balloon with the wicker basket and hemp ropes. Hocus has ballooned before, in Pakesh, but it is Wicklow and Scythe's first trip, so they are anxious. But once they are up, in the cool air, floating along in absolute silence, they enjoy the experience.
Down below them, they see the water hole at which they had agreed to meet their guides Stigma and Dogma. The watering hole is deserted. They drift over a clan of Calipanti, who see them and point. To their delight, the wind carries them within 4 km of Arras (the settlement on the coast). Hocus lands the balloon without injuring anyone or damaging the basket, and is well pleased with himself.
After releasing the conjured foam, they fold up the silk balloon, which takes twenty minutes, and put it in the basket, and fold up the basket for carrying. They walk the four kilometers to Arras. At the edge of the settlement, they see three slaves in a wooden cage, shackled with iron bands. One is a young man in good health. He comes to the bars of the cage and addresses them in Latin.
"Sirs, stop, I beg you. My name is Heraklese Polychronakos. I am a slave to these barbarians. I beg you to buy my freedom. My father is wealthy man, a coffee trader in Issikoss, and he will reward you ten times over for your kindness."
Issikoss is the native name for the country most of us call Phthisk, which is down the coast from Arras. Our heroes talk to Heraklese briefly, and then proceed into town. There they take the time to meet Kalackin, a slave trader, who tells them that the "young Issikan is a bad slave", and recommends that they buy one of his own slaves if they want one.
Heraklese, they find out the next morning, can be bought for fifty gold pieces.
"It's only fifty gold pieces," Hocus says, "Let's just buy him and free him. What's the worst that can happen?"
So they buy him and free him. He has no money, and they don't want to go to Phthisk, because they want to pick up their Three Aces summoning bridge at the Doras conjunction in the Vale of Wortham on 11th May. So they board a boat bound for Dimplow, and pay 3 gp passage for Heraklese. The crew of the ship, however, is Issikan, the ship being an Issikan ship. Heraklese immediately starts asking the crew about affairs back home, but in Greek. As far as the captain is concerned, Heraklese is a slave owned by our heroes. Slavery is a respected institution in Phthisk, but not in Weiland, to which they are sailing.
As they sail up the coast the next day, the tenth of April, they notice that Heraklese has somehow obtained a pair of gold earrings, which he is wearing proudly.
"Where did you get those earrings?" Wicklow says, "You told us you had no money."
"I didn't. But last night I won some money playing cards. With any luck, I might be able to pay you back my passage by the time we get to Dimplow." He winks.
The next day, the ship's captain warns our heroes against letting Heraklese play cards with the crew. He suspects Heraklese of cheating, although he cannot prove it. They tell their slave not to play cards any more, but that night a fight breaks out on deck. Heraklese has been playing dice with the crew, and they accuse him of cheating, after which they punch him a few times. Scythe forces Heraklese to give the captain his ten gold pieces of winnings from that night.
Another fight promptly breaks out over who among the crew should receive the ten gold pieces, but our heroes and Heraklese retire from the fray.
"I was not cheating," Heraklese says.
Arrive Dimplow on the morning of the 12th April and disembark.
"Good luck with that fellow," the captain says when they reach the bottom of the gang plank.
Heraklese shakes his head. "So what am I now, slave, or free man?"
"Slavery and indentured servitude are illegal in Weiland," Hocus says.
"Free man, then."
"Congratulations," Wicklow says.
"But I still don't have any money."
"Let's go have coffee and figure out what we're going to do," Scythe says.