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Re-Awakening, Part 1

By Lucas Twyman
Special Thanks to Shawn Carman and Patrick Kapera

The man who would be the First Scribe rubbed his eyes and opened the book. Its vast, blank pages loomed before him, as empty and imposing as the Sands themselves. He had expected this - filling the pages was his job after all - but telling the Tale of an Age was no light task. The First Scribe knew himself to be the greatest storyteller of the Age that had passed, but was that enough to tell the tales of a new age?

How to begin, he wondered. The answer came from across time, from the new Last Scribe - how does anyone begin a tale?

The First Scribe smiled and dipped his quill in the ink. His hand flowed across the page like the river through the Jewel.

"In the name of Lady Sun - the All-Merciful, the All-Knowing, and Life-Giving Lady Sun - I tell my tale. And my tale is true. As true as any other tale that has ever been told..."

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Mendat al-Salaam, the City of Peace, the Jewel of the Desert, the City of One Thousand Stories was always a place of wonder. It was a place where men walked alongside gods, where creatures of smokeless fire mingled among tiger-headed sorcerers and heartless mages. It was perhaps the greatest hub of trade for the entire world, the gateway to all the mighty kingdoms of the world - the lands of spice and bone to the south-east; the decaying and shackled kingdom of the death-worshipers to the north-west; the fierce element-worshiping barbarian warrior-clans to the south; the mighty legions of the ocean-fearing pale men to the north-east. All kingdoms came eventually across the sands, to the Jewel, for it was truly the Heart of the World. All came to the Jewel, but not all left. Some found great treasure, some found new homes, and some found only death.

Days in the Jewel were busy and prosperous. The heat of the All-Merciful Lady Sun made business difficult, but business always carried on, buoyed by cool breezes that swirled across the small river alongside the merchant district, the only river spared by the Merciful Lady Sun, in her immortal wisdom, on her furious Day of Wrath. Anything a heart would desire could be found in the stalls of the merchants that lined the streets, crying out for business. One needed only to put forth the effort to find it. There was only one time a year where the cries of the merchants could not be heard echoing across the city - the Fasting Festival, where thanks were given to Lady Sun for sparing her foolish and prideful children. So it has been for the last thousand years, ever since the city was founded, from the sole rule of the Sultanate, through the heartless regime of the Caliph, and even now, during the absence of the Sultan's family and the advisory rule of the new Caliphate line, the wise Descendants of the Mountain, may the strength of their sons and the radiant beauty of their daughters live on forever.

There was but one period of time when the cries of the vendors went silent, replaced instead by the screams of the wounded and dying. It was known as the Shattering of the Jewel, and it served as the end of the last Age and the beginning of this one&.

----------------

... And, at the end of time, the Last Scribe nodded sagely. He had waited long for his task to begin, and it would be longer still before it ended and he could rest his weary hands. The book lay before him, half of its pages full, but every story unfinished. Reading over the florid text before him, he had to chuckle. The First Scribe had always been long-winded.

When he came to the end of the First Scribe's initial passage, the Last Scribe frowned. He had not thought that it was his job to tell the tale that would be told, as it took place prior to the beginning of this Age. Still, many tales from that time remained untold, and without it, the complete picture would be impossible to perceive. Thirty years was a long time, but even events thirty years prior to this Age could influence the tales told now.

The Last Scribe's hand moved as if of its own volition as he began putting ink to paper. It had been a long, long time...

----------------

None within the Jewel had ever before seen a force like the Erba'a Alliance. The gathering of three armies stretched across the horizon, its patchwork of different camps and tent-cities blocking all travel to and from the city. The camps bustled with movement at all hours. During the day, the Moto raiders and Yodatai scouting party prepared for the siege, gathering all the wood and raw materials that could be found along the edge of the wastes to construct the ramparts and brutal war machines needed to breach the city's walls. At night, the sounds of the Ra'Shari's strange music wafted from around the few burning campfires. If one strained one's ears, the songs could be heard even in the palace of the Sultan; the City was silent, as if holding its breath, waiting.

Senpet prisoners were periodically set loose into the city, their terrified eyes and battered bodies saying more than any warning the invaders would ever give. The latest was delivered by an old man, bent by age but still strong despite his years. The escort's features were long and thin, like those commonly seen on the Yodatai who visited the city. His one eye was a light gray-blue, but his skin was tanned by a lifetime of work underneath the harsh but benevolent glare of Lady Sun. The guards at the gate asked if he had a message from the Yodatai, but he simply glared at them and spat out a single strange word: "Hanif."

The one-eyed man raised a long dagger to his prisoner's face. With a swift flourish, he carved a deep gash around the weeping Senpet's eye. Then, throwing the prisoner to the ground, the one-eyed man shouted in oddly accented Mekhem, "An eye for an eye! The Senpet and their masters for what they have done to my people!" With a quick curse, the Hanif spat on his prisoner, then marched away before the stunned guards could respond, leaving the wounded Senpet to bleed his water into the sand. The Senpet making up the local city garrisons quickly snatched up their fallen countryman and shuffled him out of the eyesight of the commoners and merchants.

Eleazar of the Hanif smiled as he walked away. He did not have to look back to know that the Senpet's lackeys were too late. Soon, the small folk of Mendat al-Salaam would realize that the only way to spare their city would be to turn on the heartless monsters that controlled them and their new death-worshiping allies. Eleazar knew his people would savor the moment the gate fell and terror dawned on the Senpet's faces. Many blows would be struck against the Hanif's former masters - one for each day the Senpet kept the Hanif in slavery.

Still, while the Erba'a Alliance stood firm and together, Eleazar suspected that the Hanif would not be the ones who would most enjoy their revenge. No, Eleazar had seen the dark glint in the eyes of the foreigners when they looked towards the city. Despite working alongside them in the mines, Eleazar had never managed to master their language, but he understood the murder in their words. Yes, Eleazar recognized, the foreigners would enjoy the coming battle the most - they could not hide their eagerness, even behind their masks.

"Enter, Eleazar."

Eleazar did not have to duck under the tent-flap to recognize the booming voice of the Yodatai general, Aurelian. Eleazar thought it strange that one of the Incarnation of the Ocean-Forsaken's Emperors would accompany a scouting party, but he knew the Yodatai to be entirely unreasonable - after all, that was why his people had left the nascent Yodatai Empire centuries ago. Aurelian was naturally a massive man, well over six feet tall, but his manner of carrying himself somehow made him seem even bigger. Aurelian loomed over the small board the Yodatai used to plan their invasion. Around the board with Aurelian was the Moto Tar-Khan, Kiyoshi, an angry man with a beard flecked with gray, and the Yodatai's beautiful advisor Adrianna. Adrianna glared at the board, a single strand of light-brown hair hanging over her hazel eyes, and then looked up at the masked foreigner across the room. Eleazar recognized him from his enslavement in the Senpet mines the man was Tomaru, one of the Scorpion-worshippers. Tomaru had wrapped silk around his face and body instead of normal garb, and, despite the silk covering all but his eyes and hair, he had a tense muscularity that was rather intimidating. At his side was Raya, the raven-haired gypsy seer who served as the Ra'Shari's de facto leader after the death of the ancient man known only as the Living Memory. Eleazar reasoned that such a strange collection of allies could only be destiny, a sign that the Erba'a Alliance was destined to crack the corrupt Jewel open and reign vengeance upon the Senpet slavers.

The Yodatai god-general motioned towards a small hooded man sitting in the corner. "Your little prophet returned while you were putting on your vicious little show for the guards," he said, his voice stone scraping against steel. "He has brought most of the remaining slaves with him out of the city. We can now attack without fear."

Eleazar smiled, and he knew he was not alone in his relief. It was good to see the little prophet had returned. The man answered to Duqaq, but each group in the Alliance seemed to call him by a different name. He had snuck into the mines of the Senpet and inspired the Hanif and the Scorpion-worshipers to throw off their chains and turn on their captors. With his leadership they had managed to distract the Senpet until the Yodatai arrived to liberate the slaves. Eleazar nodded to him and turned back to the war council. Raya, the Ra'Shari sahir, smiled at him and told him that he was free to speak in his native tongue. Her ancient magics had proven quite useful - without them, it would have been nearly impossible for the different cultures that made up the Alliance to coordinate the attack.

"You know 'the show,' as you call it, was warranted," Eleazar reminded the Yodatai. "If we can inspire the populace to further unrest, taking the city will be much easier."

Aurelian frowned. "I am not worried about the populace. They will be purified with the rest of the city, in the cleansing flames."

Stepping out of the corner, the little man threw off his hood. He cleared his throat, and addressed the Yodatai lord. "A competent general attacks an enemy's army. A superior general attacks an enemy's alliances."

Adrianna's eyes widened. "Augustus the Uniter."

Tomaru shook his head. "No, Sun Tao."

The little man smiled, and looked over the battle plans. "Both, actually."

Tomaru and Adrianna exchanged a knowing glance, and then the Scorpion bowed before the prophet. "Little master, what of my Lady? Did you manage to rescue her as well?"

The prophet looked down for a moment. "No," he replied. He smiled and looked back at Tomaru. "But you need not worry. She has been provided for, and will be safe. She had a task for you, one I will convey to once these plans are complete."

Duqaq returned to studying the battle plans. "Here," he said, pointing to a point on the map representing the river. "This is where you plan to attack?"

Adrianna looked to Aurelian. The massive general nodded. "Yes, Duqaq," Adrianna replied. "The city's most significant weakness is the river. To approach from any other angle would be foolish."

Duqaq ran a hand down his beard. "And you plan on driving the bulk of the Senpet armies back against the city walls?"

Aurelian placed a heavy hand on the table, shaking the colored wooden tokens representing the two sides. "Yes. We will pin them between their wall and our wall of flame. They will have no place to run, and we will cut them down to the man."

The little prophet was silent for a moment, then looked up, locking eyes with the Yodatai. "Are you planning on conquering this city or destroying it? If it is the latter, then your plan should succeed. If it is the former, are you prepared to pay the cost?"

Crossing his arms, Aurelian never altered his gaze. "I plan on redeeming this city. I plan on cleansing it. I will walk with the gods over the bodies of those the people fear!"

Duqaq smiled. "If redemption is what you want, may I suggest a more prudent course of action? Attack from the river, but move to outflank the defenders. Drive them along the riverbanks, and always allow them to fall back."

Adrianna frowned, her dark eyebrows narrowing to a point. "But... that will give them an avenue to escape, by following the river out of the city."

"Exactly." Duqaq nodded at Adrianna and stroked his beard again. "If you let them run, they will eventually break and leave you the city. If you corner them, you will wipe the Senpet out, but you will pay dearly for every one of their lives with the lives of your own men. All animals fight to the death when cornered - even human ones."

----------------

The First Scribe rubbed his eyes with his fingers. So much had happened since that day. There was so much to tell; not all of it could be said at once. The Jewel was shattered not once, not twice, but three times. The Alliance had poured into the city within a fortnight, shattering the Jewel's brave defenders with their might. The Yodatai's mighty war-engines hurled flame and destruction on the city, and the Senpet fled. But that was only a prelude to the devastation to come. Unbeknownst to the majority of the city's inhabitants, beneath the city lay a gate to a world ruled by shadow where a sleeping Goddess lay. An ancient prophecy predicted her return, and the city's rebels, aided by the ancient race known as the Ashalan, conspired to bring about the prophecy by gathering together four Avatars. The rebels hoped that this prophesied Awakening would mark the end of the corrupt rule of the Khadi. The rebels were opposed by a faction of madmen and murders whose evil gods told them that the Awakening would herald great destruction and chaos - by preventing the Awakening, they worked towards a goal of great good by performing acts of great evil. In the end, they were both right. The very act of the Goddess waking destroyed a large part of the city. When she left for her distant homeland, many of the city's defenders went with her, pushing the already-bleeding City of Stories into its death throes.

There was but one bright mark for the city's future - the same chaos that claimed so many of the city's heroes also spelled the end for many of its villains. The Cult of the Assassins, responsible for many deaths during the cold city nights, found its curse finally broken with the death of its founder, the Old Man. Even the greatest of evils were not spared destruction's touch - during the chaos, a young Senpet sahir managed to locate and destroy the black heart that fueled so many of the city's evils for so long. The Caliph was dead, and the ruling line of the city was traced to Old Man's adopted daughter. The Sultan's son, Effendi, worked with Adira to bring peace back to the city in the weeks that followed.

Despite their best efforts, the Age was still in its death throes. The first pure Ashalan child born in six hundred years was kidnapped by the evil jinn of the Jinn Lord Kaleel's legion. In its body he again planned his revenge against his mother, the Wise and Resplendent Lady Sun, and the world she created. He had allied himself with a creature of great evil, the Sayel - a monster beyond time known to the Moto as the Lying Darkness - that had manipulated many of the events that led to the sorrows of the last age. The Darkness was a creature of lies and deceit that stole away a man's memories and identity. It lived to sow chaos and despair. It was the Darkness that locked away the fury of the Goddess, and it was the Darkness that that masqueraded as the Ebonite's lost prophet and the Jackal's ancient gods. A collection of heroes throughout the Sands - free jinn, sahir, the beings known as the Qanon, and mighty soldiers - rose up to oppose Kaleel's Legion. It was a simple squire, however, that saved the Sands once and for all, by using the very force against Kaleel that Kaleel had hoped to use against the rest of the world. The Sayel devoured Kaleel and his armies, but at great cost. After unmaking the Jinn, the Sayel threatened to spiral out of control, until Kaleel's brother Israk managed to funnel it into the heavens, where beings greater than those of our world could hope to oppose it. The Celestial Alliance knew that would not be enough, and the heroes of the last Age, along with most of the Ashalan and Ra'Shari, rose into the heavens to oppose them.

As much as the First Scribe hated to admit it, the heroes of the last age were gone. He and the Last Scribe both agreed: it was time for the tales of new heroes to be told...

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Judgment sat at the far end of the table, impassive and inscrutable as the stone his people worshiped. Despite being surrounded by the other members of the Council of Twelve, he was alone. He had always been alone, since the day he placed his hands upon the Black Stone and was made leader of the Ebonites. As always, he was clad in the white chain armor of the Ebonite Templars, with the seal of his Principle emblazoned across his chest. His white hair was tied in a braid and tucked away, and he wore his plain white mask, as he did at any public appearance. The mask was the newest trappings of his position, donned first by the man who took up the position of Judgment immediately following the Shattering of the Jewel. The mask was exceedingly simple, showing only the general features of a stern, strong-jawed man. The mask never betrayed any emotion, just as he was never to give into emotion; judgment was impassionate and impartial. It had no room for anger or sadness.

The mask, of course, hid more than his emotions, but not even all of the Twelve knew that. It was best that they didn't.

Finally, the last member of the council arrived. Without a sound, Tarya took her place in the seat opposite of Judgment. In the strange always-night of the City of the Seventh Star, the light blue tattoos on Tarya's skin shone brightly. Most of the Jewel believed the half-breed girl to be the last of the immortal Ashalan alive. Judgment knew that not to be true, but the reality was close enough.

It was Valor that spoke first, his cold blue eyes fixed on the Ashalan. "Why have you called us here today? It must be important, if you believe that I am not needed at my post."

Directly across the table, Compassion scowled at Valor. "And who are you worried about today, Valor? What villain may try to steal our stone from us now?"

Valor drummed his fingers on the table. "My men report that the Ujik-Hai have been following routes that are very close to the city itself. I fear they may be able to strike along the river."

"The Ujik-Hai?" Compassion raised an eyebrow, "Do we really need to fear that tiny tribe of former gypsies and raiders?"

"You may not think them a threat now, Compassion," Valor replied, leaning forward across the table, "but the tribes that they descended from, the Moto and the Ra'Shari, once laid waste to Mendat al-Salaam, making their way to the Temple of the Stone itself. They are likely capable of more than your or I might think."

"Valor, do not forget that the Yodatai lead that attack, the same Yodatai that now help us patrol our streets. I believe that you know them well." Judgment's voice, low and flat, cut through the room as he addressed the man once known to the Defenders of the Black Stone only as the "Yodajin Templar". Valor shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

Across the table, Tarya threw the hood of her dark blue cloak back from her head. "Actually," she said, smiling at Valor, "that is part of the reason I called the Council here today, and the main reason I requested your presence personally." Reaching within her robe, Tarya produced a small scroll, sealed with red wax. "We have been asked to perform a task by one of our allies. Valor, I need you to make contact with the garrisons the Yodatai have in the city. We must locate one of the men who served in the Erba'a Alliance..."

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The Monkey Man hated the stupid monkey. What an awful monkey. It used to be useful sometimes. It would jump on people when they tried to hit the Monkey Man, or fling its waste at people that made the Monkey Man angry, or filch things that would be shiny or useful. Now it was so lazy. All it did was lie there until it remembered who the Monkey Man was. Then it would scream. How he hated that monkey's scream. He could not remember where he got the monkey. It was such a long time ago. He tried to get rid of the monkey many times, he knew, but it would always dance right out of reach, taunting him. The Monkey Man would throw things at the Monkey, and it would climb on his head. He went bald because of that damn monkey, always climbing and pulling his hair out. He had no hair. He had no hair for a very long time. Awful hair-taking monkey.

How the Monkey Man wished the monkey was dead! The monkey wished the same for him, he knew, but he would never give it the satisfaction of outliving him. If only it didn't seem determined to not die first too. Stupid monkey.

The Monkey Man was surrounded by men. Who were they again? Oh, they were his followers. That was right. The Monkey Man was a great leader. He led by example. He was crafty, yes, yes. So very crafty. Had he not claimed the Soul of the Slayer, the most terrifying artifact in the Sands? Had he not gathered the souls of hundreds, no thousands, in jars, for him to keep and play with? Had he not developed the dark magics from the mummified jinn skull he had found, creating the fearsome efreeti that even now plagued the night? Yes, these men around him were obviously his followers. He recognized many of them. Some he recognized even from their childhoods! How great and strong they had grown! Truly, Wardah had done a wonderful job, claiming all the urchins from the streets, teaching them how to filch and lie and kill and showing them the truths of the Universe! So many proud young children, grown up now as proud Jackals! Now, the plan, the great plan!

"Yes, my children!" he cried out, "Tonight will be our night of glory! Strike out at Hassan's Carpet Shop! I have incontrovertible proof that the Avatar will be there! Burn it to the ground, and we can save the world from the chaos that the Awakening will bring!"

What did that boy say? That he heard the Awakening had already occured, that the Avatars are long dead? That Hassan's Carpet Shop burned to the ground years ago? Blasphemer! He was obviously trying to deceive the assembled believers! With a single mighty wave of his hand, the Monkey Man condemned the liar to death! How eager his followers were! The skinny ones, the ones with the bad teeth, they were particularly enthusiastic. Hearing them cry out "Mine! Mine!" brought tears of joy to the Monkey Man's eyes! What go-getters! Fighting to be the one to carry out the Monkey Man's requests, for that honor to be "mine". He had to make sure that his men could not see him cry. That would be unfortunate, for such a great leader to be caught crying before his men. It obviously brought tears of joy to some of his follower's eyes too. They were certainly weeping.

Still, the Monkey Man paid that no mind. With another cry and a wave of his hands, he sent his followers out to the surface, into the cold, dark night to do his cold, dark deeds. It was strange, but some of the men in the back looked odd. Ah, they must have just been ghuls. Well, a ghul is better than a fool, but it couldn't do some things as well as a girl, that's what the Monkey Man always said. Or at least he thought that was what he always said.

Then, a sharp noise rang out. What an awful noise for a Monkey Man to hear! The Monkey Man looked about. Ah, that damnable monkey. He raised his arm to strike it, but it was too far away. Best just put his arm down again. His arms were so heavy. Stupid monkey, if only it would die. Then he would have shown it, and he could rest.

From above the Monkey Man came a cacophony of sweet sounds. Screams, the sound of tearing flesh, flame, even an explosion! My, it certainly was exciting. Where was that monkey? Maybe he could trick it into going aboveground. Maybe it would catch on fire. No, it was too sleepy. Was it dead, finally? No, its ear was twitching. Awful lazy monkey.

Peering out of the small entrance to the sewers, the Monkey Man laughed. He would have to note this day of triumph in his histories. Now, if he could only remember what day it was...

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With a quick exhalation, Jamilah pulled herself through the window into the Dahab Merchant-King's home. As she landed silently on the richly carpeted floor, she smiled to herself. The children who fancied themselves the new leaders of the True Family were fools. Jamilah may be old, but as long as the Silken Ghost drew breath, she would be ready to strike terror into the hearts of her enemies.

Of course, whether this resplendent Dahab home contained an enemy or an ally was a matter not yet resolved. The True Family had many enemies these nights, but even they were surprised to hear that someone was murdering the families of the Dahab, leaving their bodies in the ritual fashion of the Daughters of the Mountain. There were certainly several possible suspects. After the Old Man died and the curse was broken, the Family was thrown into chaos. Many of the more easily misguided Children of the Mountain left to follow the Old Man's adopted daughter, Adira. Now, they were little more than glorified servants of the pretender-daughter's Caliphate. Still other Children slipped away into the night, never to be seen again. Only by force of will alone did Shala, the second daughter of the line of the Mountain, re-forge the Family into something resembling their former glory.

"Be careful there, Daughter of the Mountain" the voice rang out across the room, honey and silk wrapped around a jagged edge "You may trip on that statue and injure yourself."

Jamilah narrowed her eyes and spun towards the sound of the voice. When she saw the figure in the shadows, she gasped and took a step back. He was wearing a fine black cloak that concealed most of his features, and his eyes were black as death. The cloak was finely trimmed, and it was impossible to determine the height or build of the man within. With one hand, the figure gripped a wickedly carved Dhul Fiqar knife; with the other hand, he swept the hood off his head. His curly gray hair was pulled behind his head, and his thick beard was tied neatly somewhere beneath his neck.

Jamilah's eyes widened as she took another step backwards. "Father?"

The figured smiled widely at Jamilah, flashing his perfect white teeth. "I am surprised, my dear. Somewhat insulted, in fact. Me, resemble father? I never did take after my Old Man."

Jamilah reached for her blade, but her voice was sharper than the keen edge of the knife could ever be. "Haroun."

The Master of the Blood-Red Tiger bowed with a flourish. "Very good, Jamilah. You were always more perceptive than Shala or dear, departed Fatima. You do understand why you have been led here, don't you?"

"What do you mean, betrayer? Aren't you supposed to be dead?"

Haroun lowered his eyes and pulled on his robes to smooth them. "Did you think you could strike against the Dahab without impunity? Did you think none of us would notice you and your sisters as they murdered two of our Merchant Kings? It's quite unfortunate, when you think about it. I rather admire your resourcefulness." Haroun looked up and raised his free hand. Nine men stepped out of the shadows around Jamilah. Each wore a cloth wrapped around his face, obscuring his features, and bore a Dhul Fiqar knife like Haroun's. Haroun smiled again at his long-lost sister. "However, my Qadaam were most upset. There has been no consoling them."

Jamilah pulled her knife from its sheath, but the first of the Followers of the Tiger was already upon her. She twisted away from his thrust, catching the blade in the long robes that gave the Silken Ghost her namesake, and knocked him back with a palm strike to his bare chest. Jamilah barely had time to duck under the second Qadaam's wild slash at her head. With a single smooth motion, she cut his hamstring and knocked him back into the third Follower of the Tiger charging at her. For a brief moment, her eyes met Haroun's; then, with a swift flourish of her robes, she ran for the window. Her fingers had just touched the sill when she heard a whistling sound through the air behind her.

Jamilah fell to the ground. She put her hand to her chest, and when she pulled it back away, her fingers were sticky with blood. She coughed wetly and turned to face her brother. A small smirk played on his lips. He shrugged at her, and showed her his empty hands. With her dying breath, she tried to curse his forsaken name, but the knife in her throat prevented her from doing even that.

Haroun strode boldly across the room and kneeled next to the fallen form of his sister. Age had not been kind to her, but, then again, no one ever expected the Children of the Mountain to live so long. In a single fluid motion, Haroun pulled the ritual knife from the now-aptly-named Ghost's throat and rose to his feet. Turning to face his Tigers, he thrust the blade in the air. He could see the devotion in their eyes.

"As she falls, so shall they all fall! With you at my side, nothing will prevent me from claiming my birthright not my fallen sisters, and not even the Roc herself!"

With a fierce cry, the Qadaam thrust their knives into the air, matching the bloody blade of the new Old Man of the Mountain.

----------------

The Caliph's son wanted for nothing. In preparation for bed, his three bed-servants cleansed his skin with sand and rubbed his body smooth with scented oils. After carefully removing the complex wrappings around his head, they pulled his hair back and straight, and rinsed his head with pure water. Their strong hands knew where to find any strain or knot in the young man's muscles, and they moved with a sure precision that belied their great beauty and distinct breeding.

To most men, it would be paradise, but the experience lost a bit of luster to one who knew that the three bed-servants were actually part of the Caliph's personal guard. As chaste members of the deadly sect descended from the daughters of the Old Man of the Mountain, they were capable of bringing death to a man in a hundred different and horrible ways. For the Caliph's son, much in life was like a rotten fruit: an attractive outside could hide the unhealthy truth. Beneath the luxury lay a life of seclusion and predictability. It was enough to drive a young man mad - and now that Caliph's only son was cleansed and ready, he reasoned that the only logical thing to do was to get dirty again.

Of course, getting dirty could be a difficult prospect for the son of the Caliph, especially when, in his haste to escape into the night, he did not bother to use one of the palace's secret passages. Much better, he thought as he stepped out onto the balcony, to feel the wind in his face as he slipped off to explore.

"My Lord!"

The prince turned so swiftly that the young woman behind him nearly dropped her water-pot. "What are you doing out of your chambers?"

The prince smiled. He knew the servant girl to be Lahiri, one of the children of the common families hired to clean the palace at night. Since she was not one of his father's enforcers, the girl would have no hope of stopping him from leaving. In fact, he was surprised she had gathered the courage to even address him. Still, there would be no harm in having some fun with her. Lahiri was certainly pretty enough, if a bit plain in the face.

Stepping dangerously close to the servant girl, far closer than propriety would allow, the prince cocked an eyebrow. Lahiri could feel his breath on her cheek as he whispered to her, "Lahiri, be a dear and do not tell anyone that I've left." He slid behind the girl, his hands hovering over the silks she wore around her full hips, and whispered in her other ear. "I'll make sure you're... well rewarded... when I return in the morning."

Spinning out of the prince's reach, the girl took a step back, her eyes wide with fear. "But... the city is full of dangers, my Lord! Cults and murders and thieves and jinn... you could be hurt. You could die!"

The Caliph's son smiled rakishly and climbed into the sill. "I'm not worried about that, my flower. We will all die. All I fear is that I will leave no tales will worth telling."

Lahiri frowned, scrunching her nose and narrowing her eyes at the prince. "Who taught you such foolishness?"

"Why, my uncle, of course." Adnan's grin grew wilder. "He gave me more than just his name."

Then, in a single, smooth motion, Adnan leapt from the balcony. Lahiri gasped and took a step back, clenching her fists as she expected the worst. With a laugh, the Caliph's son caught one of the tapestries hung suspended from the balcony and swung into the cool night.

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A small cloud of sand appeared on the horizon, and Moto Jochi's scowl remained unchanged. The Yodatai was late. He had better things to do than sit and contemplate his reflection in the waters of the oasis. In fact, he would have preferred not to see his reflection at all, but Jochi was not one to avoid contemplating his own imperfections. If only he were more like his father Ambaghai tall and strong, a proper leader for his tribe. His mother claimed Jochi resembled his grandfather Khaidu, the first great Trader-Khan of the Ujik-Hai, but that was small comfort. Jochi's crooked smile would never win him a woman, his nose was too large for his face, and his short legs made traveling on the great steeds of his people difficult.

The Yodatai rode with the confidence of one who was used to traveling across the hazardous sands, guiding his horse around the slippery dunes, moving towards the oasis at a steady clip. When he finally arrived, Jochi was surprised to see that the rider was an old man, thin with age, his white-gold hair curling sparsely around his head. His profile, once likely very striking, had softened, but there was nothing clouding his cold, metallic blue eyes eyes as the same color as the mail he wore. The old Yodatai nodded to Jochi and dismounted with only a little effort. He stood before the Moto and bowed, then offered his open hand in greeting, in the same manner of Jochi's tribe.

Jochi clasped the soldier's hand tentatively, and a smile appeared on the old man's face. "I am Phyrrus," he said in a heavily accented form of the Moto tongue, "I thank your people for agreeing to escort me to your lands of birth."

Jochi's scowl did not change. "Do not think I am doing you a favor. I am required by tribal law to visit my cousin in his Empire, to learn from his great tribe. I am told they are thousands upon thousands. I am simply allowing you to follow me there, provided you can keep up."

Phyrrus nodded and turned to lead his horse to drink. "It has been many a year since I fought alongside your fathers at the great City. I see the manner of your people is as sharp as ever. It is most good to see some of the things that will never change."

Jochi did not turn to face the Yodatai. "My fathers did not fight at your side. My people were the ones who realized that Kiyoshi's blind ambition would shatter the Clan. My grandfather was always faithful to his brother, Gaheris."

The Yodatai slid out of his heavy mail and placed it in a pouch on his saddle. "Yes, but without the attack, your Goddess would still be in the Earth, no?" Phyrrus cocked his head to one side and scratched his nose before turning back to the Moto. "Still, you are right. I met your Kiyoshi. He was a fat, stupid idiot. Ate all our dates."

Jochi could not help but chuckle. "So, why are you curious to visit the great Empire of my ancestors? Surely you are not planning on testing our defenses and reporting to your greedy masters?"

Phyrrus climbed back onto his horse and looked back across the dunes, presumably in the direction of his homeland. "No. They are too busy with the Senpet to worry about conquering new lands. The savages seem too fond of their death-gods, despite our just rule. Beside, the wife of my heart is dead. I have no more thirst for war or armies. I seek only to repay debt before joining her."

Jochi thought for a moment. "What can you hope to give my ancestors' Empire to repay their aid? You are not carrying much on that horse."

Phyrrus shook his head. "The debt is not with your Empire. It is owed to the Astronomers and their little prophet. I am not to be giving gifts. It is the opposite. I am taking something."

Phyrrus looked at Jochi from the corner of his eye, meeting the Moto's quizzical glare with a stern nod.

"I am going to your Empire to retrieve Duqaq's son."

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The Last Scribe lowered his quill for a moment and looked across time. The tale was not yet finished to the contrary, it had just begun but it was not yet time to detail the conclusion. There were other tales to tell first, other heroes and villains to illustrate.

There was much to do, much to say, and little time before the City of One Thousand Stories would again be shaken by conflict&

TO BE CONTINUED AT GENCON 2006


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!