Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.
When we last left our heroes, the night was winding down as they, or most of them, were entranced by the sultry slithering dance of the Naga’s Notch inn’s star attraction: Satanica! Whether this entrancement was owed the exotic dancer by virtue of her talent, her considerable assets, or because Satanica performed with a powerful python as if they were one sensual entity; varied. The Castaways had plenty of reasons to assume the worst when serpents had the spotlight.
One big exception was Kor’lec, who’d decided to call it a night. Few of his teammates would understand his desire to free himself from the noise of the crowd, the glare of the colored lamps, the stink of smoke, spirits, and sweat. The druid slipped away without a word when the lights dimmed and was long gone before the inn’s dancer and her pet python could have his scrutiny. Kor’lec escaped to the night’s solace to check on Kai, and to fall asleep—and dream—to the symphony of the swamp that surrounded Suum’tero on three sides, while the ocean beat a rhythm on the forth…
…and also to leave his companions to pick up the check. This particular bill being owed for snubbing the shaman Se’enga earlier on in the night.
A few in the party noticed the juju wendifa near the exit, speaking to five big Bekyar tribesmen. Se’enga was making a great show of being excessively hurt, and limply gestured to the Castaways when one of the men said “who?” through gritted, sharpened teeth.
As the band played on and Satanica danced, the men approached the party’s table, surrounded the table next to theirs, and demanded the patrons there find someplace else to sit. The tavern guests did as instructed with heads held low. The Bekyar sat in the vacated seats and kept on glaring angrily at the party. Finally someone asked the goons what they wanted.
They Bekyar all got up, cracked their knuckles and flexed their pecs. Beneath their hide vests, the tribesmen’s endomorphic bodies bore scars and tribal piercings that looked like they should have torn asunder when the muscles behind them bulged. The Castaways noted they were armed with cat-lashes, short spears, and had tall, rawhide shields strapped to their backs. The music started to come apart as the band fumbled with their instruments, and the dancer’s concentrated aplomb had likewise cracked. Sensing things were about to get all kinds of messy, Likki bounded back over to his friends. Eyes in the bar began to wander over to the confrontation, a few patrons made their way to the exit, while most waited with baited breath for the bonus entertainment.
“Mind your business fat man,” the Bekyar warrior warned, “you know the consequences if you don’t.” Rashoom froze.
Dornas continued sipping his drink, ignoring the Bekyar. Monica shrugged, one hand gently moving to her spell pouch, the other to the handle of her gun. Likki checked to see if his scarves were still wrapped around his face, in case they were referring to him. Kishtari was pretty tanked but attempted to stand with all the sober poise she could muster.
“I asked you something,” growled the thug, pushing Kish back down to her chair. With his hand. On her shoulder.
Kishtari’s companions, who understood what the rapidly intensifying treble that emanated from nowhere and everywhere meant; winced, braced themselves, or shook their heads as if to say, “nice knowing you, dude…”
The Bekyar goon simply winked out of existence with a slurping pop as air rushed to fill the vacuum.
The band came to a dead stop, a few more patrons hustled to the door, and the Bekyar, after a second spent processing what was, to all appearances, their tribemate’s instant annihilation, reached for their spears.
Kish noticed Se’enga sashaying out the front door. Oh hells no. She assured her friends that she’d “just” shunted the thug forward in time one minute. “He’ll be back,” the kalashtar added, then vanished into the exiting crowd, utilizing a knack for escape she mastered as a Riddleport guttersnipe. The four remaining hoodlums cried for blood and began stabbing wildly with their shortspears.
Tyst and his henchmen—Nine-toes, Ratty, Farqaad, and Chris—finished unloading the Freedom’s cargo. All the while, Tyst insisted that the sailors would make a great living selling the dreamshit right here in Suum’tero, maybe even set up a den or something! Ratty had drawn the short straw and had to tell the cheerful halfling, on behalf of the foursome, that they’d rather just find work on another ship. “Mind you, sir,” qualified Ratty, “this was their idea. I would have been perfectly happy working for you…”
The others kvetched and ragged Ratty to simply state what they all agreed. The sailor continued, “but we four have to stick together, see, so we’d appreciate it, if you don’t mind sir, just letting us go?”
“You don’t want to be my friend?” Tyst wondered, ostensibly heartbroken. Ratty leapt to the halfling assassin’s side and scolded the other three, expressing that he was ashamed of them for hurting their new master’s feelings. Nine-toes emptied his bowels in his britches for the second time that night, and started to cry. “He’ll never let us get away!” the soiled smuggler lamented.
“No, its all right,” Tyst conceded with heavy heart, shooing the henchmen off. “If that’s what you want. But you better be good, and not a word of what you saw tonight.” The four crooks all swore they were on the strait-and-narrow from now on, and that they’d certainly be thanking the gods for their good fortune. They’d been slowly backing up to the warehouse entryway, and ran for their fool lives as soon as the werebadger’s quivering eyes wandered elsewhere.
Tyst’s ears picked up a commotion outside. The music at the inn nearby had stopped. People were murmuring about a fight. It was time for him to do a badass thing he’d always wanted to do, and the lycanthrope’s hallmark smile returned with a vengeance.
Back at the taproom, the Castaways had their hands full with the Bekyar thugs. The tribesmen were crude but skillful fighters, and weren’t going down quickly or easily. Then the saloon doors flew open with a crack, and all eyes turned to face the entryway. Nobody saw anything, though, until their gaze shifted down to the bald, creepily grinning halfling. Tyst rolled up his green sleeves to unveil hirsute arms as stone-thewed as any human bodybuilder’s. Noticing that weapons were drawn—and of course his new friends were involved—Tyst’s smile grew wider, and the compact little terror deftly skipped into the fray, his short blade in hand in an impossible flash.
Dornas calmly sipped his drink as his hair lashed out and slugged a guy in the gut. When the same thug leapt atop the table to skewer the magus, Dornas—and his chair—floated up over the melee. Dornas remained seated coolly as his flailing coiffe did the heavy lifting—flipping the table, its contents, and his aggressor, to the sticky floor.
Monica lashed her bullwhip, attempting to pull the thugs off balance. But the Bekyar kept their feet, dextrously dodging the lash. Engaged fully with Monica, Dornas, and Likki, the four goons were easy prey for Tyst, who’d feinted down and popped up to bury his wakizashi in a hoodlum’s liver. The tribesman squealed, pivoted and gouged Tyst’s upper arm with a spearpoint. Tyst looked at the gash, smelled the tinge of iron in the blood. His expression turned sour and he doubled over like he’d been poisoned. The halfling’s flesh started to throb as his bones and muscles wrestled to rearrange themselves. The change was upon him—and an involuntary transformation meant that the beast within wouldn’t recognize friend from foe. Anyone would be a threat to his animal mind. And all Suum’tero would know there was a monster on the loose, and who’d brought it.
Meanwhile, the bar’s staff and some other patrons were doing their best to try to distract, talk down, or hold back the vicious Bekyar thugs; but they were out for blood, cursing and threatening potential meddlers with deadly force.
Monica chanted a spell and flicked out a pinch of powder. A blanket of glittering motes enshrouded the goons and stuck in their eyes. The spell was well timed. Most of the tavern’s guests had fled or were looking out the window at something even more fantastic happening outside. With remaining eyes on the coruscant cloud and the struggling Bekyar, few noticed the first few milliseconds of Tyst’s metamorphosis. Monica, Dornas, and Likki had little idea what to do except try to end the fight and escape, leaving Tyst’s fate uncertain. Unexpectedly, Satanica slid down from the stage using her python as a ramp, yanked a linen off a nearby table, and tossed it over the halfling.
“He’ll be safe,” the woman said, “finish them, but don’t kill them.”
“How can we trust you?” someone asked. “You trust him?” the dancer replied, gesturing to the growling, cracking bulge under the tablecloth. Touché. At that, Satanica’s own body contorted and shifted into a finely scaled and sinewy musculature. She quickly looped the linen around Tyst into a makeshift sack and began chanting a soothing hymn. Tyst’s growling and movements slackened somewhat as the serpentine creature dragged him back behind the bar and into the kitchen.
“If you don’t trust her,” Rashoom said, kayoing the last standing Bekyar with a sap, “trust me. And help me clean this up.”
Kishtari caught up with Se’enga on the boardwalk not too far away. The psion asked her what the big idea was, siccing her boys on them. “I did no such thing,” said the imperious priestess. “My tribe-brothers simply wanted to know what was botherin’ me and I told them the half-elf refused my good-will.”
Se’enga bid Kish adieu and turned away. The wendifa’s path was blocked however, as Kish had all-but surrounded her with a barrier of pure sound. Se’enga turned to face the wall’s manifester. “Impressive. What do you want?” Kish demanded that the shaman call off her goons. “They are not mine to command,” stated Se’enga. “They are just protective. Now, let me go girl.”
Kish didn’t cancel the psionic barrier. Se’enga noted that there were villagers gathering about the pier and a crowd also watching from the inn’s front porch. The priestess repeated her command, accentuating the word “go” with divine authority. Kishtari felt the meager enchantment crumble before her alien mind, and so did Se’enga. But the six-foot-six priestess was a Bekyar and a warrior, and gambled that Kishtari’s body was easier to break than her mind. The onlookers gasped as the wendifa threw off her hide cloak, pulled a stone handaxe from her sash, and rushed the strange visitor.
Kishtari’s eyes crackled with electricity and a salvo of lightning burst from her body toward the Bekyar woman. The scintillating bolts struck the priestess and blasted her back into the sonic barrier. Kish’s eyes cleared to see the wall vibrate the flesh from the woman’s skeleton before the bones themselves disintegrated.
All in witness went dead silent. Even Kishtari was a little shocked. Then, the crowd’s susurration rose from nervous whispers to angry cries of “murderer!”
Kish turned to see the halfling with the red turban. Agata, she thought Kor’lec had called her. Suum’tero’s law-and-order. “Come with me if you want to live,” plainly stated the small woman. Agata held out her hand. Kish took it and the wiry halfling twisted her hand in a semblance of a joint lock, but bore no pressure. Pretending to arrest her, Agata explained that she was going to take her someplace safe.
The Village Underground
Meanwhile, at someplace safe, Tyst awoke to see Satanica, whose name was actually Samaritha, standing over him. “You know, you could have hurt a lot of innocent people,” the other shapeshifter scolded. Tyst was unmoved, and more than a little smitten by his sightly savior. Without missing a beat, the lycanthrope excitedly badgered her with questions, pausing only to flatter and flirt. Samaritha explained that the men who’d accosted his friends were of the M’bulazi tribe of Bekyar. They were slavers from the highlands who’d been doing business in Suum’tero for years. Business that she, and a few others, opposed. Samaritha went on to admit that she was descended from wereserpents and though she could not change into animal form, could partially shift. Quixla, the python, was her boon companion. She owned the Naga’s Notch and had an affection for her fellow “tribes of the moon.”
Monica, Dornas, and Likki helped Rashoom get the M’bulazi goons into their beds before the comedian directed them to the secret cellar beneath the inn’s kitchen. The spacious area was intended as another taproom but went unused save for a storeroom, and forgotten. Kishtari arrived thereafter, led by Red Agata through a passageway, a storm drain, from the beach. Monica had seen Se’enga’s death from the inn’s porch. “I thought she was more powerful!” Kish averred. Tyst let everyone know that he’d unequivocally decided to help the rebels get rid of the slavers. Tyst was not one for long (or short) debates when the course was clear (to him).
Monica argued that, though she wasn’t opposed, they had a pretty important undertaking already in regards to Saventh-Yhi and the serpentfolk’s agenda. When she mentioned the scaly race, looking square at Samaritha, the skinwalker spat and made a sign. Samaritha called them, “the forsaken.” Monica was relieved to see the reaction, and said out loud that they needed to discuss the yuan-ti further. The polymath and her fellow Taldan Dornas noted the crescent-shaped symbol on the foreheads of Samaritha and Quixla, but either supposed it was an esoteric curiosity.
The Castaways learned that, with Rashoom, Agata and Samaritha comprised the “rebellion” of Suum’tero that actively opposed the M’bulazi. “But we have many sympathizers,” Agata explained that some of her constables and villagers supported them. But all either feared the slavers, or relied on their tax revenue to pay off passing pirates and corrupt Senghori navy officials. Captain Massingale, the village leader, was a good man, the women pointed out, but he saw the M’bulazi as the lesser of two evils, and didn’t support making trouble for the powerful tribe.
Se’enga was Bekyar, but of a different tribe. Still, the M’bulazi adored her, and would seek vengeance for her death and their own embarrassment. Worse, the priestess was generally liked in the village for those who needed blessings or healing and followed juju. Samaritha said the slavers have made trouble for visitors before, and with Red’s help, they would claim that the party knocked out the slavers, rescued the telepath, and fled. But if the Castaways were to go after the slavers, they needed to lie low. “We’ve slept in worse places,” Dornas contended, in reference to the fact that the cellar was to be their home base while they made preparations. “But anything else you can offer that would be appreciated.”
“No payment necessary!” Tyst assured, “in fact, you can have the cargo of our ship, too, to help your town’s economic recovery after we take down the slavers!” Kish, naturally, disagreed. “Hey, you might be willing to risk your life for an admittedly fantastic set of tits, but I need something more concrete.” Samaritha looked at Red, and the halfling protested. “No! That’s evidence.” The skinwalker argued that the powerful items in the constable’s office vault weren’t doing anyone good just sitting there. The halfling relented, admitted it would take some finesse, but could probably spare one of the items she knew the nature and value of—a ring that afforded its wearer the friendship of natural beasts. Assuming they succeeded, anything else from evidence could be offered in trade for the party’s cargo, which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to exchange for its full value. And of course, anything they took from the M’bulazi was theirs.
But Donas had been referring mostly to information, and Samaritha added that the slavers had a veritable fortress in the midst of their territory, an old Chelaxian garrison. There, in addition to breaking captives, the M’bulazi also worshiped Lamashtu, a monstrous demon goddess. Monica informed everyone that goddess’s faithful were known to sacrifice infants in their unspeakable rites. But the Castaways were already sold on taking them down.
There were two more potential sources of intelligence. A young man had somehow escaped the slaver fortress and was hiding in the village. A farmer by the name of Ewandabe and his family had taken the boy in. The boy, Watende, was rightfully scared for his life and Ewandabe was very protective of his charge. The second were the M’bulazi sleeping off their drugged cocktails upstairs.
With not a small amount of trickery and finagling the party managed to sneak one of the M’bulazi down to the secret sanctuary. After securing him and coaxing him out to partial wakefulness, Kish found that his mind, even in semi-consciousness, resisted revealing details of the slaver’s stockade. That is, until an enchantment from Monica opened him like a book. He offered details about its fortifications. He knew the camp was defended by over thirty men, and the tribe had allied with a pack of gnolls as well. Any number of jackal shamans from the tribe’s surrounding territory could be visiting the fort. Dire jackals and hyenas roamed freely, and it was rumored that other monsters prowled the shadows.
The fort commander was a blind yet unequaled warrior named Icar. He had a sidekick, a jungle ogre that Icar won in battle. The commander was seen more often, but second to the leader of the slavers, a dread priestess of Lamashtu named M’kessa. It was believed she laid with beasts and mothered half-animal children who guarded the dungeons. Sometimes these damned offspring were sold to visiting slave merchants. The M’bulazi thug hadn’t personally seen the dungeon but knew M’kessa and her apprentice, a tiefling named Gulyet, laired there. Gulyet was always attended by lions she’d tamed, and protected by the ghost of a lion. There was also an old diamond mine below the stockade, the reason the Chelaxians built the garrison in the first place.
When asked about weaknesses, the slaver admitted the M’bulazi, like most Bekyar, considered themselves superior to all other creatures and were loath to ally with creatures like gnolls. Last, there were several areas of the stockade that the slavers refused to go into. The interior of the curtain wall and the northwest wing of the keep were haunted.
That gave the adventurers a lot to chew over, and they soon began forming preliminary plans. Still, they had the escaped slave Watende to chat with. Red let the group know it wouldn’t be easy, as Ewandabe was standoffish even before he began harboring a fugitive. The sheriff couldn’t blame him, the man had a family and they were all at risk if the M’bulazi discovered them.
The Castaways insisted on heading over to Ewandabe’s hut to try reasoning with him. It ws early morning, no one in the group had slept in over 24 hours of sea voyage, unloading cargo, partying at the inn… not to mention a few bloody battles thrown in. Sheriff Red accompanied them, and they all moved carefully to avoid those already getting ready for work. Tyst took animal form. Ewandabe’s place was a wide and tall mudbrick circle with a conical thatch roof. Upon knocking, the party were confronted by an angry middle-aged farmer who was already sick of the halfling sheriff calling to disturb him.
Tyst, for mysterious reasons and still trotting about as a dire honey badger, thought to barge into Ewandabe’s home. Naturally, the man reacted like any farmer with a family to protect in a setting where dangerous predators posed a real threat. He grabbed a club off a hook by the door and raised it against the creature. Tyst growled and tried to bite him in retaliation. Before the entire thing became a fiasco (and a lost opportunity) the party pulled Tyst back outside.
“All of you! Get off my property!” Ewandabe hollered, waving his club. His expression suddenly softened. “Except for you,” he said to Kishtari. “For some reason, I’d love for you to join me and my family for breakfast. I play the violin, too. Would you like to hear a song I wrote?” Kish allowed the man to take her hand and lead her inside, sparing her teammates an irreverent wink before the door closed.