Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.
Last time, our heroes were engaged in preparations for their trip to the slave trafficking M’bulazi tribe’s fortress. Ahead of them was no easy task, as their destination was in the midst of the powerful clan’s tribal territory, and the journey would disprove an old cliché: Getting there isn’t, in fact, any of the fun at all.
Kishtari awoke to the scent of cooked food, having fallen asleep in the comfort of Ewandabe’s living room. The man was harboring a fugitive slave, a scared boy named Watende. The farmer would not even let the sheriff near the boy, so it fell upon Kish and her particular powers of persuasion to get the cranky farmer to give up his charge for questioning. This was the psion’s kind of work. Kishtari had mollified the farmer’s mind to make him more cooperative. But exhaustion had claimed her before the kalashtar could convince Ewandabe to let her interview his charge.
When the psion awoke, Ewandabe was sitting on a chair next to her, smiling, but so was his wife, not so smiling. “Husband! Why is this strange girl still here?” The farmer simply laughed her off and turned his attentions back to his sleeping guest.
“Sleepyhead! You missed my breakfast but I made you lunch!” The enchantment must surely have worn off by then, so Kishtari was fortunate that humans tended to follow through with notions they had of themselves—even if those notions were psionically imprinted.
By now, the word about town was that the visitors who’s rumbled with the Bekyar at Naga’s Notch hadn’t—as Sheriff Agata claimed—left the village. Kor’lec’s miracle with old Matumba had achieved mythological status by late morning. As a result, Ewandabe was more well-disposed to the idea of giving up Watende to Kishtari’s questioning.
The boy was young, a Zenj in his mid-teens, and horrifically abused. He was sullen and scared. But Kish was perfectly sympathetic, and soon the young herdsman was spilling his guts. He’d broken away from a line-up brought out to the front yard of the fortress after a visiting merchant had requested a slave for his orcish guards to entertain themselves with. His flight led him inside the curtain wall, where he hid throughout the day and climbed out a window at night by fashioning a rope from old linens he’d found. No, he didn’t see any sort of ghostly phenomena while he waited for night, but knew the guards refused to enter the wall for fear of it.
The frightened Zenj had heard that a few slaves over the years tried to escape from the well room in the southwest corner of the keep after being sent to retrieve water, and that the well connected to the moat outside. But also he heard that these would-be escapees never made it out that way, their bodies were always later fished out of the well when the water started tasting foul. The last thing Watende tried to recall was inside the lock-up, a “sound, a horrible drone, that never stopped and made us numb.”
For their cooperation, Kishtari gave twenty five gold crowns to Watende and Ewandabe’s family, an ample sum that would see all of the commoners through for years to come.
Back in the Saddle
Kish returned to Naga’s Notch and noticed Matumba tethered by a rope outside; which was a laughably absurd image because the huge animal could be chained to the inn itself and simply leave, trailing the building behind him. Someone had dropped off the howdah, too. Kor’lec came outside to meet her and affirmed that, yes, all those smiles and nods in Kish’s direction on the way meant they’d won the support of the villagers. Also, Matumba was to be called “Professor Peanuts” from now on.
After Kishtari caught her friends up on what she learned from the fugitive slave, Kor’lec and the kalashtar shared a few words about his dream of the undead dragon Nymdragoth. Kishtari confirmed that the horned blue dragons of her homeworld were the defenders of Adar, the mountainous sanctuary of her race and others opposed to the tyranny of the Inspired. Kor’lec had reason to believe that the dream-linked villain might have been one of these guardians, somehow corrupted. The druid told Kish about the other aspects of his dream; the serpentfolk, the forces fighting them, etc.
Though all would have preferred more time to recuperate and equip, time was of the essence. The Bekyar would eventually catch wind that Suum’tero’s citizens had gotten behind the foreigners. The next few hours were spent in preparation for the journey. Kish and Dornas repaired the howdah, and Kor’lec cleaned the local greengrocer out of the few hundred pounds of produce Professor Peanuts would nom on during travel. Monica was nearly done combining her pistols together to fashion a new double-barreled firearm, though she’d need to polish it up on the trip. Having a notion to infiltrate the fort as slave-buyers, the group purchased Kelesh-style outfits for Dornas, Kish, and Monica.
By late afternoon, they were ready to go, traveling like emperors on the back of mighty Professor Peanuts.
For about 3 hours.
After a few hours of travel out of the swamps of Suum’tero and into the highlands of M’bulazi territory, the wild mastodon turned ornery; annoyed with the howdah and the several hundred pounds of riders and supplies strapped upon him. Kor’lec attempted to regain control of the creature, but even with Kishtari’s psionic manipulations, Professor Peanuts refused to proceed with the load upon him. The embittered druid and his companions left the stubborn old pachyderm behind, dragging their gear along on foot.
Village to Pillage
A short time after the first rains of the afternoon, the travelers came upon an M’bulazi village. The first of the Bekyar they saw were children playing in the puddles of the cowpath. The kids already bore some of the scarification and tattoos characteristic of the tribe, along with filed teeth. Upon seeing the Castaways, the children fled back to the hedge-walled huts and called out an alarm. The heroes waited on the trail and braced themselves for a confrontation, all agreeing they weren’t in the mood for any bullshit from these terrible people.
Those who answered the kids’ alarm were a handful of elderly or crippled men, and some women, implying that hale males worked up in the fortress. Still, the villagers bore spears and clubs. One of these old guys was the village headman, who didn’t feel the need to introduce himself. The Castaways responded to the affront in kind, by getting right down to business. “We want to trade for some of your draft animals,” referring to the big atlas asses they’d seen corralled next to village, “and for you to get out of our way.” The adventurers offered the plentiful bounty of produce they were hauling.
The headman laughed at the absurdity of the offer. “We don’t like these foods much, and also bananas depreciate in value much faster than donkeys.” Then came the bullshit that the party were now even less in the mood for. The headman explained that some warriors from the fortress came through earlier, and that they were told to keep an eye out for a group of foreigners who looked a lot like the travelers. “So we are thinking,” said the headman, “that you shouldn’t pass.”
The Castaways started to draw weapons when the headman whistled toward the huts. The children returned, and the villagers scooped them up in their arms while leveraging their spears toward the travelers. “We think you’ll turn back now,” said the total piece-of-shit headman. But Tyst, who’s snuck past the wall of gall already, let them know that one way or another, they were getting by. At that point, three of the villagers buckled at the knees to take a nap right there in the mud. Kish followed her minor display of power with a threat, “we can do a lot more and worse.”
Sufficiently cowed, the villagers allowed the Castaways to take the asses they needed, and a nice wagon that was just sitting there, unused, in someone’s garage. They generously left the elephant food and a few crowns. The emasculated headman had a little cheek left. “You go to kill M’kessa?” he mocked, referring to the M’bulazi’s queen, “you will die.” Then added, “she is a goddess in flesh, the chosen of Lamashtu.”
“Pfft,” spat Kor’lec, “How many gods have we killed, now?”
Somewhat sheepishly, the headman asked, “if you succeed, what becomes of us?”
“Happy trails!” returned the party, in some form another.
“Insult,” the headman muttered, snatching the precious stone, “charity from a goblin.” He made a gesture to toss Likki’s gift into the jungle, then saw that the goblin’s friends would likely make certain his head followed it. The guy simply turned his back without another word, gem in hand, and returned to his hut. With that, the party’s business with these horrible people was concluded.
The Slaver’s Stockade
By the next day of their journey, the sweltering jungle had broken into scrub, and the high hills of M’bulazi-land were studded with buttes, carved by a maze of waterways with deep ravines and gulches. The Castaways followed the old slaver’s road to a hill crest, and from there saw that the road turned and twisted down and back around to a box canyon, following a stream that had sculpted the terrain in ages of yore. Within the dead-end valley squatted the fortress of the slavers atop a low, broad mesa, forcing the waterway to either side of it. This gave the stockade the advantage of a natural moat and embankment.
It was also huge.
The old Chelish ediface sprawled roughly three acres, occupying the entire top of the butte. It was single story, save for a central guardtower, a more recent addition of wood, the original gatehouse, and the curtain wall. It had suffered—and lost—from some historic battle, apparently, as the roofs looked to have been recently replaced with not-as-flammable-as-it-seemed mud and thatch, and the walls of the bailey and forecourt were but a rampart of wooden stakes approximately twenty feet high. The rampart surrounded the keep as well, suggesting that at least some of the main structure’s original stone walls were likewise damaged.
With his spyglass, Kor’lec noted at least two dozen soldiers on just the rampart, more on the roofs of the gatehouse and curtain wall, and worst of all, two arbalests with crews on either of the gatehouse towers. This was going to be tougher than they thought…
The Castaways agreed to stick to the infiltration plan. Kor’lec changed into a hawk, while Tyst assumed dire badger form. As animals, the two shapeshifters would infiltrate the curtain wall. Kish, Dornas, and Monica, in their Kelish garb, led the wagon up the road to the front gate of the fortress. Two M’bulazi tribesmen armed with bows were stationed on the roof above the drawbridge. These informed the travelers that the stockade typically did not engage in direct sales of chattel, unless one intended to purchase the expensive “custom” creations of M’kessa herself. Pretending to “translate” for Dornas’ faux-Kelish babble, Kishtari successfully convinced the gate guards that they were indeed wealthy merchants from Casmaron who’d heard tell of the slaver queen’s marvelous offerings. Kish humbly apologized for being unfamiliar with the protocols. “But we’ve come a long way…”
After a minute, the drawbridge lowered and the Castaways led their caravan beyond. At the same time, Kor’lec and Tyst rendezvoused in the derelict interior of the curtain wall. From there, the shapeshifters kept watch on the bailey through the arrow slits.
Meanwhile, forces arrayed on the wall and, presumably, on and inside the larger gatehouse cordoning the bailey from the inner courtyard, mobilized. The guard who’d lowered the drawbridge said he’d get a representative to speak with the Castaways.
Lion Through Their Teeth
After a few minutes of awkward small talk with one of the guards, an underling of M’kessa’s presented herself. She was a tiefling, didn’t look at all affable, and interestingly, came through a hidden garage-style door that led into a stable within the gatehouse. She wasn’t alone. As foretold by the party’s interrogation of the sleeping slaver in Suum’tero, the demon-blooded woman was attended by three lions. One of the feline beasts, a male, was a bit smaller than the two females, though no less ferocious in mien, and seemed to drift in and out of reality as if he were made of spectral smoke. The spirit creature’s eyes glinted with malice and intelligence, and he immediately went sniffing about the Castaways’ wagon.
The tiefling introduced herself as Gulyet, M’kessa’s apprentice. Her strange companion was called Azange. The woman repeated the reproach of the guards, that the fortress didn’t normally engage in trade, its purpose was to “process” slaves for market in Suum’tero, and only her mistress’s “special wares” were exchanged here by arrangement. While the heroes tried to convince the tiefling that they were indeed interested in these “special wares,” Gulyet was skeptical, returning their inquiries with her own questions about who they were and whom referred them. Azange circled the visitor’s wagon. “I smell a goblin,” growled the beast in perfect Taldane.
Likki appeared. “Yes, he is a servant,” Kish explained.
“Where is his collar,” the lion-spirit asked.
“He does not require one,” the disguised kalashtar replied. Like a ghost through a gauze curtain, Azange pushed his leonine head into the wagon, then out. “You have a tamed raptor. Intriguing. I see no shackles, nothing to bind your purchases? I smell only manure and feed. Sure you are slave merchants?”
It was starting to come apart. Well, at least they made it into the bailey. Unfortunately, outer courtyards were called “killing grounds” for a reason, and the archers on and within the walls around them were reaching for arrows. From their hiding place, Kor’ec and Tyst saw the time was coming. The werebadger tensed and flexed his claws. Kor’lec quickly cooked up a spellcasting strategy.
Gulyet stated that M’kessa’s custom slaves were expensive, and asked to see what the travelers brought. When the Castaways opened their purses, she threw her head back and cackled. “Pittance! That will buy you a few galley slaves or ploughmen. We have a market for peons in Suum’tero. You haven’t enough to do business here.”
Kishtari was getting fed up with the charade—and had less to recommend of their host’s customer service skills. “Perhaps you overestimate the value of your wares.”
The tiefling stopped laughing. “Insolent fool,” she hissed, “my mistress’s creations command tens of thousands in the Fleshfairs of the East.” Gulyet turned back toward the door and ordered the nearby guard, “give them two minutes. If they don’t leave, kill them all.”
Monica threw back the robes of her disguise, pointed her gun at the strutting demon-spawn’s back, and pulled the trigger. A bullet left a chamber, lions prepared to pounce, nearly fifty bowstrings stretched, and a shot echoed around the slaver’s stockade—signalling a characteristic campaign cliffhanger…