Under the cover of night with the moon still below the horizon, Sarkan approached his small hut across a field of dying, untended rye in the starlight. There were no signs agents of the Priesthood were lying in wait, and he would have been surprised if such effort were wasted on him. Exiting the field and crossing the yard, Sarkan strode straight past the hut door to the nearby well. He drew up the pail and gulped down the cool water greedily. Sated, he made his way to the door and lifted the simple latch, quietly slipping inside. Feeling his way through the pitch black to the shelf for the flint-piece, Sarkan found the oil lantern and prepared to strike the tool with the attached steel rod.
[i]That would not be wise. I am sure your absence is well known. Or would you like to have curious neighbors investigating your return?[/i]
“There are things I must gather before we move on and I cannot do it in the dark. We will not get far without coin and me half-dressed, looking like an escaped slave.”
[i]Fine. Then close your eyes, and empty your mind. Think of nothing but the room around you. Picture it in your mind as you left it. Keep your eyes closed and I will lend you mine.[/i]
After a moment of rising protest, Sarkan did as instructed. It took a few minutes to focus on the mental image of the single-room hut, but as he cleared his mind his surroundings became clear to him: the simple bed in the corner with the crude wooden table beside it, the well-worn rug on the flagstone floor before them, the modest central table with accompanying chairs, and the shelves along the wall with the stone water basin and pail. In the corner opposite the bed, an iron rod was propped near the hearth for the cooking fire. Eyes remaining closed, Sarkan moved towards the rod and his perspective shifted accordingly. It was a most peculiar sensation, but he saw as though through his own eyes. He felt a surreal detachment as it occurred to him that he now shared a tangible connection with a spirit from the void.
Taking the heavy rod in both hands, Sarkan swept the rug away with his foot and placed the tapered end at the edge of a flagstone. Prying the stone upwards, he revealed a small cavity dug into the flooring. Tucked away inside the recess a leather pouch, a few scrolls and a number of severely worn books were neatly organized into the space. Daecora heard the unmistakable clatter of coins as Sarkan lifted the leather pouch, but the books especially piqued her curiosity.
[i]How interesting. I suppose you can actually interpret the scribbling in the pages, or are they full of drawings showing you how to plant crops?[/i] Daecora inquired with a mischievous tone.
“Do not mock me, spirit. Many are in the trade language, which I can read just fine. A few of the others are in languages from the northern lands, some from the east. I know a man, a merchant that travels through the great trade routes. He leaves old books for me when he is finished and no longer wishes to carry them on his journeys. Some are his own writings about his travels, and he has taught me a little of the outland languages over the years.”
[i]I do not mock you. I am impressed, I may have more to work with than I first thought. Yet you hide these books in the floor. Why is this?[/i]
“The Priesthood has banned all written materials and records in possession by the lower castes. They are afraid for us to know of the outside lands, I think. Or perhaps they believe we will not realize we are being robbed blind by the Noble’s taxes if we do not have records.”
[i]They fear that you will gain the same knowledge they possess. But you will not need priestly scrolls or the writings of traveling merchants to overcome them – not with my aid. It is good that you value knowledge, however. We will have much to learn before we can locate the Ascero Obis. And I will take you places with more writings than you have ever imagined.[/i]
As Daecora spoke to him, Sarkan proceeded to fill a small pack. With his eyes still closed for the benefit of her sight, he took two sets of pants and shirts from the small chest at the foot of the bed, placing one set in the pack and changing into the other. There was no food in the hut due to his long absence, but the coin would see to that need. The few fruits of the desert he had found during his flight from the excavation site had sustained him, but he was in desperate need of a good meal. Adding the flint-piece to the bag, Sarkan returned to the recess in the floor and paused in thought. Finally he selected one of the books and closed the pack. He doubted he would return to the hut, but he replaced the flagstone and rug anyway and returned the iron rod to its corner.
[i]Why do you take that one?[/i]
“It is a story about a man of the north who protects his people from three great beasts. These beasts are fearsome, and few stand with him over the years, yet he succeeds in overcoming the challenges through honor and strength, and the bonds of kinship with his men.”
[i]He must have been very brave and powerful indeed, this noble man.[/i]
“In the end he dies from his efforts, but he succeeds in vanquishing the beasts and his people honor him eternally. He delivered them from a life of continual fear and hardship.”
[i]And you wish to do the same for your people?[/i]
“I have never considered it before,” Sarkan said thoughtfully. “A few of us assigned to work in this area have talked about leaving – setting off for better lands outside Stygia, but never taking a stand against the priests. They are too many, and wield terrible power none of us could ever hope to overcome. I have seen men set afire from a distance, or possessed and made to slaughter their own families before being sacrificed to Set.”
“But leaving these lands is not easy,” Sarkan continued. “My kind cannot travel freely without the blessings of those above us, or enter the great cities without business there. The Nobles want us to toil for them, but they do not want us near them or to reap the benefits of our labor. But the stories of distrust for our race reach our ears. We know that crossing the Styx into the northern lands or trekking to the east could lead to a quick death. The southern lands are wild and savage. There is no place for us to go that guarantees a better life,” Sarkan finished, lost in thought. “Setting off across the desert without a destination is not wise. How do you intend to track down the missing Obis?”
[i]As I said before, we must acquire knowledge of its travels through your history while I slept, imprisoned in its twin. Even during my time the Ocul Tritae were lost in obscurity. Few knew of them or how to use them properly, but there were bloodlines that passed the artifacts down through the ages in an effort to ward evil. But first, we must prepare you for this journey. We will need a competent apothecary.[/i]
“Then we should head for Caravanserai, though this idea of strength though death does not sit well with me. There have been days when I would welcome death, but your claims of latent power are foreign to me. Until the day before, I had no dealings with the arcane. Now you are asking me to trust my life to you, some voice in my head.”
[i]Then let us not call it death. Think of it simply as a deep sleep from which you will awake. We are bound, you and I. You have released me from my prison and I can trust no other. Though I am indeed powerful through knowledge, my spirit is weak and vulnerable. Once I prepare you, we will begin to eliminate that weakness, however. I selected you because I knew you would not betray me to the priests. We have a common enemy, you and I. So do not worry so much for your fate, you are under my protection now.[/i]
Sarkan shouldered the pack and latched the hut door behind him. “As you say, Daecora. To Caravanserai then.”
– – –
The town had begun as a simple oasis, a place for merchants to stop for shade and water and perhaps make a sale to those living in the region. Eventually the stops became regular. Structures were built, people began to depend on the availability of supplies, and some created permanent stores. Now Caravanserai existed as a bustling market, supplied by the river trade from nearby Bubshur.
Sarkan made his way through the busy marketplace to the stand maintained by the local apothecary. He motioned for parchment and stylus, and ignored the curious looks of the old sand-worn man as he muttered for Daecora to repeat one of the many herbs and quantities she was rattling off to him. Handing back the list, Sarkan waited for nearly an hour as the old man prepared the mixture. When he returned, the alchemist was given a significant amount of Sarkan’s coin in exchange for a sealed gourd containing a fine, light green powder.
Travel during the midday was harsh, and seeking to profit from this, an enterprising merchant had established a number of hammocks draped under the shelter of the palms and within a low-walled patio. For a small fee, one could nap during the hottest hours and resume travel as the sun slipped to the horizon. After parting with more coin, Sarkan made his way back to a far corner, away from the few customers already present.
Following Daecora’s instructions, Sarkan placed a small amount of the greenish powder in his palm and ingested it. The taste was bitter and acidic, and he immediately began to feel lightheaded. Using his pack for a pillow, he leaned back into the low hammock. He again questioned his trust for this spirit, but that was irrelevant now. As a sleep deeper than any he had ever known overtook him, all sound in his world ceased and he felt a relaxation he had never dreamed existed. Then all was silent, impenetrable, darkness.
– – –
The song of crickets entered his mind. Sarkan blinked and the darkness around him frightened him at first. Despite Daecora’s assurances that no harm would come to him, he was sure he was blinded somehow. He sat up quickly and disrupted the balance of the hammock, which swiftly rolled him to the dirt floor.
Spitting dust from his mouth, Sarkan looked up and saw the stars through the trees. With no shop to close down, the owner had been content to let Sarkan sleep through the day and left him to his slumber.
[i]As I told you, there was nothing to fear. [/i]
“I feel no different. What is this great power you have given me, spirit?” Sarkan asked, still groggy from the drug, but feeling completely refreshed. He could remember nothing of the past hours, however.
[i]I have given you no power yet, only prepared you to attain it. Your bloodline has no tendency towards the arcane, but I have remedied that. Now that your physical preparation is complete, we will begin work on the sprit. This will take far longer, but I sense a great potential within you. Your mind is sharp but without training. We will add discipline and knowledge.[/i]
“You mean we will have to do this again? I must die over and over?”
[i]Yes, you will sleep for now. Perhaps as your discipline grows you will be able to simply enter a trance. I can teach you this, but it is ultimately up to your abilities. For me to influence your spiritual energy, it must be fully released – either through death or through complete openness to my presence through your willingness. But for now this method is most efficient. The death is painless and presents no damage to the physical body.[/i]
“I do not understand what I gain through this. You continue to promise me knowledge and strength, yet I only have more questions than answers.”
[i]Do not be hasty in this transcendence. The gifts I can give you will provide great power, but to rush to them would mean your destruction. Some priests can sense the gift in others, and for us to pass through the streets of Khemi, you must not draw attention. You know better than I that a priest detecting the gift in a passing peasant would lead to a very unpleasant death. And if you die outside the realm of my influence, we are both lost. No, we will be cautious until we leave Stygia, but for now we must make our way to the port.[/i]