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Stock and Trade: Journeys Across Thule


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THE SHRINE AT SHUQUON

(Draft, set when Malok is level 3)

The sea traders guild hall of Quodeth was famous for its bitter ale and thick fadjo smoke, one didn't really need to pay for a hooka if one didn't care about sampling the various flavors of smoke hanging in thick clouds. Perhaps the ale wouldn't even taste the same were it not for the decades of smoke seasoning traders had wrought on those brew casks along the back wall. Malok drew in the cool apple smoke, bubbling the honey water of the table pipe and deeply enjoying the relaxed tingle of his lungs. He only sipped at his ale enough to seem a drinker.   

"Those damned curs, sailing that half-splintered wreck and getting the kivas contract for the outer camps again?  roared Gurnsbeck, a middle aged red haired Nimodian trader who sat around the table in the smoky guild hall. He put in his chips to match the bid for this hand and took a long swig of his ale. 

"Indeed, the oh so illustrious crew has some sort of blessing from the Nine, though likely it was by the black touch of Nergal that these brigands have made so many contacts across the guild councils." quipped Malok as he raised stakes and held his face in a stony bluff.

Hand after hand, bowl after bowl, he smoked, played, and occasionally sipped. He laid out silver for the ale of others and for the small stakes, he lost a few coin here and there. He was not a good gambler in truth, but that was not his aim. The loose lips of his fellow traders and the crewman in this harbor bar yielded many secrets about his quarry. 

"Yah know, the captain of that stink pile owes me three gold!" said the tipsy bosun of Dhari ancestry who had joined the last game. "All the scum crew of the Singing Harpoon would be singing high after my knife took their danglers if it were up to me." he growled, half to himself and half in the typical outlander fashion of boasting battle prowess.  Malok hadn't really needed to dig very deep to uncover the various debts and broken promises left by the masters of that ship.  He barely mentioned them, always moving the conversation to more pleasant topics shortly after a tidbit about those pig buggers came up. It just wouldn't do if his subtle prying somehow made its rounds back to the decks of that splintered wreck. 

By an early hour which was too late for most Malok had finished the revelry and had recovered most of the nights cost by trading false silver for real. His alchemists trick wasn't good for much money, more of a prank in most hands but he was both a wizard and a trader. Where great numbers of small rough coin traded hands and the ale flowed no one at the end of the night realized a few silvers - or even a great many silvers - in their purses had turned back into copper. He had it down to a fine art really, though it did not yield great profit it often meant he ate, drank and gathered information for free. A silver saved is a silver earned after all.  He also counted his various purses - hidden and open - thrice for good measure before meditating for his daily span. In four hours the trance would renew him with time for a mid morning departure. With what he had just learned the game was afoot. 

...  

Those who sow the seeds of cruelty should reap a harvest of the same.  Malok reflected on this and other old gems from the scriptures as he walked the road, clothed in his disguise of most ragged trader garb to avoid suspicion. He was out for vengeance, but it was important that he not claim the pride of revenge. His large pack bottom half full of kit for his true mission, topped to the brim with dry salt-leaf as the fishing villages would use for their savory stews.  It had been quite the time with his new friends from the market. Or were they friends from the temple?  Surely the Nine had set him with that rag-tag bunch of Dhari and Barbarians. Brave, skilled, honorable and capable as they may be it was such an odd bunch to come together even without him in the mix. Then again, he too was odd.

Malok considered that he really was out of place, but not in a spiritual sense at least.  The Curate no doubt still thought of him as the 'Elf that worships the Nine', showing typical backhanded human hubris. The barbarians he rounded with only respected the Forest Spirits, for that was what they knew. Though they would deny it, in their heart of hearts each of them believed those spirits looked upon them as special children. Children perhaps, but no more special than so many others ... across how many countless worlds? He too was guilty of having harbored the same bias, once.  The half-savages had really hit him with a hard realization, one having spat the words "city gods" when encountering the priests of the Nine as if worship of the Forest Spirits was a personal panacea.  The priests were often little better, thinking one of the Nine, or even a few of the Nine, somehow belonged to them as city dwellers, temple goers, priests or even as humans.  Again, most would never admit to such reasoning, perhaps not even realizing it, but their hubris spoke loud when they saw "the Elf who worships human Gods". No, they too were incorrect, for the Gods and Spirits alike, as a breed, were outsiders to our reality beholden to no one. Even the smallest spirit of the land was an alien being somewhat removed from the real ... but with influence, just as the Nine had vast influence and somewhat greater distance from our mundane senses.

His ancestors, brilliant seers and wizards all, had realized that such influence had to be sought out, earned. Their kinsmen venerated the Forest Spirits, nature itself and even the dimly remembered Blood Lords where from Elven sorcerers drew a heritage of power.  Wizards, however, are not rude blood sorcerers casting in near ignorance of the weave around them. Some few of that ancient time, when the old city still shone with polish and pride, made pacts with elder things such as Gidum had clearly done.  Yet this was loathsome and ultimately yielded loss rather than gain, again not the province of the collegiate wizard. His ancestors, plus those of other houses, had found the Nine. These were ancient powers not so alien as to be vile by nature. This did not make them clerics, for wizards accomplished the great works by directly drawing strands of the weave, but that need not conflict with worship and veneration. A pious warrior might also benefit from careful worship. Now, all that most of his kin found was delusion in a dram of foul black milk. 

The High Altlanteans had formalized similar concepts, gaining a vast empire and incredible powers by understanding the nature of this influence.  They too had discovered that the Nine were excellent patrons, with agendas at least aligned with life and living if not directly supporting it.  Atlantis had a tremendously rich clerical culture and advanced wizardry.  Later, they had also forgotten this secret of their success, for the lives of humans are short and their memories shorter still.  Now their Empire was literally sunk, save for those that remember the Nine. Yet he had a too rarefied view, admittedly gained from years of combing through libraries and listening to sages. Thule would not and could not be fair under any philosophy for the powerful forces, the Gods, had their quarrels too. 

He did not allow himself further thoughts of the crisis that had befallen his people, of Nyarlathotep. This was where his mind strayed in recent months, there was no fruit in these mental lamentations.  

...

Having walked a few miles while in the deep of his pondering Malok was now out sight. The depths of intricate reason did not dull his senses, however, so he was very aware of finally being alone on the road. With no other soul at this sharp, blind bend he quickly cast the spell of invisibility. Just one hour of being unseen, the hard pack and cobbles of the roads, the many forks, would allow him to slip anyone who might be following.  Not that anyone would logically be following, unless he had slipped up. No, he was just the odd outcast elf to most Humans, he had managed to avoid most o the acclaim of being a wizard thus far too. Despite the recent adventures he was still a journeyman, outland trader.  One great advantage of standing next to such loud, vulgar and crude characters such as Einjahar, Tharaa and Neeva ... bless them ... is a sort of social invisibility. Even the human wizard was much flashier, with his certifiable talent for destructive spells. Ahh good times ...

...

Malok broke camp, dressed this morning as a poor itinerant priest huddling deep in his scholars's cowl.  With a few spells of mending the broken boughs he had used for soft fresh bedding were whole again, dead but green and easily placed in the forest so they would go unnoticed. His servants unseen, twenty minutes of simple ritual, cleaned the rest of the camp and covered his tracks until he reached the hard pack of the trail. He dismissed the airy spirits under his command with a small flourish and dug into the basket of wild mushrooms, leaks, fern heads, blossoms and tubers the spirits of yesterday had gathered under his watchful woodsman's eye. With no need for a camp fire he had traveled lightly indeed, but the Forest had it's sweet rewards. His brunch was finished with a bit of honeycomb and leaf sun tea. He carefully replaced the glass tea decanter in it's bronze box case, carefully stoppering it and wrapping it in it's supple leather. It was the little pleasures that money could buy that sometimes made life as a trader quite nice.   

Yesterday's long walk had been good for reflection, good for productive thought.  Even though it took him away from the counting houses and guild halls of Quodeth it was good to step out and get perspective.  It hadn't been too hard, setting himself up as a legitimate guild trader. He'd already had time in with guildsman before the whole kivas shipment fiasco, just before the day in the market that had turned his life upside down. So he had decided to go and get a little payback from those crooks who've shorted him.

He had looked into this band of scum,  then crew of the Singing Harpoon, and discovered a few salient facts. Oh it was still sweet to think back on that year. It not so long ago but he had been too busy for much recollection ...

First he knew the Harpoon layed over in a fishing village on the Kalayan sea, Shuquon, to visit more than a few local girls there. It was four days walk from Quodeth, his destination on this trip.  This village was barely a harbor, a too-small dock meant they had to anchor inside the breakwater then take dorys to shore that wouldn't take the draft of a real vessel. They visited every trip, it seems some on board kept at least two families on their rounds. It also seemed they didn't contribute much to these 'loved ones' for they were not warmly welcomed in the village. The wives and children were kept in such squalor that the community chipped in to keep them fed. When the scum came to shore they just took, for the villagers could not stand against them. They were not welcome.

Second was they had great ambition in business. This is a good thing, but the crew of the Singing Harpoon were overreaching. They had been playing two guilds off each other for, well at least two. Lucrative contracts with one large guild had provided them with the influence to short junior members of a smaller guild. Malok had been one of those junior members at the time. The guilds all had senior members with the fingers in each other pies. Therefore the junior members sometimes had to endure a little starvation.

Those who had wronged Malok had made a grave error. He took his lumps when that contract went sour, lost quite a bit of coin along with other junior members. He stayed quiet and listened to the grumbling, made connections in the camaraderie of misery. That's how he discovered the Harpoon's contracts were fixed for the next five years. These shipments were normally too important for scum crews to handle but the crew of he Harpoon had leveraged their own properties against the contracts as insurance.

When the half splintered wreck set anchor inside the village breakwater Malok was waiting. He had disguised himself as a humble wandering priest camping on the shore. These sorts didn't go out of their way to investigate a coin-less soul tender sitting by his pitiful meal of bitter-weed root roasting over a tiny fire. This was a survival trick in the area, bitter-weed was unpleasant but edible if well roasted. It also stank and made the eyes water while roasting. Soaking the common tuber in a little salt water made the flavor better and meant your eyes wouldn't water. It still stank. Plus he was on am embankment where the couldn't beech and would have a climb. So they stayed away from the poor, smelly, sack cloth priest.

...

The night fell and cups in the village were raised. With almost the entire crew drunk or being suffered by the village women the ship sat safe at anchor. Malok ate his actual meal of fine baked onion rolls and smoked sausage. When finished the dregs of his left wineskin he stood, ready for revenge.

Uttering simple but stark, almost harsh, words of power the bolts of angry red flame lept from his outstretched hand again and again. Crimson flame lanced the sails, the rigging and the hull. The too numerous small fires quickly spread, forcing all hands to abandon ship.  The Singing Harpoon was a pyre, a sort of offering from Malok to both Ishtar his spiritual Mother and Mithra his Father in the Nine. I would take time, hours, to burn but there was no saving ship or cargo. Then he turned, for sixty three degrees to his left the small dory's were on the far shore of the tiny harbor. He had layed out his camp as the perfect vantage. The small boats were just in range of his firebolts and they too would burn to the water line.

In the chaos he had more than enough time to trace the word 'repent' in the soil of the nearby embankment. He left a simple wooden holy symbol there, enacted his spell of invisibility, and was away. Oh that was a sweet moment. None were injured that day, but he wasn't looking to kill or maim. Plus the act was anonymous, the hard soil of the embankment held no tracks, only some signs that a poor priest in loose sack robes hunched over a humble meal.

...

Later Malok had heard the word, the crew of the Singing Harpoon had defaulted on their guild contracts. Their properties were seized and they would never trade again. Some of them were already in the wind, for with their debts and the ill will they had earned they rightly feared not waking to another day. He was deeply satisfied in his revenge, but he would not claim the credit. He could easily have taken pride in this stroke, it would no doubt burnish his reputation as a wizard and net him boons across the guild. No, this was just a harvest of well deserved cruelty that had been sown and reaped in turn.  He had merely been an instrument, a pivot for the balance of all things. 

In a stroke of good fortune he and the other junior guildsman had received a share of the seized estates. This was not by the work of his hand or the plan of his mind and came to Malok by surprise. He was one among many it turned out, so the return was small but the real reward was yet to come. Weeks later he had discretely passed by the little village and seen a shrine on the embankment and trader wagons in the village square. There was some sort steady, trickling pilgrimage going on. Apparently this honored a 'miracle of justice' for it seemed that the village was only putting up with the Harpoon scum because they had taken women and children to work in their manors. The villagers feared for their relatives and endured but no longer. Now that they were poor and infamous the crew of the Harpoon rapidly found evidence of their petty crimes and frauds coming to light. The captive villagers had mostly made their ways home. Naturally, the Nine were to be venerated for the justice of divine guidance had returned the victims and some peace to their village home. 

Malok also thanked the Nine for this extra reward. To this day it made him smile, even when he was so busy he barely had time for his few hours of trance. That a little girl had seen the hooded priest vanish from sight after the fire helped things. Again unintended, but one child with very good eyesight had happened to be in one of the few spots he wouldn't notice at that very moment. A little more than odd, or not ... no way of knowing such things. "Good fortune to you people of Shuquon", he mused, "may the Nine bring a bit of peace and prosperity".

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