Skull & Shackles

Rule of Fear

A long night of drinking, camaraderie, and stories in Bloodcove led to many shared tales. Ruwa shared one tale in particular about her youth in Thuvia, and about the boy Hasim she adventures to find.

~
The market was alive with color and sound. It had been five years since the last festival, five years since the church took her in, gave her a home, taught her to dance. And tomorrow she would dance for the festival: her first solo! She hoped there would be many more. But that was tomorrow. Today there was the marketplace, and the people, and the silks, and the sounds from across Thuvia and from across the Inner Sea.
Shah had been entirely against sneaking out of the gardens to explore the marketplace. Strictly speaking, they weren’t required to stay in the garden. It was just where Ms. Mala, Shah’s mother, had asked them to wait. Shah and Hasim were meant to meet some relative visiting from Merab. He sounded imortant. Of course, all of the Hala sounded important. Even little Hasim would puff up like a meerkat when he spoke of his father and grandfather. Ruwa did not understand her friends, not really.
Shah was the prettiest girl Ruwa had ever seen, inside and outside. She was tall, and honest, and strong, and she always looked out for her baby brother and for all the other temple children. Even the older ones! The thing about Shah was that she was always so uptight. Ruwa was convinced that it was because Shah spent so much time worrying about other people that she neve had a chance to unwind. Whenever Shah stamped her foot and twisted her perfect face into a scowl, Ruwa would laugh. Ruwa liked Shah best when she was uptight—it showed what was best in her.
Hasim was a stupid boy. Ruwa knew it was mean to think that, but it was true. She didn’t dislike boys just because they were boys—Priestess Jenet had taught her better. But if she did dislike boys just because they were boys—which she didn’t—she would dislike them precisely because they acted like Hasim all the time. He was really pretty, just like his sister. But all Hasim seemed to care about was getting into trouble. And the frustrating part was that he never actually got into trouble! All he had to do was grin and act like a little gentleman and the grown-ups would let him get away with practically anything. Ruwa could never get away with stuff like that!
As well as she knew them, though, Ruwa still couldn’t quite understand Shah and Hasim. They always had new clothes, and fancy toys, and sweets: as much as they could want. And they always shared with her. But they never seemed to care so much that they had all this great stuff. If Ruwa could have new clothes all the time she would probably pop with excitement! But it was never a big deal to them. And it was never a big deal that they got to travel to Merab sometimes, or that they got to meet important people from Osirian at the fancy dinners that Shah’s father would host, or that they had servants! Ruwa couldn’t understand.
What Ruwa did understand was that Ms. Mala had asked them to wait in the garden. And they had waited in the garden. They’d waited practically forever in the garden, but Ms. Mala hadn’t come back. They’d played Crusaders and Legionnaires for a while—Shah beat Hasim especially badly in a duel with sticks, so Ruwa fought him next and let him win. Shah rolled her eyes. Ruwa never let anyone else win expect little Hasim. She kind of felt bad for him since he was so much smaller than his sister. It wasn’t his fault he was so stupid.
Two or three forevers passed. This waiting was making Ruwa nervous—she didn’t like sitting still under the best circumstances, but today all she could think about was her performance on tomorrow, and it made her hands clammy. Ruwa decided it was time to go searching for Ms. Mala in the market. And to browse silks and plums along the way—because it would be a waste not to. Hasim was immediately on board for an adventure. No one was surprised. But Shah was being all Shah about it. Again, no one was surprised. But Ruwa knew all the right buttons to push, and with Hasim on board Shah didn’t stand a chance. All he had to do was grin and stamp his feet and Shah would always do what he wanted in the end.
The three friends were plowing through the cramped marketplace at full speed. Shah had bought a cone of spun angel hair, but Ruwa had snatched it and taken off running. Shah bolted after her, face set in thrilled determination. Little Hasim tumbled after the two, throwing the pea-sized packets of some strange black powder that he’d purchased from a half-way-bleached gnome. When they hit the ground, they popped and flashed in little sparks. The chase raged on. Though Ruwa had been in the temple for years now, she still knew how to plot a thrilling route through a busy market place. She led the merry chase over awnings, under camels, through seas of water carriers. She managed to vault a low wall, but ended up in a dead-end alley between two tall buildings. Shah came crashing over the wall, a tangle of knees and elbows. In a shower of sparks and pops, Hasim slammed into the ground next to them. The trio burst into peels of laughter.
Underneath the laughter, however, Ruwa heard a sound. It was a wet kind of sound, like a slow slurping. Shah heard it to. She punched Hasim in the arm to silence him, and rose to join Ruwa on her feet. They alley was overhung with shadows, and oddly chill. Down at the other end, there was a tangle of old rags and hay. Something was moving there. Something was gasping there. Shah had pushed her way in front of Ruwa and Hasim. Ruwa stood very still, watching. The other end of the alley grew suddenly silent. As her eyes adjusted, Ruwa could see what looked like a man’s legs sticking out from the hay. But there was something over top of the man, hunching. A pair of red eyes snapped open. Ruwa screamed. Deep set, glowing from inside in a thickly wrapped turban and mask, the hunched thing’s red eyes darted across the children. The thing rose up, and it was taller than a man, wrapped all in rags and robes so that it seemed like a huge shadow. The thing hissed. Black wettness poured from underneath its mask. It had been eating.
The thing surged forward, one foot on the ground, the other running along the adjacent building. Ruwa screamed again. Shah held her long arms across the alley, as if she alone could stop the monster; the tall girl held her breath and pursed her mouth but did not look away from the thing. Ruwa had never seen anyone be so brave. The thing screached like a dying bird, pale clawed fingers darting from beneath its many robes, and it leapt towards them. Then Hasim did something stupid.
Ruwa’s eyes nearly bulged out of her head when she saw it. Little Hasim grabbed the ahnk from his sister’s belt, stepped underneath her sheltering arms, and thrust the symbol toward the blood-soaked thing. His other fist sent a payload of little sparking, popping bombs flying at the thing’s feet and he cried out in his most impressive little voice: “Leave us alone!”
And it did. It recoiled, hissing, spitting in a vulgar kind of Varisian that Ruwa could not understand. The thing cowered back from the little boy with the holy ahnk, its glowing red eyes heaving hate and fear towards Hasim. Shah could only scream her brother’s name, furious and astounded. Ruwa could only stare. She had never seen anyone be so stupid; and of course, because it was Hasim, the stupidity was paying off. He was so stupid!
Hasim’s free hand flailed uselessly at the thing, as if he were throwing more of his tiny poppers. He thrust the anhk forward over and over, but the bloody thing rose to its full height and took a single step forward. It stank like old blood and mold. Hasim froze, suddenly a tiny boy again. Shah cried out for her mother. Ruwa readied another scream. That’s when the man appeared.
He dropped down from the far side of the alley, a long coat trailing him. His heavy boots thumped into the sand; the beast spun to face him, barking in its vulgar tongue. The man stood straight, like a bolt, his features hidden in the dim light of the alley, and spat back in a proper Varisian. Ruwa could not understand the words, but the low rolling tone of his voice told her that the man was older, and very angry. The thing charged at the man, running as much on the walls and the ground, a billowing terror of darkness and shrieking. The man did not budge. The man did not blink. The man raised his walking cane, and pointed it like a sword. With a single word of his strange tongue, the top of the cane ignited in a glorious and binding daylight. The creatures screamed in agony. Ruwa could see torrents of smoke streaming out of its robes, as if it were burning in the light. Ruwa could see the man, handsome and older, a long scar down the right side of his face. He wore a high collared coat over a chalk-dusted vest. A great gold monogrammed “L” glittered from the pin in his kravat.
The creature slammed impotently into either side of the alley, clawing at the walls and shrieking. The man was the picture of calm, as he raised a tiny glass bottle and pointed it towards the beast. The man now spoke in a tongue Ruwa recognized as Vudrani—it was an exceptionally beautiful language, one of the boys in the temple would often sing songs in the tongue. As the man spoke his words, something amazing happened. The thing, still smoking and screaming in the daylight, burst into a cloud of black mist. Swirling in a great shrieking spiral, the entirety of the mist was sucked neatly into the bottle. The strange man popped in a cork and tucked the bottle into his jacket without ceremony.
Ruwa stared. Shah clutched her brother. Hasim had been crying, but was now beaming with enthusiasm. The man stepped over to the three friendss quite primly, tapping his cane in the sand to extinguish the blinding light. When he spoke, it was in the common tongue; though it was thickly accented with a high Varisian: “Are you all well?” Ruwa nodded, her mouth hanging open. Shah and Hasim followed suit. The man continued, “Good. Good. Run along, then. This is a matter for older adventurers to mend. You will no doubt have adventures of your own to accomplish in due time.” He looked pointedly at Hasim: “I have a daughter about your age. She would be quite taken with that display of heroics, young man.” Hasim grinned like an idiot. Ruwa could have screamed. Shah looked like she wanted to punch the man. As the man turned to go, Ruwa couldn’t contain herself. She blurted out: “Who are you?”
“I am friend of the Good. Now, best you pop off.” He paused. “And best not tell your parents. They’d be worried. And I assure you that this was the only one still unaccounted for,” said the man. “The only one what?” Shah demanded. The man was already scaling the far wall of the alley. He called back, “Why, it was a monster, my dear! The world is crawling with them. But never fear, there will always be those of us who hunt them.” And with that, he was gone.
After a few moments, Hasim broke the silence: “I’m going to be a hero some day.” Shah punched him in the arm. Ruwa punched him in the other arm. Shah gave him a stern lecture all the way back to the gardens about how dangerous adventuring was, how stupid he had been to rush forward, and how strange wizards in alleys were not suitable role models. Ruwa stayed mostly quiet. Shah had tried to protect them. And Hasim had done the same in his own stupid way. All Ruwa had done was scream. And in that moment she decided that her friends were more important than being scared; next time, she’d be ready to save them.
~

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