The Expedient Path
Caution: This Fantasy Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Magic, Slavery, Fiction, Violent,
Desc: Fantasy Sex Story: Chapter 1 - There is only one law in Katapesh: “Do as you will, but do not interfere with trade.” We were a sorry looking bunch of desperate mercenaries, and if my suspicions were correct, our would-be employer would have us break the law. Unless, of course, we chose to blaze our own path.
There is only one law in Katapesh: "Do as you will, but do not interfere with trade." We were a sorry looking bunch of desperate mercenaries, and if my suspicions were correct, our would-be employer would have us break the law.
There were eight of us waiting in the shadowy back room of the Black Gin, a grimy dock tavern that saw little business in the early noon, when the dockhands were working hard and the drunk and dissolute had barely shaken off last night's indulgences.
The sorcereress was the most obviously flamboyant, with metallic-coppery skin, dark red eyes and scarlet hair pointing to efreet blood, sunken chin and rheumy eyes a clear indication of drug withdrawal of some sort, possibly Pesh. Pesh, the drug that kept the slaves and human cattle from restlessness, the lifeblood of Katapesh. It was in such demand that food was sometimes short, for the farmers thought only of their pockets. For all that, she was exceedingly alluring. I had no trouble imagining how she fed her habit.
The dwarf, in heavy plate armor, shield and brutal looking axe not far from his hands, was hollow cheeked and gaunt, his beard scraggly, signs of recent illness and injury. There was a haunted look in his eyes, but his arms were rock-steady.
The elf-blooded girl was constantly looking around, on an edge of alertness. With her blonde beauty and silks, she was clearly an escaped slave, but the way she moved and kept fingering her curved sword reminded me of the Dawnflower's dervish dancers. A number of them had put a show once in Merab, when I was much younger. I'd never forgotten the grace of the dance, the frightful speed and dazzling sunlit edges that sliced through air and silk scarves with equal ease. If she was an escaped slave, I wouldn't want to be looking for her, not without some proper magic.
The vengeance priestess, one of Calistria's stings, had clearly come off second or third best in some of the never-ending intrigue the clergy of tricksome Lady Lust engaged in. She looked exhausted, like she'd been entertaining a dozen men throughout the night all by her lonesome, completely wrung out. For all that, she was a lovely enough woman, an exotic Tian beauty, and kept her back stiff with pride.
The spell priest, a disciple of the All Seeing Eye, was in threadbare grey robes, and had consumed the modest and unappetizing fare our employer had provided with almost unseemly haste. Clearly, another who had fallen on lean times, but the battle wand at his belt showed that he had chosen not to hock quite everything.
The elfmaid was very young and clearly a street thief, with violet pools for eyes, dark of hair and pale of skin, and was just as nervous as the dancer, twirling a dagger 'twixt her fingers with admirable skill and frightening speed, glancing at the lone entryway into our humble abode with almost obsessive frequency. She'd almost certainly knifed someone with friends - recently.
Each of them possessed no more than three items of power.
The halfling was an oddity. He was too clean, too confident, much too calm for comfort. He was clad in broken in leathers that were enchanted to some small degree, with too many daggers hidden everywhere, and worst of all, I could smell the deathblade poison on the metal, and it came from him. He was the one to watch, probably an assassin - and not down on his luck. He'd not hidden his coin pouch quite well enough to escape my eyes, and most of his gear was enchanted.
Me? A humble alchemist, pottering about with elixirs and infusions, just off the boat from dusty old Thuvia. Where my teacher and master had dared too much and died for it, almost taking me with him. I had my clothes, thick protective leather imbued with a special coating that offered as much protection as heavy metal armor, my personal alchemy kit and recipe books, without which I was of little use, the latter and a few books and some supplies, including a weapon, kept in a backpack with extradimensional pockets. I had just the one artifact that had survived my master's end without fail, crushed beneath a great dragon's full weight, a ring of black adamant studded with five true gems, a powerful defense against elemental attacks.
Katapesh was all about trade, but you needed something to trade with beyond mere expertise, and I had not enough coin for even the smallest and most modest of portable laboratories, let alone the ingredients I needed to make things for sale - never mind the guild fees required to practice. Abadar's priests had judged me shiftless, and I would not turn to the dark market skinners for borrowed funds, for unlike the servants of the Merchant's Friend, the Master of the First Vault, I could not trust them to deal fairly where they felt the upper hand lay with them.
After feasting on the rather meager fare offered us, we waited in leaden silence for our summoner to join us and make his pitch. We did not wait long.
The Garundi man was tall and solidly built, dark of skin and hair, in white breezy robes and wearing more jewelry than I cared for. The begemmed silver scarab in his hair hinted at an Osirian connection, and his entire appearance - from the perfumed scent wafting off his oiled skin, to the stylized, rune-stitched blue kaftan - was designed to offer an impression of benign wealth. The scar on his hand, though, showed that he had at least some experience at knife fighting, not something prosperous merchants are wont to indulge in.
"Good, good, you're all here," our patron employed the merchant's tongue, a limited and vulgar language that served for somewhat broken communication throughout the inner sea, with glib facility. The Mwangi jungle savages might be unfamiliar with it, but few in Katapesh were completely ignorant of the simplified brogue.
If I'd not been watching for it, I would have missed the signal and wink he exchanged with the smug little halfling poisoner.
"To business. My employer engaged Halvir of the Many Eyes to craft for him a certain staff," he drew a crude drawing from a hidden pocket and displayed it to us. An ankh-topped metal rod, its length wrapped roundst with a clinging serpent whose fanged jaw hissed through the ankh's open circle, it was unmistakable. Quite possibly, I judged with rising interest, a staff of life. It was one of five well-known forms for that particular mighty instrument of healing and resurrection. It was not something a wizard could craft - or at least, not easily.
"Despite payment having been made, the wizard refuses to hand the item over, claiming the coins never reached him. My employer has already sold the staff, and cannot afford to pay for it twice. The wizard is away from his abode at present, we have so contrived. You have two days to bring me the staff, here. I will know when you arrive. The payment is a hundred gold each now, three hundred upon delivery."
"Three hundred now, and another five upon delivery," Nethys' servant spoke dryly, in a strong and modulated voice that belonged in the halls of acadamae. "Need I mention the going price for such an item of power? Or the risks involved in braving the wards of a man who can craft it?" he added when white-robed man hesitated. "You will only have to pay the remainder to the survivors," no smile accompanied this last quiet statement.
"So be it," he soon acquiesced, looking us over. "Is it to be all of you?" he added, reaching inside a plain-seeming canvas bag of holding, down to his elbow, and drawing out small bags filled with coin - 50 each, I judged. He did not wait for us to count the proffered funds or respond, his robes almost whistling as he whirled around and departed.
I didn't bother to count the coins - as soon as the halfling turned away, I threw a dart at him, striking flesh. The little fellow yipped in startled pain, and reacted more swiftly than I'd expected, hurling no less than four daggers my way. One sliced into my neck as I failed to dodge quickly enough, the rest clinking away from my armor.
"Deathblade poison, little assassin, bothers me not at all. You, on the other hand, have ten minutes to live, unless you tell all. What is the real plan, my little backstabber?" I left the others time to react, ignoring the assassin's drawn sword, quickly distilling an infusion and gulping it down. The wound in my throat, frighteningly close to the jugular, sealed shut seamlessly as the healing spread warmth through my body.
The others drew weapons and prepared spells, and the halfling hesitated a second too long.
"Unless of course," I smiled grimly at him, "you are immune to poison? Can you feel it burn?"
"By the fires of perdition, what do you mean?" the flame-sorcereress looked at me, copper eyes wide.
"Look at him carefully," I did not take my eyes off the poisonous runt, "and see that he is not like us. He is not desperate. Only the desperate would openly break the laws of the Pactmasters - unless you believe that nonsense we were fed," I allowed my derision to show. "This one is in league with our oh so generous paymaster. Real coin?" I looked at the elfgirl, who was examining a small pile she'd scattered on the table. She nodded briefly, putting them away with fast and clever fingers - I could not see where.
"If one of you," I looked alternately at the priestess and the sorceress, "can bend his will, perhaps we can learn more before he dies. Otherwise, perhaps our dwarf friend here can persuade him to speak."
"Oh, aye," his voice was as deep as a mountain. "There's a trick to it, when you need them to speak quickly. Cut one finger if they refuse, then two, then three ... though it rarely gets that far," he raised his axe, slowly and steadily advancing on the halfling.
"It's burning," the small one began shivering, looking around in desperation, but his path was closed. "You have the antidote?" his pleading look was magnificent, enough to melt a golem's stone heart.
"Of course," I feigned being insulted at the question.
And so we listened, and learned, and were afraid. The assassin? The elfgirl cut his throat once he ran dry. No one said a word.
The smell of a corpse in such a closed room grew heavy, so I approached it and tossed a handful of white gravedust. It soon dissolved, leaving only clothes and tools behind.
"Useful," the dwarf commented thoughtfully.
"Indeed," I nodded respectfully at him. "We are all in a bit of trouble here. If you do not mind, let us introduce ourselves, and see if we can plan our way out of this deadly maze." Hearing no dissent, I began, "I am Farouq al Rashid, an alchemist until recently of Thuvia. My teacher and master attempted his own solution of Sun Orchid elixir, the potion of life and youth. I'm not sure how close he came to success - there is nothing left of him and his, other than myself, who took a sample. I have not had chance to see a mirror so ... ah, I see from your expressions that he did in fact succeed. I do feel younger and more full of energy. Alas no, I do not carry that research with me, it was lost in dragonfire. We have not the time for me to explain all I am capable of - accept that it is a lot. Sir dwarf," I turned to my left, "if you would."
"Drask Splintershield," he said gruffly. "We tried to claim back the Zolurket mines. I survived, just barely. Still not fully recovered," he was honest enough to add. "Lost everything. Damn ghouls and ghosts," he spat, "give me something I can cut, and my axe here will do what's needed."
"Mella," the half elf with the dancer's grace spoke up next. "We were here from Andoran, to free the enslaved, friends and family. It did not work out as expected," the pain in her voice and posture was palpable. "I survived, and got away. I am a sword dancer and a spellsinger."
"Kallistae," the elfgirl who had so casually slain the assassin said simply. "I am forlorn, grew on the streets of Absalom. Had to escape," she frowned prettily, not mentioning why or from whom, "and a ship brought me to this pesthole. I am a thief," she announced loudly, looking around and daring us to raise objection.
"I am Sartalos of Quantium," the scholarly tones of the no longer young man, hair salt and pepper, almost made me smile. "I was a teacher, an academic professor, until the wrong students did what foolish students sometimes do, and summoned a demon they could not control. Their miserly parents forced me to pay for their restoration, or hounded me when that could not be achieved. So I left Nex," he shrugged off a full chronicle with four words. "I am a priest and a wizard in service to the lord of all magic," he clarified.
"You do not want the sordid details, trust me," the priestess sounded most bitter. "I am Anya Kortillos, originally from Westcrown." At a number of blinks and lost looks, she rolled her eyes and added, "Cheliax, the former capital. Priestess of Calistria, the Savored Sting."
"Valranna Emberflame," the scarlet-haired sorceress raised her chin when our eyes focused on her. "I ... my memory is not as it should be. I think I am from ... Qadira. I was poisoned, enchanted, drugged," she shrugged, "and my memories are broken. But fire burns through such things, if there is time enough and the fire is hot enough," her eyes flamed. "I am magic, a sorceress," she added softly.
I did not allow the silence to build and tension to rise. "Can you cast an augury," I looked at Sartalos and Anya in turn, "to see if what he told us was truth?"
"Not today," Anya barked, "and why did you ... whatever it was you did to dissolve the body? I could have made that talk."
"No, you could not," I answered patiently. "That poison would not have allowed it. And no, I do not have any more - in fact, it was not mine, I lifted it from him. Kallistae, if you could search him, I am sure Sartalos, Val and I can identify what magic there is, and divide it among us."
She went to work before my words were fully uttered, with Sartalos in the midst of his communion with Nethys, his patron god.
"I believe he spoke true," the wizard-priest remarked, to a chorus of dejected sighs.
"To sum our situation, we have a wizard who has a reliable map to one of the lost fallen flying cities of the Shory, which city supposedly has an intact library. He is gathering explorers and venturers, with backing from the Pathfinders and the Pact Lords. Our so generous employer, a representative of the local Aspis Consortium, has hired us as disposable spell fodder, to distract from the other bladeswingers and spelltossers he has waiting and to tire this Halvir out and spend his resources. If we renege, we shall likely be hunted only by any survivors of Aspis. If we actually go ahead ... we can win, if we fight smart. No!" I raised my voice and moved to stop the elfmaid from opening a packet. "That is choking dust, Kallistae. Let it be, and I will take care of the assassin's poisonous collection."
"So you would have us fight and win?" Sartalos rubbed his chin in thought. "What is your plan?"
"We have power and to spare amongst us, I believe, and some time to prepare. Let our sneak check and inform us of this tower and the men Aspis has gathered, with the dwarf to watch her back. The rest of us sell what we cannot use of the backstabber's gear and take all the funds to prepare what scrolls and items we can. Instead of attacking ourselves, can you summon monsters and such to assault the place?"
"Yes," Sartalos, Valranna and Anya responded as one.
"Good, that will take care of at least some of the gathered venturers, and serve as a signal for the Aspis men. Let us use them, instead of them using us, moving in behind them to take out their leaders, then finish everyone off. This is Katapesh, there is no true law as such. We will instantly acquire for ourselves a fortified home. Instead of using the map ourselves, let us use Abadar's services for an auction. I am not eager to investigate a Shory ruin, having survived one meeting with a dragon," I finished dryly, "and would avoid another if I had choice." I trusted them to substitute for dragon whatever mortal danger lay ahead of any who sought the ancient lost secrets of the Shory aeromancers.
"This would earn us the enmity of the Pathfinders and Aspis," Anya frowned.
"No, he's right," Mella spoke up, "we can blame Aspis for attacking the Pathfinders, and the Pact Masters will come down hard on them. If we do it right, we can win it all."
"It is a bold gamble," Sartalos frowned in concentration, obviously looking to poke holes in my plan.
"I like it," the Drask struck the table with a loud thud to signal his approval. "It is a reasonable risk, and better than being hunted."
"Yes," Kallistae said.
"Very well," Valranna bit her lip.
"It is decided then," I smiled in relief. "Kallistae, if you can handle poison, these knives are yours, all enchanted," she took them and hid them about her person. "And take this packet, too, of choking dust. Use it to cover your retreat, if you must run. See if you can learn the pompous merchant's name and abode - that is one person our net should not miss. Go now, and meet us at ... where do you propose?" I looked at Anya and the elfmaid, both presumably more familiar with the city than a newcomer such as I.
Surprisingly, it was the dwarf who proposed, "Let us meet tonight at the River Inn, it's a grand ol' place just outside the Serpent Gate. Tis a bit of a walk, but safer and cleaner."
"Agreed," Anya nodded, and looked my way, commenting, "You gave the thief most of the magic."
"So I did," I faced her, noting the curdling expression of the elfgirl, "because she of all of us will face the most danger today, and will give us her share of the gold, for us to craft or buy what we can today. I'm sure Sartalos has preparations to make, and so do I - can anyone else craft magic or aught of immediate use?"
"No," the sorceress answered sadly after a pause for thought, and Anya likewise shook her head, "Not in the time available. I can enchant arms and armor, but that takes many days and more funds than we have at hand."
"Very well, if you please then, Anya, Valranna and Mella shall go about - together, for safety's sake - and seek information. About this wizard and the people he has gathered, about Aspis connections and resources, the nearest body of guards to the tower - we shall want them on our side, alerted after all is done and convinced of our innocence and heroism. Please leave Sartalos and I most of the funds. As for magic, there are also the boots," I lifted them up and examined them intently. "Sir wizard, madam sorceress, I believe these speed up one's moves. Correct?" I handed them over, and was not overruled.
"I would say Mella can make the best use of them," I handed them over, and she bared exquisite, long pale legs that had me salivating, replacing her stained satin slippers with boots too small to fit any but a child - which magically resized for perfect comfort. Admittedly, the dark brown leather did not go at all with the colorful gauzy silken layers and silver chain-belt that served the dancer as clothes, but fashion and color coordination would have to wait.
The poisons, the dusts and alchemical items I took for myself, handing ceramic vials to Drask, Valranna and Kallistae. "Healing potions - I believe the rest of us are capable of healing magic..." I looked at Mella with brows raised, and she failed to demur. "The armor and the sword you can sell," I pushed them over to the Sartalos, "unless someone is interested." I divided the pile of gold coins equally between the wizard and myself, and proposed, "For the battles ahead, I can provide us all with protection from nonmagical arrows and bolts, as well as fire, cold and lightning, a force shield that would protect you from forcebolts, and a spell of displacement. If I had diamond dust, I could also offer some respite from most physical attacks. These will only last for half an hour or so - unless depleted by repeated or powerful assaults or otherwise dispelled. I also have magics that will delay the onset of any poison until the magic runs out, and another that will allow all to walk on air. If we choose to act at night, I can also provide you - not Drask, of course - with darkvision."
My declaration seemed to stun them. "Is something wrong?" I frowned.
"No," Sartalos said slowly, "it is merely that we are surprised at how much you can do for us. You did declare that there was no time for you to explain all you can accomplish," he smiled, "but you look a young man, like one of my students. Or rather, an armsman's student, not a mage's. It is hard to believe that you are an experienced and potent alchemist."
"True," Valranna gazed at me speculatively. "I doubt we can do as much," she looked around.
"Actually, I could prepared some of those prayers," Anya licked her lips, her eyes looking inward rather than at us. "I can afford us all protection from evil, that any conjured dark monsters would be hedged unless you strike them first. I can also afford us immunity from a few specific spells - if we can learn something of our foes' favorite spells, I will do so. And you?" she turned to Sartalos.
"I can do much the same," he nodded solemnly, "but would prefer to prepare battle magic, if you have protection covered. I have nothing to add upon both of you."
"Recall, there will be three battles, at least. The first will be unleashing of summoned creatures, with us providing ranged support. Speaking of which, see if you can come up with a crossbow for Drask, and whatever you prefer for yourselves," I aimed my words at the women. "The second will be taking down whatever reserves Aspis will have, and then the most difficult, with the survivors in the tower itself. Likely there shall be additional cleanup required, for us to acquire rights to the tower, as wizards are fond of traps. Do any of you know what we must do to lay claim to it? No? Sartalos and I will see if we can find out. I will spend the day at the Grand Alchemist's tower, joining the guild and renting a laboratory for the day."
"I will be at the pyramid, the Temple of Nethys, preparing scrolls and buying what magic I can," the theurge responded.
"Kallistae? If you would go first, and make sure that we are not followed? Don't forget to wait for Drask or find him later, he will watch your back as you seek to learn about the tower and our benefactor."
Moments later I was alone amidst the bustle of the dock district, grimly prepared to do my part, walking at a brisk pace towards the guild of alchemists, hoping against hope that none of my new companions would disappoint.