In the northern most reaches of the Khäga sands, where the golden dunes push hard against the southern plains of Reignfall, there stands an oasis of elephant grass and acacia trees. This oasis is the last remnant of living thing you will see on the heated furnace of the sands, and you should not venture forth without restocking. Known well to locals, this oasis is inhabited by a small merchant force from the Sol’Kromane Traders Guild. With the aid of magical artifacts, and construction learned across Terminus, the guild has secured a modest foothold in one of the harshest environments known. What comes from the sands is often a surprise to visitors of this place. To the merchants, this is life.
It was during a midday sand squall when a tall, slender, royal looking man creaked open the door to the Burning Ant Tavern and let in a swirl of sandy chaos. He stood there stoically, woven head to toe in tight wrappings; letting the sand swirl around him as if he was a stone mesa defiant to the winds of time. Fingers of sand settled into the grooves of the wooden floor underneath his feet as the door suctioned closed behind him.
The standard storm crowd had gathered at the tables, filling the seats and leaning against make shift chairs lining the walls. The stranger entering only meant that the crowd would get tighter and make everyone a little uneasy by the claustrophobia pecking away at their minds. Each table’s residence were having rowdy discussions while clustered around maps, lists were being checked, and clothing and armors was being fitted tighter for the foray into the sands once the squall had passed.
With a combination of magic and insulated construction materials, the tavern’s builder had done well to create a sturdy oasis within the oasis, but when the door slammed shut behind the stranger, the tavern let out a telling groan as the storm pushed and beat against the immovable shanty. Some in the tavern took notice of the stranger, while others took to listen to the storm, and the rest simply ignored it all and continued to discuss upcoming plans.
With light and efficiently calm and quiet strides, the stranger made his way to the counter. A huge, burly woodsman of a man behind the counter wearing a leather apron that was as tall as the stranger nodded over to him, “What’ll it be, friend?”
From underneath several layers of wrappings, the stranger pulled out an exquisitely crafted and ornately jeweled clay mug. Setting it on the counter, he pointed to the sign on the wall in large red letters ‘WATER-5 gold’.
“I’ll need to see some gold too,” the bartender said without moving to fill the mug, “this place isn’t a charity.”
The stranger reached under his rags once again but could only produce a small handful of sand, a few dusty rags, and a rudimentary lute carved out of the gaster of a fire ant queen and strung with its wing tendons. The bartender balked at the site and smells of the monstrous lute and slid the stranger’s mug back to him. The bartender could feel ice forming from the sweat on his hands when he touched the mug, but he didn’t acknowledge it to the stranger. He pointed to a vacant stool setting up on an elevated stage no larger than a crate. “Maybe that thing sounds better than it smells.”
Undeterred, the stranger made his way to the stage, resting his lute on the vacant stool. Like a loud ‘hush’ in a crowded concert hall, sand showered onto the small stage as the stranger freed himself from his wrappings. Beautifully crafted boiled leather armor pieces reflected the candle lit lantern’s glow as the wrappings unwove. The stranger’s regal stature was evident and his musculature was as tightly woven as the wrappings insisted. A mid-sized male emerged with sleek lines, broad lean shoulders, and perfectly evolved facial features. But there was something non-human about him as his forehead protruded slightly and his ears sat lower on his head than any of the nine known races.
With his face fully revealed, the entire tavern stood in shocked silence. The rarity of seeing a Mesa Orphan is only eclipsed by the rarity of being alive after seeing one. The storm continued to make noise against the tavern as time, like molasses, struggled to slip through the tension. Although Mesa Orphans are not the true enemies of ancient Terminus, they are their descendants. Blessed by a goddess to be staunch protectors against the twisted Revenant army, their failure has scattered them to the four winds and made them pariahs even to the races arriving after the Deicide War.
After 500 years of persecution, however, these remnants of the old world survive. They have retained everything from that age that made them fearsome, and have evolved into something of legend. Even the most seasoned survivalist can only survive for 24 hours in the sands on what he can carry, but an Orphan can survive for weeks on the moisture he can extract from the dry sands itself. His skills in battle are equally as legendary, and his wisdom surpasses even the grandest sages in all of Reignfall.
Frozen in fear, no one made a sound as the Orphan sat and strummed his fingers across the first chord; a low, haunting minor that he let hang heavy in the silent air. The resolution came with another groan as the tavern was blasted with a gust of sand. As the chord harmonized with the room, stray sand littering the tables vibrated gently off the edges and hushed the silent room once more as it leapt to the floor. Another minor strum and the sand outside no longer battered the roof; instead the storm was silenced as if it were water slipping over deeper water. The Orphan added his voice to the song.
I have walked on sands of coal
as hot as heaven is satin white.
It chars, and scars, and burns my soles
with scorching heat and blinding light.
The desert gale, it whirls and blows
and cuts the face of Khäga’s skin.
I am drawn into the glow
but like a moth, I cannot win.
Bind me with your white-hot chain,
strip my flesh and eat my bones.
Devour me so my blood can reign
over this timeless tempered throne.
Kings have never dared to die,
but claim, they do, the dunes that stand
to guard the southern Reignfall sky
and turn my weary soul to sand.
With the closing chord of the song, the tavern groaned and sand pelted the roof once more. Fear had turned to awe as the song of the sands echoed in the full room, but the Orphans mug stood as empty as the oasis outside. The radiance that emanated through the tavern was stifling to the patrons who now felt like strangers visiting a newly discovered oasis, and none felt worthy to approach.
Several silent moments ticked away before the Orphan lowered his gaze to begin the arduous task of reweaving his wraps when he heard the tell-tale clink of coins against his clay mug. His eyes caught the yellow color of metal reflecting out of his mug before he could make eye contact with the ethereal being that had placed them there. The gnome did not speak. He simply placed his hand against the Orphan’s chest and leaned in; communicating something in a way that only one who has spent time on the mesa would understand. A tear rolled down the Orphan’s face and a quick inhale extinguished an emotion rising up in his chest. He nodded to the gnome and placed his hand on his newfound ally’s chest in turn.
He began plucking at the tendons, tuning his lute into a new key. Even his tuning method was skilled in a way that made it sound like he was still playing. The last chord he played to check his tuning made goose bumps appear on everyone’s skin. Their hair stood on end and sand from the floor shifted around like it was swirling down an hourglass.
As he began playing, an ominous battle between major and minor sevenths played out and pulled at the air, wafting at the candles inside the lanterns, daring them to burn brighter. As each phrase resolved, the storm outside rammed against the tavern walls in waves that sounded like the beating of a heart slowly reaching its end. When he added his voice, the storm calmed again as a river slips over a stone, but this time his playing halted.
I gave no thought to shed my brother’s blood.
His pall, I bear to mark my people’s past.
Although his hate has marked my scattered chaste,
Before the war, we stood against the flood
And watched as hate consumed the flower’s bud.
But the war of gods had favored the Ginto Ghast,
So I served his foes and fought him to the last,
And all we have left is buried with the mud.
Our land was shattered and our king was lost
His one true love struck deep into his heart.
Our fate to fight each other had a cost
The truth we leave to time, in shattered art.
Ashamed are we who could not warm the frost
Or cool the flame of Ginavi’s counterpart.
Before the Orphan could end his sonnet, an ogre stood angrily and rushed to the table, swiping at his mug; sending only the coins flying against the wall without a satisfying shatter. The storm outside raged against the tavern once more as the song abruptly ended and the tavern let out a dissatisfied moan.
“How dare you sing of how fond you are of your brother!” The Ogre raged, “Your brothers destroyed our clans, and our land. Your God has left us with only spirits and hatred.”
The bard held a moment of silence, letting the ogre continue.
“Why do you hold your insane God-King in such regard as to immortalize him again in song? You miserable remnant!”
The ogre picked up the mug, which was very cool to the touch, leaving the gold coins where they lay. He tried again to smash it, this time failing against the bar. In a string of attacks in quick succession, the mug stood strong against a table, a chair, and a crate labeled ‘ore’.
The bard answered with a gentle strum, and the ogres rage waned. Another strum and the ogre tired of his quest to smash the mug, instead choosing to fall into a sweaty heap into an empty chair.
“We are all remnants of what we once were, ogre. Are you so certain of why you hate me?" Another strum and the ogre regained his strength and composure. “We have all been scarred by our gods. Perhaps it is best we are left in peace.”
The ogre sat quietly, stunned by the calm impasse the Orphan offered; even in the face of his raging enemy. The ogre, still holding the cool mug, pulled out a platinum coin and flipped it to bartender.
“Pour me one too, will ya?” the ogre mumbled humbly.
With that, the mug was finally filled with water. Before the bartender could fill the ogre’s mug, though, the Orphan stayed his hand. Instead, pouring the contents of his now full mug into the ogres before motioning for a refill. The ogre lifted his mug in a peaceful tip to the Orphan and proceeded to drink the cleanest, coldest, and most refreshing mug of water had ever tasted, feeling the water expand within him; settling into hidden places that would take an eternity for the desert to reclaim.
[PS. Happy New Year-Larr]