A bizarre landscape manifested before Pahwon; sheets of flames popping up in between dark buildings. Pahwon ran down the twisting road, knowing something terrible was chasing him. Indistinct figures jeered out from their windowsills, taunting him as he ran. Then he slowed as two figures appeared at the end of the road, both leaning over another lying still on the ground. Sadness welled up within Pahwon, recognizing Tossmek and his mother leaning over his own lifeless body. Then a terrible noise spurred him to turn around. He saw the terrible figures he had been fleeing from, the towering men aiming straight for him.
Instantly Pahwon shot awake, sitting bolt upright. The sun shone down from high in the sky. He blinked in the bright light, realizing it was nearly noon. He looked around, disoriented, and realized they were lying in a melon field. His stomach groaned, the sight of the large fruits making his mouth water. There was a tap on his shoulder, causing him to spin around. It was Sapphire, holding a slice of melon out for him.
Without thinking he took it and wolfed it down in seconds. It was only after consuming the melon slice that he realized it was stolen. Feeling tense, Pahwon looked around the small field, spotting an adobe house in the distance. He stood up promptly, looking over his oblivious companions. Sapphire stood up, holding a bit of the evidence prominently in her hand.
â€œWhat is the matter?â€ Sapphire asked, reached out towards his shoulder, â€œI could help with that painful shoulder.â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s this melon, itâ€™s stolen,â€ Pahwon blurted out.
Sapphire looked down at the tilled soil they had slept in and then to the well only a few yards away. Nervously, Sapphire placed reached under her cloak and produced several coins. These were placed on top of a still ripening melon. That taken care of, she spun around and headed toward the road. Pahwon scooped up his crutch and followed, testing his arm as he walked. The limb was still stiff and painful to move quickly, but it felt better than the day before.
Hiwei was already standing by the road and gave them a blank stare as they approached. Once back together, the three walked quickly away from the field, hoping the owner was an understanding sort. The vast plain to the north stretched to the horizon, interrupted by a few small hills and thickets of spiny trees in the distance. They made their way down the road, passing only a few signs of habitation. After a few minutes of walking and brushing the dirt off themselves, Pahwon was confronted by a comb.
â€œHere, this will help you get some of that dirt out,â€ Sapphire explained, â€œWe should try to not attract too much attention.â€
â€œThanks, uh, I suppose,â€ he replied, running the implement through his hair.
It took several minutes before he was certain most of the debris had been removed. After picking the teeth clean, he was about to hand it to Hiwei when the comb caught the light. Intrigued, Pahwon pulled it closer for examination. The comb was made from a translucent blue material that sparkled in the sunlight. He flexed it, his hands feeling cold afterwards. A small insignia made of three characters he couldnâ€™t read formed a raised seal in the centre of the handle. He ran his finger over it, then handed it to Hiwei. As he put his cap back on, he realized that the combing had been largely pointless.
After cleaning her hair, Hiwei gave the comb back to the odd woman. Sapphire nodded approvingly. Hiwei and Pahwon dropped back a few paces before exchanging puzzled glances. After a minute of thought, Pahwon decided the woman was odd, but not dangerous. This Sapphire person had saved his life, whoever she was. He fell into step, careful to stay a few paces behind her. As pain coursed through his leg, staying behind a few paces became quite easy.
As the afternoon wore on, they walked past a small abandoned town. The dilapidated adobe buildings had half melted and lay open to the environment. Pahwon felt uneasy; as if the ghosts of the former residents might emerge at any moment. Through a pair of hills cut in half by a deep road cut they walked, thickets of spiny trees and bushed obscuring their view of everything. For a moment, through a break in the foliage, Pahwon spotted the remains of the ruined Shal-Qaz Bridge in the distance. The few remaining stone arches towered over the shimmering water, as though they still had a purpose.
Excitement filled Pahwon as their goal drew near. He picked up speed, ignoring the soreness in his leg. They passed thickets of small, gnarled trees covered in stickers and sickly leaves which stubbornly protruded from the hillsides. One remaining bridge tower loomed ahead, casting a long shadow over the road. Long chains dangled uselessly from the rusted winches, the drawbridge they once held a nearly forgotten memory.
After passing through a last turn in the road they arrived on the outskirts of Shal-Qaz. The small city curved along the Dossigerâ€™s great bend, fitting snuggly between the waterâ€™s edge and the winding northern hills. Slowly they descended into town, a pair of abandoned wooden houses standing guard. At the first intersection stood a large adobe building which emanated the smell of food and the sound pleasant music. Hiwei started drifting towards this establishment, feeling tired and hungry from the dayâ€™s travel.
â€œUm, probably had better keep moving,â€ Sapphire said cautiously. â€œI think this town might be under pirate control.â€
â€œWhy do you say that?â€ Pahwon asked.
â€œThose guys,â€ she replied, pointing down the street.
Three armed foreigners came into view marching down the street. The street cleared as they approached.. Hiwei grabbed Pahwonâ€™s arm and pulled him down a small alley behind the eatery. After they were hidden, she realized that one of their party was missing.
â€œM-missingâ€ She murmured.
â€œWhat?â€ Pahwon said excitedly, glad to hear her voice.
She pointed towards Sapphire, who was standing across the street.
â€œYou two go hire us some transport, I shall get to the port in a few minutes,â€ Sapphire called, throwing a large coin bag to him. â€œMake sure you are ready to sail when I arrive back there.â€
â€œBut, wait,â€ Pahwon stammered.
â€œI saw something important, critical maybe, soon to see you.â€
With that, Sapphire vanished down a tiny side street, leaving Pahwon and Hiwei confused. Thinking it unwise to linger, Hiwei grabbed Pahwonâ€™s arm again and pulled him along the alley. They emerged onto a more crowded street.Â Merchant stalls loaded with fresh vegetables and salted meats lined both sides of the road.Â A small crowd of shoppers milled around, many looking uneasy. Hiwei and Pahwon slowly walked forward and mingled with the crowd.
After passing several tantalizing offerings, Hiwei decided that she needed something to eat. She walked up to the next stall and looked over what they had for sale. After paying for a pair of juicy pomegranates and a chunk of hard cheese with one of Sapphireâ€™s odd coins they continued toward the river. Pahwon appropriated one of the fruits and ate it carefully as they turned the next corner. The harbor sprawled out before them; at least a dozen ships were moored from the southwest end to the aged tower at the east.
Hiwei looked down the buildings lining the dockside, wondering where the boat captains might be hiding. Pahwon pointed towards an obvious building. A noisy tavern stood a few doors down. Several man spilled out through the rickety door at that moment, all stumbling down the walk way while laughing about something. Hiwei and Pahwon exchanged a glace before walking towards the bar.
â€œProbably ought to talk cargo,â€ He said quietly, â€œthe ones delivering to, to, well, where Qarrahum used to be, uh, theyâ€™ll be headed in the wrong direction.â€
â€œY-yes, that makes sense.â€ Hiwei admitted, â€œThink w-we might run into Tossmek?â€
â€œI hope so,â€ Pahwon said quietly, â€œSheâ€™ll…probably give us a better price. Uh, and Hiwei, itâ€™s good to hear your voice again.â€
The two walked along the dockside and pushed into the dingy tavern. Instantly the overpowering smell of stale beer and moldy something blasted through their nostrils. While still recoiling from the stench the din within began drilling into their ears. Pahwon gasped, pulling himself outside for a moment to catch his breath.
Then he blinked, realizing that Hiwei was no longer next to him. He spun around and looked through the open door. Undaunted by the atmosphere, Hiwei was pushing her way through the establishment, looking around for a suitable transport captain. Not wanting to leave her alone in such a place, Pahwon took a deep breath of outside air before plunging back inside.
As though on cue, several grizzled looking patrons began walking towards the door, blocking his view. The men brushed past Pahwon, giving him only a momentary glance. By the time he had dodged past them Hiwei was already seated a top a tall stool near the middle of the bar. He edged in next to her, looking around the place with a growing sense of dread.
He had no idea how to go about getting transport, and suddenly felt nervous even thinking about it. The fear of raising suspicion about himself began to take hold. Pahwon felt completely out of place. He reached out his hand and took Hiweiâ€™s.
â€œI think maybe we came toâ€¦â€
â€œP-Pahwon, Hiwei?â€ came a familiar voice.
â€œTossmek, it-itâ€™s you,â€ Pahwon breathed, spinning around.
Tossmek stumbled out from between the tables, hurriedly seating herself next to Pahwon. She was dressed in a drab beige shirt and matching pants. She looked him over, her face fluctuating between relief and concern, snapping back and forth quickly enough to make him look away for a moment.
â€œIâ€™m so glad-are you alright, Pahwon, your leg,â€ she stammered, speaking faster than she could think. â€œYou walked in here, right? Uh, uh, maybe we ought to take this outside?â€
â€œSounds like a good idea.â€
After a final parting glace, Tossmek dropped a few copper coins on the counter before walking out the door and back into the daylight. Pahwon and Hiwei were relived to be breathing fresh air again. Without a second to rest, Tossmek began marching down the dockside, beckoning them to follow. The two scrambled after her.
â€œWhich one is yours?â€ Pahwon asked.
â€œIâ€™ll show you, just a few more piers down.â€
â€œGood, because, uh, weâ€™ve got to get transport.â€
â€œHow is your leg?â€
â€œA bit stiff and sore, but, I think it will be fine. I had a good healer.â€
â€œHere it is, my own little tub,â€ Tossmek said coming to a stop.
Moored at the pier was a twenty foot long, flat bottomed barge, the same kind Pahwon had seen on the Dossiger for years. A tiny cabin was tucked into raised the bow, a mast anchor positioned on the roof. An unremarkable craft, Pahwon thought, stepping over the gunwale; but not standing out would be a benefit to them, making it perfect. Tossmek proudly marched along the deck of her ship, leading Hiwei on a little tour.
Pahwon was about to find a place to sit when something caught his eye. Hanging from a nail next to the cabin door was a small figurine of Inanna, dangling by a tiny cord through her head. He blinked, realizing it was his figurine of Inanna. Instantly he rifled through his pockets, confirming that the trinket was missing.
â€œMy statuette,â€ Pahwon muttered.
â€œHuh? Oh, right, that little token is yours, isnâ€™t it?â€ Tossmek said, glancing at it. â€œSorry about taking it.â€
â€œN-no, thank you for picking it up.â€
â€œOh, youâ€™re welcome, then.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t know it had a hole there,â€ Pahwon said, picking it up.
â€œDid you ever look?â€
â€œNo, canâ€™t say I did, uh, how about that?â€
â€œWell, now you can keep track of it easier,â€ Tossmek said laughing, â€œUh, right, Iâ€™m curious, where did that strange woman go?â€