Escape From The Temple of Jing!
Szeth the Sphynx - Deceased
__Delara Neverfar beamed at the young woman across her desk. Jennet Highdark, eldest daughter and heir of house Highdark, one of the most prestigious and wealthy families in the city of Deep Imaskar, was quietly sobbing as she read her letter of assignment. Jennet held the creamy parchment in her lap and was looking down obscuring her face. Only the tears falling from her chin and the silent shuddering of her slender frame gave evidence to Jennet’s burgeoning joy. Delara was proud of her; the 5th regiment accepted only the most elite graduates of impeccable breeding from the House of Broken Blades. Jennet was the only graduate this year to have been accepted by the regiment, which normally took 2-5 graduates.
“You may cease to shave your head now.” Delara resumed her normal assignment speech seeing that young Jennet’s sobs were beginning to subside. “Though most women prefer to continue to do so, it is not required. Many view long hair as an indulgence granted to appease a more vain and emotional gender. But I encourage you to do what makes you the most comfortable. This transition, though very honorable and prestigious, will not be easy. The 5th regiment will turn you into an incredible officer by stretching you beyond what you ever thought you could accomplish.”
Jennet raised puffy red eyes to look at Delara. “When will I leave Ma’am?” she whispered hoarsely. “I was told we are not permitted to remain at the academy long.”
“You heard correctly.” Smiling, Delara confirmed, “The graduation feast is this evening, two hours past sundown. In recognition of the fact that many students prefer to indulge during the feast, a horse will be prepared for you to leave at 7am sharp. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s more than generous.”
Delara tsked internally as Jennet’s expression fell slightly. The woman really must learn to mask her emotions better. Her peers would take advantage of that weakness.
“Oh… yes… more than generous.” Jennet agreed reluctantly as she rose from mahogany chair across from Delara. “Thank you.”
Jennet bowed deeply to Delara and slowly backed out of the room. “Blessings on the Empress,” she intoned.
“Her blessings upon you” Delara completed the ritual farewell as Jennet closed the door in her wake. Delara reached for the next envelope on her desk and read the name on the front. She grimaced and looked for a different envelope, there were no more. “Stop putting this off.” Delara scolded herself softly. She firmly reached to the corner of her desk and picked up a small bell. Seconds after ringing it, a servant in black pants and naked from the waist up entered her office.
“What is your need mistress?” the master servant inquired his eyes respectfully downcast at the floor.
“Summon initia-“she caught herself, “Summon…” she paused again considering, and then smiling, ordered, “Summon graduate Szethet Kaladhotep.”
- **** **** ****
Delara prepared herself while the servant sought out her final graduate. She read over Kaladhotep’s records and reports. She checked detailed notes from each of his professors and mentors, and glanced through his test scores, both written and live practice. She had no need to revisit his entrance application; Delara doubted she’d ever forget that. While she read a knock came from her door. Delara put away the reports and papers and then responded in forced level tone. “Enter.”
The door swung open silently on well oiled hinges, revealing a short almost painfully thin figure. Kaladhotep Szethet stood just beyond the entrance; hand raised from pushing open the door._ No!_ She corrected herself internally. The name is reversed. The Mulan state their family names first. The young man took one step into her office and waited hands clasped behind his back. Delara placed her palms down on her desk and rose to her feet.
“Please.” She said with forced politeness while gesturing towards the chair opposite her across the desk.
The man did not hesitate, quickly, almost eagerly, striding forward and seating himself properly and gentlemanly as he’d been taught. His refined pose looked so odd to Delara, who had to choke down a bitter, scornful chuckle at the sight of him. Dressed in a sleeveless white exercise shirt and short exercise loincloth, he almost seemed to flaunt his obscene heritage. Szethet Kaladhotep had dark magenta skin with a clammy almost scale-like sheen to it. His shaved head was finely dusted in blue stubble, the beginnings of the hair he was now allowed to once again grow. Twin, black, bone-like horns sprouted from the center of his forehead and flowed back just above his scalp until, behind his head, the tips turned slightly outward. His mouth was full of teeth that at first glance seemed human-like; if one discounted that his teeth were tar black. However, on closer inspection the teeth were too sharp, almost crocodile-like. It was his eyes that disconcerted Delara though. Human in shape and size but multifaceted, compound, and insect-like, colored a strange bluish silver hue, those utterly alien lenses stared out at her, giving not the barest hint of human emotion or thought.
Long ago her own people, the Imaskari, had abducted and enslaved his people, the Mulan, from another world. The Imaskari had used mighty spells to bar the Mulan from contacting the gods of their home plane, but somehow those gods had found their wayward children. Those same spells prevented the gods from manifesting normally, but the interloping deities found a way around them. They created mighty avatars, stronger than those normally used by other deities, but these avatars came with a price, they needed to possess mortal hosts, and in doing so, the gods themselves became mortal. Lead by their gods the Mulan rebelled and cast off their oppressors. They founded an empire here on this planet, called Mulhorand. The Imaskari went into hiding and founded the city of Deep Imaskar in the underdark. There they would be safe from any locating magics.
Though defeated, the spells of the Imaskari could not be undone. The gods of the Mulan continued to rule and dwell among them, even_ breeding_ with them, polluting the pure human blood with the taint of the higher, lower, and inner planes. Thousands of years later a cataclysm rocked the world. Blue fire swept across the sky changing the nature of magic as it went. The spells of the Imaskari were destroyed, the gods were finally able to depart and return to the heavens and hells. It was then that Deep Imaskar struck. Using one of the last artifacts of their ancient empire, their empress opened a rift in the underdark which destroyed the capital and temple city of Mulhorand. Bereft of their god’s physical presence, and the majority of their priests, the theocracy of Mulhorand fell to the sorcerous legions of Deep Imaskar within a matter of years.
That had been almost 300 years ago. With its new glut of holdings on the surface, the empire rechristened itself High Imaskar and set about reconquering its old lands. The Mulan were not re-enslaved, instead they were enfolded as citizens of the new empire though strong currents of discrimination continued to swirl through society. And was it any wonder? A dozen generations of pure-blooded humans could birth an aberration like the man in front of her with no warning. Some ancient relative of his had been mounted by one of their departed bestial gods and now his line would always bear the taint of the hells. Disgusting!
“Provisional Lieutenant, Szethset Kaladhotep, reporting as ordered.” The lad barked.
The inhuman boy stepped confidently into her office and seated himself in the dark chair across from her. Delara kept silent studying him. The seconds stretched by. Kaladhotep looked unwaveringly at her. Despite the profanity of his hell-spawned gaze, Delara kept her composure even when all she wanted to do was avert her face. Finally she saw what she had been looking for, a twitch of the mouth, the tell-tale sign of someone attempting to discretely remedy a dry mouth. So he was nervous, good.
Delara reveled in the knowledge that she had the advantage over him. This boy who had overcome so many attempts to block his progress at the House of Broken Blades was in her power now. If he was nervous he didn’t have some sort of contingency or countermove to what was about to happen. The Red Knight would not be pleased. She thought smugly.
“Kaladhotep,” She broke the silence at last, “the Empress, long may she reign, has accepted your application for graduation from the House of Broken Blades. In the sight of the-“
“Which one, Ma’am?”
Delara held her breath, cutting off the “Most High” she had been about to finish. Almost, she had sputtered those words. Almost, she had lost her composure. Almost, she raised her voice and rebuked him. Almost… she gave control of the situation back to him.
Delara considered military protocol very carefully. The boy had not interrupted her invocation to the empress. Such an act would have merited 3 public lashes. And he had requested clarification after she had deliberately ended her clause, as a lieutenant, provisional or otherwise; it was his right to ask up to three clarifying questions of anyone under the rank of major. As Delara was a captain, she must excuse the interruption.
“All of them – all three of them” She clarified. “Your application for graduation based on military theory and tactics was accepted. Your applications based on Arcane and Divine magical theory and their tactical uses were also accepted. Here.”
Delara handed the envelope that bore the boy’s name to the tiefling across from her. The little monster took the envelope smiling. He gingerly flicked away the black seal of wax and opened the letter. His smile vanished as hers erupted through her composure to break upon her face. Delara exulted.
“I…” He spoke each word slowly, enunciating clearly as though he wanted Delara to make absolutely no mistake as to what he was saying, “do not believe I fully comprehend what this is saying. I am to be discharged.”
“Immediately.” she tittered. “Those are your papers of Manumission. You are a slave to her Imperial Majesty no longer.”
“The Church of Tempus-“
“Will hear of your exemplary service here. Three applications for graduation! None have accomplished that in 17 years. You shall be freed of military service and slavery. Her majesty would not dare deprive Lord War and his brilliant daughter such a fine tool.”
She would of course normally dare that three times before sunrise on any other day but not for a plane-touched Mulan whelp who had been disowned by his own family, a wretch who had blackmailed, bribed, cheated, and connived his way into and through the most prestigious military academy in all of Faerun. What other outcome could he have possibly thought lay ahead? Such was the tragedy of youth, naïve optimism that everything will work out for you.
“May I still attend the graduation feast?”
“That is for students who have graduated and been commissioned. Your affects have been packed for you.” Her smile grew vulpine as he flinched at that statement. “Once you leave here you will be brought to your things and escorted from the grounds. You’re a free… man.”
“I see.” He said woodenly. Then, his face hardening slightly, he stood up and strode towards the door.
“I have not dismissed you.” Delara said gleefully.
“You do not need to. I am a civilian. I do not need leave to depart.”
Dammit. He was right. Her smile dimmed as the faintest wisps of his tugged at his maroon lips. He was gone then, before Delara could regain her composure.
Delara set to finishing off the rest of the paperwork on her desk, trying to cover the shame of that last exchange with work. That had not gone too badly she decided at last. The boy had survived 5 years at the academy. Any professor or classmate who had tried to challenge him had been coerced in some fashion or another into stepping out of his way. He seemed to have a preternatural sense about who was going to get in his way and took steps to prepare. Come to think of it, given his history, had that been a bit too easy?
- **** **** ****
Kaladhotep stood at the gates of the House of Broken Blades. The white sack that lay on the ground beside him held all of his worldly possessions. Kaladhotep shouldered the sack and began walking briskly away. He needed to be far away from here.
He’d thought for sure that three applications would have been enough to convince them accept him. Hadn’t it been enough that he’d forced his way in and through the school? Didn’t that show what an excellent officer he’d be? He hadn’t broken any rules during his entire tenure, technically. He’d followed the rules of the school, what could essentially be thought of as the rules of war really, at least for his tenure at the academy. The Red Knight would expect no less from one of her clergy.
It was a terrible decision. Even a woman as petty as Delara should have been able to see that the empire was throwing away pearl of incredible value, even if it looked a little odd. Now now. He chided himself. The Red Kight learns from the past, she does not dwell on it beyond that purpose. With difficulty he turned his thoughts from recrimination and focused on walking as fast as he could while still appearing nonchalant. Two hours later he stood on the banks of the River Skuld and watched the last ferry approach the docks. Pidgeons from the west had indicated that summer was truly upon the mountains now. Within a day the river would swell and grow impassable for a few weeks at least. This would be the last ferry heading towards Thay for quite some time. The spores he had bribed several maids to dust the serving utensils at the graduation feast took at least two days to take effect. Once a fourth or so of the graduates began to drop dead of blackbane poisoning, it wouldn’t take them long to figure out who had been behind it all.
If he had been at the feast it would have been a different story. His presence would have been a sign to the maids to swap out the tainted goldware for an untouched set. He needed to eliminate as many potential opponents now, when he could. All was fair in war. And he was at war. If this country would not make use of his talents than he would bring it to its knees and carve a new homeland for his people.
“I will come back.” He promised to the river, to the desert. “Szethset, you named us. The harbingers of Set. I reject you Set. You abandoned us when we needed you most. But I will be a harbinger.”
Szeth needed allies, he needed power, and he needed experience before he could even begin to find away to tackle the Empire of High Imaskar. But Szeth had one ace up his sleeve… maybe. He looked into his pack and pulled out the ancient tome he had stolen the night he’d run away from his family to join the church of the Red Knight. The cover was cracked, worn, and faded but you could still faintly read in hieroglyphs: The Path to the Temple of Jing.