The summer in the northwestern provinces of the Empire of Sorres could generally be called 'uncomfortably warm' on a good day, and 'sweltering curse' on any other.
Fortunately for two men working in a spacious cavern, the temperature inside was much lower, and thus, much more bearable. They were kneeling in the soft dirt, busily dusting the floor with small brushes. They could be mistaken for some bizarre cleaners, if not for a selection of other tools, such as shovels in several sizes, pickaxes and small chisels which were scattered around the area. The entire site was illuminated by a dim, cool light coming off several crystals, which hung from the rough cavern ceiling on thin chains, making them look like they were floating mid-air.
-"Yo, Emkay. Dis luk lakka anedda doodad. Eh, a badly deteriored doah." - said one of them in his native islandic tongue, albeit with a heavy stelandian accent. He wore a simple sleeveless vest, a soft cotton scarf, currently tied around his neck, and long trousers reinforced on the knees with leather pads, all in a dull shade of green. The last piece of his attire was fairly unusual in that it had small, open-top satchels sewn-on near the waist. His dark skin gleamed oily in the light.
The man gestured towards the shallow pit, which held several strange objects half buried in the packed dirt. His hair, tied into dozens of locks and bundled together, bounced about. His hairdo and facial features were typical for the hoomin living on the islands of the Sorian Sea, the Northern Ocean and in the far northeast of Sorres, where the temperatures stayed high all year round.
His companion interrupted his own work and quickly came over from another neck of the cave. He was similarly dressed but his skin was much lighter shade of brown and his hair were curly and cropped short.
His left arm sported a complicated tattoo, of no discernible pattern but resembling several intermingled lightnings. It had a subtle metallic shimmer to it.
-"Very gud find Niven." - he said, eyeing the piece the man was pointing to - "Ih luk betta dan most ah wah wi hab bac eena storage. Careful wid ih."
-"Man, nuh need tuh remind mi." - replied the man called Niven - "Maanica wud kill mi eff mi damaged dis ting."
Both men returned to their digging, using tiny rock hammers and round brushes with short bristles made of horsehair, to clear away dirt and dust and uncover the artefacts in as undamaged a state as possible.
They were digging for something far more valuable than just gold or gems. The artefacts in the cave were made of a variety of materials that could be best described as wondrous. There was copper so pure that even tanai scientists could not science an equivalent on their own. There were metals which the same tanai could not even find an ore of. There also was something that had no analogue on the continent. It resembled wood, or bone perhaps, except that it was fairly flexible and it melted when held over a lit candle. All of those things were interwoven in an intricate matrix of tiny elements, traces and blocks.
- “Mista Emkay! Awon did cum tuh buck up you!” - came a voice from outside of the cave. It sounded like it belonged to a female.
The curly-haired man threw his dark skinned companion a puzzled look, only to receive an equally puzzled shrug in response.
- “Yeh, Mi a coum!” - he shouted back, then meticulously put his tools down and headed towards the exit.
- “Mi did tink yuh sorted evryting out wid di chief?” - said Niven, grinning.
- “Yeh Mi did. Mi nuh kno wah dis a all bout.”
The man called Emkay emerged from the cave and straight away he felt as if he hit a wall. The air outside had been scorched by Bivos for most of the day, and thus was hot, dry and seemed to burn the lungs of anyone breathing it.
Not even the fact that he was a nord, which meant he should have been used to such temperatures, helped, so he had to remind himself that the reason for being here made the weather completely irrelevant.
The hoomin trio laid their camp out right in the middle of nowhere. The surrounding area was rather flat, with picturesque rocks jutting here and there without any rhyme or reason. There were some bushes and some rare, stunted trees growing in clumps of threes and fours, but apart from them and an occasional patch of dried grass, the land, as far as the eye could see, was a scorched sea of reddish dust.
The cave entrance was located in the middle of a group of large stones, which itself looked rather out of place. There were three tents to the right of the entrance and next to them, a huge, solidly built four-wheeled cart. Three hobbled maargardian horses walked about trying to nibble the dried grass, seemingly with little luck. Another cart was parked some distance away with its drawbars resting loosely on the ground. This one was loaded with crates of varying sizes.
The first cart was currently occupied by a woman, of the same people as Niven. She stood there, with one leg propped on top of the sideboard, as if she was hunting whales off the bow of a boat, and was tensely observing something distant with the aid of a brass spyglass.
Her long hair was braided in a similar fashion to Niven's, but with a difference in that she had hundreds of tiny glass beads interwoven in her locks, and she wore those tied into a loose ponytail. Whenever she moved her head, the beads jingled quietly. She was a tall woman with wide hips, ample bosom, strong legs and smooth, brown skin. All this together formed a description of someone who very much draws attention, either in a form of desire by men, or envy by women. She wore a tight-fitting beige leather vest, adorned with a myriad of loops, hoops and sewn-on sequins, a white long-sleeved shirt, brown linen skirt, slashed on both sides, and knee high boots.
Next to her, sat casually on a dremlan trotter, was a scrawny figure of a woman, at most a mer and two thirds in height. Unlike the islanders, she wore a common local dress, comprising a grey abaya belted with a crimson sash and a dark turban to protect from the bivlight. She was olive skinned and her face was criss-crossed with wrinkles of someone who spent their life on the road. She was maybe in her late fifties or early sixties. She smoked a pipe while her horse was trying to nibble the sad remnants of grass. Emkay recognized the figure immediately as one of his agents and nodded at her as a welcome.
-”Martina!” - shouted ‘Emkay’, this time in a clean form of Cammona Tongue - “I take it there is a problem!?”
The woman smiled back at him, slowly let go of the pipe and answered in the same language.
-”Whether it is or isn't a problem, we shall see soon enough!” - she waved the pipe in a vague gesture, then put it back in her mouth and took a long whiff. She then dismounted her horse surrounded by a thick leaf-smoke and leisurely came closer to Emkay.
Her tiny, slim figure seemed more like that of a child than an old woman, especially in comparison to the man, who even among nords, let alone other hoomin races, was considered tall and well built. -”Those ‘Novikov’ bandits you wanted to keep an eye on…” - she began while tilting her head - “they kept an eye on you as well and are now en route here. Most likely to show how much they care about your health and equipment.”
-”Sorres.” - muttered Emkay - “How much time, in your estimate, before they get here?”
Martina let off another puff of smoke, and opened her mouth, but was rudely interrupted by the islander woman.
-”Quantar, maybe ah lickle more!” - shouted Maanica from the cart, pointing towards the desert. Emkay nodded and both he and Martina went towards the cart.
-”Maanica? Mi tek yu si dem already?” - asked Emkay leaping onto the cart with practised ease. Instead of answering, the woman threw her nautical spyglass at him. He caught it mid air, unfolded it and had a good long look.
There were four of them, all men, all mounted. Their small northern steppe horses picked up a huge dust cloud from the tract.
-”Niven! Wi hav get company!” - he shouted as he returned the optics - “Martina, Maanica, let’s prepare to meet our guests.”
He jumped off, disappeared into one of the tents for a short while and came back out wearing a belt fitted with numerous pouches and holding, among other things, a nice collection of throwing knives and a long cavalry sabre. Then he checked if the weapon came out of the scabbard easily. At the same time a series of sharp clicks came from the cart when Maanica prepared her impressive collection of flintlock pistols. Martina took her horse to the side of the camp opposite to the approaching bandits, unpacked two handguns from her travel bags, then returned towards the cart and quietly squatted behind it.
The riders approached and spread into a semi circle, then stopped at a respectable distance. They were dressed in white or grey abaya coats in varying states of disrepair, belted with colourful sashes, in varying states of dirtiness, and they all had grey turbans on their heads. All men were armed with short sabres and long sticks, which would usually be seen in possession of camel drivers. Two had a flintlock pistol stuck behind their belts. They all looked so uniform they made an impression of a regular army detachment. One that was through quite some service, but still.
-“You’re trespassing…” - yelled the man at the front. He spoke in the Cammona tongue, with a somewhat detectable southern accent - “... and you're doing illicit mining surveys! There are hefty fines for that.”
- “Under whose authority?” - replied Emkay, in a cold, flat voice - “We have permits from the Tevros magistrate to perform excavations here.”
The men laughed. It was a forced dirty laugh, which, considering the circumstances, had a rather underwhelming effect.
-“The Novikov Agency has this area under protection.” - replied another mounted man - “Pay up or… well, just pay up.”
The first bandit looked around the camp, taking note of the solid quality tents, the cart full of supplies and the full-blood maargardian horses and seemed to calculate something in his head.
-“Two hundred...” - he finally arrived at a figure.
The nord shrugged and produced a large geldkatze, a double-ended Maargardian money pouch, prized for its practicality and capacity.
-“...each day you’re trespassing.” - added the brigand.
Emkay’s left eyebrow shot up by half a cimer.
-“Two hundred. Per week.” - he replied, in a voice used by purveyors of second hand horses - “And you personally make sure no one bothers us in our work.”
The man scowled.
- “We will do no such thing. The price is now two fifty a day.” - he paused for effect - “Paid upfront. Two weeks’ worth.”
Emkay exchanged glances with his islander companion, and looked back at the brigands, nodding slightly several times as if he was considering their offer. Four thousand sorresian silver duds, an equivalent of annual profit from a small manufactory in Sheridawn. For such a sum one could buy the entire excavation site up to and including the land in a kimer radius around it, and the seller would probably throw in a couple of slaves as a thank you gesture.
- “The deal is off.” - he said finally. The merchant-like attitude evaporated completely - “Leave. Now.”
The highwayman scoffed and repositioned so that a pistol he tucked behind his belt was clearly visible.
- “We have the au-tho-rity…” - the man struggled with the last word - ”...to use force if ne-ce-sery.”
- “You just made your second mistake.” - replied Emkay pulling a throwing knife from a sheath.
The man reached for the gun.
Several shots sounded, in such quick succession that one could think it was a small cannon being fired, not several flintlocks. Two men fell off their horses. The third man hit the dirt a couple of drips later with a piece of steel sticking out of his eye socket. One mount bolted, dragging the limp body behind it, others snorted and danced around nervously. The sole remaining brigand looked around, blinking in shock. He managed to get his pistol from his belt and was in the process of finding the utensils to light the match, which he didn't deem necessary to prepare beforehand. The process, which has now been unpleasantly interrupted.
-“What the actual…” - he mumbled.
Emkay held his hand up.
-“Take your friends and leave. Tell whomever sent you that this will not be tolerated. Be sure to mention that it took but a few drips to kill all of your Divinul forgotten mates and that you are alive only because someone had to deliver the message.”
The brigand did not wait a moment longer. He turned his horse around and spurred its sides until it was in full gallop, forgetting he was supposed to collect the bodies of his hapless companions.
Martina went out from behind the cart, leaned on it and shook her head in disdain at the carnage. Maanica jumped off her temporary stronghold and went over to check the bodies. She could not see one of the corpses, since the horse dragging it by the leg had already disappeared in the far away bushes, but the other one was missing half a skull, and instead had gained a two-inch jagged hole where the nose bridge should have been. She nodded, satisfied with how precise her hastily aimed shot was. The hind half of one of the horses was slathered in blood and sad remnants of brain mass, mixed with bone fragments.
Emkay watched the scene with a slight grimace of disapproval. He came over the other body, the one killed with a knife, and pulled the weapon from the wound.
- “Wah ah mess.” - he said to nobody in particular, then turned around towards the cave entrance - “Yo Niv! Coum out an help wi clean all dis up!”
Niven indeed emerged from the cave some time later, shading his eyes from the light. He looked around incredulously.
- “Wah kine ah trubble yuh get wi in? Yuh can ave all papers legit, buh sinting aluais guhs tits up.” - he said in a defeated voice, shaking his head - “Sorres, man. More lakka hush donki eff yuh aks mi.”
Emkay, who was leading one of the mares into the camp, made an effort on a half-smile.
- “Ih a ‘sorry ass’, Niven. Dis joke nuh wuk eena yuh language.”
Niven stared for a few drips in the direction in which the brigand rushedly fled.
-”Emkay. Yu tink dem will return?” - he asked. There was a barely detectable fear in his voice.
-”Deh a nuh a seh.” - replied Emkay - “Eeda weh wi needa tuh at least duh sum preparations an kleen di mess dem leff. “