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A Disease of the Mind (fiction) -- Part One

(Author's note: This was written to flow like a quest. I tried to avoid elements that couldn't be added into the game, or that the player shouldn't know. Present tense, third person limited voice, where "the traveler" is the player's character. Hope you like it, comments/criticism welcome.)


The sun is just beginning to set on a city marketplace. Cooling shadows give contrast to the light gold of warm sandstone walls and the merchants’ red canopies that flank a much-traveled road. Perfumes and burning incense hang in the air, occasionally displaced by a breeze that brings aromas of wood smoke and grilling meats. The street wakes with the approaching evening. A festival mood is carried in the strains of music echoing out from the town square. Business transactions involve more friendly chatter than haggling, as anticipation builds for the night’s diversions. The light of the rising moons dances in the eyes of the Khajiit who live and work here.

Some foot traffic is still passing through the open town gate at the end of the road. From here a traveler enters the city, pausing to take in the convivial scene. The peace is broken as shouting rips through the cheery atmosphere. The crowd hastily backs away from a silver-furred Khajiit woman, who stands her ground against two intimidating town guards. They’re Khajiit as well—one black-furred and the other tiger-striped. Black-fur confronts her directly as tiger-stripe works to control the crowd. The traveler moves closer, and hears the end of the altercation.

“This one has done nothing, why does the guard not listen? Or is it only a coin for the paw that buys mercy in Dune?”

“Sweet-tooth has overstayed her welcome. Do not be found here again.”

Black-fur shoves her in the direction of the gate; she loses her footing and lands hard on her hands and knees. Satisfied that their message has been received, the guards do no further violence to her. They turn and walk back up the marketplace road toward the town square. The townsfolk bow respectfully as they pass, while tossing their own barbs at the woman. “She understands, yes? Not welcome here,” says one. “It will be the street cleaners who find you tomorrow morning if you stay,” says another.

The crowd disperses, the people returning to their purchases and their merriments. Sitting up in the dirt, the woman notices the traveler. “This one begs you to stop, walker,” she says, as the defiant tone she used with the guards wavers and breaks. “Please, stop and help an innocent Khajiit.”

From the nearest stall, a merchant sneers. “Pay no mind to Zatima. That one is not worth your time.”

In spite of the warning, the traveler approaches Zatima, who rises painfully to her feet. The tip of one ear is missing, removed some time ago with a single clean cut. “Zatima sees that you see her ear, but this one swears she does not touch the skooma anymore,” she says hurriedly, with obvious concern that the traveler might decide to keep walking. “Those were dark times for Zatima,” she continues in a calmer tone, “but she is clean now. The people here, they will not believe her. They only see the tipped ear.”

The traveler answers. “Even if I do believe you, I’m not sure I can help. They clearly want you gone.”

“And Zatima would leave, but she has no place to go. If this one could afford to travel she would not be on the street. And she would not make it far on foot and alone.” She pauses, as if suddenly aware of how dire her circumstances have become. “Zatima should never have come to Dune,” she says to herself, “and now she thinks she dies here.”

Her expression changes, displaying resignation and resolve. “Walker, Zatima asks for justice. Justice for herself, and for her son. This one sees that you are different from these slow-paws. You are strong. And you care about what is right and what is wrong—Zatima thinks so.”

“Maybe. Tell me what happened to you and your son.”

“This one’s son is named Azzakir. His father, Rashuhad...he was one of many that Zatima stayed with when she used skooma, you understand, yes? But then little Azzi came along, and this one quit the skooma for good. It was just Zatima and Azzi then, his father was too busy chasing tails and the next big score to be a parent, you see?”

“I get the picture. So what happened?”

“Azzi grew up, and Rashuhad suddenly discovered he wanted to be a father after all. Or so he said. Zatima can only guess what lies he told Azzi, to convince him to run off. They disappeared in the night...and Zatima’s home was raided by guards at dawn. They found skooma. It did not belong to this one! Whatever trouble Rashuhad brought with him, it fell on Zatima’s head instead. This one lost everything then, including the ear tip.”

“Set up, so you couldn’t go after them,” the traveler scowls. “You probably got locked up for a while, too, because of the skooma.”

“Just so. Once she was free, this one tried her best to find them. She searched everywhere, but tongues don’t wag without gold. It is hard for a tipped-ear to get work, you understand? Dark moons! Everywhere the doors would slam on Zatima’s nose. ‘Go away sweet-tooth!’ they would shout.”

“But you persisted.”

She nods. “Zatima never gave up. And she found them. Found them here, in Dune. Rashuhad pretends to be respectable—she hears he has a job now, working for some big-shot merchant. But this one smells a rat. And Azzi...poor Azzi is in debtors’ prison for stealing, and works like a slave in the clay pits.”

“Debtors’ prison? If Rashuhad is so respectable, he should pay whatever the fine is and get his son out of there.”

“Rashuhad has no son, the people say, and Azzi is just a lying thief. But Zatima knows better. And she will die trying to make things right. Unless you will help her.”

The traveler locks eyes with Zatima, searching in hers for the truth. “How can I know this isn’t just a sob story you tell before you ask for money? Why should I believe you?”

“Because this one does not ask you for money. Zatima needs protection. If she travels with you, the guards will leave her alone. Then she might have a chance.”

“And in exchange for risking my neck, what do you offer me?”

“Seeing justice done, and also this one’s undying gratitude. That is all Zatima has to give you.”

“Then you are no beggar, and I believe your story. I will help you.”

Zatima’s composure breaks, and through sobs, she answers, “Thank you, walker. May Jone and Jode light your way forever.” She pulls herself together and turns to look toward the town square in the distance. “So. Food first, perhaps? Maybe you are hungry, and Zatima has not eaten all day. She thinks she has enough gold to pay for yours, too. You are a cheap date, she hopes?”

“If you told me there was a free meal in it, you could have skipped the rest.”

“Hah! Come then, let us go eat.” The Khajiit’s eyes fill with tears and hope. “Then Zatima will save her son. Somehow.”

A stage occupies one corner of the square, on which a motley assortment of musicians play familiar tunes, jumping in and out of the song as the inspiration takes them. The two adjacent corners are crammed with merchants’ tents and carts of produce, the vendor’s voices competing with the music to call out their wares. In the corner opposite the stage, long lines stretch out from the fire pits, and still more wait to fill mugs from kegs stacked as high as the wall behind them.

Rather than wait in line, Zatima and the traveler find a cook’s cart working near the kegs. The bowls of stew he’s serving aren’t nearly as enticing as the meats searing nearby, but the line is short and the price is right. The chef is a surly Khajiit, who fills the bowls quickly and works his line of customers with skill—but without pleasantries. On seeing Zatima in line, his production halts for a moment, with a bowl in one hand and a full ladle hovering over it in the other. The pause is brief and he’s back to full speed before his current customer even notices—but his eyes linger on Zatima, and her tipped ear.

“Two, please,” says Zatima when it’s her turn to order, and the cook’s hesitation lasts only as long as it takes Zatima to put her coins on his counter. He grunts in acknowledgement, fills her bowl, and hands it to her. He fills another bowl and hands it to the traveler, but doesn’t let go of it. Instead, he leans forward and speaks in a low rumble of a voice, “One who becomes an addict is an addict thereafter, yes? Like cooking with moon sugar, once you add it you cannot take it back out again.”

“There’s moon sugar in this stew, right?”

“This one puts a little in, yes.”

“But you don’t call it ‘moon sugar stew’, right?”

“ Beef.”

“Huh.” The traveler looks from the Khajiit to the bowl and back again. “Can I have my food now?”

The Khajiit grunts sourly and returns to his work. It takes the traveler a few moments to spot Zatima and catch up with her. She’s standing with her back to cook’s cart, staring into her bowl, not eating. “This one foolishly thought such comments would stop with you around.” She lifts the spoon and stirs the stew a few times. “Zatima is sorry for what just happened.”

The traveler shrugs. “I don’t need any apology from you. From him, maybe. Two apologies if this stew isn’t good.” A spoonful later, and the traveler shrugs again. “I guess just one will do—this isn’t bad.” Zatima’s anxious melancholy visibly lifts; her pained eyes close and worry lines smooth with a long sip of the thick broth. They sit against the wall next to the stacked kegs, and finish their meal without further conversation.

“Good evening, good evening! Hello, hello! I’d like your attention, please! Yes, sorry, thank you, stop the music if you would, please. I’ll let you get back to it in a minute, don’t get your hackles up! Good evening, the square! Yes, your tails are lovely, but let’s all turn ‘round so I can see your whiskers. Free ale tonight, that’s right! Next round’s on the house! And a year’s supply of moon sugar to the first...I’m kidding! Just kidding! You know that. But I’ve got your attention now, don’t I!”

The wood elf on stage is quite a bit smaller than the Khajiit there with him, but his voice cuts through the noise of the crowd with ease. His antics and cheerful banter hook eyes and ears, compelling the full attention of those nearby and turning heads throughout the square.

“So, what sort of moon are we all going to be seeing tonight?” The Bosmer turns and sticks out his backside, inching his trousers downward one exaggerated wiggle at a time, until the crowd’s yelling and laughter are loud enough to guarantee that all eyes are, finally, on him. “I see, just a crescent moon. Well, that’s a relief. If I’d thought it was going to be a full moon tonight, I would have waxed it!”

His act shifts from buffoonery to dignified almost in an instant, as he assumes a pose that is somehow both casual and commanding. He waits for the crowd to settle down. “Ah, friends. Lovely evening, isn’t it?” He gets a bit of warm applause and a few cheers. “Good, well let’s get right to it then. Ra’Bashagh has something important he needs to tell you all about, so please give him just a moment of your time, and then we’ll get you back to your merry making. Here he is.”

Zatima leans toward her companion and whispers excitedly, “That name, this one has heard it many times in Dune. Ra’Bashagh is the big-shot merchant! They say half the town works for him. No one Zatima spoke to had anything bad to say about Ra’Bashagh.” She hurries toward the stage. “Quickly, we must get closer. If anyone can help us free Azzi, that one can.”

While the pair press through the crowd, a Khajiit is taking the stage. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, finely dressed. He speaks in a warm but powerful voice. “Thank you, Gladhrim. A pleasant evening it is, yes. And Ra’Bashagh does have something important, very important, to tell you of. We all know of the blight on our community...skooma. And rumors have grown of a new player in that nefarious game. A new Skooma Lord, here in Dune.” He pauses, and the crowd is silent. “It is clear to Ra’Bashagh that he must act. And act he has.”

Almost through the crowd, and a few steps ahead of the traveler, Zatima cries out as she’s suddenly yanked forward. Ra’Bashagh pauses his speech as Zatima is brought on stage and forced to kneel in front of him, closely guarded by the two Khajiit who snatched her from the crowd. “Ra’Bashagh asks you to welcome Zulana and Khari to Dune,” he says, gesturing to the two holding Zatima. “They have come to hunt this new Skooma Lord. This one has chosen to become their patron.” He pauses yet again, allowing time for polite applause. “Please, show them every courtesy,” he says in an earnest tone. “They act on this Khajiit’s behalf—speak to them as you would speak to Ra’Bashagh, and assist them in any way you can.”

Finally, he turns his attention to Zatima. “And let us not forget to be vigilant. There would be no dealers if there were no buyers.” His disdain is palpable. “Let this one be an example, that others may know the consequences and choose the right path. She shall go to my clay pits. She will work until her debt to society is paid.”

Zulana and Khari pull Zatima to her feet and lead her away. The wood elf Gladhrim follows close behind them, but not before flashing his smile to the crowd and giving a wave. Ra’Bashagh silently follows their progress, as if witnessing this event was itself an important act. The power of his gaze influences others in the crowd to follow suit.

When he speaks again, the warmth has returned to his voice. “Ra’Bashagh is humbled that you trust him to do what is best for Dune. This Khajiit will always work to be worthy of such respect.” He bows, accepting applause and cheers. “Now then, enough business! You thought Gladhrim only joked, yes? Not so, for the next round is on Ra’Bashagh. Please enjoy, and a good evening to you all.”

He gestures toward the brewers, who pull down another keg to tap it. He then descends from the stage. Two guards, black-fur and tiger-stripe, move to fall in behind him. Black-fur locks his eyes on the traveler in a warning stare, then turns to Ra’Bashagh and gives a slight nod. Ra’Bashagh sets off in the same direction as the others, the guards a few paces behind.

And the traveler follows.
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