AD&D - New World

32.1: The Shepherd

jongle & khalid are faced with a choice...

On the road to the Accursed City, Jongle has a terrible dream … he stands before the old Vistani woman, only her eyes have been clawed out. There are bloody streaks running down her face.

“You! You have stolen my vision! You, who now carries my sight, you are bound to this place! If you leave — though you may live — your heart will surely shatter! This I can still see!”

Jongle awakes with a start, covered in a cold sweat, as Minja, still asleep, curls tightly to his side.

Jongle rifles through his pockets and pulls out the deck of cards. He hadn’t even given them a second thought. It was something he just took. What a fool he was!

Two cards fall to the ground face up. The Thief. The Charlatan. He quickly gathers them and stumbles out into the surrounding jungle. At the edge of a little cliff, he tosses the cards ineffectually out in front of him, and they scatter in the night air.

Looking down he can only see the bloody, eyeless hag cursing him. A horrible pit in his stomach tells him precisely what the tragedy will be. How foolish he was to think he could actually be happy. Or normal. And not doomed to a succession of calamities and failures. Was his laughter not a mask, a pitiful coping mechanism, a fraud? A desperate attempt to keep the unconquerable fear and sadness at bay.

Jongle wipes vomit from his lips and slowly walks back to the camp like a prisoner shuffling to his execution.

Khalid sits down in the Naga hut and rests for moment. I wonder if we could have avoided killing the thing. Sent it home somehow, to that terrible maze instead. I would like to be done with killing.

He pulls the first key from its pouch and holds it for a moment, closing its eyes and concentrating. What can you tell me, old friend?

The key is cool in Khalid’s hands. It grows warmer as he meditates on it. Not hot — but pleasantly, familiarly warm.

A voice comes to Khalid, as if from particularly far away.

This is a place of Law. Like the other. More tenuous, but — safe.

Stay here. Heal yourself. Grow stronger.

Khalid thinks on this, and then puts the wand back in its pouch. Next he picks up the dice. He holds them in his hand. And what are you?

He rolls them.

Khalid has rolled the Dice of Certain Wagering. Their result will always be whatever the roller desires.

Khalid pockets the dice. There is something comforting to him about their non-randomness. An order that soothe him. He gets up from his meditations and walks out into the jungle.

Emerging form the hut, he sees Jongle standing apart from the group, looking shaken. The goblin seems to be staring back the way the group had come and the normally jaunty set of his shoulders was replaced with a soft slump.

Khalid walks next to him, and, without speaking, releases a small puff of spores, connecting his mind to Jongle’s.

What is the trouble, my friend? You seem not to be yourself.

Suddenly, the image of the eyeless hag is replaced by a beardy mushroom man. Coughing, Jongle shrinks back and swats away the spores. He tries to resist the mental probe, but Khalid presses, and asks the question again.

Of the Revengers, Jongle had always found most in common with Khalid. They seemed to share a warped sense of humor at one point, and Jongle respected his courage from the moment they met in Scalf’s horrible tower. And despite the fact that Khalid was becoming less and less like himself as time went on, and much less…relateable, Jongle still felt a certain ease with the dwarfshroom.

_It—it’s bad. Real bad. I screwed up bad, Khalid. I stole those old hag’s cards. I thought she was, like, a ghost or somethin’ and wouldn’t miss ’em! _

But now she’s talkin’ to me in my dreams! Sayin’ I’m cursed if I ever leave the island, and some horrible tragedy is gonna befall me. She said my heart will shatter! You know what means, Khalid, don’t ya?

Jongle’s mouth is silently agape, his hands pressing hard on Khalid’s shoulders.

I…I can’t go through with this. You can’t tell no one, but I gotta scram. Me and Minja. We’re gonna stay on the island. We’re gonna run away, and… I can’t go through with this, Khalid!

That is indeed a fearsome thing… Khalid responds. …The cards? Do you still have them?

The cards? No…No, I threw ‘em away in the jungle last night! I don’t want ‘em! It ain’t like I even care about those cards! I just took ‘em! Stupid! I’m so stupid! I’m a genius…but I’m really stupid!

I have an idea, thinks Khalid, but you must trust me.

Khalid kneels at the edge of the jungle and whispers in to the dirt, summoning something up and out of the loam.

Khalid bends low and whispers to the creature, describing the cards and their location. “Bring them to me,” he commands. “As many as you can find.”

What are you doin’, Khalid? Don’t get the cards back! Are you crazy! You wanna be cursed too?!

From the earth, mud, and rock of the jungle a humanoid form rises. It is faceless but for two shiny pricks that appear to serve as eyes. It regards Khalid for a brief moment, then turns to its appointed task.

The creature melts into the earth and seems to slide itself down the steep ravine where Jongle tossed the cards. The elemental melds, folds, and slides barely under the earth — the near-featureless face never disappearing — as the tiny rectangles of the tarokka deck are slowly gathered.

The elemental moves slowly, but after several minutes a pile of cards — dirty, some creased — has appeared at the base of the ravine. The elemental turns to look back up toward Khalid and Jongle, and then — with the sound of a collapsing structure — the elemental collapses, Khalid’s conjuring expired.

Several more cards erupt from the former elemental, floating down to join the pile of several dozen cards — apparently, all 54 accounted for.

The cards have all landed face-down, save for one: The Shepherd.

“This card calls forth the devotion and dedication of friends and allies. It marks those who are loyal companions and devoted followers. Such people watch over those around them, just as a shepherd watches over the flock.

“On the other side of the coin, this card is a dark and dangerous force of evil. It marks the falling of a trusted friend, either accidentally or purposefully. It suggest that too much trust or responsibility has been placed upon someone unworthy to bear such a burden.”

I think, perhaps, we are being sent a message, Jongle, thinks Khalid. Though if it is my God or yours or the jungle itself that sends it, I do not know.

Trade me. The cards for the these dice. They will land as you wish them to land—a measure of control over your destiny in exchange for for this terrible certainty

I will take on the curse along with the cards. I will kill this Maharaja, if we can find an opportunity. And I will stay here. A shepherd to these people.

Only, promise me. When you leave this place, you will find these terrible keys and keep them safe.

Jongle is shocked by what has transpired, and he stands there looking for a moment at Khalid’s outstretched hand holding the pair of dice.

With a solemn brow, he gathers the cards and walks back to Khalid.

I don’t understand the will o’ gods or ghosts or demons from hell. But all I know is…you’re a better mushroom than me, Khalid. You—you’re a goddamn saint! I promise!

Jongle clasps his hand with Khalid’s giving him the cards, and then bawls in the dwarf’s arms for a good long while.

There is no change in the jungle winds as Jongle takes the dice and hands over the cards.

There is no ominous wind or flash of lightning.

The cards are perfectly normal cards in Khalid’s fungal hands.

Jongle never again dreams of the old gypsy woman.

Jongle knows, if Khalid kills the Maharajah and takes his place, and if Jongle then leaves Sri Raji, that he may never again see his friend.

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