It was the same night terror he always had. Tan Meng was a young boy, the son of a fisherman and his wife living in a small coastal village on the Eastern shores of the Sea of Fallen Stars. He was playing with his brother on the beach when strange lights flashed in the woods at the edge of the settlement houses. The lights grew brighter and were joined by screams and howls in the dusk. Both boys ran back towards their home and the safety of their family. As they crossed the distance Tan began to fall behind the pace of his older brother and time seemed to slow.
In the dream the very ground stretched ahead as his feet grew leaden and he struggled to put one foot in front of the next. His brother Aoth was tireless and rushed ahead and around the corner of a house into the clearing of the village square. By the time Tan entered the square he saw his parents kneeling on the ground with their hands bound behind them. A man, naked, save for the bone helm he wore and a necklace of shark teeth that rattled every time he turned, addressed others in the village and said things Tan could never clearly make out.
Tan started for the clearing just in time to see Aoth rush towards the naked blathering zealot. At that, time slowed further still and all Tan could do was see the zealot turn towards Aoth and point a diseased finger in his direction. A yellowish green beam lanced outwards, striking Aoth in the forehead, bursting through his skull and spattering gore everywhere.
At this point in the dream, time always sped up, and this was no exception, but he also began to feel a wicked thrumming in his thigh and his face felt wet. He could feel something running up his face. In the last moments of the dream, Tan glanced at his father, who by now had risen, only to be beaten down with a thrown hammer from a brute, followed a fraction of a second later by a similar skull spitting death beam from the zealot. His mother wailed and looked directly at him. Now the pain in his thigh ached and was tearing at his mind. His last vision in the dream was watching his mother being beheaded.
He attempted to open his eyes. One was swollen so badly that it didn’t matter. The other he was able to part his lids, but the warm liquid on his face was running into his eye blurring his vision and irritating him more. He thought he caught a glance of a red dawn on the ceiling? A stabbing and grinding sensation gripped his body in pain. Centered on his right leg, just above the knee, he tried to reach the point of suffering but his arms flailed uselessly above his head. The left arm was probably broken, and he thought he could smell burnt flesh, probably his own.
Turning his head slowly to the side, he managed to wipe his face on his tunic that floated, bunched near his face. How was that possible? Cracking his one good eye open, he realized he was at the temple of Chauntea in Greenest, where his companions of the previous evening had defeated several dragon cultists and managed to rescue a handful of villagers. Looking down at his leg, it suddenly dawned on him, he was looking up actually. He was spiked to the door of the temple upside down. Blood from that wound trickled out, down to his face and made a disturbingly large crimson pool on the top steps of the temple.
He passed out again.
THE HORROR OF REALIZATION
He entered the dream again. The same dream. Over and over. This time, however, he was not as slowed, and he was able to keep up with his brother. No, this time it was Valeriya?! The zealot of his childhood dark memories was replaced by that two legged dragon champion. Tan Meng rushed forth only to see the family in the square cut down, a bright flash from several points and all was darkness.
He stumbled into consciousness sometime later not knowing how much time had passed. He could not recall all the events of the previous evening and only had fragments of memories from inside the keep, but more than the unnerving feeling of lost time was the realization that he was the immediate cause of that family being struck down, just as in his youth he caused his own family’s death…
The muscles in his torn leg twitched, causing unending pain to wrack him. The reek of smeared excrement and cold urine on his clothing assailed his nose and seared in the shame.
Into darkness once more…
After that cruel night, his last in the village of his childhood, Tan Meng was sold into slavery. Many others in his village had similar fates, well, the young mostly. It seemed most under the age of ten had been sold into slavery the rest were killed. Or eaten and then killed. He was taken to countless towns and was paraded and sold many times to different merchants. He seemed lucky somehow, while others met gruesome fates, or were treated as most slaves were. It seemed the ones that purchased him seemed to at least provide enough food and he wasn’t beaten. What he did do was endure many days and nights in a traveling caravan. From what he could learn from others, they were traveling Westward where people of his race were viewed as exotic.
Strangely the faces on the road did not have the same appearance as ones he was accustomed to. These people had skinny heads, were shorter, or wider, or taller, than he was used to. And most strange was their hair. It was coarse, and curly. And these people stank. They stank like the road, and the dust, and the desperation. But there were others even more strange to Tan Meng.
One evening while the caravan was drawn to the side of the road and the guards and merchants enjoyed the light and warmth of campfires, the enchained slaves huddled together in the darkness for warmth. At that point the huddled mass of slaves could hear a commotion. A fight had broken out and bore the sounds crashing glassware, disturbed animals and vows of vengeance. A hushed whisper to the right grabbed Tan’s attention. A hooded silent figure approached and bent at the knee. Deftly this figure reached out to the chains. One quick clicking sound and Tan was free of his manacles. The hooded figure pointed towards the woods and nodded, continuing down the chain line.
Tan wasn’t the shiniest shell on the beach, but he knew an opportunity when he saw it. Off into the woods he ran. It seemed only a few strides and then he felt burly arms reach out with a hush. Tan stopped and looked at the stranger who raised a finger to his lips, and smiled. A dimly lit pendant cast a warm glow on the stranger’s features and Tan knew he was friendly.
It turned out that the pair of rescuers were from a city called Neverwinter. The person who picked the locks was named Tanis and the man with the friendly face was Graton. Graton was a priest of Chauntea and Tanis was a rogue. Neither had patience for slavers. When they happened upon the caravan scene, they had only to spend a few moments preparing a ruse. Tanis was able to pick the pocket of one merchant, and plant the goods on another. The merchants’ greed and ill temper took care of the rest.
Graton and Tanis lead the small bunch of ex-slaves onwards to Neverwinter. They were free to go where they wished. For Tan’s part he had no family, no food and no where to go. Graton and Tanis were the first kind souls he had encountered since the death of his family months ago.
Once in Neverwinter, Graton brought Tan Meng to the temple of Chauntea where he was allowed to stay and eventually live as an acolyte in training. It was a respite from the long days on the road, and the temple offered solace. Kindness was tempered with hard work, devotion to Chauntea and service to the commoners. For a while Tan Meng was able to put the tragic events of his childhood away, but he often had nightmares and a lingering sense of deep shame for what he believed he had caused.
Over the years his friend Tanis would return with tales of adventure and trinkets and baubles from afar. While Tan Meng was happy in the confines of the temple grounds, he began to develop a wanderlust that would not go away. At 28 he believed he had made the right decision to serve the faithful in Neverwinter and learn the ways of healing. The life was peaceful and rewarding. It made the nightmare of his youth disappear. Almost anyway.
Towards the end of a particularly rainy summer, Tan received word from a mutual friend that Tanis had been kidnapped by dragon cultists to the south. Even though he was well passed the age of decision, he knew that he couldn’t stay in the temple any longer while his friend that had freed him of slavery now was in trouble.
Packing his few belongings, Tan Meng headed out on his own to find Tanis, or at least word of what had happened.
Another jolt of pain and a coughing spasm brought Tan Meng back into the waking world of suffering. From what he knew of healing, he at least wasn’t dying but he was at death’s door. Was death happy with the last haul of the evening, too bloated on the orgy of killing the previous night to take one more miserable soul?
The immediate future was unknown, and only one thing was certain. If he was ever able, Tan Meng would atone for his foolishness, and do all that he could to alleviate the suffering of others. If it meant killing every last dragon cultist in existence, then he would do it. Fuck, his leg hurt bad. “Fuck, Tan, you deserve it,” he muttered. His first words of the day.