Sabaku the Deserter Vol. 0:
“Showdown at the Cactus’s Prick”
“The Way of War is a Way of Deception.” – Sun-tzu
“When you are even with an opponent, it is essential to keep thinking of stabbing him in the face….” – Miyamoto Musashi
Far from Shoukyoku’s Imperial City a troop of eight armed soldiers ride west along a twisting trail through a hilly region of a large coniferous forest. Industry has not yet spread out to these lands, but the Emperor demands assimilation. The trees here are tall and sparse, and although this lonely trail leads to the farthest reaches of Emperor Shoukyoku’s domain, the Imperial banner nevertheless flies at regular intervals, posted every thousand paces on the roadside. These royal blue banners bear Emperor Shoukyoku’s coat of arms, a golden albatross, squawking with its wings stretching out to each side. The flags mark the land as Shoukyoku’s possession; they are a persistent reminder to travellers on the road, but they also appear intermittently and without warning throughout the wilderness, reinforcing the Emperor’s omnipresence. The soldiers, too, are easily recognizable as the property of Emperor Shoukyoku. Their leather-band armour is dyed blue and their conical, woven helms feature a prominent golden albatross, its outstretched wings flaring out like savage horns. As if it weren’t enough, every troop of the Imperial Legion must include a standard bearer, yet again reinforcing this overbearing motif. The whirring of the roadside flags as the soldiers speed past creates an odd rhythm mingled with the cacophony of thunderous horse hooves pounding the ground.
The forest begins to thin as the soldiers near the limit of Shoukyoku’s influence. Beyond, the land is barren, a desert that’s been left mainly deserted. The sky is open, nearly cloudless, revealing an endless canopy of vibrant blue, as if the Emperor had made the very heavens his banner. The sun blazes, the air is hot and the land is dry. The soil is cooked and it begins to crack under the heat. Life struggles in this land. Shrubbery is scattered and few, but cactus plants manage to survive in the oppressive heat. Shoukyoku’s banners do not stretch out through this land, not yet. Indentured labourers and criminals have been brought out to expand the empire. Taskmasters ensure productivity remains optimal, and the workers continue planting flags in the dirt, daring to venture no further than the reach of a longbow from the treeline. Some curse the soldiers under their breath as they ride past towards a narrow canyon not far in the distance.
This wasteland is known as Tynet. It is a vast land, harsh and inhospitable. Dissidents, outlaws, and criminals from the surrounding sovereignties frequently find refuge here simply because the authorities would rather not maintain pursuit through such a foreboding landscape. One such refuge is Runner’s Rest, a tiny refuge consisting of a few hobbled shanties hidden in the crevice beneath a large crag in the cliffside of a narrow canyon, located not too far from the Shoukyoku border. A small river trickles through the bottom of the ravine, providing much needed drinking water for the grimy tavern’s stills. A filthy sign reading “The Cactus’s Prick” hangs half off the hinges above the door, which is merely a moth-eaten horse blanket tossed over the entrance. A scrawny old nanny goat is tied to a hitch outside and some chickens can be heard clucking around the side of the saloon. The tavern is at least three stories tall. Built from straw, timber and a pale orange clay, the Cactus’s Prick is moulded into the cliffside and features a mishmash of tiny hovels with bedrolls, making the tavern a nearly adequate hostel. Inside, a slight, young woman with dark hair and fair skin serves a table of three roughians small glasses of potent liquor, while the potbellied man behind the bar brims widely at the sight of a lonesome hermit’s custom.
“MWA-HAA!” the bartender wails. “I’ve not seen Imperial coin since my little Moonshine suckled at the teats of whores!” The woman’s jaw drops and she shoots the old man a quick glare that soon breaks into a smile, expressing the love of a daughter for her father. The toughs laugh loudly and poke at the girl, but she deftly escapes their playful striking, returning behind the bar with her father.
“You’ll see far less of it, too, Fat Pint, once they’ve taken this land from you,” the lonesome hermit replied bitterly, loud enough for the rowdy patrons to notice. The hermit’s bearing is wild, but he maintains a keen wit. His tan skin betrays a life of hunting and foraging under the scorching sun. The hermit carries with him a long, straight walking stick, and although the wood is knotted, it is a sturdy staff. His clothes are made of loose linen, scraps, patches, animals furs and worn leather bands. While his beard is patchy and rough, his hair is kempt and mostly hidden under his conical, woven helm. This helm is peculiar in that where there would typically be a family crest, his has the antlers of an elk. He carries a large satchel with a number of drinking gourds hanging from the strap. What marks the hermit as unique, however, is that he is not only armed with a longbow and quiver but he wears a weathered daisho as well, the longsword and shortsword of noble warriors known respectively as katana and wakizashi. “I’ll tell you again, Shoukyoku’s Imperial Legion will not be far behind those peons planting flags along the forest’s edge,” he continues. “Perhaps the Emperor will force you to plant flags yourself, if he does not feed you to his dogs.”
“BAH! Hermit, you’ve been hold up in your cave far too long,” the robust bartender retorts. “Since you first laid eyes on those flag-planting peons, you’ve got it into your head that Shoukyoku is about to invade the vast and empty desert. Twice this week already you’ve come down here to spout these prophecies of our doom, but there are no soldiers demanding our surrender. And last month, too, you warned us all the same. But what could the Emperor ever want with what little we have? There is nothing but dust and beggars in Tynet!” Eyeing the current patrons of the Cactus’s Prick, he rubs clean one of his infamous larger pint glasses with a grubby, dry cloth. Then he spits air at it to demonstrate the strength of his position, making an exaggerated pah-tooh sound as he does so. The large man is quite proud of himself for his moment of wisdom, and his beaming smile betrays his joviality.
“Be fair, Fat Pint,” one of the roughians slyly adds, “we do not come here begging for your coin.”
“If only you were begging for coin,” Fat Pint replies sharply. “No. Instead you come here begging for more wine or another round of mescal! You come begging for one of our finest beds to rest your tired, penniless arse in!”
“Yes,” interjects one of the sharp-witted roughians, turning his lecherous gaze to the nubile young Moonshine, “the bed she’s in!” The roughians let out a roar of laughter, while Moonshine shakes her head, her cheeks blushing a little. Moonshine is no pushover; she knows full well that if she acts coyly with the customers, they are more likely to leave her a nice tip. That is, if they even have anything of value. Besides that, she enjoys the attention from the men, even men like these, because so few promising men pass through Runner’s Rest.
“Or you come here begging for a quick romp with my little Moonshine, you filthy buggers,” Fat Pint acknowledges regretfully. He resents the men who make vulgar advances towards his daughter, but he knows she’s coming of age. He only wishes she could find herself a man who would provide for her and keep her safe, but the chance of finding a man like that in Runner’s Rest is unimaginable. As the laughing passes, the hermit glares quietly at the others for a short moment before resuming his appeal.
“Enjoy your laughter now, for when those flags flood this land, there will be none here to stand up to the Imperial Legion,” the hermit warns starkly. “I plan to move further west. The land is barren, but it will provide me sustenance enough to reach the village of Redemption.”
“BAH! Redemption is little more than a thieves den and a whore house,” Fat Pint derided. “All you’ll get there is the itch, hermit!”
“You should pack your things and leave as well,” the hermit calmly suggests, disregarding the barkeep’s jest.
“You’ve had far too few patrons in recent months, even the regular squatters of Runner’s Rest have enjoyed their rest but have returned to running,” he reasons. Fat Pint, Moonshine and the others listen and feign indignation, but each of them realize there is some truth to the hermit’s words. The hermit lets the truth of his words sink in for a moment, then he continues, “Shoukyoku either thinks there is something of value in this land or his greed now covets even the poor man’s dirt. I’m telling you, it is time to – .”
The hermit abruptly cuts his plea short. His ears perk up and he jerks his head to better discern some distant sound. The others seem puzzled by his quick change in demeanour, but after a moment they also hear the sound of thunderous horse hooves pounding along the trail. Fat Pint and Moonshine look to each other in bewilderment while the roughians seem confused, but the hermit is still listening. Then he turns quickly to face Fat Pint and Moonshine behind the bar, turning his back to the horse blanket covering the entrance and exclaiming loudly, “A round of your best mescal for my friends at the table, Moonshine!” The roughians cheer at the prospect of free booze. “And, Fat Pint, I would like one of your famous large pints. Give me your strongest liquor.” Moonshine and Fat Pint stir from their daze and fall into the more natural motions of serving the order.
Beyond the horse blanket door, they can hear the horses have slowed from a gallop to a soft trot and finally they stop. The horses neigh and snort. A stern voice outside the Cactus’s Prick issues what sound like orders, and a number of men dismount with a thud. Inside the tiny tavern, Fat Pint and Moonshine pour up stiff drinks, the roughians eagerly await those drinks, and the hermit sits with his back to the door. He hears four men approach the entrance. One whips the horse blanket aside and the warm breeze wafts the horse’s fresh dust cloud into the small hovel of a drinking hole. Standing in the doorway, the man is a tall and dark silhouette, outlined by the bright orange rays of the sun beaming into the canyon that hides Runner’s Rest. His outline is intimidating; his figure is like that of a horned demon. He stands rigid, taking in an account of the premises. Moonshine delivers a round of mescal to the toughs sitting at the table. Fat Pint serves the hermit a large pint of barely drinkable, high proof alcohol, then he turns to the shade in the door, offering a half-hearted greeting, “Welcome to the Cactus’s Prick, stranger. Our liquor has enough kick to strip the paint off the Holy Temple’s walls. If you’re here to drink, come in and keep that blanket closed….” Fat Pint’s speech trails off as the dark figure steps fully into the hovel followed by three other men, each clad in the stark armour of the Imperial Legion, one holding the royal blue standard with the squawking golden albatross.
The first soldier to enter steps boldly to the centre of the room, his countenance marks him as an officer but the prostate posturing of the page beside him bearing the Imperial standard confirms his rank. Two other foot soldiers file in behind the officer and page. The officer sizes up the room, eyeing the roughians, Moonshine, Fat Pint, and the back of the hermit, who has not turned to watch their grand entrance. The officer sighs with annoyance, then whines sardonically, “Oh my, I would never have expected to see dogs living in this plague-infested den, nevermind the rats we find here.”
The soldiers laugh, the young page almost whinnies like a horse, but the locals are unimpressed. Moonshine continues picking up empty flagons from the toughs’ table. The toughs, meanwhile, eye each other, trying to gauge how drunk or courageous the other feels. The hermit still has his back to the soldiers when Fat Pint asks “Are you fine foreign soldiers here to drink or just to take in the sights?”
“Quiet! You are a fat failure of a man, heathen,” the officer spits the words like venom from his mouth, then he continues, clearing his throat and regaining his superior attitude, “By the divine grace and benevolence of the sagacious Emperor Shoukyoku, you are given this opportunity to repent your past lives as sinners and swear your fealty to the will of Shoukyoku, the Emperor and His Most Sovergein State.” The officer pauses here, as he fancies from time to time, to savour the reaction from potential converts. Fat Pint and Moonshine share a concerned glance. The roughians are drunk, still drinking even, but they aren’t equipped to fight armed soldiers with the faint grasp on sobriety that lingers within each of them. None of them dare speak up or act against these pompous emissaries of the Imperial Legion, yet the hermit remains seated on a stool at the bar, a large pint of potent alcohol in his hand, his back turned on the soldiers. The officer looks around at each of them, he cries, “Enough with the silence, peasants! Do you swear your fealty or do we cut you down like mowing the grass? Hm?” Quickly growing frustrated at the sight of the hermit’s back, with ire beaming through a failed attempt at poise he adds, “And, what amazing audacity can a desert rat have to think himself unconcerned with the question at hand? Hm?”
The hermit merely nods, grinning, with his back still turned to the officer who begins to steam with fury. Just before it seems the officer’s temper is about to boil over, his young page leaps to his side, whispering a matter of lengthy detail in his ear. The tall officer stoops uncomfortably to listen to his page’s urgent counsel. This secret intelligence brings a hideous smile to his face, and a glint of either lust or greed flashes in his eyes. The page writhes with pleasure, like a good dog awaiting his bone. He’s almost giddy leaping back to his official position, no doubt anticipating future rewards and comforts. The officer calls out to the hermit again, “So, this is where you’ve been hiding. You look like a filthy mongrel, you know, Captain.”
The hermit lifts his head, acknowledging the officer’s claim. He grasps his large pint and slowly turns to face the soldiers, hugging his walking stick with a hooked elbow.
The officer inhales through his teeth, making a mocking hissing noise at the dishevelled look of the hermit. “You’ve fallen far in just four years,” the officer says, relishing over such a fortuitous find on what was to be a routine razing. He sniffs in the hermits general direction, turns his nose up and grimaces in disgust. “Your attire bears the remnants of Imperial Legion armour, although you deface your splendid helm with the horns of some mangy game animal. What betrays your identity even more is that your daisho is undoubtedly from a very noble lineage. You were born to a life of luxury,” he continues. “I cannot believe that you – this embarrassment of a wildman, this sad excuse for a trapper – you were praised on high, as if you would become the next Warlord of His Imperial Legion.”
Fat Pint and Moonshine are shocked to hear such a fantastic story about the man they have known only as the hermit, the lonely man who would visit Runner’s Rest maybe once or twice each month to drink, eat, and trade herbs and furs. Although they always wondered about the story behind his pair of swords, the proprietors of the Cactus’s Prick found it more amusing to invent their own stories explaining them and they considered it far less rude than prying into the solitary man’s affairs.
“Yes, I know who you are,” the Imperial officer says, pausing for dramatic effect, causing his page to stifle his barely restrained glee. “I know your name, Suzuki Haruko Sabaku. I know you are called Sabaku the deserter. I know you were the very essence of the sparkle in your father’s eye. I know the disgrace you brought to your family and how your father, Lord Suzuki, died from the dishonour you brought upon your house. I know you are a treasonous traitor to our benevolent Emperor. I know you were crippled by your uncle as you fled in shame into the forest and, so it would seem, into the desert beyond. Most believe you had succumb to guilt and threw yourself from a cliff, but it seems you’re not so fortunate.” The hermit leans heavily on his knotted staff, while the officer and page are exuberant at this sign that seems to confirm his physical hindrance. Fat Pint and Moonshine look astonished, not quite knowing how to react to the presence of the soldiers and their accusations against their acquaintance. The toughs look impressed at the hermit’s credentials, the effects of the potent mescal blossoming, giving the roughians a reinvigorated appetite for destruction. The infantry accompaniment awaits orders from their commanding officer, anticipating that they will be capturing the traitor alive, and the remaining soldiers can be heard rummaging about the other shacks outside the Cactus’s Prick.
The hermit steps off his stool, bearing his weight on his sturdy walking stick. He achieves a shaky balance and scratches at his face through his scraggly facial hair. He grins widely, and speaks confidently, “I am Sabaku the deserter, and you will leave my friends and I here,” gesturing to the roughians enjoying the round of complimentary mescal, “to enjoy our drinks. I am an eccentric and a cripple, and the others here are of no significance to Shoukyoku. Return to your masters. Inform them that Runner’s Rest is abandoned.” The hermit, or rather Sabaku the deserter, raises his glass to the roughians who join him in a little cheer.
The officer is more than perturbed at this unexpected counter offer. The outlying rabble near the farthest reaches of Shoukyoku’s border typically don’t resist the Imperial Legion; those few rebels who do stand up to fight are immediately crushed by the Empire. The officer expected resistance today, but prior to embarking on the menial task of converting a tiny thieves’ den, he had resolved to simply sacking the tiny settlement and razing whatever remained of little value. The newly discovered prospect that delivering Sabaku the deserter to the Emperor would land him a lucrative promotion to a comfortable position in the Imperial City was too much for the officer to give up without a fight. “I cannot comply with your request, deserter,” the officer snarls. “I will make you kneel before the seat of the Emperor in front of all to see! They will fill my lap with riches and parade me through the streets of the Imperial City!” The officer is lustfully committed to this vision of his immediate future, and speaks from his perceived position of power, “Your friends here shall not be slain for harbouring a traitor…”
“BAH! I am sure that must be good news,” exclaims Fat Pint in confusion and relief.
“…they’ll be placed in irons and live out their days in servitude at the work camps out east,” the officer sentences them to a life of hard labour as slaves. “But you, Sabaku, I’m sure the Emperor will want to make an example of you, and I have my doubts you would survive his judgement. Guards! Seize the crippled traitor! I expect the rest of this rabble to struggle even less than the cripple against the might of the Imperial Legion.”
The two soldiers draw their swords and slowly converge on the smiling traitor, eager to exploit his weakness if he dares to resist. The hermit leans heavily on his knotted staff, maintaining a shaky balance. The toughs look worried at the prospect of servitude until death, but they remain seated. Fat Pint is behind the bar and takes a number of slow steps away from the hermit. The barkeep shares a look with his daughter and motions for her to move towards the front entrance. Moonshine’s heart is racing, she can hear her pulse beating in her ears. Her face is flushed, and she shoots back the bottom of a glass of mescal and contemplates gulping back what’s left in the pitcher as she slips through the shadows around the officer and page, avoiding their notice.
Sabaku the deserter leans heavily on his staff as the two soldiers approach him, swords drawn at the ready. “You’re under arrest, traitor! Surrender, or we’ll have to hurt you,” one soldier commands as he manoeuvres to grab Sabaku, taking one hand from his sword. At this, Sabaku strikes! Deftly, he uses his staff to hold his body aloft as he kicks the soldier square in his chest with a series of bicycle kicks, landing comfortably on his feet, cradling his staff in his arm. The other soldier advances drawing back to strike with his sword, but Sabaku bends backwards, stretching the staff over his shoulder, reaching out to strike his aggressor twice – the first strike planted firmly into the soldiers nose, breaking it, while the second strike is a calculated blow to the throat which sends the soldier flying backwards, tumbling over barstools until his backside hits the floor. The first soldier has regained his footing after that series of firmly planted kicks and attempts charging Sabaku, screaming “AAAII-YEEEE!” His sword is raised above his head with two hands, and, as he charges forward, Sabaku effortlessly braces his staff by his foot and lets it fall forward. It falls into the centre of the oncoming soldier’s abdomen, knocking him to his knees, breathless, and the staff makes a wooden clacking sound as it comes to rest on the floor.
The officer looks cheated. “You merely feigned injury, traitor! You are truly dishonourable,” the officer’s voice indicates that his confidence wavers. “Guards! Get in here,” he screams to the guards outside and draws his sword, hoping to hold Sabaku at bay until his men arrive.
Sabaku draws his katana, bringing the hilt high near his ear with the blade pointing straight towards the officer’s face. He holds the sword with a controlled ease. The blade is set to kill but Sabaku is willing to negotiate, “You can still walk away. Take your lackeys, return home and tell your masters this place was empty. You can live with that shame and they will believe such a lie.”
Standing alone, facing the fierce figure of Sabaku the deserter, the officer contemplates leaving now with his tender skin unblemished, but once four additional soldiers shuffle in through the blanketed doorway, his confidence returns. He looks to his page for support and can see that he’s also dreaming of reaping the rewards that would come with Sabaku’s capture. Fat Pint has managed to back himself into a corner behind the bar. Moonshine has her back to the wall near the entrance but is within a few steps from the page. The soldiers have filed into the bar, standing with the table of roughians between them and their target. The officer feels a rush rise through him as he deems the odds are in his favour, and he leaps forward letting out a feeble cry, “Get the traitor, men! HIE-YAAH!” The tall officer charges forward with his sword raised high above his head.
In the short moment it takes for the officer to fly recklessly across the barroom floor, sword held aloft, a flurry of events take place. As the foot soldiers try to rush past the toughs drinking at the table, one suddenly stands up, feigning a stretch and an exaggerated yawn, tipping his stool in front of the crowd of soldiers, tripping the first so that the others stumble on top of him. The roughians look at their friend who stood up, as if he had taken some momentous action. The standing tough looks to his seated friends, saying “Well, he did buy the last round.” This clinches it for the drunken roughians, who take this opportunity to pounce, fists flying madly, onto the clumsy Imperial soliders. These men are wanted for one crime or another in the surrounding lands, and each of them surely resent any representation of authority. Not only is releasing their aggression on soldiers who mean to arrest and enslave them a worthwhile act of self-preservation, it is also one of their most treasured pastimes. Meanwhile, as soon as the officer lets out his wail and breaks into his charge, Moonshine spots the young page draw a throwing dagger and pull it back. She could not tell whether it was aimed at her father or Sabaku, nevertheless she smashed a thick clay mescal pitcher across the page’s head, sending him crashing to the floor. Proud of her accomplishment, Moonshine still recoils from the violence, slipping back into the shadows near the entrance. She looks to her father for direction, but he only stands in awe of the violence surrounding him. Although the Cactus’s Prick has been the venue for innumerable barroom brawls, Fat Pint has never been confronted with the Imperial Legion threatening to make him a slave of Shoukyoku.
The sounds of shattering pottery and the erupting scuffle mingle with the tall officer’s weak cry as he continues his charge, sword held high above his head. Sabaku maintains his stance, his sword blade stretched out before him, aimed straight at the officer’s face. From the officer’s perspective, he cannot accurately judge the length of the blade before him. He is slightly distracted by this, failing to notice the exposed timber ceiling beams. As he charges forward, he lunges to make a lethal strike against the patient deserter. Sabaku stands ready to strike as the officer’s sword hacks into the timber beam above his head. Sabaku takes a firm step forward and with a quick, short swipe with the tip of his sword he slices the officer from his chin to his brow, violently tearing through the his flaring nostrils, knocking his winged helm to the floor. The officer lets out a cry of pain, and Sabaku steps back, adopting a more relaxed posture, lowering his sword so its tip floats just above the floor. The wings of the officer’s helm clang as the hit the dusty floor.
“My face! You cut my face,” the officer cries. The toughs continue to beat on the prone soldiers. Moonshine still looks to Fat Pint for encouragement, direction, strength, anything, but she finds none in the face of the barkeep, who is still in shock envisioning the repercussions that must follow assaulting an officer of the Imperial Legion.
“Leave and live, Imperial dogs,” Sabaku the deserter issues this ultimatum, “or threaten us again and suffer the consequences.”
The officer has his hands covering the wound on his face and blood spills from between his fingers. He takes his hands down, flicking blood from his hands onto the floor with a splatter. “Traitor,” he says, “Sabaku the deserter.” He pauses a second, reaching towards the hermit-warrior with one of his bloody hands. Then he abruptly shouts, “I’ll still receive a parade for your corpse!” With those final words he snatches a dagger from his belt with his other hand, slashing wildly and lunging for Sabaku’s throat. Sabaku must have anticipated the officer’s aggressive intentions from the tone or rhythm of his voice because he merely twitches his wrist, angling his sword upwards, holding the hilt near his groin, so that the tip pierces the officer’s chest as he blindly thrust at the so-called traitor. The blade punctures the officer’s lung and he falls to the floor. Little clouds of dust blow out from around his body as it falls lifeless, merely dead weight.
Fat Pint stirs from his stupor only to realize there’s a dead Imperial officer lying on the floor of the Cactus’s Prick. His mind races with the horrors that they might suffer for this transgression against the Empire. The toughs ease up on the beaten soldiers, and the soldiers know to stay down. Moonshine begins cleaning up the shattered pitcher, not knowing what other action to take given the present circumstances. Sabaku stands still and stoic over his fallen opponent. As if returning from some distant place in his mind, Sabaku looks to Fat Pint and continues his earlier appeal, “I think now is the time to leave Runner’s Rest.”
The sky has grown much darker now, making unaided vision strained. They bind the six beaten soldiers and the unconscious page, then pile them into an old cart that Fat Pint has rigged to one of the soldier’s horses. The page’s standard is wedged between a mass of arms and legs so that it stands upright. The royal blue banner with the squawking golden albatross, proclaiming the glory of Shoukyoku’s empire for all on the road to see. Sabaku slaps the horse and makes a clicking noise, and the horse begins to trot along the trail to make its way back to the Shoukyoku border, the old cart’s wheels creaking as the horse climbs the path up the canyon’s cliff.
Runner’s Rest is no longer safe for these poor souls, and so they are forced to pack up whatever valuables they can carry only to venture out into the desert in search of somewhere safe to lodge. Since the soldiers won’t be riding back to Shoukyoku, their horses are a welcome resource for this impromptu exodus. Moonshine is busy packing distillation equipment, vats, and tubing onto another cart, one already loaded down with some chickens in a small pen, clothes and blankets stuffed into every gap and crevice. She is lost in fancies, wondering what adventure she might find outside the stone walls of the canyon. The toughs scour the other shacks of Runner’s Rest, salvaging anything of value to trade in the next village. Fat Pint ties his old nanny goat to the cart so she can walk alongside it as they travel. He looks at the Cactus’s Prick with sadness in his heart; it has been his home and livelihood for many years. Sabaku apologizes to the hospitable barkeep for bringing such bad fortune upon him and his fair daughter, but Fat Pint retorts soberly that he should not have been so blind to the Emperor’s greed looming so closely on the horizon.
Sabaku sets out on foot, leaving another horse for Fat Pint and Moonshine to help trek their wares to another town. He plans to head further west through the desert wilderness to Redemption. He knows the town as a refuge for the more hardened outlaws and criminals who find their way to Tynet. He is not taken in by the hopeful name of this den of thieves, but he must go there if he wants to remain out of Shoukyoku’s reach for long.
As Sabaku steps off the beaten trail and ventures forth into the cool desert night, elsewhere a horse hauls a cart of broken soldiers past a sea of blue and gold banners. The horse-driven cart moves slowly closer to the eastern treeline, and a crew of beleaguered slaves look upon the sight in the flickering torchlight. Some of them laugh.