A great rumbling vibrates the wooden frame of a sleeping titan’s room. The rise and fall of his chest mimics the tide. A greater chorus calling his name dampens his snores, penetrating the land of dreams and stirring the titan awake.
“Kofe! You better not wait for Ma to wake you! She wanted you up three hours ago!” His sister’s voice shakes and cracks the ground of his slumber.
He enters reality with clouded vision and dry, rasping grunts. Dragging massive hands across his rugged face, he ruffles the hair of his bovine snout. Kofe rising from his bedstead would stir memories of a kraken swelling to break the still, ocean surface, his crowned horns piercing the sky.
The young minotaur grumbles as he walks downstairs. The steps are carved straight into the great stone foundation that supports the wood of their ancestral home. The force of his hooves are barely felt by the ancient rock. He reaches the ground floor and steps into another familiar world; a bustling tavern owned and run by his family for generations.
Their tavern has long rallied business for the nearby, poor fishing village. They expertly acted as mediators, bringing wares from net to plate. As one of the first families to settle in the area, many in the village also considered them to be nobility, despite their mostly humble profession.
Kofe sighs at the sight of the crowds and tables he would inherit at the allotted time. His dreams of grandeur were doomed to stay in his hazy, midnight consciousness.
“Are you just waking up now, Kofe?” Another voice, his mother’s this time, assaults his still-groggy state.
“Sorry Ma, I was having a great dream. I was fighting this huge, spined warrior! Her greataxe--” His words are cut short, as is the natural if unrefined thrust he mimes with an invisible weapon.
“Boy! More roasted fowl and some smoked fish please!” one of the guests calls out to him.
“Me and your Pa will listen to your stories later son, I promise. For now, tend to our patrons, they’ve been waiting for a while now. Our hired help didn’t show today,” Kofe’s mother explains, her annoyed snort tempered slightly by a worried expression. “There are rumors of dangerous folk being seen near the hillsides and forest.”
Their day goes on like any other, completing yet another monotonous cycle. After their own dinner, with Kofe regaling his family with his story as promised, and his father only once needing to step in to laughingly break up a sibling squabble, the night comes to its fullness.
Once again, Kofe is deep within the lucid realm of his dreams, when it is invaded by an outside sensation. The smell of smoke fills his world, darkening its skies.
Troubled, he wakes up to find his room choked with black clouds, an oppressive heat hanging in the air. He mouths the word, sharpening his focus and forcing himself awake with the realization of fire.
He rushes out of his room, suddenly unable to see the corridors leading to his parents’ or sister’s room. Instead, only heaps of wooden frames bristling with embers lie in front of him. The flames leap between the beams, slowly crumbling their home.
Thankfully his path to the stairs remains clear. However, his last step off the colossal stones, one he had taken countless times, for once greets him with a foreign world. Everywhere there is only fire, the tongues of red and orange declaring that nothing could be done to preserve his family’s legacy.
Kofe hurries to escape the blazing tavern-home; his future slowly turning to ash. He seeks the cold of the open air and hopes to find his family safe outside the crumbling structure.
The clear night sky and distant sea breeze are cool against his skin, contrasting the sweltering heat behind him. But with the surreal scene of heat and cold comes a heart-shattering and maddening sight.
His mother and sister seem to have fled through the front door clutching one another, but they barely made it five steps past its threshold. Their bodies lie splayed on the soft grass, feeding it a steady trickle of their lifeblood. Kofe’s father is half-turned back towards them, clearly about to be sliced in twain by the equally massive figure standing over the corpses.
The monster holds a weapon aloft, his form mostly cloaked by a long shadow cast by a wall not quite consumed by the flames. Only a stark slice of his face is illuminated by a blade of firelight spilling from the burning house; the scars and goring tusks upon it brimming with malice and blood-lust. The glint of the sweeping weapon sears Kofe’s mind with every contour, shade, and scar of the green face.
As his father falls, the sight of the dull and lifeless eyes of his entire family breaks something within him. His roar echoes into the night, a sound of pain and confusion without words. Kofe levels his head and charges in blind fury, his still-growing horns aligned toward the figure celebrating over his slaughtered father.
“WaaaAAAGH!” The other’s war-cry shatters through his blood-fueled rage, the last thing he hears. His body collapses as it’s struck with piercing pain, the last thing he feels.
He allows himself to sink into the dark abyss, an eerily familiar feeling. ‘Sleep is the cousin of death,’ his last thought.
Throbbing ache flashes him into a world filled with blinding light and iron bars.
Kofe blinks against the seared image as he absently clutches at the pain in his chest, but the bright, caged world persists. Soon, he also feels the sway of a cold metal platform beneath him, hears the sounds of rattling iron and labored grunts. Reality batters his mind back to sobriety.
He struggles to lift his head, and the first face he sees is of a dark-skinned human. The man paces beside Kofe’s drawn cage, his hand reaching past the bars to push Kofe’s to his side and away from his chest.
“Don’t touch the wound. The healing herb hasn’t taken full effect.”
Kofe starts to turn toward him, but time seems to pass in a blink and the man is no longer there. Blearily, he eventually manages to sit up within the iron cage; needing to slouch to keep his horns clear of the ceiling.
He is still dressed as he last remembered, but days seem to have passed since the fire. Both the burns and the unfamiliar gash across his chest are nearly healed.
He says nothing, even after the man returns to his side some hours later. He informs him that their caravan had picked Kofe up near a burned-down village along the raiding path of an orc warband. The same warband had ambushed the caravan on the road to the port-city Heliodor.
Kofe’s chattering friend thanks the gods as he recounts that their guards had successfully defended them. The leader of the caravan had then led them toward the rising smoke that retraced their attackers’ path, reminding them all of their maxim, ’the profits that lie in the wake of conflict outweigh the dangers.’
The young minotaur’s eyes remain fixed on the other, though he makes no move or sound of reply. The man seems content with his one-sided conversation for a few more minutes, before moving on down the caravan line.
Over the next few days, Kofe slowly regains strength and gets acquainted with his new environment. He has not dreamed since the fire, but the world beyond the bars seems to mimic it.
The caravan passes roads and forests unfamiliar to him, its many wagons rearranging to spread across or slip through the changing terrain. Kofe’s neighboring cages change with the hour; each bearing humanoids of varying races, or exotic animals of different shapes and colors. The spectacle oddly satisfies him, despite the circumstances.
The myriad sights flowing past are a welcome distraction, until he sees the one forever branded into his mind, within a cage just a few wagons ahead of his.
A chained and violent presence wearing the face of his father’s killer boils his blood to life. He recognizes the face clearly, though his mouth is gagged and one of his tusks is now jagged and broken. Still, his muffled war-cry seems to vibrate the air around his wagon.
Even the formidable beasts pulling his cage seem bothered. The pair hiss and stomp their thick, scaled feet uneasily with every muted roar.
“Monster! You shall feel all manner of pain and fear shall cripple your mind to dust!” Kofe screams and rams his head against the bars, leaving several bent as his horns reach futilely past the iron towards his foe.
The chained monster senses the blood-lust aimed towards him and turns, his eyes ablaze. He thrashes his acceptance of the challenge, rattling the iron frame of his wagon and forcing the beasts of labor to keel from the sudden force.
The reverberations of his angered scream is felt even from several feet away, but Kofe doesn’t back down. He answers with a thundering below himself, primal rage filling their section of the caravan.
“Finally, signs of life,” Kofe’s friend chuckles, reaching his side again as the caravan is rather hastily adjusted to put more distance between the enemies. “I was already deciding if we should just feed you to the leotau.”
Kofe glances over to see the man gesturing toward a caged beast, its body weighed and chained redundantly despite the bars. It has the head of a lion, hooves of a bull, and a muscled body built for battle. It stands unyielding in its cage; its face proud, stoic, and vigilant.
“A rare catch, along with the peryton.” He points to another caged beast, this one with chains bowing its head. The winged-stag has sharp talons for its two front legs, the colors of its plumage clothing it like royalty. It bucks wildly at the eyes turning toward it, seeming indignant of its captors.
“Did you also see our owlbear and griffin? I know you like animals, Kofe, I can see it,” his friend continues easily. “They’ll fetch a great amount of coin. The nobles in the port-city will fight over them.”
Kofe turns to the familiar face, his breathing still labored, and utters, “How do you know my name?”
“A deep and strong voice! Oh they’ll want you on the auction block.
“As for your name, well you told me yourself while you were slipping in and out of consciousness. Do you remember my name?” The obsidian skin of his face parallels his amused yet stone-cold statement.
“Well it’s Slate and I am the broker of this company. My job is to make sure the merchandise reaches the market in good condition. And yes, we deal in living flesh, including you.” The slaver’s declaration is plain and unconcerned.
Nothing stirs in Kofe from what he hears. He realized as much. Instead, he resigns himself to his situation and sees only one goal in front of him. That living fury, that chained beast, which accepted his challenge.
“Sold! To House Azure Sol!” calls the auctioneer. The sizable crowd murmurs, already losing interest in the claimed and straining to see the next lot.
“Our next specimen is a young bull. This minotaur has proven its vigor by surviving an orc raid!” The auctioneer introduces Kofe as he is pulled up the right edge of the wooden platform, bound but not struggling. His guard fastens his chains to the stage and retreats.
“Bidding starts at 30 silver pieces! Any takers? You sir, of House Black Tithe?!” The boisterous gnome points to a plump human adorned with all manner of golden jewelry, the man sweating profusely from their weight. He just manages to shake his head.
“Any takers? You, sir?!” The crowd remains silent.
“I see our patrons needs convincing that he is worth his weight in coin!” the master orator cries aloud, seeming unbowed by his audience’s lack of enthusiasm. He gestures to someone off-stage and the sound of thrashing chains dominates the auction block.
From the left side of the platform, a group of armored men pulls a thrashing figure bound from shoulders to feet, his mouth almost-uselessly gagged.
“This avatar of chaotic violence is the very orc that--” The orator’s voice is drowned out by a thundering below as Kofe starts violently tugging his fastened chains, using every ounce of strength to reach his nemesis. The other answers in kind, struggling wildly to face down his opponent.
The show of primal violence stirs the crowd into a frenzy in kind, even as the guards force the two apart and back into smoldering silence.
The offered amount of silver then gold gets larger with every shout, as does the smile of the gnome who eagerly points to each bidder in turn. The battle of coin rages long, until finally fewer and fewer voices are heard, fewer hands raised.
Now only two voices remain; one speaker clothed as a servant of the Black Tithe, and the other seeming to be a naval officer. The two bid for both minotaur and orc.
“300 gold pieces for the Black Tithe!” The servant’s eyes dart, a fleeting show of hesitation that the officer catches onto. He smiles triumphantly and gestures to the gnome.
“350, says the admiral!” The auctioneer declares, starting to sweep his hand to signal the closed bid.
“1000 gold pieces!”
All in the crowd turn toward the unknown voice, which overpowers even the orator’s. A figure strides forward from the back of the crowd, her porcelain-like hand raised.
“1000 gold pieces!” the startled gnome echoes finally. “Going once! Twice! Sold!!!” He waves the finality, his voice edging hoarse and his visage exhausted.
“The auction is now closed for the day. Patrons may settle their purchases and collect their merchandise. Our men will approach each of you in turn and direct you to our tent.”
Behind the exotic and luxurious curtains of the tent, the final winning patron is announced by the gnome orator. He bows to her, then to his master behind him.
“My lord, our winning patron of the bull and orc,” he says cordially.
“I did not expect that the lady of House Domina graced our auction. May I offer you a drink?” Slate greets her and ushers her in.
“Slate, you’re the one who invited me here today. I’ve purchased good stock from your company before, so I answered the invitation. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.” The lady slides elegantly into the tent, her beautiful skin radiating like a white star as she touches each luxurious display that catches her attention. Some look away, but others stare ahead obedient.
Her lips quirk in a smile when she turns again to Slate. “You sly and clever man. You really know the cravings of our port-city.”
Slate bows to her, hiding his uncontrolled grin of victory. “How are we to settle your very generous purchase, madame?” he inquires from his still-bowed posture.
“I’ll have the coin brought along shortly. But since you say it’s a generous purchase, perhaps you should also grant a token of good faith, slave master.” She tilts her chin as she looks down at him, her dominance easy and assured. His grin falters into a forced smirk in response.
“But of course, my lady. Just tell me which of my prettier displays has caught your eye, and I will send it along with your purchase.” The tone of his voice is a shade less cheerful.
“Slate, what I want is information,” she answers smoothly. “Tell me the story behind the animosity of the minotaur and the orc.”
Slate’s smile returns, and he launches into a tale of beautiful assumptions and glittered truths to sate the lady’s request.