The Wandering Inn had these quiet days. When all that occurred were…small things. Not unimportant things, but days when you could obsess over things like—nails.
“Copper nails, Belgrade. I told you, it’s a thing.”
Erin stood with Belgrade and Lyonette and Octavia, measuring out a new building that would connect to the inn. The Antinium Worker paused.
“But iron has a higher tensile strength, Erin. Surely, the inn should be constructed with the maximum durability possible. Also, I would very much like to discuss the floor trap—”
Octavia and Lyonette chorused. Erin hugged Belgrade with one arm.
“But if there is an emergency, you, as the most important person in the inn, should have defenses. It would not be hard to stabilize a pitfall trap that would collapse Miss Octavia’s shop. And—I calculated this last night—the explosion from all the alchemical ingredients would most likely vaporize even a Gold-rank intruder.”
The [Alchemist] objected to this plan. Belgrade stared at her.
“Well, in my hypothetical breaching scenario, you are already dead, Miss Cotton. The invaders would have breached your shop and you would have put up a valiant defense.”
Octavia opened her mouth, but Erin turned to Belgrade.
“Let’s just focus on the shop, m’kay, Belgrade? Can you make it the size Octavia wants? And with the barricades and stuff?”
“To dive behind. And separate areas just in case I uh, make a mistake and need to quarantine. It’s actually great that it’ll be part of Erin’s inn.”
The stitch-girl nodded. Belgrade sighed. The [Trapsetter Tactician]—his new class, which he was very proud of—drooped, or his antennae did.
“I suppose we can lay out this shop. And add traps later.”
“Good. And by the way, you still have to see the garden. Um—maybe it’d be better if Anand and Pawn came too. Or—is it better alone? With all the Antinium?”
Erin hesitated. She now knew what effect the garden would have. Or at least, the hill. Belgrade paused.
“I am looking forwards to considering the strategic implications of the hill for a prolonged siege. And I regret that I only have a few fortifications prepared since I did not know of the hill—”
Erin saw Lyonette give her a despairing look. But that was Belgrade, and Erin smiled.
“I’ll show you later. But maybe not the hill just yet? We’ll see. Uh, so, about the shop—”
“I want bigger display shelves! And a sign! Octavia’s Stitchworks!”
“Ooh. Rigged to fall on intruders?”
The [Innkeeper] gave up and laughed. But as she and Lyonette restrained Belgrade’s tendencies to trap anything and everything, Erin checked the sun.
“Wait! Chess break! Sorry, let’s take thirty minutes off!”
Belgrade looked sharply at Erin and then nodded eagerly. But to his disappointment, the chess wasn’t for him. Erin apologized profusely and promised to make it up to him. And she would.
But she had a special amount of time reserved these days. For chess. Well, Erin had always done that, but now she was coordinating it. It was just an hour or less each day, maybe twice at night. Three times if you did an early morning game just to wake up.
Erin didn’t have a problem. Other people had a problem and that was that they didn’t play chess. But Erin did breathe and live the game. People forgot that about her, because it didn’t define all of her.
Yet she did love it.
The game during Erin’s chess break was slow, methodical, and had gone into a draw. Which was normal at the level Erin played at. It had involved her and her opponent grinding at each other.
Erin had won the game of Go. That was on the second board. She was, in fact, playing on both magical boards at once. The ghostly pieces shimmered as she rearranged them and smiled.
Her opponent was good. Very good. But Erin had experience, the theories of her world to draw upon, and, most of all, a passion for the board games. She improved, studying new theories, and playing Belgrade, Anand, or Olesm.
Even Bird; he had memorized every single chess opening she knew of. He wasn’t just quirky, but scarily good at recreating immortal games piece-for-piece when he wanted to. Which meant of course that he could instantly recall a counter to a move if he saw it on the board.
But Erin’s mysterious opponent was the best player of all. Erin was still the better player by a bit, but her impression was that while playing against each other had risen both of their skill levels, her opponent was growing faster.
It was a bit of an infuriating, happy feeling. Because Erin wanted to be the best. And yet—what good was it being alone at the top?
Erin Solstice paused as she cleared the boards. Both boards of chess and go. It was fun, playing two different games at once. She paused, with her hands on a few of the go stones, and then she began placing them on the board.
It was a message, written in go stones. A bit hard to read, but Erin and her opponent had both learned to visualize the letters. And—yes. The reply came back in moments, spelled out in go stones.
The spelling was atrocious, and the words shorthand, much like texting because both players had to laboriously spell out each word on the board, sometimes with both chessboard and go board. Erin was a lot faster at it than her opponent; stuff like ‘gg’, short for ‘good game’ was intuitive to her, from online chess chat rooms. Her opponent?
No. But they were talking. Erin went on, spelling out a message. They’d begun playing at the set time, without chatting—she sort of wished she had a chat bar she could type in.
hy! hw r u tday?
A pause. Erin tried to imagine her opponent, who was often meticulous and careful in their plays—and would capitalize on a mistake with ruthless aggression—pondering their reply.
nt bd. u?
slw dy. hw abt gm chss? spd? 5-sc?
Erin had to erase her sentences one by one and respell them, but it really was getting intuitive. Instantly, the reply came.
In the nuance as Erin understood it, she had vouchsafed a brief question as to her opponent’s wellbeing, and he had replied with a positive but bland affirmative. Then she had stated it was a ‘slow day’, and offered to play a game of chess. Namely, speed-chess, with 5 seconds per move.
And her opponent had said yes. So that is what they did. Erin reset her board, took the white pieces, and began with the Dutch Attack, or Bird’s Opening. Bird, the Worker, did love it so.
The game was fast and aggressive. Erin wasn’t a huge fan of speed chess; she didn’t like the speed and how you could get caught up in the rhythm. But she’d begun practicing it because Belgrade, Anand, and Bird could smash Erin one game out of four in it. Not because they were at her level yet; but because they had sharp, sharp analytical skills under pressure.
And her opponent was no worse. The chess pieces moved fast as Erin and her opponent did the chess-equivalent of beating each other with hammers. In the end, Erin threw up her hands.
She was genuinely frustrated. Because she’d lost due to a careless move of her knight—she hadn’t spotted how in two moves it could turn into an unavoidable loss of a piece. She glowered at the board as she sat in place.
“Damn, drat, darn—uh, dingus…”
The [Innkeeper] cursed mildly. Behind Erin, the garden door slowly closed. Ekirra, Mrsha, and Visma, who’d been playing and about to jump at Erin and surprise her, closed the door. Mrsha took her paws off Ekirra’s ears, and Visma took her claws off her earholes. They looked at each other. Ekirra opened his mouth.
More chess-texting after that. Erin silently tapped her knight on the board and then spelled out—
gg! noice mves!
have tme fr anther?
y! : )
Erin wanted revenge. She didn’t get it. The second game of speed-chess was a draw. She sighed, but then began to write.
no tme mre gmes.
too bd. do u knw mre chss gmes?
Erin nodded. She chewed her lip, and then spelled out carefully.
u cn ply w/6-side brd! hexagon! is fun!
She had no idea if her opponent understood that. There was a pause.
intrstng. may make. Snd to u?
no! 2 expnsive!
is ok. hve money.
oo! r u advtrer?
A pause. Erin had asked a question like this before.
And the answer made her sit forwards. Excitedly.
wow! mnstrs r scry!
do u hte mnsters 2?
nt a fn. evr c Crelers?
ys! evil! adult bad!
adult? you met?
frnds. : (
: ) elder wrse
It was short, their chats after a game. Erin sensed her opponent was coyer than she. And—they were picking up her shorthand, even her little faces, which she could actually spell out in the form of faces on the board.
“Erin! Break’s over!”
Lyonette called up the stairs. Erin sighed. Her hands moved quickly.
gd cht! gtg, mking fd! ply tomrow sm tme?
c u thn! (•◡•) /
And then Erin Solstice got up and went back to work. In the Garden of Sanctuary, Ekirra ran around shouting his new favorite word. Apista drank from the ordinary flowers, and Visma and Mrsha collected their favorite flowers, talking about which ones they’d put in Mrsha’s garden.
It was a quiet day, a good one. And Erin had had a good chat with her mysterious opponent. She still didn’t know who they were, but she was getting to know them.
And she had no idea what consternation and chaos her words produced.
“See, that! What is that?”
Niers Astoragon paced back and forth in front of the go board. He pointed at the little emoji Erin had left.
“Mm. Looks like a little person waving.”
Foliana waved back. The Squirrel Beastkin was reclining in a hammock.
In her room. Foliana had multiple rooms, all devoted to herself. In this one she had a hammock she liked to rest in and eat food. The [Rogue] stared down at Niers Astoragon.
He’d moved to playing in her room. Normally, Niers hated how Foliana would bother him, or even move his pieces for him, but he had tolerated, even demanded her presence today. He turned his head to the Centauress kneeling on the magical grass beside her.
Foliana’s room was much like Erin’s garden, in that she’d had grass, plants, even trees imported and then magically grown in her room, so she could perch on high branches overhead. Archmage Nailihuaile herself had been paid to enlarge the room’s dimensions so this could take place, and Foliana sometimes sat on a branch high overhead. But that wasn’t interesting, much less to Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros at this moment.
“Look at it, Foliana. Perorn. Do you think that’s a female hand writing that?”
He turned to Perorn Sadiluc, known as Fleethoof, one of the foremost [Strategists] and commanders in the Forgotten Wing Company, one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros.
Perorn stared at Niers. And then she looked at Foliana.
“Is this what I was summoned here for?”
“Mm. He’s obsessed.”
“I’m just asking if you think it’s a female player. The spelling looks neat.”
Perorn stared at Niers. She looked at Foliana.
“I’m leaving. This isn’t my job, Niers.”
“Hold on! I want your opinion!”
Niers threw a chess piece at Perorn’s head. It soared back towards the board as he shouted.
“Where’s the delicacy in that? I’m asking your opinion as a trusted confidant—”
The Centauress trotted off, shaking her head.
Foliana rolled around in her hammock and dropped out the opening. She landed flat on the ground and stared sideways at Niers.
“Is this really the Titan of Baleros? Niers Astoragon, get ahold of yourself. Mm. You’re disgraceful. Like your first love.”
“I’m asking so I don’t make an ass of myself like with Lord Belchaus! He had feminine handwriting!”
“Just ask. Or pay those Brothers. The criminals. With money to find out.”
“What if they lie? Or she lies? Anyways, the Gentleman Callers are not being cooperative. Foliana, think about it tactically. You have to gather as much information as possible. I could, ask, but I’m overplaying my hand—”
Three-Color Stalker rolled her eyes. And then she rolled over and smooshed Niers. She heard a furious shout as she lay on him. But the Titan of Baleros was far from dead. It took more than that to kill a Fraerling.
Foliana stared up at the sky. At last, Niers crawled out from under her.
“I could have severed your spine with my sword.”
“Mm. You should have gone with your students.”
The Titan paused as he adjusted his clothing.
“I have my duties. This is just—fun. And I’d like it to continue being so.”
“Where are they now?”
Foliana sighed as Niers walked up her side and stopped so he could glare down at her face.
“No, the children.”
“At sea. Not all of them went, you know. I’m still teaching my summer classes.”
The Squirrel-woman nodded. She sat up and Niers swore as he swung himself up onto her shoulder. She looked at him.
Umina and Marian sat in her little dorm room and began packing Umina’s possessions. She was moving out.
“It really was kind of Wil to let you use his quarters while he’s gone.”
“Well, he did pay for the lease. And his rooms are like, four times my size. But yes. I’ll give him something when he comes back.”
Marian sighed. She and Umina were in Elvallian, the capital of the Forgotten Wing Company. The Centauress folded one of Umina’s pairs of leggings; the Lizardgirl stuffed her clothes into a bag.
“I wish I’d gone. Do you regret not going, Umina? Or—did Wil ask you?”
The Centauress [Strategist] looked sideways at Umina. The Lizardgirl paused.
“Wil asked me, but I turned him down. It’s his secret, and I want to keep taking classes during the summer. I can’t spend a month or two at sea. Plus, I have things to do in Baleros.”
Marian sighed. Umina looked at her.
“Why’d you turn him down?”
“I can’t swim.”
Umina dropped a tunic in her bags and turned to Marian, surprised.
“What? But we were on a ship in Daquin. And I remember you treading water in the harbor.”
The Centauress tossed her head impatiently and stamped a hoof.
“Well, I can float. But Centaurs aren’t great swimmers! Too awkward. And I’d die in a wooden box if I had to live there for a month.”
“Huh. I guess that’s why Centaurs don’t appear on other continents that much. You get seasick?”
“You have no idea. You should have gone, though.”
Umina mimicked Foliana as she quietly packed the rest of her things. Then she hoisted her bags.
“Ready to move into Wil’s place! You think he left it a dump?”
“Doubt it. He’s neat. Yerranola on the other hand…”
The two shuddered. The Selphid had been one of the students willing to go with Wil on his great adventure. In fact, a number of students had gone, many from the special class. Their absence was felt and Umina privately thought Marian was lonely since she didn’t have Venaz to verbally spar with.
But they’d be back. They were going on a ship, to look for underwater treasure. That had something to do with Wil’s wish, although he had been very secretive about the trip.
Venaz and Yerranola had been less so, which was why Umina and Marian knew more than they should have. The others were out at a week out at sea already.
As the Lizardgirl kicked open the door, she turned to Marian with a sudden thought.
“Funny. I know Peki and Merrik are alright. You know, for the officer core, and they’re fun to be around and good in a fight. But I’m still surprised they went with Wil and the others. Well, at least Peki.”
Marian paused as she took the rest of Umina’s bags on her back and shoulders.
“Well…I’m pretty sure Peki can’t swim.”
“Garuda! Garuda, and she’s female, you idiot!”
“Hold on! Another wave’s coming! Dead gods. It’s—”
At sea, a wave struck the Emerald Signet, and the galleon rolled with the impact. It didn’t flip over, but the impact nearly sent the braced crew and passengers flying.
They were above decks. Which was a really stupid idea in a storm, but this one had rolled in fast. And the gale-force winds and rain had knocked one of the passengers into the water.
Merrik howled. The Dwarf [War Leader] clung to the railings of the ship, staring over the port side as the seas raged around him. He could see Peki, her bright purple-and-green feathers a flash of color in the raging surf. But the waves were tossing the ship about and she was struggling in the water.
The Dwarf began to try to jump over the railings, but someone grabbed him. Two people, actually.
“Don’t you dare, you idiot! Let one of the [Sailors] do it! She’ll be fine so long as she keeps her head above water!”
Yerranola bellowed in Merrik’s ear. The Selphid was wearing a Dullahan’s body, with the head sewn onto the body. The last impact had knocked it ajar, and the head wobbled as she fought to keep it on—and keep Merrik from diving in.
Feshi had Merrik’s other side. The Gnoll [Strategist]’s teeth were bared and her fur was soaked. Merrik fought both of them.
“Let go of me, you idiots! She can’t wait! Peki can’t swim!”
Indeed, the feathery shape was thrashing about in the water. It looked like Peki was trying to punch and kick her way out of the water, and only that was keeping her from going under, but she definitely did not know how to just tread normally.
“What do you mean, she can’t swim? We’re at sea on a ship!”
Yerranola stared at Merrik in horror. The Dwarf shouted back.
“She’s a damn bird! She’s got feathers and flies about and comes from Chandrar! Of course she can’t swim!”
“I’ll get the captain!”
Feshi shouted. She began making her way down the heaving deck. The [Captain] was bellowing orders as he kept the ship moving. He’d seen Peki go down and was trying to make for her, but he clearly thought he had time.
Feshi tried to run, but the heaving deck was impossible for her to move quickly on; she had to clutch the railing, unlike the [Storm Sailors] who dashed about the slippery deck unimpeded.
A Minotaur’s bellow cut through even the storm’s howling. Venaz, braced at the railing, turned. His eyes, normally white with dark yellow and brown irises, began to turn red. He dashed to the railing and a young man ran with him.
Wil Kallinad and Venaz reached Merrik and Yerranola. Unlike the others, they moved with some ease on the decks. Both had experience on ships and they’d been trying to get their companions below decks. Now, Venaz swore as he saw Peki in the distance.
“It’s you and me, Kallinad! Get some ropes and we’ll dive in! When we grab her, pull us back up! Find me some rope, Yerra, and—”
“I’ve got her!”
Merrik turned and stared as Wil Kallinad, the young Terandrian [Strategist] and [Lord] from House Kallinad, ran towards the railing and dove over it, into the waters.
“Dead gods! Wil!”
Yerranola shouted at her friend, but Wil appeared almost instantly. He swam through the huge waves, making towards Peki.
Fair play to the Garuda, she hadn’t stopped thrashing about. She couldn’t swim, but she was learning—and fast. But her wet feathers and inexperience would have swept her under with the next crashing wave. She stopped as she saw Wil racing towards her and thrust out a hand.
“He’s got her! Toss the ropes!”
Venaz had found a [Sailor]. They threw a rope as Wil began to swim backwards. Feshi stared as the two seized the rope and were dragged aboard.
“Selphid’s tits! He swims like a fish!”
Merrik exclaimed as he hurried over to Peki and Wil, both dripping with saltwater. Venaz shrugged.
“Bah, I could do the same. Wil’s a coastal [Lord]. When I was a boy in the Isles of Minos, I swam—”
Venaz’s reply was cut off by a roar from the bow of the ship.
“Everyone below decks! There’s a titan of a wave coming! Move your worthless legs!”
Feshi, Venaz, Yerranola, Merrik, Wil, and Peki, all ran for it. They were six [Strategists], prodigies who’d studied at the Titan’s academy by merit of their talents. And that meant they listened when an expert shouted like that. Especially at sea.
Feshi howled and pointed. A massive wave was coming straight for the ship. The [Storm Captain] was taking them right towards it.
“We’re going to go under!”
“No! Everybody brace!”
From the bow of the ship, the [Captain] roared as the colossal wave began to break on the ship.
The ship shot forwards. It smashed through the wave as the bow hit the wave and split the waters. The wave parted. For a moment the [Strategists] saw a terrifying sight, of the waters on either side rushing past as the ship sailed through the gap. Then they were through, and the wave, split in two, began to collapse with a roar.
The [Storm Sailors] cheered as the [Strategists] stared ahead. The [Captain] shouted them down; there were more waves to come. But they’d made it. As the six students headed below decks, Peki threw up some water.
“Dead gods. What was that?”
A few hours later, the six emerged above decks to find an exhausted crew, and clear skies. The ocean was still, and but for the water which had soaked the decks, and their memory of it, the students wouldn’t have known there’d be a storm.
“Summer storm. Mild, as it goes. Sorry about your friend. We thought you lot’d know how to at least swim.”
Captain Lasc, a tall man with two glinting eyes, a long cutlass, and a tattoo that looked like a magical rune on the back of his left hand, greeted the passengers. He looked tired, but the salt and water couldn’t drown out the intensity in his eyes and manner. He brusquely nodded to Peki.
“I hate water.”
The Garuda grumbled. Wil nodded.
“We didn’t know either, Captain. We’ll have to teach Peki. Thank you for your efforts! And that was a mild storm? I’ve lived in Pheislant for almost all my life, but I can’t remember a storm that bad, even when I was in some of the ships there!”
Lasc grinned. He had two ruby teeth. Yes, ruby. They glinted, shining like fire.
“Ah, well, for a landfolk such as yourself, Lord Kallinad, that’s not a bad place to be. But sea storms aren’t like the kind that make their way to land. This one was far from the worst, even for the summer. But don’t fear. So long as the Emerald Signet has me and my crew on it, we’ll be fine. [Storm Sailors] shower in storms like these.”
Wil nodded, and thanked the Captain again. He did seem unfazed by the fury of the storm, but then—it was his class.
Lasc was a [Storm Captain], one of the famous ship captains who braved storms, monsters, and pirates to deliver his cargo. Or in this case, passengers. They were what amounted to order on the seas, the untamed vastness that was larger than all the continents combined, and least settled.
“We ride through storms all the time. If worse comes to worst, I’d battle a storm over a sea monster any day. But next time we’ll have you below.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
Yerranola added her thanks with the others. She looked at Wil.
“And you said this would be a safe trip! I thought it wasn’t eventful, but here we are, a storm in the first week!”
Lasc and Venaz both laughed. The [Captain] explained to the bemused Selphid.
“That’s not that eventful. You want eventful, Miss Selphid? Try meeting a Kraken at sea. Or a [Pirate] ship. Or worse—a crew of the Drowned Folk.”
He spat over the side of his ship and flicked his fingers. Sailors were a superstitious lot who believed in luck, and [Captains] were no exception. Yerranola noted some of the other [Sailors] copying Lasc.
“Which is worse? [Pirates], Drowned People, or monsters?”
If [Storm Sailors] and their ships were the (mostly) lawful sort at sea, the rogue [Pirates] were the other main force. They preyed on merchants, sailors, and each other and had little to no laws.
They could be deadly crews, or a bunch of Lizardfolk in a rowboat. But Yerra had heard some had bounties that would make a Gold-rank adventurer blush, and that was for each member of the crew!
On the other hand, the Drowned Folk were something of an enigma, even to Yerranola. She knew they were half-fish, sometimes crabs, or eels, or any number of species that somehow turned ordinary races into the half-aquatic people of the sea. They seldom came to land, and they did not treat well with ‘landfolk’. Or even the other sea-goers. Drowned Folk fought [Pirates], [Pirates] fought them and [Sailors], and monsters ate everyone.
Lasc shrugged. He scowled as he indicated the water.
“I’d rather a storm over a monster, and a monster over a [Pirate] ship. But I can see two of ‘em, and monsters are simple, usually. But Drowned Folk? Saltsucking bastards, the lot of ‘em. If we don’t see one of the Drowned Ships on this little errand, I’ll be grateful for it.”
“Maybe we might have been better hiring one of them. I hear they have underwater capabilities, which is what we need.”
Venaz murmured. The Minotaur was unconcerned by the glare he got from the [Storm Captain]. Lasc gave him an evil eye, and then turned to Wil.
“Drowned vessels can sink beneath the waves. But you couldn’t trust ‘em, Lord Kallinad. Believe me, my crew and I can get most sunken treasures up—least, the ones not guarded by monsters or something nasty.”
“Your crew and the Emerald Signet was the first I thought of, Captain Lasc. Please don’t mind my companion.”
The [Lord] elbowed Venaz. The Minotaur grunted, but held his tongue until Lasc moved away. Then the [Strategists] turned into a huddle.
“Grandfather’s hammers, Peki! Why didn’t you tell us you couldn’t swim?”
Yerra snapped at Peki. The Garuda [Martial Artist] and [Lieutenant] shrugged.
“Forgot? We’re at sea!”
“I made it last time.”
“Peki’s a bit daft. But what was that about you needling our [Captain], Venaz? He’s been nothing but a good host. And Wil hired his ship, didn’t he?”
“Hmf. I could have chartered us on a Minotaur ship.”
“And we’d have had to wait and pay over a third of whatever we pulled up, Venaz. We’ve been over this.”
Feshi growled, poking Venaz in the back. The saltwater was drying in her fur and she was not in the mood to debate. Venaz paused.
“A Drowned Ship can sink. And they have magical shields. I’ve seen them. This Captain Lasc is decent, for a Human. But he’s only a [Storm Captain]. Wil, are you certain he’s the best pick for our mission?”
Wil wiped at his clothing, which was still drying. He looked around at the five other [Strategists]. They’d all come with him, on his offer, and under his command. He nodded slowly to the ship.
“Trust is a big thing on the sea, everyone. Captain Lasc has traded with Kallinad and we have a relationship. And that makes him the best pick. Not only that—his crew has seen fighting. They’re experienced. But trust is why I chose him. He won’t betray us or slit our throats. And Minotaurs aside, I don’t know if I’d trust another group that much.”
Merrik nodded appreciatively, along with Feshi. They understood that. Venaz sighed.
“I’ll apologize to the man. But I’m cooped up and bored. How long until we reach the first shipwreck, Wil?”
The others shushed Venaz instantly. Aside from Lasc and their group, no one was supposed to know the true purpose of their outing. And that was to locate and uncover the various shipwrecks Wil had been given by Niers Astoragon.
“Let’s head below decks to continue our conversation. I could freshen up and we’re just in the way up here.”
Wil carefully suggested, and the others agreed. They trooped down below decks.
It was rather pleasant in the Emerald Signet. For all it was a ship, and thus limited in space, it was a good one, and that meant there were magical amenities to make a sea voyage more tolerable.
There was space for games below decks—the students had brought two chess and go boards and the [Sailors] had given up playing them, and the six had everything from a scrying orb to books, to a map to simulate war games with or argue about strategy.
They’d been doing a lot of that, over convivial food and drinks, or watching the Wistram broadcasts. It was a bit cramped, and they were two to a room—Yerra was bunking with Merrik, Wil with Venaz, and Peki and Feshi—but those were only places to sleep. Now though, they squeezed into Wil and Venaz’s room.
“I hate water.”
Peki announced as she sat on the top bunk. She didn’t seem too disjointed by her near-drowning experience. Merrik threw one of Wil’s pillows at her as he clambered up to sit up top.
“Why’d you come, then, you featherbrained bird?”
“I want to see the Walled Cities. Before I go home to Pomle. And find treasure.”
The Garuda stretched. Wil sighed as he looked around.
“We’ll get there. And don’t worry, Venaz. We’re nearing the first site. We won’t be at sea that long.”
“I hope so. I have the Meeting of Tribes to attend, and the Professor is still teaching classes. You are sure we’ll be back in time, Wil?”
Feshi looked at Wil, and the others nodded. Wil was their expert logistician. He nodded; he’d calculated their route and they were on schedule.
“It’s a short trip. We visit the spots the Professor gave us, find anything worth finding, and then head to Izril to drop off Feshi. We should have time to visit Zeres and maybe even a few other Walled Cities—and for Feshi to attend the Meeting of Tribes—before we have to be back for fall classes.”
“A semester’s seminar abroad. The rolling boat beneath my feet, some of the Professor’s best students to keep my mind sharp, and the promise of adventure! Well, just the promise so far. If that’s the worst the sea has, I needn’t have brought my armor or my hammer.”
Merrik sighed. Yerra gave him a sideways look.
“Merrik, you do realize we’ll be fighting at sea? What happens if you fall overboard like Peki?”
The Dwarf snorted.
“Hah! I like water. And I can swim with armor on, unlike the rest of you.”
“That’s so un-Dwarflike.”
“Shut it, Yerranola! All these damned stereotypes about Dwarves and half-Elves. I like swimming, and I like fishing. And I’ll swim laps in my armor around you all—except for Wil.”
The Minotaur in the room was not about to let that slide. Venaz folded his arms and met Merrik’s grinning gaze.
“I can swim with an axe in one hand and fight underwater. Wil, what if we find…something?”
The room fell silent and Wil shivered. What if they found something? It was more than an outside chance. He’d been given the location of a number of sunken shipwrecks by the Titan himself. Every location with a possible artifact of power or…treasure. It was not what Wil had asked for, but it was what he had wanted. He nodded around at the other [Strategists].
“Then we play it by ear, Venaz. And like I said—we split the loot.”
“You take first pick, Wil. You have the map, or locations or whatever, and you found the ship. We just helped pay for it. Well, some of us.”
Yerra looked at Peki, who was destitute. The Garuda shrugged.
“I just want to have an adventure. Treasure aside! Why’d you let us come, though, Wil? Because Umina and Marian turned you down?”
Merrik exclaimed. Wil shook his head.
“I had a short list. Marian and Umina were on it—”
“Not Kissilt? How will we ever live without his soothing ambiance and sweet comments?”
The others laughed. Wil went on, shaking his head.
“Umina’s a great swimmer and she’s brilliant, but she didn’t want to come. Marian would be an asset too, and she’s a great shot, but she hates water and boats. But the rest of you all have something to offer, and Feshi’s got a great cover reason for us to go, for instance.”
“Even me, Wil?”
Yerra leaned over, batting her eyes. Wil smiled.
“Yerra, you’re central to part of the plan.”
The others exclaimed. Wil nodded to Yerra.
“She’s a Selphid, so she can dive into the water longer than the rest of us. Captain Lasc has some [Divers] and waterbreathing artifacts on his ship, but a Selphid has utility.”
“Ah. So the rest of us?”
Feshi grinned. Wil shrugged.
“Peki and Merrik are good for fights. So is Venaz. Feshi, Yerra, and I can pull our weight. I don’t anticipate violence, but…Umina would have been our weakest combatant and she has that new belt.”
“Are you expecting a fight, Wil?”
Venaz’ eyes lit up at the prospect. Wil shook his head, but he was still cautious.
“It’s the ocean. You never know what will come up. And [Pirate] attacks are no joke. Six [Strategists] and [Officers] plus a seasoned crew should deter them, but I wanted to be cautious.”
“Plus, if we pull up a Named-rank artifact, we’ll have to guard it. Smart. Maybe beat up the crew.”
Peki nodded. As always, her comments, few though they were, said what no one was willing to. Wil paused.
“I trust Captain Lasc. But yes, Peki. If that happens we’ll rely on you.”
“Oho. Possible mutinies, treasure, and attacks? I’m glad I came.”
Merrik’s eyes shone. Feshi nodded.
“We won’t let you down, Wil. And I hope to have something more to present to the Meeting of Tribes besides myself.”
The Gnoll looked around. And everyone in the small cabin had the same feeling that had caught Wil’s heart, that the Titan had seen in him.
“The Isles of Minos clash with [Pirates] and Drowned Men all the time. You chose the right second-in-command, Wil.”
Venaz struck a fist to his chest. Instantly, the other [Strategists] glared at him. Yerra threw a pillow at Venaz.
“That’s right. Like Kallinad, I have experience in naval battles. I’m a trained warrior—”
“And we’re not? That’s it, we’re having this out, Venaz! You’re just a [Strategist] and Peki and I’ve seen battle!”
“I’ve probably seen more than you.”
“Peki, drag him above decks! You can hit him after I break his horns!”
The three were ready to brawl, but Wil shouted them down.
“Enough! Or Captain Lasc will tie you to a rope and drag you behind the ship!”
They quieted down. After a while, Feshi sighed.
“…Why does he have ruby teeth when it’s called the Emerald Signet?”
“Maybe emeralds are more expensive?”
“I bet it’s an irony thing.”
“Did you see the spell-tattoo on his hand? I wonder what it does when he activates it.”
The [Strategists] relaxed. Yerra stood up.
“So, anyone want to watch the scrying orb? How about a game of chess? Go?”
“I’ll play you a game of Go. And put the scrying orb on. I want to see if Belchan falls within the week, or if Medain intervenes and launches a sneak-attack on Reim, as I predicted.”
Venaz heaved himself up. The others headed out and Wil called at their backs.
“We should be nearing the first shipwreck soon. Tomorrow! Get some rest and don’t drink too much!”
They shouted acknowledgements and in good cheer, departed. For a moment, Wil was left alone. He paused, and then closed the door to his room. He put a chair under the handle, and then fished around in his bag of holding. Wil slowly unrolled a piece of paper.
On it, in the Titan’s own, small handwriting, a list had been written. There were less than a dozen entries, but each one was…Wil read in his cabin, his heart pumping with excitement. Not all were long entries, but each had coordinates, dates, and, most glorious of all, speculation. The one they were approaching was halfway down the list.
Anonymous cargo for Archmage Zelkyr. The trade ship (unknown) was ambushed by a pack of very hungry Reefeyes. I have no idea what’s down there and the Archmage might have recovered it surreptitiously. Or it might have been a rare resource for him, some quarried stone. Or nothing.
Wil had not shared the details of each shipwreck with his classmates. He trusted them, but this information was his alone. And indeed, the scroll was protected against theft. No one but Wil and Niers would know where the shipwrecks were, and he had memorized all the details. It was coded to his touch; anyone else grabbing it would find the paper disintegrate in their hands.
Cargo for Archmage Zelkyr. Two hundred years old, perhaps! And what might it be? It was the kind of thing that you made the very essence of stories out of.
It could be nothing. The first shipwreck didn’t even have the Titan’s speculation as to what it would be—just that he knew something was down there. But not all of the shipwrecks were so enigmatic. One of them made Wil’s heart thunder, the next destination on their travel.
Gailenwright’s Eye, the command-ship of the [Pirate Lord] Gazer, Gailenwright. Known as one of the more infamous vessels lost, and marked the end of the era of [Pirate Lords] around eight hundred years ago. The warship appeared during storms and fog and the Gazer crew would immobilize and destroy enemy ships in deadly ambushes with their superior optical abilities. It had a special hull, designed to repel magical attacks.
The ship and [Captain] were both lost in a full clash between an armada of the [Pirate Lord] and the Undersea Crews. The shifting battle took place during a storm and the Gailenwright (ship, not [Captain]) was said to be invisible to all scrying means. Because of this, locating the wreck has been difficult, but several survivors had rough estimates.
I sent two scouting vessels to ascertain the shipwrecks. They’re down there, but my [Divers] both perished. Monsters of some kind inhabit the wrecks, but I’m certain the Gailenwright, among other vessels, is hidden below.
Drowned Ships may have already plundered the vessel, but then again, even the Drowned Folk may have not been able to locate the Gailenwright. I myself only pieced it together with some extreme logistical guesses, and it took my scouts nearly a year to find. I never did put together an expedition to grab whatever was down there; my enemies would have probably stolen it on the way back, and the Iron Vanguard makes assembling a fleet impossible. Tread with caution.
An artifact owned by the [Pirate Lord]. Again, each site could have been plundered, or be something else. Or have been lost to monsters, or any number of things. But it was a chance. And there were more entries.
Massive sunken naval armada. Unknown which particular event. Speculation: half-Elf empire? [Divers] saw something like their sigil before one got eaten. Also, beware of giant eels.
Monsters. No shipwreck was merely ‘lost’. Some had become the resting places of the ship and their crews because of what had downed them. Or—what they had been carrying.
Possible resting place of the Diamond Swords of Serept, a Kheltian treasure stolen from the nation of Khelt around two thousand years ago. The curse of the treasure or some magical trap activated at sea. Possibly still active. All possible; don’t get your hopes up. Also, don’t take the swords. [Message] King Fetohep and negotiate if you find them. Curse may still be extant.
Will poured through the list. Nine entries. Nine possible treasures, some of artifacts of power, others mysteries. Each one might make him famous, or might end with his and the crew’s death.
But either way, it would fulfill his dream of adventure. And—the last entry was the most dramatic of all. It was a short note, but even the Titan’s hand had trembled with excitement as he drafted the message to Wil.
I believe this is the location of the last known Dragonship, the Skyflame’s, resting spot. If it is—salvage everything from the hull to mast. And make at full speed for the nearest port capital city. Watch your [Captain], even if they’re the most trustworthy, if you pull anything big up, Wil.
If you find anything. If it was there—Wil shivered. A Dragonship. The very ships that had sailed in the ages when Dragons were still sighted, still known around the world. Not a ship made of Dragonhide, or bones. But a ship built by Dragons. Made for them.
All of that awaited. And Wil sat back, happy as he could have been. Friends and adventure, treasure and danger.
It was good to be at sea.
As the Emerald Signet sailed onwards, the watchful sailor on the crow’s nest scouted for threats in every direction. But, keen-eyed though he was, he could not see far below the waters.
And that, of course, was where the greatest threats lurked. A ship moved slowly under the water, protected by a magical aegis. A Drowned Ship. And the crew moved in silence, dogging the [Storm Sailor]’s vessel.
“Captain. The landfolk and the storm-ship are heading into Seagrass’ trade-waters. Do we pursue?”
The [First Mate] of the Drowned Ship was half-starfish. She had survived a half-beheading, and regrown her limbs more than once. It was true that Captain Lasc was a good [Storm Captain] and his crew was hardy. But every Drowned Folk on this ship had sunken at least eight ships before.
The [Captain] of the Drowned Ship was a half-Eel Drowned Man. He could walk through lightning and generate it, and had a rubbery consistency to his fish-half. He was watching the hull of the Emerald Signet from afar, slowly following it. He replied without taking his eyes off the other ship.
“Everyone and their seadogs have heard the rumor. They’ve got a map of sunken treasure. If it’s Seagrass or an entire armada of storm-ships, we follow. Tell the other Undersea Crews this is our quarry.”
“Aye, Depth Captain.”
Of course, Wil’s journey was secret. And of course, the Titan of Baleros had let no word slip. But Wil, for all his great precautions, his efforts, had made one mistake in securing his crew and going about his great adventure. He’d underestimated, or perhaps, overestimated his friends.
Venaz and Yerranola had big mouths and loose lips. And you know what they said about that and ships.