(I will be taking part in an online panel on r/Fantasy on the 23rd of April! Find out more here!)
As was his wont, Niers Astoragon was taking private time for himself, rather than moving from city to city to conduct surprise inspections, or managing his company, teaching his students, or the thousand and one things he liked to do to keep himself occupied.
In fact—free time was something he was notoriously averse to. But of late, he’d been regularly scheduling break-time in which anyone interrupting him was immediately attacked—usually with a thrown pencil or the nearest object at hand.
Of course, those close to him knew the Fraerling’s good mood was because his Go board had arrived. And his opponent and the world’s most famous [Strategist] now regularly played—and communicated.
It was their thing. And the Titan was in a good mood. For a while. But he liked to be too complex for any one singular emotion at a time. And the game with his opponent aside—he was a bit perturbed.
“Peclir. Where’s the files on…Talenqual?”
The Fraerling was exasperatedly sorting through the notes in one of his miniature file cabinets as the [Chamberlain] walked in to serve Niers a cup of tea.
Not, in fact, a Titan-sized cup which was in fact a tiny cup made for Fraerlings, but a regular, Human-sized cup of tea. Niers could eat and drink his body weight as could all Fraerlings due to their unnatural and magical constitutions. However…it was still a lot of caffeine.
“Bottom drawer, third cabinet from the left, sir. If you haven’t changed your filing system.”
The Titan grunted as he yanked open a drawer. He rifled through the files and pulled one out. Then he glanced up.
“Put the cup there, Peclir. Thanks.”
“Just your usual annoyances. The Flying Brigade, eh?”
Niers busied himself with his reports until Peclir had put down the tea and left. Only then did the Titan check to make sure the door was closed, sweep the room twice with one of his numerous seeing spells for any observers, magical or otherwise. And after that he still murmured to himself in a low tone of voice.
He trusted Peclir; the man was an essential part of the headquarters of the Forgotten Wing company. However—Niers hadn’t confided this with Foliana yet. It was too close. Too…vast.
And yet—she hadn’t arrived.
Niers Astoragon sighed. Peclir himself had made the arrangements, through Venaz, at Niers’ request. It had been just a whim, born of Daquin and a chance encounter with a City Runner—well, a [Rower] named Luan.
“Send the Last Light of Baleros here. How hard could it be?”
Niers flipped through the reports, organized by date. He frowned.
“Something must have prevented her from making the scheduled meeting.”
He’d kept tabs, as he did with the guest speakers or visitors to his academy. He liked to bring in any number of people, from [Veterans] who could share their experiences on the front lines to active-duty [Commanders] to [Mages], and so on. After all, his students would become the best in the world and Niers Astoragon intended them to learn from a variety of sources, including himself.
Ordinarily, the famed [Doctor] and member of the United Nations company, Geneva Scala, would have arrived to lecture or demonstrate her abilities, as Peclir had arranged. There was even a travel expense and fee for her presentation, obviously. But she’d cancelled at the last minute, refunded the fee. The question was: why?
Niers Astoragon was all too aware of his position. If he demanded it, an entire army could march on Talenqual at a moment’s notice, sack the entire city if he needed to, and take the [Doctor]. All on a hunch. All on a supposition that her company was made of…
But he wouldn’t do that. For one thing, Niers Astoragon believed in things like not killing innocent people if you could help it. Secondly, any move he made was watched by the other three Great Companies of Baleros and any number of his enemies. He had to be stealthy in how he met Geneva. A month’s lead, or a few weeks? It could mean everything.
And yet, and yet. Why wasn’t she here? Niers consulted his reports. There were clues in the meticulous details his [Informants] and [Spymasters] sent to him. And here—
The Last Light of Baleros is treating victims of Yellow Rivers.
Just a line in one of the latest reports. As well as figures. Treating victims. Niers read it, and then began to cross-reference the data with other reports in other folders.
By the time the door to his study swung open and an invisible Squirrelwoman hopped in, Niers Astoragon was swearing. He didn’t even bother trying to locate the invisible [Rogue].
“Close the door, Foliana. We have a problem.”
“You could say that. We might have a plague on our hands.”
Niers threw down the reports. How had no one noticed? Brothels across every major city. Foliana reappeared as she perched in a chair by the table.
“How do you know?”
“There are cases of this disease. Yellow Rivers, it’s being called. Something incredibly nasty spreading through brothels and armies. I didn’t take much heed and most people haven’t. It’s like any number of regular illnesses. But look. Talenqual, top of the page.”
Foliana read the latest report.
“The Last Light of Baleros—Geneva Scala, United Nations company—treating Yellow Rivers disease in two children. Different symptoms, but similar. Ew.”
“Not what you think. Unless I’m mistaken, they did not get it normally. If they did, you can add some people to your list. But I think this sickness has multiple ways of being contracted. And if so…”
Niers paused. That explained a lot. And he began to worry. The [Strategist] paced back and forth.
“The Yellow Rivers disease? Let’s hope it’s not a magical plague. Like the Sporepits Plague. Millions died.”
There was a difference in plague vs…plague. You could take down a normal illness with some Skills, for instance. [Healers] were good at fighting infection depending on their level. But magical plagues? They could wipe the world clean.
“I need to investigate.”
“This [Doctor]? Why? Give her more money, mm. If you’re worried.”
Foliana glanced at Niers. He hesitated.
“It’s deeper than that, Foliana. Don’t pry. For now. But this means my plans have changed. Damn. I need…an agent. Or two. Happily, the students are on summer classes. Hm.”
He scratched at his beard. Foliana watched him.
Many of his students had left. For their homes, to visit their families, for a vacation from the grind that was class at his academy. And a small group had gone…to sea.
“Huh. Wil would have been my first pick. Or Yerra, or Feshi, honestly. Umina and Marian I know, but—well, Umina’s troublesome for a number of reasons of late. And Marian is surprisingly weak at improvisation in the ways I’d need.”
Niers mused to himself. Foliana tilted her head left and right.
“Do you regret sending them on the treasure hunt?”
The Titan looked up.
“Those six? Never. It will be good for them. It’s just inconvenient for me at this moment.”
He meant Venaz, Wil, Feshi, Yerranola, Merrik, and Peki. Niers hadn’t chosen the group, but he had given Wil the map. And now?
They were at sea. Hunting for sunken wrecks. Having an adventure. The one Wil Kallinad had always dreamed of.
An adventure. Foliana and Niers glanced at each other. And the old leaders remembered their youth as adventurers. Foliana sipped from Niers’ tea cup.
“It will be dangerous. They might die.”
“That’s my tea, you overgrown tree rat!”
Niers swore. But he nodded as Foliana put down the cup. He stomped over to it and looked around for the long straw he used. Or the mini-cup he could scoop his drink out of.
“True. It’s dangerous. But the seas have their own rules. More importantly—it will be good for them. All of them could use the experience. They’re all…incomplete as students. You know?”
“No. You must be a bad teacher. Mhm.”
Niers ignored Foliana. He counted on his fingers.
“Each of them has weaknesses. Venaz is astoundingly competent in every area, as befits a [Strategist] who has seen combat. The Isles of Minos sent their best. But he’s as pig-headed as Marian; arrogance does run in the blood of both species. He needs to learn when to run. Wil’s far better than thinks he is, but he’s hesitant to be bold. And when he does? Pig-headed, again. He’ll burn himself fighting, like he did against Tulm rather than go crafty.”
“Isn’t it bull-headed?”
“Don’t interrupt me, Foliana. I know which animal I mean. Yerranola and Feshi are good at craft, but they suffer from relying on cunning over trusting their ability to win a death match. Come to that—they haven’t had that experience yet. Merrik and Peki? Fine commanders, if you give them orders. But they need to open their heads.”
“I could do it with a knife. So does this adventure make them better? Fix their problems?”
Foliana was being classically unhelpful. Niers sighed.
“That’s not the point. None of these things are problems. Each of them would make a fine [Strategist] in their own way. You don’t need to patch every hole in your style. It’s just—what they lack isn’t one singular flaw. It’s this.”
He walked over and poked at Foliana’s arm. A grey patch of fur. She shooed him away.
Niers laughed as he stroked his own white and grey beard. Mostly turning to grey, or white. How time caught up with you. He looked at Foliana.
“They don’t need any one thing, Foliana. What they need is…the adventure. They’re young. They have to experience…everything.”
She paused. And her eyes flickered. Now, Foliana understood. And she nodded.
“But they could die.”
“Yes. Or find no treasure at all. But that’s what an adventure is. I hope they all come back safely. And with treasure. But that’s an adventure. And the seas?”
Niers leaned on the lip of the cup. He stared out the window, at the sky. And he smiled.
“Let the young have their adventure, Foliana. We have work to do.”
“You mean you. I’m on holiday.”
And far from where the two were sitting, as Niers threw his tea at Foliana, far from even the continent of Baleros, on the vast seas, a younger [Strategist] named Wil Kallinad looked at those same skies. And he sighed too.
Because adventure wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
The 6th Location
It turned out that the sea was boring. Crossing it, that was. By and large, it got boring.
That was what Wil Kallinad hadn’t known. Well, he’d known it, having crossed the sea once, but he’d assumed it would be different for…an adventure. And this was what it was, right?
An adventure. The high seas, the wind in your hair, searching for the sunken shipwrecks of old. For treasure, from perhaps thousands of years past. Fighting monsters, evading [Pirates]—
It had been two, two and a half weeks at sea. And Wil Kallinad looked up from the diary he was keeping. He didn’t have much to write.
“Water. Water. Water. Water. Waaaaaater. Water. Water. Water? Water. Water…”
Someone was saying the word over and over again in the background. Just to be fun, she varied how she said the word ‘water’ every few times. That meant you couldn’t quite tune her voice out.
“Dead gods, I swear I will drown you in this drink, Peki. Shut up!”
Another, deeper voice swore from the left. Wil saw a Dwarf, short, stout, with huge arms and a frame that made him stronger than most Human men sit up at the table. The voice stopped for a second and then came back.
The speaker was a Garuda. Her feathers were predominantly green, but mixed with yellow and red. She was a splash of color in the cabin’s interior. And the small room she and Wil and Merrik were sitting in.
With a sigh, Wil closed his diary. Mainly to stop the fight he knew was about to break out. Merrik reached under his bunk.
“Oh yeah? Oh yeah? Try it, you overgrown parrot. Hold on, where’s my hammer? Hold on, I said!”
The five-foot tall Dwarf tried to fend Peki off as she leapt off the bunk she’d been sitting on. It was Wil’s bunk; he and Venaz were sharing a room. Merrik and Peki had invaded his because they were bored. Now, the Garuda [Martial Artist] and [Commander] danced forwards, and punched Merrik in the head.
“Ow! Stop it! I need my axe! And my armor!”
“Fighting doesn’t wait for clothes. Make me stop. Make me.”
“Peki—please stop punching Merrik.”
The Garuda obligingly put the Dwarf in a headlock. Merrik swore as he grabbed at her arms, but light as Peki was—she was an expert in unarmed combat. He couldn’t break free, or use his own considerable strength.
“Headlocks too, Peki. Please stop fighting.”
The Garuda let go of Merrik with a sigh. The Dwarf gasped for air. Red-faced, he glared at the Garuda.
“If I had my hammer or my armor on—”
“I’d hit you on the head. Easy.”
“You were strangling me. I have [Body of Stone]! Try punching me and see how that goes! I dare you!”
Peki raised a fist. Merrik held up his hands.
“Not without my helmet! I don’t want a concussion again! I’m just saying that if I had my helmet—”
“I’d still win.”
Wil sighed. The two were in his cabin because they had been getting on each other’s nerves and wanted company. But he didn’t exactly want their company. Still—there was a limited amount of space on deck.
It had been nearly three weeks. Three weeks of…inaction. A storm had been the most excitement they’d had. The [Strategists] had been prepared for calamity and shipwreck, monsters and trouble.
They had not been prepared for boredom. And in the confines of this tiny vessel…it was getting to them.
“Why don’t we go upstairs? The fresh air will do us all some good. We’re nearly at the next location, anyways.”
Wil hopefully suggested. Peki and Merrik looked at him. Their faces indicated what they thought of that suggestion, but they grudgingly acquiesced.
“Ah, glorious daylight. How I’ve not missed you.”
Merrik announced as they trooped upstairs. Technically, the term was on deck, but none of the [Strategists] were sailors. And using the lingo felt silly at times.
“Where’s Venaz? Feshi? Yerra?”
Wil looked for the other three [Strategists] who were his companions for the voyage. The ship was far from empty of course; it was a galleon, large, with a vast crew of over three hundred hands. They were on deck, adjusting the sails, calling out to each other, performing different tasks—but the three [Strategists] were passengers. Apart, aloof, separate from the [Sailors].
Peki fluttered up, towards the front of the ship. The Garuda’s ability to casually fly always struck Wil with envy when he saw it. But today at least, Peki didn’t seem to feel like swooping around. She did fly each day, and practice her exercises, but even the [Martial Artist] seemed to get bored of training.
She was pointing to a group at the front, or prow of the ship. Peki flew ahead of Merrik and Wil as the [Sailors] navigated around them. They were both used to the sway of the ship, but neither could move as nimbly as the [Storm Sailors].
[Storm Sailors], the regulars of the sea. This was a ship led by a [Storm Captain], and crewed by [Storm Sailors]. Such ships were considered better than most trade ships, because while they were common, you had to earn the [Storm Sailor] class and its counterpart as a [Captain].
They weren’t always honorable ships either. Sometimes, they were. But a [Storm Captain] could turn to piracy if need be. The sea was a different place than on land. There were few [Knights] who fought at sea. And the sea…
The sea was boring. Honestly. It was. Wil stared at the relatively flat landscape of green and blue as he walked with Merrik grumbling about arrogant Garuda. It was a matter of perspective, he supposed.
The sea contained [Pirates]. Monsters. Treasure. Adventure, and drama and romance and everything in between, just like land. The problem was that there was a substantially larger amount of sea than land. And the continents were vast.
But the sea was vaster. And when all you experienced of it was the top portion (which was the least notable part of the sea, which extended miles into the dark waters below), you tended to get a lot of uniformity.
And it wasn’t as if Wil or Merrik could walk off the ship and go for a nice stroll on the waves. Neither of them had Waterwalking Boots, and even Peki couldn’t fly far. Besides, what was there to do?
Well—one thing you could do was bring entertainment. And at this moment, three [Strategists] were playing chess at a table set up near the front of the boat.
Venaz was playing Feshi, and Yerranola spectating. It was a game of chess. A tradition among Niers Astoragon’s students. Only—there wasn’t so much rapt attention and competitiveness among the two players so much as…vague disinterest.
The Minotaur, Venaz, spoke curtly as Peki flew over towards them. Feshi moved a piece out of the way. Venaz moved a piece.
Feshi moved her king. Venaz moved his piece a third time.
The female Gnoll pushed over her king with a sigh. Venaz stared at the board. He didn’t gloat, or point out her mistakes as he had the first hundred times they’d played on the ship. This time he just sighed.
“Yes. Another match? Oh look, there’s Wil.”
Yerranola slid down in her seat. The Selphid was wearing a female Human’s body for the trip; she’d brought a few bodies and kept switching them out to keep them ‘fresh’. She stared up at the sky. Wil and Merrik slowly walked over to them, the same…look on their faces. They were getting close to the sixth location. But none of them had any excitement left.
“Ship turning! ‘Ware the boom!”
A voice cracked across the deck. The [Strategists] looked up. Now here was someone with some pep in her voice. A [Storm Sailor] glared across the deck as she shouted at them.
The ship was indeed turning. At the prow, the [Captain], Captain Lasc, was turning the ship, moving the thick ship’s wheel. All well and good. Venaz went back to staring at the chessboard. His right eye was twitching.
They were bored. Venaz sighed as he pushed the chess board back.
“I’m not in the mood to play. Feshi, Yerra?”
The two chorused as one. Venaz nodded. With care, he put the carved stone pieces into his bag of holding, and the board.
“Maybe we should bring out the scrying orb. Hopefully there’ something interesting on.”
Television had come to this world. But watching it all day still made you go insane. The others were nodding. And the voice cried out again.
“Watch the sea-cursed boom, you idiot bird!”
The others looked up. Peki glanced around. Just in time to see the boom of the ship and sail turn with the galleon. Because…that was what happened when a ship turned.
All the [Storm Sailors] were out of the way. But the inattentive Garuda, who did not voyage on the sea, was directly in the path of the ship’s boom. And it swung into her and smacked her out of the air.
Yerranola sat up quick. Feshi and Venaz saw the Garuda hit the deck, roll, and spring up. Venaz sat forwards.
“Hah! That was entertaining!”
Peki was unharmed. She’d tried to block the boom, and then, realizing that was impossible, transferred the energy into the roll. She was patting her ruffled feathers down as Wil and Merrik strode over.
“Peki! How many times is that? Eighteen? Watch the boom!”
Merrik needled Peki as the Garuda eyed the offending boom of the ship—which was connected to the sails, which a ship would turn to catch the wind. That was also how ships worked, incidentally. And when a ship turned—or the wind blew hard, the boom moved. By accident, it was called a jibe. Either way—you watched the boom. Everyone seemed to get that but Peki.
The Garuda defiantly flicked her wings out. Merrik rolled his eyes.
“And it still swats you each time! I thought you were a [Martial Artist] from Pomle!”
“Well, you seem to get hit by a ship quite often.”
“I can hit you.”
Peki raised a fist. Merrik raised his and Venaz got up, looking excited. But before another brawl could break out—a [Storm Sailor] strode across the deck.
“Oi, you salt-brained sack of scum! Don’t you learn? Watch the boom!”
She bellowed at Peki, pointing angrily at the piece of the ship. Peki and the other students from the Titan’s academy turned and stared.
They saw a [Storm Sailor] glaring at them. One of many on the ship. They had names. Personalities. Some of them were probably people. But they didn’t make a point of getting to know Wil and his friends. Wil was familiar with the [First Mate], Delivan, and Captain Lasc, but all the others were a blur of ‘don’t touch that’, or ‘captain’s orders’, or ‘you’re in the way’ to him.
This was just another one. Only—she—stood out. She was short, as [Sailors] went. Skin dark, tanned from the sun. Dressed in a [Sailor]’s garb, relatively lightweight and not entangling to avoid issues if you had to swim. Sleeves and leggings rolled up, crusted with salt; you didn’t wash often on a ship, and hopefully didn’t need to.
Well, her legging was rolled up on one leg on her left side. Her right…leg…was harder to roll up on so she’d just cut the cloth away. That helped her octopus-leg stand on the deck.
The [Strategists] stared. The [Storm Sailor] glared at them. She pointed at Peki.
“You got stuffing in your ears?”
She had…two normal arms. One normal leg. A normal, Human face. So she wasn’t your classic Drowned Woman, or one of the Drowned People in general. You could normally tell because half of their bodies were some sort of sea creature’s. Just her leg.
Oh—and when she opened her mouth, Wil saw a beak in her mouth. An interior set of jaws. Like a bird’s jaw, but—different.
A cephalopod’s beak, in fact. An octopus’ beak they used to eat. That was an octopus-fact. It was a second mouth in her mouth.
The [Storm Sailor] didn’t seem to care about the stares. She pointed at Peki.
“Stay out of the way of the boom, you got that, landbird?”
Peki stared at the beak. Then she stared at the [Sailor]. She shrugged, face blank.
“Why? Doesn’t hurt.”
The short [Sailor] looked incredulous. Her right tentacle-leg extended a bit, and she stood tilted slightly left, slightly taller.
“You? Who cares about you? If you hit the damn mainsail, there’ll be hell to pay! I’ve seen you punching the boom as well! You crack the wood, Captain Lasc’ll be eating chicken tonight!”
Peki looked blank. Her classmates stared at her. The [Storm Sailor] stared and her jaw worked as she tried to figure out if Peki was being funny.
“He’ll have you tossed in the ocean! Stop flying about like an idiot!”
That was all she came up with. Then she stomped off. Well—one foot stomped. Wil and the others watched her go.
“Amazing. See how her leg’s moving? It’s not a balanced walk by any means. But the tentacle-leg actually works on a moving deck. Imagine her trying to run. On land.”
Venaz whispered a bit too loudly. The others looked at him. Wil slowly sat down, boredom forgotten for a moment.
“I’ve never seen anyone like that. She’s not fully Drowned Person, is she?”
“Nope. And [Storm Sailors] don’t like to crew with them. Rivalry on the sea. We have to ask about it. Hey. Hey, you.”
Merrik instantly waved at the nearest [Sailor] passing by. The man grunted; he was swabbing the deck. People actually had to do that. It was to keep it from allowing moss or mold to grow, and to keep the planks wet and thus swelled with water to prevent leaks.
More ship-facts. The [Sailor] grunted, but he leaned on his mop as he came over.
His tone wasn’t exactly polite for guests, but he wasn’t spitting on them either. Merrik waved conspiratorially at the part-octopus [Sailor].
“What’s up with her?”
“Merrik. We shouldn’t gossip.”
“What? Why not?”
The Dwarf looked at Wil. The Terandrian [Lord] hesitated, but the [Sailor] turned out to be only too happy to gossip. He looked around conspiratorially.
“Her? The one that just yelled at you? Oh, that’s Inky. She’s got a tongue on her almost as bad as that fucking beak.”
The [Strategists] were instantly fascinated. This was the highlight of their day.
“Tell us more. Take a seat.”
“I should be working.”
The man hesitated. But Venaz instantly pulled one of the chairs out.
“We’re chartering this ship. Sit down.”
The Minotaur ordered. The [Sailor] weighed this, glanced about, and sat.
“Whaddya want to know?”
“Everything. What’s with the beak, the leg—”
“Does she have any more octopus parts? That is octopus, right? Not squid?”
Yerranola was as fascinated as Merrik and the others. Of course, the Selphid was a body-connoisseur. She looked at people…mainly for their bodies. The man just shrugged.
“You’d have to ask some of her mates.”
“Do you mean mates as in—”
“Merrik. Don’t be disgusting.”
Feshi reached over and poked the Dwarf with her paw, hard. The Dwarf grunted. The [Sailor] however seemed to appreciate the Dwarf’s humor. But Merrik was a friendly sort. Everyone got along with him.
“If we’re all her mates, it’s only a few who’ve seen underneath. And only a few cared to if you get my drift. She’s part-Drowned. Part octopus, aye. You saw the beak and the leg? The rest’s just ink and suckers.”
“On her hands. And the soles of her feet, so I hear. She spits ink and makes it everywhere else. That’s the name. She’s not one of ours. Just a crewing member for the trip. But she is a [Storm Sailor], so old Lasc took her on. I’ve seen her twice; she knows the job, but she ain’t ours.”
By ‘ours’, he meant a member of The Emerald Signet. The regulars versus the people they might hire on for the journey. The students nodded.
“You’re not a fan of hers. Why, does she cause trouble?”
The [Sailor] hesitated. Yerranola instantly poured a drink.
“Fancy some rum? Straight from the larder.”
“Don’t mind if I do. Thanks. You lot are alright!”
The [Sailor] downed the shot appreciatively. He wiped his mouth and went on, lowering his voice.
“Nah, she’s good at her job. Wouldn’t be part of the crew otherwise. Helps kick the others into shape. But she’s—you know? Part fish? One of them. Drowned Folk. Only, they wouldn’t take her, so she crews with us air breathers.”
He spat to the side. Wil frowned. It was Feshi who asked the obvious. The Gnoll leaned over. Parts of her fur were dyed with color, but she hadn’t kept it up of late. Feshi Weatherfur cast an eye towards Inky, who was walking over to the mast. She put her hands on the mast and instead of grabbing onto any ladder or handholds, just climbed up the mast.
“Suckers. See? Unnatural. But she’s the daughter of a Drowned Person and a Human. Don’t know the details, don’t care. But she didn’t take the Sea’s Bargain—don’t know if she can, since she’s already part something.”
The [Sailor] explained. His name was Begal. Or his nickname. Sailors were big on nicknames. That was probably his actual name, though. Like Inky, he’d been born to sailor’s families and lived on the sea all his life.
But he was all normal, for all his heritage was mixed through multiple species. He had a bit of Gnoll—even a bit of Drake in his ancestry, way back, which tickled Feshi’s fancy no end. But they didn’t count, as Begal explained.
“On the sea, there’s only Drowned and non-Drowned. And Drathians, if you want to get technical. They’re an odd bunch. But they’re still not Drowned Folk.”
“What’s so wrong with them?”
Begal’s brow darkened.
“They’re at war with us non-seabreathers. You know [Pirates]? Most of ‘em are Drowned Vessels. Sure, lots are [Pirates], but Drowned Vessels’ll sink both [Pirates] and regular ships. They’re a law of their own. A nation without borders under the sea. Well, they claim the entire sea’s theirs. Bastards, most of ‘em. No [Sailor]’ll crew with a Drowned bastard.”
“…And a part-Drowned person?”
Wil was eying Begal’s face and Inky as she kept climbing towards the crow’s nest to relieve whomever was on watch. The man shrugged.
“Well, they were kicked out of the Drowned since they’re not fish enough. Their faces aren’t, you see? Can’t breathe in water. And I suppose the Drowned folk don’t like anyone who’s not taken the Sea’s Bargain of their own will.”
“Sea’s Bargain. It’s when they join with something of the deeps. Become part-fish, part-crab, part-clam—whatever it is. Anyways, Inky can crew since she has the class—dead gods, I’m not a [Storm Sailor] so Lasc’ll use anyone who’s got the class. But she’s not and never will be one of us. You feel me?”
The other students nodded. Begal nodded. He pushed himself up after a third shot of rum and nodded.
“You students from the Titan are alright, then. Didn’t think you’d be, but you’re not half as bad as the other lot we’ve had onboard. Thanks for the drink.”
He nodded at them and hurried back to his duties before he could catch the eye of any of his superiors. The [Strategists] kept quiet for a few seconds until he was out of earshot, then Yerranola spoke up.
“So how much of that is a [Sailor]’s tales and how much is real, I wonder?”
“What? The man just told us everything there was to know, Yerra.”
Venaz raised his brows. The Selphid glanced back at him. She was frowning, and Wil, sitting to her left, knew Yerranola was vexed. Not quite why, yet, but she explained.
“I hear it’s not like that for Drowned Folk. And they’re hardly the scourge of the seas. Lots are quite peaceful, but it’s [Storm Sailors] and other marauders they fear. And if that’s how they’re treated, no wonder. It’s a wonder Inky crews with this ship if this is how she’s treated, but maybe she doesn’t have a choice. I know the Sea’s Bargain doesn’t work like that.”
She folded her arms. Venaz gave her an incredulous snort. The Minotaur folded his arms and flapped one hand airily. He had…strong opinions which his fellow students were used to. Even so, his superior tone grated at times. Most of the time.
“Yerra, I grew up in the isles of Minos. I know the sea, and that [Sailor] told us nothing I haven’t heard myself from every manner of sea folk. Drowned People are dangerous.”
“Not all of them.”
Yerra’s eyes flashed and she clenched a long-dead hand. Wil eyed her, worriedly.
“Yerra—don’t mind Venaz.”
“I’m just saying—what did Inky do to deserve being talked to like that? The man—Begal—even said she’s a good [Sailor]! What has she done? He didn’t name a thing except that she was part-Drowned! And she was born that way!”
“She yelled at me.”
Peki refused a shot as Merrik poured another round for the students. So did Wil, but Feshi, Venaz, and Yerra all drank up with Merrik. Yerra was glaring at Venaz. Wil was trying to calm her down.
It wasn’t often that Yerranola, as affable as Merrik—perhaps even more so—got angry. It was surprising to Venaz and Feshi, who knew her from class, but Wil, who was close friends with Yerra and recently, Feshi and Venaz, knew his friend. The Selphid was touchy about…outsiders. She herself had experienced enough of what she was seeing or projecting onto Inky.
“Either way, the lesson is to not get hit by the boom. Peki.”
“I’ll dodge it next time. It’s fast. Good training.”
The others rolled their eyes or sighed. But they relaxed, after that brief moment of interest and insight into their monotony. After a few seconds, Venaz produced the scrying orb.
“And now, I believe we have a performance by a high-level [Bard]. Let me get the name. And there’s some to-do about a marriage going off-the-road so to speak, between a…Lord Bein and Lady Hetessana of northern Izril? Am I pronouncing that right? No, wait. Lord Bein and Lady Dealia. Apparently, the [Lord] was allegedly cheating on his fiancé with a Lady Hetessana Wellfar…”
The others groaned as the now-familiar voice of Noass began speaking. Sometimes he would cut to fascinating things like the battle in Jecrass, but the King of Destruction’s armies still had to move and clashes were fast and usually not caught ‘live’ as it were.
And it was a week still before the drama around Lord Bein’s infidelity would come to a head. Wil saw the broadcast cut to a [Bard], who bowed towards the audience and began to declaim.
“Oh tribes. Venaz, turn it off. I cannot handle another Terandrian ballad, no?”
Feshi groaned as she covered her ears. The Minotaur sighed. He slapped the scrying orb into his bag of holding.
“What then? Another game of damn chess? Go? Shogi?”
“No, no, and no. Can’t we get drunk?”
“I’m bored of being drunk.”
Merrik slammed his cup down. The others nodded. Venaz cast about for anything else.
“Swimming then? What about a simulated battle, Wil?”
“We’ll just get left behind the ship again, Venaz. And we always argue about how we run the simulation.”
That was true. The Minotaur flopped back down on deck and stared vacantly into the horizon. His hands moved.
“It’s just—we need—figurines. Like the Professor has. And rules. That would make it easier. Some way of…of deciding arguments, instead of which battalion would win an engagement.”
“Like a board? Sounds like a game.”
The Minotaur trailed off. The others leaned on the table. Bored, bored, bored. None of them looked at Wil, but he sat there. Staring.
After an indeterminate amount of time, someone spoke.
“We’re nearly at the next spot, ladies and gents. Captain Lasc wants to know if any of you’ll be wanting to watch the proceedings?”
Delivan, the First Mate of The Emerald Signet approached the table with the bored students. Wil looked around.
The sea…didn’t look too different. Ah—but wait. There was a distant rock. And something like an island in the far distance? It was precisely where Niers had written the shipwreck might be. Wil rose to his feet.
“I’ll go, of course. Captain Lasc has my gratitude.”
“The details were exceedingly precise, Lord Kallinad. Anyone else? If you’ll be wantin’ to dive, we can get some of the suits rigged. Excepting, well…”
The man looked at Merrik, Peki, and Venaz, all three of which wouldn’t fit the diving suits. Wil saw all three wave their hands.
“I don’t think that will be necessary, Delivan. But I will watch. Anyone coming?”
The others looked at each other. Yerranola rose.
“I’ll come, Wil.”
It was mainly friendship that made her speak. The others shook their heads. Slowly, Wil, the [First Mate] and the Selphid walked off.
Alongside one section of the deck there was a bustle. [Sailors] were congregated around a group of [Divers] getting ready to jump into the ocean. Some had suits on—with helmets made of glass and metal. Others? They were practically naked, stripping down, only taking a single glass bottle plus a stone or weight to help them sink. Yet more had an amulet.
[Divers]. Bottles of compressed air. Diving suits. Or just Amulets of Waterbreathing. There were any number of techniques to brave the ocean even if you weren’t a Drowned Person. And The Emerald Signet, which had been hired to help Wil investigate Niers’ list, was specialized in recovering shipwrecks, among other things.
Normally—or rather, at first—the other [Strategists] would have been all over the proceedings, wanting to try to dive or borrow an amulet from the experienced divers. And worrying about monster attacks, speculating over the treasure—asking why most of the [Divers] would have to stop at regular intervals on the way back up to avoid being sick or dying. The bends, a phenomenon unfamiliar to most landlubbers.
And they had been. Especially over the diving bell, the metal container that would be heaved over the edge of the ship and lowered to preserve air and pressure. Not all the [Divers] would use it; but only because nearly forty would be going down through various methods. They had been so excited.
The first five times. But all the excitement, the hype, all of it had turned to disappointment the first few times. But the students had known that treasure wasn’t guaranteed, or even likely after all this time. They had told themselves that the second time. And the third. And the fourth.
This time Wil and Yerra went off to watch as Captain Lasc marched down the deck. Few of the [Sailors] were watching too. Although—and here was a brief spark of interest—Inky was one of the [Divers]. She had an Amulet of Waterbreathing.
“There. If she can breathe underwater and she’s not accepted on a Drowned Crew, it must be prejudice as that Begal said. I was right.”
Venaz pointed that out to the others. Feshi sighed.
“Venaz, you are more stubborn than one of my clan’s dogs with a bone. Drop it.”
The Minotaur harrumphed, but he said nothing more as the others watched the [Divers] go under and the diving bell being lowered. It was Merrik who sighed and looked around.
“Okay, I bet…forty six hypothetical gold pieces that we find something this time. Even if it’s a minor artifact or gold.”
“No bet. That’s too open-ended.”
Feshi instantly replied. The dives had found objects before. Some gold, a few very minor objects like a green vase that turned out to be silver—but all the wrecks had been picked clean. Or the undersea currents or something had moved the contents. Or there hadn’t been anything to begin with.
“Why forty-six hypothetical gold pieces? Hypothetical?”
Venaz stared at Merrik. The Dwarf shrugged.
“If I was going to bet them. Hypothetical, yeah. Peki and I bet them all the time.”
“I am one hundred and eighty two hypothetical gold coins in debt. I bet thirty nothing comes up, Merrik.”
The Garuda nodded as she dipped her beak into a glass of water. Venaz frowned.
“But why did Merrik bet forty six?”
It was really bothering him. Merrik ignored the Minotaur as he turned to Feshi. The Gnoll was idly fiddling with a bone necklace.
She was Feshi Weatherfur, of the Weatherfur tribe. As was her tribe’s custom, she dyed parts of her fur different colors. Beyond that? She, like many had come to the Titan’s Academy to become one of the world’s best [Strategists].
She was very good at ambushes, moving battles—not as good as Marian, but she was in the special class for the best students. If she had any specialty, it was laying traps. But she wasn’t the class’ best. Now, she sighed through her nose as she sprawled out on the table. Merrik eyed her sidelong.
“Feshi, You know what I’d do if we are on Terandria and had forty-six gold pieces? No—if we were home? We should visit, by the way. Once we’re done with…”
He gestured at the people at the railings on the port side, calling out to each other, checking to see if anyone wanted to come up. Wil was there, looking tense. Upset. Yerra was patting him on the shoulder, clearly trying to get him to laugh.
“Can’t. We’re going to Izril. I need to attend the Meeting of Tribes.”
“Oh, yeah. Damn, I forgot.”
Merrik sighed. He went on though, undeterred.
“Terandria’s a great place, though. Safe. Safer than Baleros. Still has its fair share of monsters—well, you can’t eradicate them. But it’s got some good places. Like my home. You should all visit. It’s a wonderful mountain city.”
The others nodded. Merrik looked around and his voice rose slightly, with the confidence of all those far from home had that their home was special.
“It is! Come and visit!”
Venaz stirred. He looked up over his umpteenth cup of the strong swill the [Sailors] favored. It was being provided to the guests free of charge. Well—Wil’s family had paid a small fortune to hire the vessel and crew for his adventure. Venaz had been calculating just how much money would be lost. For…fun.
“You mean, the mountain of the Dwarves? Dwarfhome Mountains?”
“That’s just the colloquial name. Dwarfhome. Technically, we’re the Mountain Kingdom of the Dwarves, Deríthal-vel. But most people can’t pronounce that.”
“Derithal-vel. There. And why are we visiting? For the lovely sights of a…mountain?”
“You pronounced it wrong.”
Merrik smiled smugly at Venaz’s glare. He shook his head.
“It’s the place to buy weaponry! I thought you’d appreciate that. Even you, Feshi. There are some decent [Bowyers] there, but you could buy a bow made of metal!”
“Pass. And I’m not interested in a bunch of Dwarves. Too short for me.”
The Gnoll sighed. Merrik ignored that crack. But Venaz seemed to take that as another point against visiting.
“I’ve always been curious. But what do Dwarven women…? We don’t get many Dwarves in the House of Minos. So do they have…”
He made a gesture for a beard. Peki began laughing. Merrik glared.
“Hey! It’s not all Dwarven women. Most look Human and not all of ‘em have beards. That’s stereotyping, right there. Actually…most don’t have beards. That’s a weird fetish. Don’t understand it myself.”
“Really? How many other species are there?”
The other students listened as they watched one of the divers return. Inky. She was already shaking her head at Captain Lasc, but he was clearly ordering her back down. Merrik had to think about it.
“Humans are a good population in Dwarfhome. And apprentices from every species come to learn our craft. ‘sides, us Dwarves have a lot of Human blood in us. We’re taller than our forefathers were…mostly because of all the interspecies marriages. Tens of thousands of years of it. But Dwarf blood is stubborn. Still.”
He shrugged. Venaz nodded.
“How defensible is Derithal-vel?”
“Still saying it wrong. Very defensible. We’re Dwarves. We have Dwarven steel—the best [Smiths]…but we don’t fight in many wars.”
“Not even the one with Ailendamus and the other nations? Isn’t Wil’s homeland potentially part of that? Aren’t you worried?”
Feshi was searching for some salted fish. She gnawed on it and shared it around; the others ate mainly to have something to do. But it did help make them thirsty for the drink, which made them willing to eat the fish…Merrik grunted. He looked a bit sad.
“Ah, well. We go to war now and then. But we’re attacked seldom. Truth is…Dwarfhome is mostly a giant smithy. We provide arms, sometimes take sides. But Terandria relies on our steel. And there aren’t enough of us to kick around in an army anymore. Well, not that we want to lose. Good numbers, but not compared to all the Humans in the rest of the continent.”
“You try outbreeding Humans.”
The four [Strategists] shared a hearty laugh. Some of the passing [Sailors] looked sideways at them, but the other four species nodded at each other. Merrik sobered. But then he smiled, suddenly.
“True, we don’t invite war because it’s dangerous. But there’s another reason for it. We don’t get attacked because Dwarfhome has never been taken once.”
He folded his arms. The other [Strategists] glanced at him. It was the kind of statement that invited instant ridicule for anyone in the Titan’s classes.
“What, never? You’re pulling gold out of your ass, Merrik. Don’t give me that look, Peki, that’s how the saying goes.”
Venaz snorted incredulously. Merrik’s eyes twinkled.
“I’m not. You can debate it as much as you want, but that’s not a false claim. Not. Ever. We’ve surrendered, but no one’s ever breached Dwarfhome by force of arms.”
“What about surrender via attrition? Starvation?”
“Nope. Surrendered because we didn’t want a bloodbath. But never starved to death. And even when we endured decades-long sieges—they stormed us and never got through. Not. Once. Top that? Not a bad reason to visit, eh?”
The Dwarf leaned back, looking satisfied. It was a challenge. The other [Strategists] glanced at each other.
“Not bad. But Minos is a paradise. Almost no crime—safety—[Warriors] who have reached a martial peak. I know Peki speaks of Pomle, but the reason I left was that Minos was too safe for me. Being a [Strategist] is my ticket to joining our mercenary forces. And that is an honor. Only the best of Minos get to go. Did I mention I beat the [Prince] to earn the honor?”
“Only every other day, Venaz. But if Minos is so perfect, why don’t more people join? Or why don’t the islands expand?”
Yerranola strolled back over. She made a face as the others looked at her.
“Diving isn’t going well. Looks like another wreck.”
Venaz swore. The others groaned and put their heads down. Venaz covered his eyes and looked up.
“No one tell Wil this, but I think he should have insisted the Professor give him whatever answer he wanted for his family. Why don’t we expand, Yerra? The House of the Minos was one of the last gigantic empires. Our Kings still remember. They decree we will not be so dishonorable again.”
“Ah. Good [Kings]?”
“The best. Our King is wise—a seasoned warrior—we may pass by the House of Minos. If we do, I can arrange shore leave for all of you. Perhaps even an audience. She’s quite generous. And the very font of honor.”
Before Venaz could explain about the female King of Minotaurs, Peki spoke up suddenly.
“Pomle is great. We don’t have [Kings]. We fought to get free.”
“Peki! Is that national pride I hear?”
Merrik chortled. The Garuda looked around defiantly.
“Pomle is strong. A hundred Pomle warriors once held off an army of a hundred thousand.”
“Ah, but that was when it was founded. Can they still do that?”
The Garuda made the others pause. Merrik was pursing his lips and the others were, despite themselves, looking forwards to a good debate. But then it was Feshi’s turn to sigh.
“I miss home. When we get to Izril, I’ll take you to my clan, along with Venaz’s nation. The Weatherfur clan isn’t the biggest clan—well, we’re pretty big. And powerful.”
She didn’t sound very modest because she wasn’t being. The others looked at her, curious.
“I have to admit, I’m not up on Gnoll clans, Feshi. What makes the Weatherfur one unique?”
Merrik stroked his beard. Feshi smiled. She indicated her colored fur.
“We color our fur like the rainbow. Because we know where and when to send our flocks. We have very large ones and we predict the weather. Well—traditionally. Our clan is one of the biggest. Silverfang, Weatherfur, Ironscent—we’re among the bigger ones. Not the biggest in the pack…and we lost Garusa Weatherfur. Our pride. She would have made us important at the Meeting of Tribes. I wanted to become a [Strategist] because she was a [General]. I would have…liked to serve under her command.”
The others stilled. Feshi looked sad. Yerranola interrupted them.
“If we’re talking about home—you should visit a Selphid place sometime. We’re friendly. Just not beloved in Baleros.”
She looked once at Venaz. The Minotaur paused.
“What are Selphid communities like?”
Yerra grinned. The same grin she had among all her bodies.
“Small. But some of our people are as old as Dwarves or half-Elves. We stick together. No one who’s around another Selphid goes hungry. We have to stick together. You know, because of the empire.”
Two species with a recent history of world domination looked at each other. Venaz gave a short nod. He sat up, looking extremely awkward. He took a long moment before he spoke.
“Yerra. I may have been wrong. Why don’t we ask this Inky for her side? Just to ratify…”
The Minotaur’s not-quite-an-apology was interrupted by a sound from the side. The [Strategists] and two [Officers] looked up. Wil Kallinad was striding along the decks. His face was white. Captain Lasc, Inky, and the other [Divers] were returning. Yerra turned.
It didn’t take them long to find out. There was nothing in the shipwreck. Inky herself had found a tag that [Treasure Seekers] used. The shipwreck had been picked over long ago.
Six down. Three to go. The students looked at each other. Then they went to comfort their friend.
Meetings Above and Below
“Nothing. That’s the sixth one. I’m sorry, everyone. I think I’ve led you all on a pointless chase. That was one of the biggest leads. It was meant to be the Gailenwright’s Eye. And it was nothing.”
Wil sat on the bed as the other five students stood around him. Venaz blinked.
“The Gailenwright? One of the most famous ships in modern history, crewed by one of the [Pirate Lords]—”
“Don’t get excited Venaz. That was it. And it wasn’t the Gailenwright. And nothing was left.”
The young [Lord] was still pale-faced. White, not so much with shock as with despair. The other students sobered. Venaz lowered his hand.
“It’s not that bad, Wil. There are still three more shots. Even if—I mean—statistically, there’s still some chance of…”
Yerranola looked around for words. But…the problem was this.
It was easy to say ‘it’s just bad luck’, or ‘the probability’ was this. They’d been doing that the entire trip. And if it was just that, it would be easier to keep hope.
But all six shipwrecks hadn’t just been duds. They’d been looted already. By [Divers]. [Treasure Seekers], using treasure-hunting Skills. The Titan’s notes, his secret file of all possible treasures…wasn’t unique.
“I’ve never thought of it, but the Professor doesn’t have any real experience with sea-battles. Some, but he’s not an expert on it. He’s…a land-strategist. And his research might not exceed that of most treasure seekers.”
Venaz muttered to himself as he sat on the lower bunk that was his bed. Feshi patted Wil on the back as Merrik poured himself another drink and offered Wil a glass. The young man refused. Peki began doing squats. No one really knew what to say that they hadn’t said five times before. But reality was sinking in.
“Lord Kallinad! Are you shipshape? I just need a moment, sir.”
A knock at the door. Captain Lasc came in as Will called out. The [Storm Captain], a hardened man from the sea, but not as bulky as you might expect—even lean, and young, for a man of his rank, saluted slightly. Wil might have been young, and he might have been a guest, but Lasc often worked for the Kallinad family.
“Just wanted to have a word after the dive.”
“I’m sure the crew is upset, Captain Lasc—”
The man smiled slightly, a slightly unfamiliar action to him. And he tried to moderate the tone of command that was his by right.
“Don’t worry, sir. The crew looks at this as easy, paid work. You won’t get any trouble from them and it’s a fine attempt.”
Captain Lasc looked cheerful, having already resigned himself to finding little on this voyage. It was a good way to be. Not so for Wil.
“Thank you, Captain. We have only three more spots to go. Then we can proceed to Izril. Perhaps a stop at the House of Minos?”
“As you wish, Lord Kallinad. My crew is willing for all of it. Just wanted to let you know.”
The door clicked shut on Lasc’s heels. Yerra spoke after a moment.
“Well, he’s cheerful.”
“He gets paid either way. But…my family won’t be as pleased.”
Wil buried his head in his hands. It was Feshi who thoughtfully spoke up after a moment. The Gnoll looked from Wil to the others.
“You know, Wil. If nothing is found on this voyage, the Professor’s list was all wrong. Not even a bit of treasure? I think he would be as upset as you. And he might…offer you whatever it is you didn’t get for your family if that turned out to be the case.”
The others looked at her, surprised. Wil’s head rose slowly.
“He wouldn’t. Would he?”
“He’s prideful. He wanted to give you an adventure and if you didn’t get it? You could…negotiate.”
“Negotiate with the professor? For a gesture made with all his knowledge?”
Venaz looked horrified by the thought—and then thoughtful. Wil looked up.
“But that would be—”
“It’s the Titan’s secret. If it’s a trash secret, ask for a refund. Feshi, you’re a genius!”
Yerranola laughed. The Gnoll smiled to herself.
“You know him. He is generous, yes? It’s worth bearing in mind.”
That, more than anything seemed to cheer Wil up. He looked around.
“Well—well—we don’t know the other locations are a dud.”
“But if there are, we have backup. Rhir’s hell, Feshi! That’s genius! And it’s what the Professor would approve of. Let’s—hey, let’s send him a [Message]! Just tell him that and ask what he says.”
“No. That would be—”
“He’d love it, Wil! I bet he’d bring it up in class and ask the others what they’d do!”
“That’s an excellent idea. I wish I’d had it. We can all draft the [Message]. Make him the bet—”
“And if it goes wrong, it was Venaz’s idea.”
Peki put in. Everyone stared at the Garuda’s sly look and burst out laughing. In a great humor, they began drafting the letter. And Wil smiled. But he paused.
“Three more places.”
The downed ship of Archmage Zelkyr. The possible resting place of the Diamond Swords of Serept. A Dragonship.
Each one a treasure to make your skin tingle. But…Wil smiled. Maybe it was the Titan’s lesson after all. But he joined the others in composing a [Message] spell that night. After all—
It never hurt to ask.
And far below the ship where the six students composed a [Message] that did indeed put Niers Astoragon in stitches—and wonder if his information really was that poor—a similar conversation was being had.
An underwater ship, crewed by Drowned People was following The Emerald Signet. But they’d stopped to check something.
“Depth Captain. Our scouts have found nothing in the shipwreck that the landfolk did not find. It was indeed picked clean.”
A [First Mate] whose body was half-starfish saluted a Drowned Captain. He was half-Eel. His name and title was Depth Captain Therrium Sailwinds of the Undersea Crews. And his ship, The Passing Shadow was feared above and under the sea.
…He wasn’t happy. He growled curses that the rest of his crew, moving in the silence of the waters, looked up fearfully to hear. Not only because his wrath was terrible, but because he had violated one of the precepts of those who sailed under the waves.
Make no sound, lest ye attract what draws to it.
But the cursing was short-lived. Captain Therrium, a man who had three sons, a ship to his name, and quite a lot of gold, was used to risky ventures. He just hated it when they fell through.
“Damn the landfolk who plundered the ship!”
His voice was a deep, bubbling growl even as a whisper among the silent vessel. Of course, he sounded like this, as did much of the Drowned Folk, but they all did, so to them it was normal conversation. The First Mate winced.
“Actually, Depth Captain…I think the [Divers] were ours. The marks looks so.”
“Oh. Well then. Scavengers.”
Therrium moderated his tone. He sighed. And only then did he hear the muffled obscenities coming from his left. The half-Eel Drowned Man turned his head.
…A second Drowned Ship was floating next to the first, having drawn alongside. And the other [Depth Captain] was cursing through the magical barrier that kept the waters out.
“Damn you, Therrium! Three weeks it’s been and not a sight of treasure!”
“This is our mark!”
The [Captain] whisper-howled back across the gulf between them. He saw a half-Shrimp Drowned Woman, her antennae moving as she furiously pointed one feeler-hand at him.
“You don’t own the ship until you’ve sunk it, Therrium! We have a right to the sea!”
“Then don’t curse my name for a dry spell!”
Disgruntled, Therrium turned his back and motioned for the [Helmsman] to take the ship away. The other Drowned Ship drifted back as well.
Two ships were following The Emerald Signet. Two that Therrium was aware of, including his own. More than one person had heard Yerranola and Venaz’s careless slip of the tongue about the Titan’s treasure. But it was turning out to be a fruitless endeavor.
Nevertheless…the other [Depth Captain] was pulling back, but she was no doubt making the same calculation Therrium was. Was it worth the risk of following this ship underwater? Spending time and thus, food and coin on a worthless endeavor?
Therrium held the course. But…it was a funny thing. Wil Kallinad didn’t know it, but more than one person was hoping for his success. And waiting for that moment.
Romance, Duels, and Slugs
Again, as was his wont, the Professor refused to say if Wil would get a different reward if he turned up empty-handed after his trip. But the other students opined that it was the Titan’s way of saying ‘yes’. Also, they’d received [Messages], letters, really, from Marian, Cameral, Umina—even Kissilt and the others about how the Professor had shared the [Message] in class and immediately begun a lecture on naval tactics in response to Venaz’ allegations.
That was a good moment. But it didn’t last. Soon—monotony set in. Only—this time the students knew their enemy. And one of them—Merrik—decided he was ill. He had cabin-fever. Sea-fever. Boredom-fever. And the only cure was sex.
“Alright. So, if I get lucky, here’s how we’ll do it. I’ll hang my helmet on the doorknob, like so. That means I’m busy. Don’t come in. Bunk with someone else, got it?”
The Dwarf was showing Peki the symbol they would use. She had the top bunk and he had the bottom in their room.
Yerranola was paired with Feshi. Venaz with Wil. Peki was with Merrik, but the two didn’t mind the gender difference. They were friends from Niers’ officer training classes.
Peki eyed the thick, plate helmet that Merrik wore, forged from his home’s forges. It wasn’t enchanted, but his hammer and mail were lightweight. Strong. Stronger than regular steel and made by experts.
“Do you understand, Peki? I don’t want you barging in and ruining the mood.”
Merrik shook the helmet at the Garuda. The bird-girl tilted her head sideways.
“Okay. I’m going to see if Feshi’s interested in anything.”
The Dwarf smoothed his beard with some beard oil. He’d already cleaned the salt from it, and his clothing. Peki smiled.
“She said she’s not into Dwarves.”
“Ah, she just said she wasn’t interested in visiting Dwarfhome. There’s a difference. Besides…we’re all cramped up on the boat. What’s the harm in offering, eh? And she’s smart. That thing with the Professor? I respect that. Who’re you after? Venaz? Wil?”
The Garuda made a face. Merrik chortled.
“A [Lord] and Sir Bull himself. I don’t fancy your options. But here—say you do get lucky. What’s your signal? Worse comes to worst, we’ll pair off in the other’s rooms and sort it out. But I doubt we’ll both do fine. Because I’m charming and you’re a bird-brain.”
Peki ignored the jibe. She plucked Merrik’s helmet from his other hand and smiled at him. When he looked at her, she pointed at the door.
“If I get lucky, I’ll use your helmet to let you know.”
The two stared at each other, and then laughed. In a good humor, they trooped upstairs.
“…So, Pheislant is a coastal nation. We’re known for it. We’re not as big as some of Terandria’s larger kingdoms—which is why we’ll probably do something if Ailendamus pushes at Calanfer and the other nations. They can’t be allowed to continue expanding.”
“But do you have the forces to resist an attack?”
“At sea we’ll do well. But Pheislant has a weaker land army. We don’t profit by wars like the Minotaurs, Venaz. We have lighthouses, you know?”
“Famous ship-guides, I know. I have been on a vessel before.”
“So you say, sir. Repeatedly.”
Captain Lasc and his [First Mate], Delivan, chortled. They were having a cordial drink with some of the [Strategists] and Lasc had lent the students his cabin. Actually—they were having a miniature lesson there.
“So this is the sextant? And you’re plotting us by—what was it? Tacking the sails?”
Yerra was looking at the map. Lasc nodded. He had a compass, a sextant, and any number of tools for navigation.
“Aye, Miss Yerranola. We move zig-zag, see? By the wind. If worst comes to it, we’ll use a spell or call upon a [Mage] or Skill to boost our sails. But we use the wind normally.”
“And we plot our course by the stars and the moons. Both of ‘em. It’s a Djinni’s riddle, to do it. But any [Captain] worth his salt learns the trade.”
Delivan put in, grinning as he showed the other students how to calculate their course. Wil and the others were suitably impressed as the officers entered. Peki and Merrik hadn’t joined in the little lesson, reminiscent of their classes. But then—they wouldn’t even need to do this sort of thing.
“Ah, there you all are! How’s it going? Dead gods, but I thought we left the book learning in Baleros!”
In a good mood, Merrik strode over to the table. The others looked at him. Yerranola winked; she had a good intuition for this sort of thing. Feshi sniffed the air and Wil and Venaz turned from a debate over Pheislant’s land forces.
“Hey Merrik, Peki. Come to join in the learning?”
Merrik kicked Peki under the table. Peki being Peki, she kicked back. Merrik muffled an oath as his eyes watered.
“Well—I can’t say I’ll ever captain a ship. Leave that to the experts like Lasc here. But I can respect Wil and the rest for learning to send ships across the ocean! Say, Feshi. You wouldn’t mind teaching me some of the logistical side of things, would you? Never hurts to know more. And I’m—”
The female Gnoll smiled at Merrik across the table, baring her teeth slightly. Merrik paused.
“What, not even a few lessons? I was hoping—”
“No. I’m not interested, Merrik.”
The Dwarf’s face went flat. The others looked at each other. Venaz raised his eyebrows, looking hugely entertained. Merrik spluttered.
“I wasn’t insinuating—I was just asking—”
The Gnoll [Strategist] gave Merrik a look and he shut up. She held up a few fingers.
“Firstly, you’ve washed and you’ve oiled your beard. Second, I can smell you. And third—”
The Dwarf deflated. Peki was smiling.
Feshi gave him a grin.
“I’ve heard people trying that before. I’m not an idiot. Sorry, Merrik. But no thank you.”
The others laughed. Merrik turned red, but he laughed along good-naturedly too.
“Damn! Well, there goes my options!”
“What? With this pristine body here? I’m only slightly rotted—oh wait. This is my wrong body.”
Yerra sniffed at her slightly decomposing flesh. She glanced quickly at Peki. The Garuda was staring at Wil and Venaz. They shuffled their feet. Peki was very unsubtle. It was one of her flaws as a [Commander], actually. Then she started staring at Lasc.
The [Captain] grinned. But he turned to Merrik.
“Sorry, sir. Heard you and your lot were going stir-crazy below decks. Happens to all first-timers.”
Peki whispered. Merrik’s rueful laughter cut off. He turned and growled.
“That’s it! I’ve had enough of you, you giant chicken! Upstairs! We’ll settle this, once and for all!”
Peki grinned. The two shot out of the cabin. Slightly worried, the other students and the two [Sailors] stared after them.
By the time they got upstairs, the fight was underway. Sailors looked up from their tasks as the Dwarf and Garuda strode to a clear patch of deck. Merrik had grabbed his helmet and armor and he was donning them fast as he could. Peki, being Peki, was helping him. As Wil got above decks she leapt back, and then kicked across the deck.
“You blasted bird!”
Merrik raised a shield. The Garuda struck it and the impact and crash of sound made everyone turn. Merrik barely moved.
The Dwarf had a shield and in his plate armor he was like a rock on the deck. Peki darted right and left, lunging forwards to attack in a flurry of blows, but Merrik let the impacts rain on his armor and blocked with his shield. He lashed out with his hammer, but Peki was far too fast.
“You’ll never break my guard, Peki!”
“And you’re slow.”
The Garuda flew up and dropped in an axe kick. Merrik swore as he blocked. The impact cracked the deck. The Dwarf swore, as he raised his hammer.
“You’ve tried that in training! Take this! [Giant’s Hammer—”
“Lower your weapons and stop fighting on my ship or I’ll throw your guts overboard and the rest of you with it!”
Captain Lasc bellowed as he advanced on the two fighters. Peki hesitated and Merrik turned. Both stared at the broken planks on the deck.
Peki alighted and stood behind Merrik. The Dwarf pushed his helmet up.
“Er, sorry about that, Captain Lasc.”
“Captain, Kallinad will repay you for the damages.”
Wil looked at the furious [Captain] and waved his hands at Peki. She waved her wings back, looking only slightly apologetic. Lasc calmed down, but only slightly.
“No fighting on my deck, sir. Miss. I’ve no objection to training with arms, but not of that sort!”
“But that’s the only way we know how to fight! Mind you, I am sorry. Peki—she doesn’t hold back. Good on you that the deck’s secure—I saw her kick straight through the roof of a house and into the ground floor with that trick, once.”
The [Storm Captain] glared, but then, surprisingly, relented.
“Well, it’s just a bit of damage. But The Emerald Signet’s hull isn’t made from ironwood! Or enchanted, beyond a few basics on the hull! But I’ve seen Miss Peki fight.”
Merrik pushed up his helmet even further. It was First Mate Delivan who replied with a grin.
“Daquin, of course! We saw the entire thing! You’re not the only one with scrying orbs. And it was good to see someone kick the Iron Vanguard in the teeth! Bastards rule Baleros’ waters with a fist like…iron!”
The other [Sailors] laughed. Bemused, the students realized they were known. And—the ice broken, even Captain Lasc acknowledged having seen Peki and Merrik in action.
“It was part of the reason we took this charter. Seeing Lord Kallinad duel with Tulm the Mithril, well, we hoped this would be a similar story. But it’s good enough to see. And if you can split the deck with a single kick—”
“Stay away from the fucking boom!”
A voice among the [Sailors]. Inky. The others laughed. Peki looked actually embarrassed and hid her face behind a wing. The [Martial Artist] could weather near-drowning, boredom, and Merrik better than embarrassment.
“Well, if I avoid striking the deck and Peki avoids hitting me from above, we’d have no problems. And sparring’s not a bad idea. Helps with the rejection.”
Merrik gave Feshi a mock-heartbroken look. The Gnoll laughed.
“He’s still trying. Does he have a chance?”
Wil whispered to Yerra. The Selphid grinned as she slung an arm around his shoulders.
“Wil, my boy, there’s always a chance. Especially with Dwarves. Stubborn, like that.”
Across the deck, some of the other crew of The Emerald Signet were taking advantage of the conversation about Daquin to test Merrik and Peki, minor celebrities. It was Delivan who spoke while casually patting his side. He had a sword and a miniature crossbow at his sides.
“You know, [Storm Sailors] fight as well as any landfolk in their armies. We’re the vanguard of the sea, but we don’t truck with shields or armor. Can’t swim if you get tossed. And a moving ship’s not as easy to fight on as dry ground. Mind if I give your armor a try, Mister Merrik?”
The other [Sailors] laughed and cheered. The Dwarf and Peki looked around at the challenge.
“I never turn down the chance to learn.”
Merrik grinned beneath his helmet. But it was Captain Lasc himself who stepped between Delivan and the Dwarf.
“If it’s a challenge, I’ll be the first to take it on. After all—a [Storm Captain] shouldn’t fall behind a student. Even the Titan of Baleros’s students.”
The gathered crowd fell silent for a moment. Then there was a low murmur. The [Sailors] looked at Lasc. And they were…expectant as they glanced at Merrik and Peki. Appraising.
Wil Kallinad felt his spine tingling. [Storm Captain]. That was, to his knowledge, at least a Level 30 class. But the students were high-level. He saw Merrik pause, and grin.
“Can’t be sure I’d spare your decks if I went up against you, Captain.”
“Well, that happens in a ship battle. Can’t help it if it’s a true engagement. But we try to end it before it comes to that, right, crew?”
Lasc looked around. The [Sailors] laughed and cheered. Merrik’s eyes narrowed. Wil was hesitating. Should he break this up? He didn’t know Lasc’s class or abilities or temperament. He could…probably hold back. But he had a sword in one hand. Shortsword. Was he just some kind of good [Swordsman]?
But then—a snort from the side. And like he was born for the role, Venaz spoke up.
“That’s a lot of bravado. But I’m not sure Merrik’s the best fighter among us. Or Peki, for that matter.”
Every head turned. Wil leaned on Yerranola and covered his eyes for a second. The Minotaur strode forwards. He was, of course, the tallest person on the ship bar none. Huge, hugely muscular, his fur rippling with muscle. He looked at Merrik and Peki. Both [Officers] eyed him.
“Venaz, I love you like…a friend. Whom I’ve gotten to know for a few months at most. Two months, really. But you do like to talk out of your ass, right, Peki?”
The Garuda nodded.
“All ass, no Skill. We are [Warriors]. You’re a [Strategist].”
“ A [War Strategist]. I earned my levels, even if not all of my Skills went to combat. I consolidated my class. I’ve led [Soldiers] into battle. I didn’t join the officer classes because I heard the acumen of the [Strategist] classes was better, and that was what I needed to work on.”
Venaz flexed one arm, casually. Wil recalled—Venaz used plate armor too. He’d brought some for the trip. Also—he was skilled with any number of weapons.
“Oh, really? And you think you could take me?”
Merrik put his hammer down with deceptive good-nature. But even he had his limits. Venaz eyed him.
“You’ve got armor. Give me a moment to put on my armor and I’ll take you on. Bastard sword, shield. Since it’s not to the death, we’ll call each blow a point. Mortal wounds or ten to a victor, fair?”
The Minotaur was smiling confidently. Merrik’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re overconfident, Venaz. Just because you have a few Skills, you think you can take me on? Fine. Let’s do it and bet some real gold on—”
Captain Lasc walked between the two. The [Storm Captain] had a casual stroll. But he put one arm out to block Merrik. And he looked at Venaz.
“Mister Venaz. As much as I’d like the duel, I believe it was I who made the challenge. And the [Captain]’s honor must come before a passenger’s. Even a paying one.”
The Minotaur blinked. He looked at Lasc. Then he grinned.
“Pull out your armor, then, Captain. I don’t have a set large enough for you, but take out whatever you bring for a fight. Same rules—”
“I’ll fight bare blade and as I am. A [Captain]’s dress. And for you, sir, I’ll let you put on plate and whatever armor you feel’s fitting. I’m confident enough not cut you. Say you touch me once—we’ll call it your victory.”
The Minotaur—froze. And Wil heard Feshi laugh with delight. Peki was grinning.
“You think you can take me down without a scratch?”
“It’s my ship, and we’re at sea, sir. I’d dare any man or woman on this ship the same.”
There was a look in Lasc’s eye, like a predator. And Venaz? He looked into that confident face.
And he lost his temper.
Wil Kallinad had seen Venaz lose his temper a few times. When he’d broken the other Minotaur’s jaw in the battle with the Iron Vanguard. In a pub brawl. In class with Marian.
The Minotaur’s eyes would turn red. He would lose all sense of control—but not reason. When a Minotaur raged, it was like a Selphid’s rampage. They were stronger, faster.
And Wil was worried about the outcome. Lasc was getting ready, but he hadn’t done much other than draw his sword and put something on his left hand. On the other hand—
Venaz was in his plate armor, holding a sword and shield. He had a small armory in his bag of holding.
“Venaz, you can’t injure Lasc. Or make him lose too much face in front of his crew. A [Storm Captain] relies on it.”
“I should let him insult me in front of everyone? Don’t worry. I’ll just draw blood.”
But Venaz’s eyes were reddened with blood. Lasc calmly watched him stalk towards the circle of crew. Wil hurried over to Lasc and Delivan.
“Captain, Venaz cannot be injured or wounded in any serious way. And he is angered. If you could call this off—”
“Call off a duel I started, Lord Kallinad? I’d be laughed off the waves for that. Don’t you worry. I don’t need to bleed the Minotaur dry. Although it would be easy enough. This’ll be a quick bout. Don’t you worry.”
Lasc strode forwards. Venaz was gritting his teeth as he raised his sword and shield, taking a defensive guard.
“No playing for points. A proper duel! No one kills the other, but all’s fair before that. We both have healing potions.”
“Is that how land men do it? Fair enough. Until the other falls or surrenders.”
Lasc grinned. Wil whirled to Delivan.
“Can’t you stop him?”
“Don’t worry, Lord Kallinad. You paid for a true [Storm Captain] and his crew, sure enough. We’ve fought more than one invader off. Monsters, [Pirates]—any number of threats at sea landfolk have never dreamed of in their darkest. Captain Lasc—he’s not going to lose, even to those two.”
Delivan nodded to Peki and Merrik, who were betting copious amounts of hypothetical gold on the outcome. Merrik, for all his anger, was backing Venaz. Peki, Lasc.
“Are you sure, Mister Delivan? Because this could be a serious matter if it goes poorly.”
The [First Mate] looked calmly at Wil. So calmly, the young [Lord] calmed.
“Lord Kallinad. There’s no way Lasc’ll lose. You don’t know how he fights. Neither does that Minotaur.”
Venaz was studying Lasc. The [Storm Captain] hadn’t put on armor, but his rather swanky [Captain]’s uniform was pretty good. Also—enchanted, at least against salt and other minor annoyances at sea. However…Venaz had a sword and a Minotaur’s strength.
All Lasc had was a shortsword. And—something on his hand. Metal? Venaz narrowed his eyes. What fighting style was this?
“Last chance, Captain. If you’re not ready?”
“If you’re turning tail, Mister Venaz, no one’ll stop you. Otherwise—start as you please. And I’ll show you why the continental nations don’t rule these seas.”
Lasc grinned. And Venaz, temper already at the breaking point, charged. If he was calmer he might have appraised. But he came in with a slash at Lasc’s arm.
It was fast. Wil, who had taken a noble’s fighting lessons, would have been disarmed literally by the blow. Even the [Sailors] winced. Venaz was a Minotaur who’d seen battle. And his blow was fast, strong—
Lasc moved. The air rang with a sound and Venaz recoiled. He stumbled back. And Wil—stared.
On his hand. The bit of metal on [Storm Captain]’s left hand was neither buckler nor dagger. It was just—or rather, it was a gauntlet. A—glove. Made of metal.
With his right hand, Lasc had parried Venaz’ strike with the shortsword. With his left, he’d belted Venaz across the face. Twice. So fast the Minotaur hadn’t been able to pull his head back.
“Dead gods! That was quick!”
Yerranola exclaimed from the side. Venaz recoiled. He narrowed his eyes.
“That’s an infighter’s trick. You wouldn’t be able to block an axe with that.”
“I’d dodge that. Shall I come, Mister Venaz?”
The Minotaur didn’t reply. But the crimson in his eyes grew deeper. He advanced, his shield raised to cover his face. The one unguarded spot on his body. He had plate armor. And his sword lanced out, quick as a snake.
Quick! But Lasc was faster. Again, Wil saw his shortsword parry Venaz’ thrust. And his left hand moved like a blur.
He had a faster hand-speed than any [Warrior] that Wil Kallinad had ever seen. And he had watched his sister sparring her peers in the Order of Seasons. But the [Storm Captain], unburdened of armor or anything but that metal fist, was faster yet. He hammered Venaz’s shield, smacking the back of it into the Minotaur’s face to disorient him. And then he dodged around as Venaz struck out.
The Minotaur was too tall for Lasc to easily hit his head. So the [Storm Captain] jumped. Venaz whirled. This time, his sword just went straight for Lasc’s legs as the man leapt. The fastest blow yet, just to cut, to slow the man down—
Lasc’s hand blurred. It was definitely a Skill. He struck Venaz twenty times before he landed. According to Peki. Helmet, neck, jaw—and his arm. Venaz’ sword sliced into the wood of the deck as it was deflected. He rocked. But he kept his guard up.
The [Storm Captain] advanced. His left hand hit the Minotaur’s chest, chin, head, arms—it was like hearing an endless ringing sound. The blows weren’t light, either. Venaz stumbled back. He was trying to keep his guard up, trying to keep on his feet. But it was a flurry, a rush. He tried, but his shield was blown back and he stumbled for just a second.
In the [Storm Captain] danced, and his fist laid the Minotaur flat. Wil saw Venaz go backwards onto the deck. He waited, but Venaz’ eyes were rolled back in his head.
Unconscious. The [Sailors] and students burst into a roar of amazement. Lasc raised his one hand. Delivan looked at Wil and grinned.
“[Storm Captains], Lord Kallinad. He can’t march with your [Knights]. But on the sea? Armor just makes you sink faster.”
When Venaz woke up, even he had to admit that Lasc deserved his title. The Minotaur had something to say, though; he always did.
“If I’d known I was up against a [Brawler], I’d have kept my distance. My strategy was sound. But—er—hrm. That’s a difficult summit to beat without Skills and enchanted equipment. Even for me.”
That was as good as saying he’d lost outright. Lasc was gracious about it, though.
“Ah, I had you by surprise, sir. I’ve seen Minotaur crews. Nasty as they come, especially with their ship-mounted weapons. But I’m fair fast with my fists.”
“Beyond fast! Can you do that, Peki?”
Peki was competing with Lasc, but even her best flurry was slower than the [Storm Captain]’s. He was indeed just incredibly fast with his left hand. And he’d turned that one trait into an overwhelming advantage.
After that, there were no more duels between Lasc, although Merrik did take on a few [Storm Sailors]. They were all quick. And Delivan had a nastily precise aim with the hand-crossbow he carried.
“Wands and crossbows. That’s how [Sailors] fight. We need to be nimble. It’s all movement and clashing and retreat. Can’t lug around heavy gear. And trouble can come quick.”
The [Sailors] were good, although Merrik and Peki were generally better. Although—they kept eying Lasc. And he them.
“I’d have more trouble taking down your armor, Mister Merrik. But I’ll spare my ship’s deck a refit. Myself—I think it’d be an interesting match if we went head-to-head. But if we were at sea, it’d be an easy one. Even against Miss Peki.”
The Dwarf looked wounded by Lasc’s appraisal. The [Storm Captain] grinned.
“Against either of you? I’d dump you in the sea and let the water do the rest! No sense fighting folks who can’t swim, in armor or with feathers.”
The two officers exchanged a look. Then they laughed. They had to respect that.
That night, Venaz was still nursing a sore jaw as they ate. He refused the healing potion, though, and an exasperated Yerra gave him the option of using a bit of potion or shutting up.
“I’m not whining.”
“No, but you wince loud enough to make my jaw hurt. And my body’s nerves are rotten!”
Yerra scowled. But Wil was relieved and looking forwards to tomorrow.
“We’ll be ready to dive again tomorrow. The next wreck isn’t far and Lasc has a ship-speed Skill.”
“Hopefully it’s something. But not a bad day.”
Venaz was far from exuberant, but he seemed relaxed after having been beaten in a spar—and then having smacked down six sailors in bare-knuckles fights. With one arm. The others nodded and they had what was for them, an early night. No late-night drinking and debates. Just rest.
Rest, and…Wil listened to Venaz snorting below him. Snorting, snoring, and smacking his lips.
Venaz did not sleep lightly. The [Lord] hunted around for some sealing wax he’d shaped into earplugs out of desperation, but they were gone. He hoped Merrik hadn’t stolen them; he complained of the exact same problem with Peki. Only, she whistled in her sleep.
“Damn you, Merrik—”
Wil was getting off the top bunk stealthily, to creep into Merrik’s room and see if he had purloined the earplugs. He was just creeping out into the corridor when he heard the sound.
Someone was humming a song. Wil paused, and then went above decks. He found a dark ship, [Sailors] on deck of course; it was never a ship without dozens upon dozens of crew working. But relatively less occupied. And there—close to the passenger’s quarters was her.
The [Storm Sailor] was sitting on the rails, one leg over, watching the ocean. Wil stared at her. And then he heard her stop humming. She turned her head.
“Bothering you, am I, Lord Passenger Kallinad?”
Her tone wasn’t exactly rude, but it wasn’t friendly either. Wil winced, although he had no idea how she’d sensed him; the waves were an ever-present backdrop.
“No, sorry. I have a snoring Minotaur and I couldn’t sleep.”
The [Storm Sailor] grinned. And when she spoke, he saw the inner beak moving in her mouth. It was dopplering her voice a bit, but it didn’t seem to bother her much.
“Aye, that one. We can hear him too. Loud as a storm. But the [Captain] probably has some wax you can stuff your ears with.”
“I tried that. I think Merrik—the Dwarf stole mine.”
“Ah, another common issue at sea.”
The part Drowned-Woman nodded. She didn’t move as Wil came over to the railing. She eyed him.
“So. Curious are you about Drowned Folk? Could’ve asked me. I take no offense, but for idiots damaging the ship.”
Wil choked. He glanced at Inky.
“Begal told me.”
He did? Wil’s expression must have given him away, because Inky laughed.
“What’d he say to you? That Drowned Folk and [Sailors] don’t mix? True enough. But he didn’t tell you that when it comes to it, we’ll both drink from each other’s cups rather than let landfolk get the drop on us.”
And here they thought they’d been clever. Wil sighed. But Inky didn’t seem displeased. She glanced at him as he leaned on the rails.
“I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Ah, well. I admit, you’re not as bad as I thought.”
“Really? How so?”
“The first thing I was thinkin’ when I heard you were asking about me was which one of you it’d be. The Selphid? Not likely from how she acted, thought I. She likes you. The Gnoll don’t seem interested and it’s a rare landgirl who admits to liking women. The Garuda? Nope. So it was you, the Minotaur, or the Dwarf. I had odds on him or you being the gallant [Lord] who’d be kind to a half-breed like me. Invite me to your bed, sweep me off my feet. Marry me if I was lucky.”
She winked at Wil. The [Lord] said nothing.
“You might’ve lost your jaw on the decks, there, sir.”
“Why do you think I’d do that?”
Wil turned red. Embarrassed because she’d struck closer to home than he’d liked, even if he hadn’t been thinking of taking her to bed. Inky laughed.
“Why, because that’s how my ma had me. And Drowned Folk are an exotic fling for our passengers. We carry all sorts of noble folk. And they’re all too willing to try things at sea they’d never on land. But it’s a double blue moon before any of them take it further.”
Wil halted on the sentence. He glanced at Inky and her look. And he didn’t say he was sorry. Because he had nothing to be sorry about. And there wasn’t much judgment in her gaze, anyways.
“Ah, an odd sort. The Titan’s students are different. And here I was, wooing you. All you had to do was say you were sorry and I’d have given it a shot.”
She grinned. She had two gold-capped teeth. Wil jumped. He stared at Inky.
“Now you’re teasing me.”
“Who, me? I was being serious there. Not often you get to snag a [Lord]. And Kallinad’s folk would mean you got to go back to the sea now and then. Mind you—I like that idiot better.”
“Which one of my idiots?”
“The Minotaur. He’s brash as can be. Wouldn’t be if he was one of the Minotaur crews. The seas beat that out of you. But—you landfolk’re alright. Invite me to your table. Captain Lasc doesn’t have enough work to keep me from it. And I’ll happily spin you all the yarns you want if you ply me with enough drink.”
She was—friendly. Wil found himself smiling. His impression of Inky from her shouting at Peki was all wrong. But that was often how to happened. Wasn’t that what the Professor said?
“Try not to let your first impressions shape what you believe to be true. Or rather—understand that they do and compensate.”
“The Titan of Baleros said them, once.”
“Well, he’d be the one. You’re not bad, young [Lord]. I had the wrong impression of you. But you’re still landfolk.”
The comment made Wil look up.
“…Am I doing something wrong?”
The part-Octopus girl laughed. She looked at Wil and shook her head in amazement.
“Of course. But all landfolk do it. Look at you. You’ve been at sea, what, three weeks? And you’re still mad. Cooped up. And you don’t see.”
“See what? What is there to see?”
Inky sighed. She dangled one leg over the railing and pointed.
And Wil looked. He stared over the edge of the boat. And he saw nothing but the ocean. But of course, that was what Inky was pointing at.
It was…dark. Like a black mirror, reflecting the stars and moons when they were out. But at times, they were just empty. And then—the vast, empty isolation struck you. The terror as you looked into the ocean and realized—you couldn’t tell where the bottom was. You couldn’t even guess.
It was not a beautiful sight, except in the frightening aspect of it. Wil shivered. But—the allure of it called to him. He stared into vastness of the ocean. And wondered what would happen if he fell overboard. If Inky pushed him. What lay in the depths? How far would he swim, until he was exhausted? And float?
Forever. You could wander endlessly forever here. Without land in sight. Without any clue but for the stars where you were.
So entranced was Wil that he didn’t realize Inky was grinning at him until he looked up. And she nodded.
“It’s not beauty as landfolk understand it. It’s terror. The deeps. They call. They call to me and any [Sailor]. Look.”
She pointed down the railing. And Wil saw. More than one [Sailor] on duty was just staring. Consumed by the grand, terrible sight.
“And here I thought you liked the sea’s beauty.”
“What beauty? This is it. The sea’s as lovely as a blade. Without the danger—there’d be nothing.”
The Drowned Woman smiled. The [Storm Sailor] looked into the horizon with a kind of longing. Fear and expectation. And Wil followed her gaze.
How deep? How deep? What lay beneath? He remembered being a boy and wondering the same thoughts when he rode with his family on Kallinad ships. And he—understood. A bit of the fascination.
The sea. It stretched before him. But he could see nothing of what lay beneath the waves. Wil remembered. A vast, murky emptiness. Terrifying. And yet—there were other things too. He looked at Inky. And as he did, the water moved.
At first, it looked just like the waters. A shimmering, giant mass of something on the hull. Wil stared at it, perplexed. The dark waters had birthed a cloudy, half-opaque…gelatinous thing. It had latched onto the hull. And it was moving.
Slowly, up the side of the ship. Wil stared at it. He saw two protruding things appearing. And then—light.
Something like organs, lighting up inside the body. Two blob-like antennae. Glowing with interior light. Wil realized he was staring at a slug. It rolled up the side of the ship, surprisingly quickly.
Oh, and it had a mouth. And in the mouth were rows and rows of rotating—teeth? Wil saw the slug rear up as it went over the decks. It lunged at him, coiling and expanding. Half again as large as—
“Get back! Sea Slug!”
Inky yanked him back. Wil fell backwards and felt a huge, slimy, weight, like filled water skin but far more massive crush his legs. He felt the pain, felt it squirming. And then he felt reality come back.
“Sound the alarm! We’re under attack! Sound the alarm! Port-side! Sea Slugs!”
Inky howled. She drew a cutlass and slashed twice. Her blade sank into the slug’s body, scattering some of its fluids. But it was huge and the blows seemed to do nothing. She dragged back Wil with one hand. He felt something—her suction cups—tightening on his skin, adding to her grip.
Then—her right, octopus-leg, tensed. Inky pushed off the deck and jumped back with him. The slug undulated forwards. Wil scrambled back as shouting erupted from the front of the deck. Someone began to ring the bell. The slug opened its mouth and oozed forwards. Wil saw more glistening shapes appearing over the railing.
“Sea Slugs! Where’s the Captain!?”
“All hands! Get up you idiots! GET UP HERE AND FIGHT!”
Inky spat black ink towards the slug. It hit the gel antennae and the slug paused. But it tried to bite again. It was—fast! Not like a regular slug! The body was a lot more compact, and it moved like—
Wil reached for his sword. He drew it, shakily. He was no [Blademaster]. But he knew how to fight. His sword was enchanted and he circled left, slashing at the slug’s side. He saw the tip of his sword open the thing’s side. But like Inky’s blade, it was just superficial. The slug was thick and it’s organs, while visible, weren’t easily reachable. And—
It turned, biting. Wil saw the rotating jaw of teeth, jerked backwards.
Inky shouted at him. She was slashing as she advanced, using her octopus leg to change her position quickly—it was far stronger than her Human leg and let her leap from spot to spot. Wil saw more [Sailors] fighting. He backed up and the slug came at him.
Strike, strike—it was able to coil and lunge like a snake! Wil cursed. He reached for one of the expendable scrolls he didn’t have. And he tripped backwards. The slug reared up.
Merrik towed Wil back. A feathered shape exploded past Wil’s head. Peki kicked the slug back and Wil saw the huge body smack across the deck. The [Martial Artist] landed and punched into the slug’s body. Wil saw her fists tear straight through the membrane. Peki yanked out a bundle of organs.
That was all Wil could think to say. But the slug was still moving. It writhed, snapping at Peki. She shed the glistening innards as she dodged backwards. She kicked and punched it again, tearing out more organs. But it refused to die easy.
And more were coming. Dozens and dozens of slugs were pouring over the sides of the ship. But The Emerald Signet was awake. Merrik grinned at Wil.
“Hey, Wil! Get behind us! Peki! Back up! [Giant’s Hammer]!”
He roared as he charged. Peki jumped back and for a second Merrik’s hammer rose and fell.
The deck shook. The slug exploded . Merrik turned, grimacing; he had the innards all over his body.
“Grandfather’s hammers! It’s in my beard! Peki, did you hit the brain?”
“Thought I did. Kept moving.”
The Garuda complained. Wil staggered forwards. Then he shouted.
“Peki! Merrik! Behind you!”
The two turned. Six slugs were crawling over the railings. Merrik swore.
“Damn. Wil, back up! We’ve got—”
“Starboard! Where’s Captain Lasc?”
Inky pointed. The students turned. Two dozen slugs had taken the railing and were flanking the [Sailors]. Wil stared about. They were being flooded by the slugs! He saw a [Sailor] slashing with a sword, but he was outmatched. The slug fell on him and bit—the man cried out, looking shocked as he tried to get away. Wil raced forwards, stabbing. He hit something in the slug’s body but it refused to get off the man. Merrik and Peki were battling the ones around them.
“Wil! Watch your left!”
The [Lord] rolled just in time. A second slug dove at him. He saw more figures dashing on deck. A familiar bellowing voice roared.
“Clear the way!”
Venaz had his armor on. And this time he carried no sword and shield, but a battleaxe. He charged as the slugs oozed towards Wil. One reared up as the Minotaur, eyes glowing red, raised his axe with a roar of fury.
Venaz swung horizontally towards the slug’s midsection. He cleaved through the organs, the body—the slug’s torso fell to the ground, shaking. The Minotaur turned. He saw another slug, brought his axe down vertically and chopped through the slug, into the deck.
“Green hells! What are these things?”
A voice from behind Wil. He saw Yerranola, armed with a glowing hatchet. Her blade was enchanted with fire and she hacked into the slug attacking the [Sailor], raising steam as she did.
“Get it off him!”
Feshi was behind Yerra. She had a shortbow and loosed an arrow into a slug. But it did nothing.
Venaz on the other hand—he saw the [Sailor], and punched through the slug’s body. He began ripping out the organs. Yerra copied him. Her thin arms bulged and she and Venaz hurled the slug off the [Sailor].
The man was alive. But his shoulder was a mass of blood and slime. Wil looked about.
“Fuck all of this! They’re hard to kill!”
Peki was punching and kicking slugs as Merrik smashed slugs with his hammer. The Garuda whirled.
She hit a rearing slug. The entire frame of the monster flew over the railing. Merrik grinned.
“That’s the way! [Ram’s Charge]!”
He smashed into another slug with his shoulder, blasting it into the railing. Peki jump-kicked it off the railing. But more kept coming up.
“He’s hurt. How bad?”
Feshi was leaning over the injured [Sailor]. The man was gasping.
“Can’t feel a thing. I don’t feel—it bit me?”
He was staring at them, in shock. The [Strategists] turned as a voice roared from the prow.
“All hands, repel these monsters! [Ship Spell: Floor of Impalement]!”
Captain Lasc pointed. A section of the deck erupted as huge, six-foot high spikes shot out of the wood. They impaled the slugs fighting the sailors there. The [Captain] whirled. His enchanted shortsword speared a slug through the stomach. His gauntleted fist flashed, tearing into the body.
“[Rallying Position]! [Attack Formation]! Don’t let them surround you! Surround them! Spells first, you idiots! Spells!”
Delivan was standing in front of the cabin. He’d replaced his crossbow for a wand and the [Sailors] were forming up around him. [Storm Sailors], like Inky were dueling the slugs while the lower-level ones pushed back in numbers, hacking the slugs apart.
But there were a lot of them. Wil looked around. Focus. He saw Feshi shouting, trying to pull the man belowdecks. Yes—but she’d lost focus of the battle. They were [Strategists]! Wil tried to find a way towards Delivan and Lasc. They needed his Skills!
“Yerra, help me get towards Lasc!”
Wil pointed. The Selphid turned. She was looking around as Venaz finished off the slugs he’d bisected. Even in pieces, they kept moving until he hacked them up even further. Yerra looked at Wil and shook her head.
“No! Get below!”
“Get belowdecks! Help Feshi! We’ll send the wounded your way! Block the doors!”
The Selphid pointed. Wil shouted back.
“What about you!? We’re [Strategists]—”
A hand grabbed Wil’s shoulder. Merrik shouted.
“We’re [Commanders]! She’s a Selphid! Get below before we kick you down there! Use your Skills from afar—Venaz!”
The Minotaur wasn’t listening. As Merrik and Yerra forced Wil and Feshi towards the belowdecks, the Minotaur raised his axe.
“With me! Form up! You, you, you! Now!”
He pointed to Inky, Merrik, and Peki as well as a dozen [Storm Sailors]. They looked at him and fell in. Venaz roared as they charged the largest group of slugs.
“[Unstoppable Advance]! [Enhanced Strength]!”
“[Battalion of Glory]!”
Merrik and Peki added their Skills to the mix. Wil saw the group’s weapons glowing, and accelerate—they hit the first slugs and the monsters exploded. Venaz and his team began hacking through the starboard side of the ship as Lasc saw and put his men to the port side.
“But—fine! [Unit: Ram’s Charge]! [Unit: Lucky Dodge]!”
Exasperated, unable to argue, Wil pointed. Venaz grunted as his group charged and smashed another group of slugs. Another group of [Sailors] leapt back, avoiding the slugs with unnatural ability for a moment.
Feshi pointed at a group of [Sailors] with crossbows. Then she and Wil were dragging the sailor below. Yerranola took charge of the stairwell, calling [Sailors] around her and holding the ground.
“We should be above. Helping direct the battle—”
Wil panted. The [Sailor] was asking how bad it was. Trying to move. Both Gnoll and Human told him to stop moving. He stopped.
“Lasc has it. And there are enough [Strategists] above. The slugs stand no chance. Help me with him! He’ll bleed out without help!”
The Gnoll growled at Wil. Chastened, Wil reached for a potion. He stared at the [Sailor]’s wounds at last.
A big chunk of his shoulder was gone. Wil had seen injuries, but this was new on him. Countless micro-serrations from the giant slug’s teeth. And—the healing potion wasn’t working right.
“I tried a potion. It didn’t work. What do you feel?”
Feshi was feeling at the man’s head. He was pale, sweating.
“I—I can’t feel the bite. How bad is it?”
The two [Strategists] looked at each other. Wil’s mind raced. Feshi turned to him.
“Toxin of some kind.”
“Numbing. It’s interfering with the healing, clearly. What about our antitoxin lessons?”
The Gnoll knew more about toxins than he did. Feshi thought, as above there was an explosion and shouting.
“Hot water. We’ll try washing it clean.”
Slime was covering the man’s arm. As Wil found a pot and filled it with water, Feshi grabbed it. The Gnoll closed her eyes. The pot began to bubble at once.
Wil burned his hand on the metal handle. It was hot! He stared at Feshi.
“[Shaman] class. Pour it on him!”
The hot water began to move the mucus. As it did, the [Sailor] began to feel the pain.
“Dead gods, Kraken’s teeth! My arm! It hurts, it—”
“Hold still. We’ll try healing you!”
This time the potion did more. The numbing toxin was still getting in the way, but it wasn’t as deadly as pure poison. Still—it made healing harder. Wil and Feshi stayed for a few more seconds. Then they raced abovedecks.
More [Sailors] were coming down, bitten, injured. But the entire ship was up and armed. Three hundred men and women, fighting. And the [Strategists]. And Lasc. He was triggering…spells? From his ship. And they were slaughtering the slugs; they weren’t the highest caliber of monster.
…The only problem was that they kept coming.
“We’ve killed at least a hundred of them! And they keep climbing on!”
“Move the damn ship! Wil! Feshi, I told you to stay back!”
Yerra shouted. A slug had eaten part of her leg, but she didn’t even notice. Feshi aimed her bow left and right.
She pulled, loosed. Her arrow glowed. It sank into a slug’s midsection and detonated. But two climbed up as the first one rained down. Wil stared at her.
That was a spell. [Shaman]? But the crisis was becoming apparent.
Venaz was literally striding down the deck, hacking slugs in two. Merrik and Peki were smashing slugs with ease. But. They. Kept. Coming.
“We can’t move the ship, Captain! We’re caught in something!”
Delivan was shouting as Wil and Feshi made their way down the center of the deck. The [Storm Captain] was looking around. His clothing was covered in slime and he’d downed a dozen slugs. But now he was frowning.
“The damn things are in the water. There might be thousands. Captain, they’ll sink the vessel!”
The [First Mate] was looking worried. But Lasc was glancing around.
“Get me Inky or that Garuda. Tell them to climb up and spot!”
He pointed up. Delivan whirled.
“Inky! The crow’s nest!”
The [Storm Sailor] heard. She abandoned her fighting and ran as fast as she could with her ungainly gait towards the mast. She was slow on the ground. But she swarmed up using the suction cups on her hands—and feet. Wil saw her disappear upwards. He turned.
“[Rapid Retreat]! Pull back from that spot! Feshi, covering fire—”
He began bellowing orders, taking charge of a group of [Sailors]. Lasc glanced at him, but let the two [Strategists] and Delivan command his men. He was staring over the sides of the ship. Searching. And then—
Inky slid down from the crow’s nest, shouting wildly.
“Captain! The port side! A hundred paces in the water! Pink glow!”
The [Storm Captain]’s eyes narrowed. He strode over to the wheel and turned. The boom moved. The ship turned—slowly—laboriously.
“Captain? What is it?”
Captain Lasc’s teeth were bared. He was taking the ship, wrestling it—and moving it towards something. A glow in the water. He shouted as Inky moved towards him.
“We’re not being attacked by slugs, Lord Kallinad! This—they’re all connected! Separate parts of a whole. We’re fighting—”
He pulled the boat forwards and Wil saw. A floating, glowing…thing in the water. Vast, as vast as the ship. But it was submerged in the same clear substance. Wil stared. And then he realized.
He was staring at a brain. A brain the size of The Emerald Signet. And he saw the slugs coming over the side and realized.
Feshi’s eyes went round. The Captain nodded.
“They’re just pieces of the body. We won’t kill it’s body nor escape before it takes us down. Not without taking the brain out. Inky, Delivan! Forty [Storm Sailors]! Prepare to go overboard on my mark!”
“Into the waters? They’ll be slaughtered! Even with our Skills, Captain—”
Wil stared at the churning water, filled with slugs that were climbing up. The Emerald Signet was groaning, trying to float with the added weight. Lasc’s eyes narrowed.
“On my order! Lord Kallinad, this is my ship! [Storm Sailors]!”
They came running. The [Captain] pointed. Wil saw his eyes flash.
“[Ship Spell: Depth Explosion].”
He pointed. Wil saw the sides of The Emerald Signet flash. Something coalesced in the water. And the pink, floating brain detonated.
The glistening body erupted in a fountain that sent water and slimy guts raining down. Wil threw up his hands. What was that? A Tier 5 spell!? Was that a Skill? He saw Lasc staring into the waters. And as they cleared—
The brain was damaged. Parts had been torn away by the blast. But the core remained. The slugs shuddered, moved slower, but they still came on. And yet—the protective layers of the jellyfish were gone.
Now, Captain Lasc roared. He strode down the deck as the [Sailors] fought twice as hard, shouting.
“[Storm Sailors]! Into the water! Damn this beast back into the abyss!”
Inky and the veterans roared. They charged the railing and leapt. Into the sea, filled with the jellyfish’s tendrils. Wil looked over the side.
“[Unit: Tough Skin]! Will they survive?”
He turned. Delivan was nodding. He pointed a wand, hit a slug in the head with a bolt of fire.
“Don’t worry, Lord Kallinad. They’ll make it. Those are the sea’s best.”
And indeed—the [Storm Sailors] were fighting in the water. Most had enchanted weapons. And they were carving straight for the jellyfish’s brain.
Wil saw one of them go under, sucked down by a slug. Another reached the brain and was covered by slugs. Two down. But then—Inky was standing on the brain. Diving into the waters and hacking into the pink head. The other [Storm Sailors] joined her. They cut, mercilessly ripping the jellyfish apart.
The slugs swarmed back over the railing, trying to protect their true self. Too late. Even as the last ones tried to plop over the railing, they slowed. Grew…aimless. They flopped down.
Dead. The [Storm Sailors] kept cutting until all that was left was floating pieces and gore in the waters. Then they returned to the ship.
Three didn’t come back. But thirty-seven, some wounded, most intact, had done it. The [Sailors] cheered. The students, panting, Merrik, Peki, and Venaz covered in jellyfish guts, saw the [Sailors] returning. Captain Lasc saluted them.
“[Storm Sailors]! Sea’s honor to you all! And the bounty to you and the dead!”
They raised their weapons and cheered. Victorious. Wil watched, panting. He felt—tired. But he’d barely fought, just tried to command. Saved one man’s life.
That was all. He felt—wrong. He should have done more. And Feshi’s face clearly reflected the same.
But it was done. The [Captain] ordered kegs of alcohol breached. He toasted the dead, listing names. The [Sailors] drank. They slapped each other on the back, complimented Venaz and the two [Commanders], who had slaughtered the jellyfish. Even Wil and Feshi and Yerra, who’d helped with their Skills.
And then? They got back to work. And yes—swabbing the deck was now mandatory. The jellyfish was dead, but it had to be removed from the ship.
“The worst damn part is that there’s little to salvage. Maybe the brain, but we’re not sticking around to gather it up.”
Inky was cursing as she tended to a few bites on her side. She glanced up as Wil and the other students approached. She grinned at Wil’s face.
“Fancy your first engagement at sea, Lord Kallinad?”
“I think I’d have preferred the boredom. That was…something.”
An enemy that vast? No land-creature was that big. At least, none that Wil had seen. He stared into the ocean. A different scale of foe. He looked at Inky and stared at the dark waters.
“Is it still good to look at the sea, Inky? Captain Lasc?”
The man heard him. And he and the other [Sailors] laughed as if it were the funniest thing they’d ever heard. So did Inky. Her teeth flashed as she pointed at the jellyfish they were leaving behind.
“Of course! How else do you know what’s sneaking up on you?”
Treasure and Angry Crabs
The next day, the ship felt different to Wil. Not as much a prison of boredom. More like…well, a kind of home.
They’d fought for it. Protected it. And—Inky had shown him the sailor’s secret.
The sea. The students sat at their table and just watched as the ocean passed by. They didn’t need games. They had conversation and—well, you could admire the ocean.
Green and clear with the sun’s rays shining through them. It was hypnotic beauty, one that could let you spend days and hours watching.
Too, the battle was fresh in their minds. And they were discussing it.
“I feel like my entire strategy was flawed. Here I was, leading a vanguard down the decks when I should have been apprising the situation. Also—we weren’t optimally fighting. We killed the slugs, but I didn’t take into account the fact that they were weighing down the ship. I should have been keeping them from boarding. Mistake, and mistake, and mistake—I didn’t even see the real threat.”
Venaz was self-critiquing his part of the battle. Which was funny—he was insufferably sure of himself, but in victory he never failed to give himself the hardest time.
“You’re not a trained sailor, Venaz. Even Delivan didn’t realize it was the jellyfish. Lasc did. That’s his job. I didn’t even do much.”
Wil grumbled. He was having a morning drink. He wasn’t a drinker, but the sea was turning his blood alcoholic. The Minotaur shifted.
“Even so, we have to be our best. And what if we’d had to take the fight into the water? I’m seeing more of my weaknesses. I should have studied more on underwater combat in the Isles of Minos.”
“But we could have helped better. We should have taken up a position to help manage the crew from the start, yes? We didn’t even prepare for that. We should have coordinated with Lasc.”
Feshi pointed out reasonably. Wil nodded. He glanced at Yerra.
“Why did you tell us to get below, Yerra?”
“Well, the sailor was wounded. And you and Feshi aren’t fighters, Wil. Not really.”
“Neither are you.”
The young man looked miffed. The Selphid grinned.
“But I’m wearing a dead body. I don’t take wounds like the rest of you. Merrik and Peki get a pass, but even Venaz should be more careful. He’s good, but he’s not exactly a [Warrior], right? Lasc proved that. You need to be careful.”
“Ah, but there’s no safety in a ship battle, Miss Yerra. If the jellyfish had penetrated the hold, all those below decks would have been just as threatened. More, if the slugs came down the stairs. Nowhere to run.”
That came from Inky. She was having a drink. The students had invited her to join them and the [Storm Sailor] was enjoying it. Lasc had granted the leave; the [Storm Sailors] were lounging about as the regular [Sailors] worked hard. The privileges of risking your life.
“True enough. But there is something to protecting [Strategists]. Remember Orthenon hacking apart Belchan’s elites and their [Mages]?”
Merrik put in. He and Peki were cleaning his armor. The jellyfish gunk was hard to get rid of. The Garuda nodded.
“Lots of dead [Strategists].”
The other students glared at her. Yerra was raising her hands as she looked at Wil.
“Just trying to keep you safe, Wil. You only get one body. Be a shame for Kallinad’s best [Lord] to get hurt!”
Wil turned red.
“Don’t say that. I hate being treated like…”
“A [Lord]? You shouldn’t have been a [Strategist], then. Yerra’s right. If we had to pull slugs off you, you’d have been a hindrance. You still used your Skills. Nice one—I wish I had [Lucky Dodge]. Commanders only get a few good battalion-wide Skills. We sacrifice a lot to be good fighters as well. But [Strategists] get lots. Still, you’re fragile.”
Merrik could be remarkably blunt when he wanted to. Wil sighed. But that was that. Inky grinned.
“Is this what being a student is? I could do that. Talking about tactics and whatnot while drinking.”
“The Professor doesn’t let us drink in class. But we make up for it after class. You might enjoy it, Inky.”
“Except for the time he did let us drink. Remember? Kissilt was saying that it didn’t matter? So he had us play games increasingly drunk?”
The entire group shuddered as one. The Titan had made them drink. And he’d proven with exacting detail how it impaired them as [Strategists] and how many [Soldiers] they lost due to sloppy mistakes.
“Strategy is important. It’s all too easy to come up with a winning strategy that relies on one element. But being adaptive? It’s our job to come up with plans that can change an entire army’s battle. However, even with all our training, amateurs can surprise even the best [Strategists]. We can always learn. And we should. Do you have any naval tactics you can share with us?”
Venaz sat back, looking at Inky. She grinned at him.
“Mister Sea Cow, you’ve come to the right place.”
The other students choked on their drinks. Venaz stared at Inky.
“I take objection to that.”
“Go ahead and do that. And sit back while I spin you a yarn about a few situations I was in that were worse than that.”
It was a good way to pass the time. And Venaz, who was known as ‘Sir Bull’ behind his back, was given another name. Wil had almost forgotten the purpose of the trip or the fact that they were closing on the seventh shipwreck. But he realized when he saw the island in the distance.
Someone shouted from the crow’s nest. The [Sailors] and students rushed to the railing, eager to see. The island was mostly a rocky bluff in the sea. Some underground mass of stone that had risen. Or an actual island eroded by time.
“Ah, damn. Look at the rocks! No wonder the ship went down.”
Inky exclaimed. Lasc instantly ordered the ship to slow.
“Delivan, you’re steering. Take us close as you can. We’ll row to the spot if need be.”
The [First Mate] gritted his teeth. He had a navigation Skill that helped him see underneath the boat. He moved them forwards slowly, adjusting the ship, swearing at the changing wind. Wil stared at the precipice of rock.
“I don’t…see the boat.”
What he did see was some sand and an actual floor to the ocean—as well as the treacherous outcroppings of stone that could so easily shred a boat’s hull. Inky peered into the waters.
“Might have fallen deeper. We’ll have to dive. But hey—it could be this place wasn’t picked clean. Although…wait…”
She pointed. The [Sailors] peered over the edge. Wil stared into the waters. They were very clear around here and he could see straight down. His heart leapt.
“Look! A ship!”
It had been downed. The hull was cracked in two. But it was unmistakably a ship!
“I don’t see a diver’s sign. Could be its hidden, but it would shine at us.”
Inky was staring down at it. Wil’s heart leapt. He looked around.
“Prepare the diving bell. [Divers], get ready.”
Lasc was calm as could be. But he was smiling, having heard Inky’s words. The other students were perking up. Yerra slid over to Wil.
“Come on, [Strategist] Kallinad. Which wreck is this supposed to be?”
“Well…I don’t want to raise your expectations…”
The young man’s heart was pounding. It even looked the right size. He took a breath.
“Alright. This may be the site of a cargo ship. With cargo that was meant for…Archmage Zelkyr.”
The students and [Sailors] looked around. So did Lasc. Yerra’s eyes went round.
“No way. Then…”
Everyone stared at the shipwreck. Delivan was looking about.
“We’re good if we hold here, Captain. Drop anchors?”
“Yes. We’ll search the wreck and—”
“Storm Captain! Shipwreck off our aft starboard side!”
Someone shouted. Begal waved and everyone turned to look. Wil stared and then rushed to the other side.
“A second ship?”
This one was torn to bits. Everyone stared at it. A submerged prow—a faded figurehead. Wil saw heads turning to him.
“Was it a fleet meant for Archmage Zelkyr?”
“Perhaps. But the Professor said it was only one.”
“Damn. Maybe this place has been plundered. And that’s a diving ship that hit the rocks.”
Inky cursed. Wil felt his heart sink. But the [Divers] were making ready. Two shipwrecks meant that there was twice as much to possibly find. They were preparing to go down, Inky among them.
“Can you dive, Lord Kallinad?”
“I swim fairly well.”
The [Lord] replied modestly; he was by far the best swimmer of the group. Inky grinned at him.
“And you, Sir Sea Cow?”
“I’m beginning to think you’re doing that on purpose, Miss Inky. I can hold my breath for six minutes.”
“Well, perhaps you’ll dive with me, you two. Once we make sure there’s nothing lurking in the wreck—”
Inky was teasing. And then—a voice from the crow’s nest.
“Captain? I see another shipwreck. No…two shipwrecks.”
Everyone stared up. Captain Lasc’s head slowly turned.
He looked at Wil. The [Lord] felt a prickle run down his spine.
“That wasn’t in the Professor’s notes at all, Captain Lasc.”
The [Storm Captain] looked at him. And then he turned his head.
“Delivan. Your [Dangersense]?”
“Not tickling. Yet. Captain.”
“But it could be…take us away, Delivan.”
Yerra looked incredulous. Captain Lasc stared narrow-eyed at the small outcropping of rock, and then into the underwater mountain.
“Something’s…off. We’ll investigate from afar. I’ll take volunteers. Away, Delivan. At least a few hundred feet and then—”
Something moved in the waters. Wil saw it. Everyone saw it. A shape crept around the side of the stone mountain. He froze.
“What is that?”
A gigantic shape breached the waters. A huge, armored leg pulled the creature upwards. Wil saw a huge eye, staring at him from a stalk. A chitinous body. Dark with algae and barnacles. And on its back—the hull of a ship.
A hermit crab. The size of The Emerald Signet, with a warship as its shell. Captain Lasc and the sailors stared as the crab’s head breached the waves.
“…That’s a big crab.”
Peki pointed calmly. Merrik swore.
“It’s got a ship on its back! Grandfather’s—”
“Take us back, Delivan! All hands! Prepare to maneuver!”
“It’s as large as we are! Are we going to fight?”
Lasc was hesitating. The crab was huge, and The Emerald Signet was turning. Wil tried to push forwards as the [Divers] flung off their gear. They were grabbing for harpoons, ranged weapons. The crab was moving forwards, massive pincers raised. It clearly saw…food.
“We don’t need to tangle with that monster. We could try. My ship-spells are recharged. But I don’t like the odds of it.”
The [Storm Captain]’s magic came from his class and Skills. He aimed at the crab, appraising the fight. And then he saw Wil.
The [Lord] was white-faced. He was pointing. The [Captain] turned his head. And everyone saw.
There, on the part of the ship that was the crab’s shell. Something was glinting. The magical paint was worn. But—the name was still visible.
The Archmage’s Favor.
A ship’s name. Delivan’s eyes went round. Captain Lasc turned his head back. And he stared.
Archmage Zelkyr’s cargo. The [Storm Captain] thought.
“If we maneuver, we’ll keep out of range of that crab’s claws. And if the cargo is there? Watch for any magical attacks, Delivan. Steer us out of range! We’ll see how fast this crab is in the water!”
The [First Mate] was turning the ship. The crab followed as The Emerald Signet shot away. The crew was cheering, aiming, waiting for the thing to get onto land. The crab was obliging them, climbing onto rock precipices after the ship.
“We’ll have a hell of a time doing it, Captain! We can’t shoot into the water!”
“We’ll wear it down. And I’ll use [Depth Explosion] as soon as I can. If we must, [Storm Sailors] can climb onto it. Get around it and shred the monster where it can’t fight back.”
Delivan was conferring with the others. Venaz was nodding.
“I can boost them from afar. We have six students with Skills that can boost the [Storm Sailors]. If need be—”
“Hey. The crab’s slowing.”
Yerra pointed. The crab was perched on top of the little island. It was just resting there, huge legs holding tight as it carried its huge burden out of the water. The [Sailors] began loosing shots, but they were too far to hit the monster properly and the few arrows that landed did nothing to the massive shell.
“Idiot thing. It’s clearly not as smart as some of the monsters in the sea.”
Delivan chortled. The others were nodding, and Lasc was frowning, trying to figure out if now was the time to hit it with a spell. But it was Feshi who looked concerned. She glanced left and right.
“Wait. Is that the thing that downed The Archmage’s Favor, or did it just pick up the ship?”
Wil glanced at her. The Gnoll looked worried.
“What does it matter, Feshi?”
The [Strategist] eyed the giant crab. It was just standing there. Waiting. Expectantly.
“If it downed the cargo ship, that was one thing. But what about the other ships that came after? If it did that—”
The others looked at Feshi. And Wil—hesitated. He saw Lasc turning his head, suddenly, appraising the size of the shipwrecks on the ocean floor. He looked up sharply.
“The Archmage’s Favor and that ship are both twice our size. Delivan—take us back another—”
As Wil looked at Lasc, something flashed out of the corner of his eye. Then he heard a wumph.
No, a wh—
Water on his face. Rain? Wil heard ringing. Shouting voices. Someone was…someone was…
“Wil! Get below!”
“Turn the ship! Take us away! Get us out of range!”
Bellowing voices. Wil tried to raise his head. Yerra was dragging him. The ship was moving and people were shouting. What was…
“But the treasure.”
“Get us out of range! It’s about to—”
Another explosion. This one from father off. More rain. Wil struggled upright. Yerranola was dragging him towards the quarters.
“Get below! Out of danger! ”
“What’s happening? What—”
Wil got to his feet. He resisted the Selphid trying to move him down. And he saw—Venaz, Merrik, and Peki all standing at the railing. Holding their weapons, but just…staring. And in the distance, the crab.
The hermit crab. With the broken warship on its back. Wil saw the holes in the hull. The gaping—broken warship’s frame. But the light? The explosions?
And then he saw. A flash from the interior. For a second—a beam of golden light. It hit the water near The Emerald Signet and the superheated water exploded, geysering into a rain that fell on the ship. The galleon rocked. And the crab shifted. Aiming the beam.
Wil said it dumbly as Yerra pulled at him. A spell. But where was it coming from? And then—as the light appeared again, he saw it for a moment.
A carven face. An eye made of a gemstone. A staring figure.
A Golem, buried in the hull. It was covered in barnacles, moss. Still secured by the bindings.
“That’s a damn war golem. But look at the size of it.”
It fired again. The magical beam of light missed—Delivan was turning the ship, zig-zagging away.
“Get out of range of that thing! It will tear through our decks, Skills or not!”
Lasc was bellowing, his face white with fear. Wil tried to struggle as Yerra dragged him down the steps.
“No! We have to go after it! That’s a Golem! That’s—”
Merrik jumped down the steps. Peki, even Venaz was taking cover. The Dwarf looked at Wil as he pointed.
“That thing will destroy the ship in one go! That Golem is massive! It’s probably designed to sack cities! We can’t fight it!”
“But the treasure—”
Wil whispered. The ship rocked as Lasc and Delivan took The Emerald Signet away from the isle. Another near miss—and then—silence. Wil looked around. Yerra stared at him. Afraid, remorseful.
“I’m sorry, Wil.”
“Some threats are too big to fight in the sea. You learn that.”
Inky spoke up from her cover. Wil Kallinad looked around. But it was there. The golem.
He closed his eyes, bitterly. Someone else would have to take it. A navy. Another hero. He let his head fall back.
“Damn it all.”
Captain Therrium of The Passing Shadow had seen it all, of course. He’d let the jellyfish attack The Emerald Signet—the [Storm Captain] had the resources to fight it off, even if he was an air-breather.
But the crab? That had caught them off-guard. He stared from his remove as another beam pierced the waters. It didn’t penetrate far, but the explosion was thunderous from under the sea. His crew, used to silence, clapped their hands or appendages over their ears.
The Emerald Signet was leaving. Fast. The [Depth Captain] stared at the giant crab, which guarded the other wrecks and what was clearly a war golem. The half-Eel man eyed the monster, glanced at the other Drowned Ship waiting underwater next to him. The other [Captain] was staring at him.
The two came to a same conclusion.
They turned their ships. They’d mark the spot, but an armada would have to take the ship back from that damn crab. Some treasure wasn’t worth the risk.
But it burned in the memory of all who had seen it. A relic of Archmage Zelkyr. It was there. Waiting to be claimed. Perhaps more. Was it better to have never seen it? Because it consumed the soul, like poison.
It was there.
The Kraken’s Pass, Fog, Strange Meetings
“…Upon reflection, we should have clearly taken measures for engaging giant monsters. Not that this ship isn’t well-equipped. But as we’ve seen—perhaps a very defensive-oriented ship might have been able to close the gap. I hear some hulls can be stronger than steel.”
“Well, if you had the best [Captain] in the world and one of the most famous ships, perhaps. But Captain Lasc did right by us, Mister Sea Cow. And before you complain you did naught—there was nothing any of us could do.”
The mood was somber after the encounter with the giant crab. It had been so sudden. So short. But they had seen it.
Treasure. And yet—it was gone. The giant crab was too big, and the magical attack from the golem too terrible. Lasc had flatly refused to even go near the spot again. He had taken the ship in the direction of the eighth shipwreck.
And Wil was depressed. He sat as the others debated the issue.
“We know it’s there, though. Can’t we go back with like, uh, a magical deflecting shield or the right equipment? A stealth-rogue like Lady Foliana to deactivate the Golem? Dead gods! I’m sure the Professor would do it. What if we hired a fleet?”
“No good. And how do you propose we negotiate for it, Yerra?”
Merrik sighed. Venaz nodded as he poured a drink. The Selphid looked blank.
“We know where the crab is.”
“Yup. So you lot tell…who? Lord Seagrass himself? And he takes his armada, loses some warships and…what?”
Inky took the cup out of Merrik’s hands. He’d been offering it to Wil. But the [Lord] didn’t want to drink. Yerranola went on.
“That’s right. And he gets the treasure…”
“And keeps it. Why would he share the bounty with us when he does all the hard work?”
Wil spoke up flatly. Yerranola opened her mouth.
“Well, we have the location.”
“And? He’s the one who has to do the fighting. Or the Professor. It doesn’t matter anyways. We could sell it for…something. I’ll do it tonight. Sell the location, rather.”
“Oh, come on, Wil. Sell it? Negotiate—”
Wil turned, looking angry. Yerra didn’t understand. She waved at him.
“We’re the only ones who know where the treasure is.”
“Yes. Us. And Captain Lasc. And Delivan. And the entire crew of The Emerald Signet. Who probably already sent their own [Messages] to people telling them what they saw.”
Yerra went silent as she digested this.
“Oh. But…but they don’t know where it is. Right?”
Inky swished the drink in her mouth before swallowing. She looked sympathetic.
“Trouble is—Miss Yerra—that undersea mountain’s too visible. If it were one of the older shipwrecks, I could see it being harder to locate. But this one’s findable. Now—if there was no marker of any kind and you were trawling the sea bed unless you had the exact star-coordinates, that information would be worth something and perhaps only Lord Kallinad’d be able to sell it. Or Lasc, since he’d have a good idea where it was. But this? Too easy to say ‘look for a mountain around hereabouts’.”
She nodded at Wil. The [Lord] nodded glumly.
“I don’t think we can even sell it for much. I’ll…ask Lasc to make the next two shipwrecks harder to spot. He can play with the timing so we arrive by day and sail far away by the time it’s nightfall. If there’s anything worth finding, though.”
That would help. With the other two shipwrecks. If they came back for a treasure. But the fact remained. That had been it. And it—was gone.
“I’m sorry. It was a sight to see, at least.”
Feshi spoke quietly from the bunk where she was sitting. The others nodded. Wil did too, after a moment. It was. He tried not to let the depression consume him. However—it was hard.
To distract himself, Wil took issue with Yerranola. Mildly.
“Yerra, you dragged me belowdecks. Again. And you told me and Feshi to take cover. We’re not children. We are [Strategists]. We can fight.”
“Yeah, but you’re fragile. Venaz has his armor at least and Merrik and Peki are [Commanders]. And I’m—”
Everyone chorused. Yerra smiled.
“Hey, you know my line. Look, Wil. I’m just looking out for my favorite fleshfriend.”
She hugged him lightly. Wil sighed.
“I appreciate it. But we don’t need to be overprotected, Yerra.”
The Selphid disagreed, smiling, looking a bit concerned.
“But you’re all my fleshfriends. I can’t have one of you accidentally getting stabbed! Arrows through the head kill you.”
She elbowed Wil, laughing gently and tapped her skull. It made a slightly hollow sound.
“There’s nothing up here.”
“You can say that again.”
Venaz grumbled. Yerra threw his pillow at him. It stuck on his horns. The others laughed, relaxed—Wil smiled as he felt Yerra patting him on the shoulders. It was a cold, clammy touch. But she and he were friends, ever since she’d befriended him when they first entered the academy.
Yet, Yerra’s flaw was she was protective. Overly so. He straightened and spoke in a haughty tone. Half-mocking, half-serious.
“Miss Yerranola. We didn’t join this adventure to stay below decks. We can fight. Stop ordering us to get below at every opportunity. You may tell us where to be safe if we’re being idiots.”
She hesitated, and then ducked her head in an acknowledgement.
“Oh—fine. We’ll let you fight. But you have to put armor on. Wil, Feshi, do you even have any good enchanted gear?”
“I have armor!”
Feshi just shrugged as Wil retorted. Merrik rolled his eyes.
“Well, do you ever put it on? Let’s see it then. And let’s see if you can even swing that longsword you carry about.”
The others chivvied Wil onto the deck. He found himself doing mock sparring with Merrik, who gently swatted his blade down and then forced Wil to try his best. They were helping cheer him up. And Wil appreciated that.
And resented it.
For about five days, the students were left to their own devices. Inky drifted in and out of their conversations as they discussed everything and anything besides Zelkyr’s lost ship—which was by now public knowledge. It had indeed been sold by members of the crew to anyone willing to buy the information and it was now worthless.
Captain Lasc had apologized to Wil and assured him he’d take more precautions. From now on, the [Sailors] would have a harder time marking spots via the stars. And, barring any notable landmarks, it would discourage information trading.
Too little, too late. Only…two shipwrecks remained. And Wil was despondent, even if finding actual treasure had rekindled his dreams. It was just regret. If he had convinced the [Storm Sailors] to attack the crab from all sides, would they have triumphed? If he’d realized the threat, convinced Lasc, maybe? Maybe?
It would have risked the lives of everyone. But that was what you needed to do for treasure, right? It was right…
Wil might have moped forever, despite everyone’s best attempts to cheer him up. But two things took his mind off the loss. And cheered him up.
The first was the drama around Lord Bein and the [Couriers] on their run. That was entertainment, and the [Strategists] had a good time watching and commentating. Feshi, an Izrilian, actually knew one of the Couriers.
“Mm. Hawk runs south of Liscor as well. That’s a useful Skill.”
“[Physical Overdrive]. Imagine if Peki had that. Or me.”
Venaz was clearly jealous. So was Peki.
“Good fighters. Wonder if I can beat them.”
“They’re Couriers, Peki. The best Runners in Izril. Even for us, that’s a hard sell. Dead gods, but I’d love to have them as irregulars under my command, though.”
Merrik was commentating. The others nodded. Wil was about to bring up some of Terandria’s finest Runners—and mention that Salamani actually ran on Terandria now and then—he switched continents—when there was a cry from the side.
“Starboard side! Something in the water!”
Everyone shot to their feet. By now, the students were in tune with the boat. Everyone checked for their weapons. Wil had some leather armor on. He could swim in it, and he had been pressured into wearing it at all times.
Yerra checked Wil as he ran. He scowled, but grabbed it. By the time he ran to the starboard bow, everyone was ready for trouble.
But for once, the trouble wasn’t there. Instead—the [Sailors] were laughing in delight. Even Inky was smiling and calling out to Lasc, who’d emerged from his cabin.
“No trouble, Captain! It’s sea-friends!”
“What? What are?”
And then they pointed. And Wil saw a leaping shape nearly reaching as high as the deck. He saw an eye, a curved body and fin.
A pod of dolphins had swum alongside the ship. They were racing alongside the vessel, making clicking sounds, leaping, playing in the water. And the [Sailors] were laughing, finding bits of food to toss over the railing.
“What is that?”
Ironically, it was Peki who hid behind Merrik. She squatted down, warily eying the dolphins. Merrik, Feshi, Yerra—none of them knew what the fish were and were confused. Inky laughed.
“Dolphins! They’re one of the smartest fish out there. Sailor’s friends. No [Sailor] or [Fisherman]’ll hunt for them—only shorefolk and idiots do. They save folks who’ve gone overboard. As smart as they come!”
“Surely! They’re playful! See?”
The Dolphins were doing tricks, dancing in the water. One flipped past the boat and Peki emerged to stare.
This pod was a mix. Some were blue to gray. But there were pink dolphins in the water as well! Wil marveled at the sight. The colorful dolphins were smiling—or at least, that was how they felt to him.
“So there’s not just monsters in the sea?”
“Of course not. Just the largest of them. If you’d been watching earlier, you’d have seen some fish. Mind you—dolphins are prey for a lot of the big ones, like that damn crab. But they can fight off sharks and they’re smart enough to run.”
Entranced, the [Strategists] watched. Then they realized—they could feed the dolphins! The fish were only too happy to eat some of the salted fish and other meats. Everyone was laughing and Venaz was actually opining to get into the ocean to see if they could touch the dolphins when something moved below.
A vast shadow. Instantly, the crew reacted. But the dolphins kept playing.
“What is that?”
Another shape. And this one was—vast. Not as large as The Emerald Signet, but far, far larger than a dolphin. Ten times as large. Wil froze, but Inky frowned and pointed.
“No danger! It’s a Nelgaunt!”
The others took up the call, relieved. Wil looked around. This he wasn’t familiar with. He saw a huge fish surface. Like a catfish crossed with a whale. Only, it had long tendrils. And it was…
Smiling. It had a shark-like hide, but a whale’s strange, feathery ‘teeth’. And it swam with the dolphins and they played about it, clearly relaxed.
“What’s a Nelgaunt? It’s big!”
“Another friendly sort. Two sea-friends in one day! Although Nelgaunts often swim with dolphins. They eat small things in the water, and they only fight to defend themselves. It’s one of the reasons they swim with fishes; they look out for each other. How else would you survive in the ocean against Reefeyes and worse?”
Inky waved at the Nelgaunt. And to Wil’s amazement, the Nelgaunt copied the motion with one of its tendril-arms.
“It can wave?”
“Nelgaunts make dolphins look like idiots! It can wave—might even understand a few words. I’ve heard of ships partnering with Nelgaunts. Training ‘em. Captain Lasc, thoughts?”
The Captain was looking into the waves. He saluted the Nelgaunt.
“If it were a baby alone, we might try feeding it, and taking it with us. But this one seems well enough. Let’s call it good fortune, and not push our luck.”
“Can we communicate with it in any way? This is incredible.”
Feshi peered over the railing. She made a barking call towards the dolphins. They scattered, clearly astounded, and clicked back. The Nelgaunt’s reaction was even more astounding. It blew water out of its blowhole. A sound trying to imitate Feshi.
Yerra was amazed. She waved at the Nelgaunt.
“Can you understand us? Blow twice for yes, once for no!”
A pause. And then two toots of water shot out of the blowhole. The students and crew laughed in delight.
“Someone open the stocks! Toss the dolphins what they want! What do Nelgaunts eat?”
“Can they eat bread? What about rum?”
Laughing, Begal poured some over the side. Inky immediately smacked him.
“Idiot! Don’t poison them! And don’t waste good drink!”
Wil was trying to think of a question to ask the Nelgaunt. He called over the side as the giant catfish swam closer. It was staring up at him—it actually had another eye on its side. But the main one seemed to be looking at Wil. Amused, thinking he was an idiot, Wil shouted down.
“Know of anything interesting for us to see? Treasure?”
The Nelgaunt looked up at Wil as the others laughed. And then—suddenly—it dove. Wil saw the dolphins turn, diving after it. In a moment, they were gone.
“What? Was it something I said?”
Wil looked around, disheartened by the sudden disappearance. He couldn’t help but feel he’d caused it. But he hadn’t. In fact—a warning call came from the front.
“Storm Captain! We’re nearing Kraken’s Pass!”
Delivan was turning the ship. Venaz ducked as the boom sailed overhead. Captain Lasc whirled.
“Already? Turn us, do it now, man!”
Delivan was already turning the ship. Wil didn’t know why. Until he saw…how deep the waters were on the port side. The [Sailors] fell quiet.
“The Nelgaunt warned us. Or perhaps we’d have noticed if we weren’t caught up watching them. Lord Kallinad, we’re taking a detour.”
Captain Lasc strode to the wheel. He pulled out a spyglass and stared ahead. The other [Sailors] were suddenly, entirely quiet.
Merrik looked at Inky for confirmation. The [Storm Sailor] was pale.
“The water ahead. It’s a vast, vast trench. Miles deep. And what lives in it is—at least one Kraken. Sleeping, mostly.”
The entire ship was quiet. The Emerald Signet was turning. Wil felt his skin chill.
“Navy-destroyers. The rulers of the deep. I’ve heard they ate Dragons in the old days. Or that a Dragon was what it took to down them. They ate the entire Antinium fleet, or so it was said, when they came from Rhir.”
Delivan had surrendered the wheel to Lasc. The entire ship was moving in silence. Even below—the Drowned Ships were turning. And no one spoke.
“Nothing survives a Kraken attack. Or if they do—they’re truest [Sailors] of the sea. I’d rather fight an Adult Creler at sea than a Kraken. Well, you don’t fight one. They can be miles long. Fortunately, they mostly sleep.”
“Does anything prey on them? How can they live, being so big?”
Calmly, but controlled, Captain Lasc turned his head to look at Feshi, who’d asked.
“There’re things in the deep that are more dangerous than we can imagine. Not all things are violent, Miss Feshi. And the sea has its ebb and flow. I’ve seen Tearwhales devouring and devoured by smaller fish. But they could bring down a Kraken if there were enough of ‘em. It’s all give and take. But we sail in silence now. Well clear of Kraken’s Pass.”
The others nodded. Everyone headed belowdecks. Inky reassured the others as she pointed.
“It’s safe enough. Captain Lasc is steering us far from the pass. We’ll be around in less than a day. What’s dangerous is when they move. Then—well—you can be attacked in any place the sea’s deep enough. Come on, Sea Cow. You can teach me more of these board games.”
Wil was following her down when he heard a muffled curse from the helm. He looked back. Just in time to see Lasc staring.
“What in the name of salt is that?”
The [Storm Captain] turned the wheel. But it was too late. Wil saw whiteness rolling at them. A vast cloud of—
Fog. It rolled over the ship unnaturally fast. And it was dense. Vision was lost in a moment. Wil could barely see the command deck. He staggered forwards.
The man was staring about. There were shouts of confusion from all around. And then silence again. Slowly, the [Storm Captain] let go of the wheel. And he looked up.
“Furl the mainsail.”
Delivan had raced back on deck. The [Storm Captain] hesitated.
“We’re too far. No. Furl the sails. Quiet.”
“What’s the fog from, Captain?”
The man looked at Wil.
“I don’t know.”
And Wil realized, as he stared around that there was no way of Lasc of knowing where they were, either. The sky was shrouded. They couldn’t see the Kraken’s Pass. They were…
Two days later, the fog had continued. The Emerald Signet floated in the waters, sails furled. Helpless.
They had no idea where they were.
“We could be over the Kraken’s Pass right now. We should be sailing away. Better that than…”
Begal was wide-eyed with nerves. Inky, the [Storm Sailor], was more calm.
“Don’t be daft, man. Captain Lasc knows we might well sail in circles. And if we move, we’ll attract more attention. This fog ain’t natural. But whatever it be, we can only hope to wait it out. At least the wind ain’t moving. The waves on the other hand…”
They were just floating. Captain Lasc had lookouts posted every few paces on deck, for all the good it did. Everyone was aware of how close they were to the Kraken’s territory. And they were all nervous for the fog.
“Becalmed at sea. Lost. Isn’t this a [Sailor]’s worst nightmare?”
Merrik wondered. Inky gave him a reproving look.
“Neither and neither, Mister Merrik. We can always [Message] for help or scrying if our [Captain]’s not a fool or something wrong with magic. Same with wind—if we wanted, Lasc could conjure us a breeze with his Skills alone. Never mind the emergency items. What we fear is Krakens. Fire at sea. And—The Last Tide.”
The other [Sailors] sitting with the students murmured. Wil looked up. But no one said anything more. This was a bad time for dark tales. Especially ones that were true.
“There’s not much to do but keep an eye out. Right, Feshi? I mean, that and—”
“Not interested, Merrik.”
The Dwarf sighed. Venaz gave him a look.
“This fog is unnatural, Merrik. Every [Warrior] knows you conserve your energy?”
“You mean, you don’t jump into bed before a battle?”
The Minotaur looked aghast.
“What a waste of stamina. No. Minotaurs are disciplined. Besides…we don’t know what’s causing this. It feels like a spell.”
“But what a vast one. Or is it just on our ship? Lasc is asking for Wistram’s assistance, but there’s limits on what they can do, especially if the fog is magic. We’ll try lifting it if we have to wait longer. But there’s a limit on how long—”
“Contact above! Get on deck!”
A whisper-shout. The [Sailors] and students shot to their feet. They raced above, silently as possible. Armed for battle.
Below, the Undersea Crews were restless. They knew of the fog, of course. It didn’t affect them underwater and The Emerald Signet was drifting, dangerously close to the Kraken’s Pass. But far enough.
“What’s causing the damn fog?”
Therrium growled at his First Mate. She frowned.
“We’re spotting multiple vessels in the water, Captain. All land ships. Caught by the fog.”
“More tails to the students and their treasure? But they’ve found nothing yet!”
“Maybe the others are tired of waiting.”
“I’ll be damned if I let them take our mark.”
Therrium swore. He looked up, sharply.
“Another ship’s closing with The Emerald Signet. Get me eyes on what’s happening. How many vessels are in the water?”
“Many, Captain. Some are in the sea.”
“What? Drowned Ships? Why aren’t they hailing us? Unless they fear to make sound or light?”
“I don’t know, Depth Captain.”
The first vessel passed close to The Emerald Signet. It was a small ship. Not close to the galleon-class that was The Emerald Signet.
Inky breathed as Captain Lasc peered through his sky glass. The students watched, cautiously. It was a small vessel to take on the galleon. And it didn’t seem to be. The sails were furled. But there were people on deck, staring up at the ship.
“Ahoy. Are you lost in the fog too? We sail the storms. If you be peaceful, raise the flag of truce.”
First Mate Delivan called out softly. His voice was the only sound in the waters. The figures on the boat stared. There were a good number of them. On the railings.
They made no move. But neither were they triggering anyone’s [Dangersense]. Yet. The two vessels drifted closer.
The waves were taking both vessels in the same direction, but the caravel was lighter and moving faster. It was chance that the two had met. And as the ships drew closer still, the fog parted enough for Wil to see something in the mists.
Red light. A strange, ominous glow in the darkness, multiplied many times. And then—amid the fog—he realized.
They were eyes.
Crimson eyes. The crew of The Emerald Signet recoiled as they saw Goblins.
They stood on their ship. Crudely built, but seaworthy. Goblins. Many of them were small, but Hobgoblins sat or stood along the side of the ship.
Venaz breathed. He reached for his axe, but Inky and half a dozen [Sailors] held him back.
“Not here! We’re too close to the Kraken’s Pass!”
“But they—let go of me!”
Someone slapped a hand over his mouth. The Goblins looked up. They stared at the Humans with curiosity. Without fear.
“Have you caused this?”
Lasc’s voice was wary. Cold. But the Goblin’s sails were furled. And—one of them moved. Wil saw a figure sitting on the deck. His hair was beaded. His skin tattooed. Feshi murmured.
She stared at the Goblin. Small. He was a regular-sized Goblin. But he was in charge in some way. He glanced at her. And then he grinned at Lasc. Slowly, he brought one finger to his mouth.
And he mouthed one word.
Without a word, the caravel drifted past The Emerald Signet. The [Storm Captain] hesitated. Venaz was furious. He wanted to attack, or interrogate the Goblins. But they were all—wary. The Humans let the Goblins pass.
“I’ve seen Goblin crews only twice in my life. I heard they sailed the ocean. But even they fear Krakens.”
Inky murmured when the caravel was long out of sight. Captain Lasc was trying to figure out what was going on with Delivan and the students. Venaz stared through a port window.
“Of course they go to sea. They have an island.”
The others looked at him. But the Minotaur said nothing more. Lasc looked around.
“Yet—they were helpless as we were. The fog wasn’t caused by them. And if their [Shaman] couldn’t raise it—they control the weather. So. Something’s out here.”
The others nodded. They did not know what. But the watchfulness of all on board sharpened further.
It was another day before they found out what it was.
“Captain. Lord Kallinad. We have a signal in the mists.”
A ringing bell. Wil heard it as he played Lasc a game of chess. The [Storm Captain] looked up, glad to be done; he was losing badly.
“I hear it. What fool rings a bell around here?”
“The kind that doesn’t fear Krakens. Storm Captain. You had better look.”
On deck again. Everyone stared towards the ringing sound. And Wil saw it first.
An ancient hull. A sail, rotted, virtually useless. But the ship still floated. And—it had a crew. But the fog was lifting, however slightly. And this time…The Emerald Signet’s crew could see.
There was no light on the other ship. None, in the absolute fog. The Emerald Signet had any number of safety lanterns. But none on the other ship.
That told Lasc everything.
“Either they’re out of oil. Or…we’ve found a culprit. It’s a ghost ship. Or—did you say you saw figures, Delivan?”
The [First Mate] nodded. He was armed. Captain Lasc turned his head.
“Lord Kallinad. I fear we might be entering a fight for our lives.”
“Against what, Captain?”
Wil stood next to Venaz and Feshi, staring into the gloom. There were figures moving in the darkness. But who—
His breath caught as he saw the unnatural, shambling walk. The [Storm Captain] spoke darkly.
“That’s no ship of the living. That’s an undead ship. And the crew’s long passed.”
Indeed. The ship was coming their way. And Wil saw the first rotten form. He smelled the rot as the zombies and skeletons moved. A mockery of the living ship. The [Sailors] murmured. They had weapons ready.
“How can this come about?”
Feshi covered her nose. She had her bow raised, but she had avoided fighting. Lasc was cursing.
“Somewhere on board, there’s a [Necromancer]. Or a death-artifact. Either or. And we’ll have to fight. This close to the Kraken’s Pass?”
“At least the ship’s only a frigate. If it were larger…we can handle that crew, Captain.”
Delivan was nodding. So were the other [Storm Sailors].
“Undead aren’t a match for a proper [Storm Sailor]. They might have numbers if they’d packed the ship. But we’ll take them. Worst threat is the [Captain]. Ships like this always have a Revenant.”
Peki looked around blankly as Yerranola shuddered. The Selphid spoke.
“A thinking undead. A trapped soul. It might be able to use Skills. It’ll be far stronger.”
Indeed—was that the [Captain]? Wil saw a figure steering the ship at them. Glowing eyes, burning blue in the fog. Captain Lasc spoke.
“All hands, prepare to repel boarders. We’ll fight them off. Burn the damn ship and put these souls to rest. They’ve underestimated us. Lord Kallinad, you and your [Strategists] will give us an edge, however many of the damned there be.”
The crew nodded. So did Merrik.
“My [Battalion of Glory] gives magical blades to anyone under my command. We can slay even ghost-[Pirates] with that.”
“Have they given any demands?”
Lasc turned to Delivan. The [First Mate] shook his head.
“No, sir. This might be just a group of [Necromancers]. Or a ship looking to add to its ranks.”
“More fools, they. To arms. We’ve sailed through storms far worse than a crew of undead.”
The ships were closing. Ready for battle, both sides. More undead were appearing in the gloom. But just one ship. Smaller than The Emerald Signet. Only—Wil couldn’t help but feeling uneasy.
This felt like a trap.
And then the waters moved. Wil saw something breach the dark waters. And he realized he should have taken Inky’s advice.
A warship rose out of the dark waters. Rotten, old. Covered in barnacles. But the crew cared not for the water that slowly drained. Captain Lasc turned his head. The second ship turned, slowly. And another figure, another long-dead [Captain] looked at the living man.
“Flanked. Damn—we’ll take the left, Captain Lasc and Wil, Feshi, the right. Starboard, port, whatever.”
Merrik whirled. Peki narrowed her eyes.
Inky pointed, eyes wide. A figure, a half-remembered man, skin rotted was the [Captain] of the second, larger, warship. He was pale. Transparent. But his blade was still sharp as he drew it.
“I’ll take him on.”
The Dwarf growled. The crew rushed to the port side. And that was when Wil felt his skin prickle. He turned.
A crow’s nest breached the waters. A third ship rose, silent as the grave. Delivan slowly turned around. He made a small sound. And then a fourth ship rose. A fifth. He slowly looked at Wil.
“Ah. The thing about undead fleets? They keep growing.”
Lasc drew his sword. Six ships circled The Emerald Signet. Without a word, without a signal, the undead began swarming towards the ship. Swimming. Climbing. Wil drew his sword. Venaz was already hacking a ghoul trying to board the ship. But they were outnumbered. And—the ghoul Venaz bisected fell into the waves—then reappeared.
“There are [Necromancers] about! They’re reanimating the dead!”
Venaz roared. He swung his axe.
“[Battalion of Glory]. They might not even be on any of the ships. We have to burn them. Take out the undead—waste the [Necromancer]’s mana! Hold the line!”
Yerranola looked at him. The [Lord] had his sword out. He was calling orders, defending a section of the ship. The [Lord] turned to look at Yerra.
“I’m not going below.”
“I know. Just don’t get killed.”
The Selphid smiled. Then she walked into the undead, the one form fighting back the waves assaulting the [Sailors]. The students called out, fortifying their positions. But the undead were coming. A ghostly [Captain] strode through the air and met Captain Lasc. They locked blades and Lasc punched through the air. But the freezing ghost’s form took no damage.
Captain Therrium saw the six undead vessels surrounding The Emerald Signet from below. And he had been told at least two more vessels floated in the fog.
One of the two vessels had to be their command ship. They were attacking The Emerald Signet, thinking they were just another ship on the waves.
His [First Mate] looked at him.
“Captain, do we join the fighting?”
His crew was restless. Drowned Men and Women were ready for a fight. They didn’t fear the numbers. Nor did Therrium. He glanced at the other Drowned Ship. If they joined the [Storm Sailors], they’d put a hole in the undead fast enough.
“Fight? And expose ours plans? No. Not yet, at least.”
“But they’ll all be slaughtered. There aren’t enough of them and even if the [Storm Sailors] put up a good fight…”
Six ships versus one. Therrium knew that. He spat.
“We wait. We only need the [Lord]. Make ready to rise. And when we do—you’ll grab that [Lord] and we’ll lose our sister ship in the fighting.”
He gestured at the other Drowned Ship. The [First Mate] grinned. Slowly, the Drowned Ship began to move. Air was conjured, negating the effects of the ballast. The ship was preparing to rise suddenly.
And that was when a lookout shouted, breaking the oath of silence.
“Depth Captain! Another ship sailing into the engagement!”
Captain Therrium Sailwinds turned. He snarled.
“How many ships are out here?”
Captain Lasc saw the ghost-[Captain] retreating as Merrik’s glowing hammer rent the magical form that made him up. Lasc struck home with his shortsword. He thought he saw the other [Captain] smile at him for a second before he vanished, his form turning into mist.
He had worn a [Storm Captain]’s clothes. Lasc hoped he had found rest. He would never let his body and soul be stolen so. He whirled, nodding at Merrik.
“My thanks, Mister Merrik.”
“Pleased. I just wish that killed the other undead.”
The Dwarf turned, grunting. A Garuda flashed past them. She kicked off a zombie’s head and watched as the head slowly floated back to place. Peki frowned, and spun and kicked a skeleton to pieces. But it too began to reassemble.
“Damn [Necromancers]! They’re reanimating the dead!”
“Even me! I don’t think they know I’m in here!”
A hulking Draug had torn off Yerranola’s arm. But it was floating back to her body. She dodged around the Draug and sat it aflame with multiple chops of her hatchet. She watched her arm reattach.
That was the only good news in the tide of undead assaulting the ship. The [Sailors] were fighting in formation, pressing the undead back. But the undead kept coming. And every [Sailor] that fell instantly rose on the other side.
“We must break out! Raise the sails!”
Venaz was shouting, ignoring the order of silence. Lasc pointed; the sails were already dropping.
“[Ship Spell: Bound Wind]!”
For a moment, a wind blew and The Emerald Signet began to shift. But the other boats had it boxed in. And—the wind abruptly halted.
“They have weather spells! We can’t escape!”
Feshi pointed out the obvious as she fired an arrow. One of the ships burst into flame as her arrow tip exploded. But even the fire died down.
[Mages]. Lasc felt a moment of despair. His forces were holding well. But this was a battle of attrition. And he couldn’t find the [Necromancers]. He aimed at one ship. He had one [Depth Explosion] spell to use. They’d fight. And then—the [Necromancers] might run out of mana and mana potions first. If not…
“Captain! Something’s coming out of the fog!”
Inky bellowed from where she was fighting with Venaz and a group of [Storm Sailors]. The [Captain] turned his head. Another undead ship?
No. The last ship came through the waters, surprising Lasc. The [Necromancers]. Even the Drowned Folk. Fast, fast, cutting through the fog. And in more ways than one.
Light. It burned through the fog. A bright, brilliant yellow light. Like some gigantic lantern. It filtered down through the sea. Captain Therrium shaded his eyes.
“Are they mad? The light’s visible in the darkness! They’ll wake the Krakens! Who’s casting that spell?”
He roared. The [First Mate] pointed up. Her skin had gone pale.
“Not a spell, [Depth Captain]! Look! Look at the hull!”
The Drowned Man looked up and saw. A shining hull. The material that made it wasn’t normal wood. It was glossy. Semi-transparent. And it glowed.
The light burned away the fog where it touched. A magical light. For a magical ship. It shone through the darkness and night. Moving faster, faster.
Captain Lasc turned as he cut down a ghoul. He saw it coming closer. And—it couldn’t be.
But only one ship was filled with fools crazy enough to bring light to the Kraken’s Pass. And in the distance, he saw a name, written by magic on the side of the hull as it turned.
The [Storm Captain]’s eyes widened.
“It’s them. Why are they here?”
Merrik turned. He spotted the distant ship. It was—pursuing something. A second ship, running dark. The [Necromancer]’s painted ship, made to be white-grey, invisible in the fog. It was turning—but the Illuminary was three times as fast.
Merrik stared as the glowing ship came at the first. It didn’t slow. It hit the [Necromancer]’s ship with a crash of sound that split the air. The [Necromancer]’s ship cracked. The Illuminary did not. He saw a glowing figure, glowing with the same light as her ship, swinging across to the other ship.
The undead shuddered. They lost some of their cohesion. Became aimless. And they did not rise again. There were still hundreds, at least a thousand of them. But someone had slain the [Necromancers]. Merrik turned his head.
“Grandfather’s beards! Reinforcements?”
But Captain Lasc just stared. The Illuminary was turning. He shook his head and sighed, looking—well, worried.
The fog was lifting. As the last [Necromancer] died and the ship began to burn, a figure strode out of the flames. She caught a rope as it was swung out to her. Held on.
The passing ship yanked her off the deck. She swung through the air with a dozen other figures, back towards the glowing ship. The Illuminary. She landed. And she was glowing.
Glowing, like her ship. The woman was half-Drowned. Half her face was Human. The other half covered by a bandanna. But her right eye—and shoulder gleamed. Something bright burned in her body. Yellow light.
Half-Anglerfish. She grinned with sharp teeth. And a voice called out to her.
“Captain? Your orders?”
The sky was exposing itself. It was sunset; but the fog had been thick as night. The [Pirate] lifted her head.
“Onwards! Take out those undead ships! We’ve done for the [Necromancers]! Quick, before they do for that Lord Kallinad and those students!”
She pointed. And the Illuminary moved. It shot forwards, propelled by a wave underneath the ship.
Some called it the fastest ship in the world. Including the Captain herself. She didn’t wear a hat. But she had a glowing sword in hand. She pointed; the fighting had continued after the [Necromancers] had died. The undead were still undead.
“Hurry up! We’ll miss the action!”
As if the Illuminary was moving too slow for her. Her crew looked up as the ship sped towards the cluster of ships. The [Pirate Captain] turned her head. She grinned up at the clear skies.
“Ah. It’s a wonderful day. Battles at sea. The Kraken’s Pass! And treasure. What more could you ask for?”
She laughed, fearless, as her ship’s light threatened to wake the denizens of the deep. If she’d died at this moment though, she would have died laughing. And her crew laughed too. Fearless, and insane, all. Even by the standards of [Storm Sailors] and Drowned Folk.
But these were [Pirates]. The glowing [Pirate] looked around.
“Prepare a boom throw! I’m going in first!”
The [Helmsman] roared with laughter. He was a tall Gnoll. He saw the [Pirate] grab hold of a rope. Someone had attached it to a boom. He spun the wheel and the boom snapped around.
You had to watch the boom. But she always watched it. And the rope attached to the moving part of the ship snapped. The boom flung outwards. And she swung through the air.
Peki, flying through the air and hunting for the strongest foes, saw a flying shape. The [Martial Artist] turned and saw the flying [Pirate]. The half-anglerfish woman winked as she passed by. She landed, and the light flashed, brilliantly yellow. The undead whirled.
“To me! Take these rotting corpses down!”
Her glowing blade beheaded a Draug. The [Pirate] swung around, slashing through a zombie, a ghoul—she stepped back as a skeleton swung a sword at her. Then she raised her offhand. A glowing crossbow bolt caught the skeleton’s head and the detonation blew all the undead off their feet.
The [Pirate] was already rolling away. And laughing. The crossbow began to reload itself, magic doing all the work as she slapped another bolt into place. She brought her sword down and slashed through a ghost of a woman. The undead vanished. The [Pirate] whirled, and saw a Minotaur staring at her.
“Who are you?”
Venaz stared at the [Pirate]. She laughed.
“Just a friend!”
There was a thunderous crash. The Illuminary had docked—by ramming through the largest warship. It had a metal blade attached to the keel, instead of a figurehead. And it had cut through half of the now-sinking ship. Figures grabbed ropes and swung over to The Emerald Signet.
[Pirates]. Drakes, Gnolls—a pair of Lizardfolk. Even a damn Centaur leaped over the gap, not even bothering with a rope. Some Drowned Folk too. They landed and began to hack the undead apart. They were armed with glowing blades. And the ship still shone bright.
“To arms! Push the undead back! And hoist the colors! No quarter!”
The [Pirate Captain] ran past Venaz, her sword carving through everything in her way. And the Minotaur saw the foreign ship sailing two flags. He saw a skull and crossbones, a traditional flag. But the eyes burned with light.
A [Pirate]’s flag. And just below it—a second flag. The Minotaur’s eyes narrowed. He absently kicked a zombie backwards and buried his battleaxe in a lumbering amalgamation of undead—then he put it together.
“The Flag of Savere.”
Wil Kallinad saw the arrival of the [Pirates] shift the course of the battle in a moment. Not just the dramatic entrance of the [Pirate] who’d literally hurled herself across the ocean. All of the crew of the new ship were—elites. It was a smaller ship than The Emerald Signet. No galleon—a modification of a smaller ship. Strangely, it had only one sail for a vessel so large.
But it had any number of oddities. Not only did the hulls shine with whatever they were made of, the ship was armed with more than spells. There was a ballista mounted. No—six of them. The rare siege weapons snapped, blowing undead to bits. And the crew?
The crew were all armed with magical blades of some kind. They cut through the undead even faster than the [Storm Sailors]. Wil saw their [Captain] dueling one of the Revenant undead captains. The undead was fast and had even skirmished with Lasc. It had a [Fencer]’s grace. But the glowing [Pirate Captain] was just as fast. She disarmed the undead in a slash and cut it in half. She was laughing.
“Those are elites! Where did they come from?”
Feshi stared wide-eyed as the crew pushed the undead off the deck. The [Sailors] shouted, seeing only the reinforcements and not caring who they were. They charged the undead, hurling spells and even lanterns and oil onto the other ships.
The undead vessels burned, bereft of the magical support to stop the blazes. The rest of the undead were hurled into the sea. Only then did both crews stop. And Wil saw Captain Lasc’s face.
“Ah! That was refreshing! No Kraken, though. They must all be napping!”
The [Pirate Captain] was laughing as she wiped her glowing sword. She was still illuminated—part of her shoulder, her right eye—it was all glowing. Like…Wil had never seen an anglerfish, so he could only approximate it to a [Light] spell.
“Everyone alright? Are uh, all the passengers alright? Wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt.”
The [Pirate] was glancing about, looking at Venaz, Merrik, Peki—everyone was fine. Yerranola had lost an arm, but she’d gotten it back. A few cuts or bites—a ghoul had taken a chunk out of Wil’s arm.
He only felt the pain now. And a healing potion helped regrow the lost skin and muscle. Wil winced as the woman looked around. Her eyes fell on him.
She winked at another of the crew who’d come over. The Centaur. At sea. The [Sailors] stared as the Centaur stowed the pair of crossbows she’d been using to blow undead to bits.
“Who—just who are you? I mean—thank you for the save. We thought we were goners. But who…”
Mystified, Yerranola looked at the group. She didn’t seem to realize they were [Pirates]. But Captain Lasc hadn’t sheathed his blade.
“Me? I’m just a passing [Captain]. Saw the fog, thought you might be in trouble. [Necromancers], tricky business. Shame I couldn’t recruit—I mean, negotiate. But there you were.”
The woman shook hands with Yerranola, beaming. She had sharp teeth on one side of her face. Wil blinked as she studied him.
“I’m exceptionally grateful, Captain. I am Wil Kallinad, passenger of The Emerald Signet. And you are?”
The [Pirate] focused on Wil. And she grinned wickedly. But then she reached up—felt at her head.
“Where’s my hat?”
“You left it in your bag of holding.”
One of the crew members muttered. He was a Drake and he was armed with a cutlass. He also had wings. He’d flown over.
“You let me fight without my hat? What kind of crew are you?”
The woman complained. She produced a magnificent hat from the bag of holding at her side. She put it on her head. Then—promptly swept it off as she gave Wil a bow.
“Captain Rasea Zecrew. At your service!”
The name made Venaz start. The last name made Wil start.
Zecrew? It sounded like a common name. But if you were up on monarchies…
“Lord Kallinad, a few steps back if you please.”
It was Captain Lasc who laid it all to bed. He approached, flanked by Delivan and a squad of [Storm Sailors], including Inky. He was staring hard at Rasea. Warily.
“Captain Rasea. I am Storm Captain Lasc of The Emerald Signet. Do you fly your colors for my ship?”
He gestured at the flag flying above the shining ship. And Rasea turned her head. Wil, backing up, saw the [Sailors] tense. But they looked worried. Alarmed.
Peki elbowed Merrik.
“Who is she? Why does she look like an enemy?”
“Don’t know. Anyone?”
It was Venaz who replied. He and Wil knew the sea. He spoke, slowly.
“Unless I’m wrong, that would be— Captain Rasea Zecrew. [Pirate Captain] of the Illuminary. Rasea the Shining. One of the most feared [Pirates] on the seas.”
The other students inhaled. Rasea grinned broadly. And Wil murmured under his breath.
“And related to Revine Zecrew. The Siren of Savere. The…[Bandit Queen], Revine.”
“Ah. You mean, my big sister.”
Captain Rasea laughed. She looked around the deck. Fearless. Her one eye shone. Captain Lasc looked at her.
“Do you mean to take my ship, Captain Rasea?”
The woman paused. And her eyes twinkled. Like a kind of madness. The person who would sail bright lights through Kraken’s Pass. She reminded Wil a bit of the Professor.
Everyone was tensed. But then—Rasea Zecrew just smiled. She shook her head.
“Not at all! I was just passing by. I saw the fog—wanted to give a hand. We’re not all [Pirates], me and my crew. Can we give you anything? Food? Water? Patch up your sails? Actually—if you lot were wanting to go somewhere, we’d be happy to escort you.”
She grinned. Wil stared at her as her eyes flicked to his face. And slowly, every head turned to gaze at Wil out of the corner of their eyes.
In the deeps, Captain Therrium, listening, slapped his face and groaned. Captain Rasea Zecrew beamed. She was indeed one of the most dangerous [Pirates] on the sea. Famed. Dangerous, unpredictable, and deadly.
She also could not bluff to save her life.
“She’s clearly after your map of shipwrecks, Wil.”
Yerranola pointed out as the students took a desperate conference. The damage of the battle was being cleaned up. Undead parts tossed off the side. Damaged sail mended.
The decks were being swabbed again. Wil was thinking hard. Merrik leaned over and gave Yerra a sarcastic look of shock.
“No kidding? And here I thought she really was just passing by, and wanted to lend a helping hand.”
“So did I.”
Peki raised her wing. Merrik looked at her. The others were silent.
“Captain Rasea. The Illuminary. I’ve heard it’s one of the fastest ships in the world. The House of Minos has a bounty on her. She would not…be an easy foe to oust. Even if we had two ships the size of The Emerald Signet.”
Venaz was calculating the odds. Even he didn’t seem keen to cross blades with Rasea. But she was still here. Blithely insisting she wanted to help.
Lasc, Delivan, and all the other members of the crew were watching her like a giant snake in their midst. And Wil—had no idea what to do. Rasea wanted to escort them to their next destination.
“‘Twould be ungentlemanly of us not to. It’s the [Pirate]’s Code—we have to help those we do a good turn to get to their destination. Or some such.”
“We have a code?”
Rasea kicked the Centaur. She was insistent. And Captain Lasc was unable to press her off the boat.
“We appreciate the assistance, truly, Captain Rasea. But my crew and I have the matter well in hand—”
“We can’t help in any other way? Actually—we’d be glad to escort your passengers anywhere you want. Not to say this isn’t a fine ship. But the Illuminary is the fastest ship in the world.”
The woman grinned crookedly. Lasc stiffened.
“As…helpful as that would be, I’ve made a pledge to escort my passengers wherever they wish to go.”
“What if we—insisted?”
The woman laughed at the way the [Storm Sailors] tensed. She waved a hand.
“Just a joke! Just a joke!”
“Captain Rasea. We are truly grateful. But perhaps we should leave discussions of this sort until after we’ve left the Kraken’s Pass?”
Wil broke in, having come to a quick decision. The [Pirate Captain] glanced at him. Then she grinned.
“Just as you like. All aboard, mates! Let’s see where The Emerald Signet goes, eh?”
She winked at Wil. And he wondered how in the world he was going to deal with this. But he had an idea. It was a stupid one. But it just might…fail.
The [Pirate]’s Promise, and a Moment of Awe.
Two ships sailed out of the waters around the Kraken’s Pass. Well—four. Therrium was cursing blue streak. He knew Rasea. And her ship spelled trouble.
Wil knew it too. So did Captain Lasc.
“I have no idea why she hasn’t kidnapped you, sir. But [Pirates] are an odd sort.”
“[Pirates]? She’s a Drowned Woman, though, Lasc.”
Wil frowned. The [Captain] hesitated. He was sitting in conference with the students in his cabin.
“Technically—no. I know Captain Rasea’s legend. Most do. She was a [Pirate]. She joined the Undersea Crews—that’s the name for the drowned Folk who turn to their brand of piracy. Even took the Sea’s Bargain. Half-angler, that’s her. And her ships glows like she does. But she left the Undersea Crews. She’s a [Pirate].”
“Which means she preys on everyone, including Drowned Vessels. How good is she in a fight?”
Yerranola looked around. First Mate Delivan inhaled.
“You mean—can we repel her crew? No. There’re less of them, but each one’s as good as a [Storm Sailor]. Better.”
“Then we have to be clever. Outwit her. We can’t—fight her. Those are Minotaurian ballistae. She’s seized them from House of Minos ships she’s sunk. We must trick her. I vote that we send her to the giant crab. That’s treasure. She can battle it out with them.”
Venaz punched his palm with a fist. Wil shook his head.
“I don’t think that will work, Venaz. We can try, but…Captain Lasc, did you say [Pirates] have an odd sort? An odd sort of what? Honor?”
“Aye, Lord Kallinad. Odd as it is, they do their own thing. Some kill every person they raid—like the damned Bloodtear Pirates. Savage armada, that lot. Others have rules. The Illuminary kills only those who fight back. So they’re more traditional. They’re all completely mad.”
“They’re also tied to Savere. A [Pirate] nation.”
Wil thought aloud. He had…an idea. It mainly hinged on how crazy Rasea was. And given that she had been disappointed there was no Kraken attack, he guessed the answer was ‘very’.
“Ah, Lord Kallinad! And Captain Lasc! Can I help you? Say the word! We could conjure you a stiff breeze if you want to move faster!”
The Illuminary was easily keeping pace with The Emerald Signet. Wil looked at Rasea, lounging on the railing.
“Actually, Captain Rasea, we were hoping we could—parlay.”
The woman looked blank.
“What does that mean? Oh, negotiate your surr—I mean, talk? Why not?”
“Well—we were hoping to make this a solo venture, Captain Rasea. We’re greatly indebted to you, but I’m on a sort of private mission. My teacher, the Titan of Baleros, has given me some…leads. It’s a secret, so I cannot share all of it. But—you haven’t heard anything about it, have you?”
The half-angler woman hesitated.
“What? Me? No, we were just in the area, right, lads?”
“That’s right. We didn’t hear a Minotaur and Selphid bragging about—wait. Nothing!”
The rest of Rasea’s crew lied about as well as their [Captain]. Wil’s head slowly turned to Venaz and Yerranola. The two [Strategists] instantly looked away. Merrik edged over slowly and whispered at them.
“Venaz? I’m going to break your legs in your sleep.”
“You can do mine. Oh, dead gods. You think they heard when we were drinking, Venaz—?”
Yerra was blushing orange through her dead skin. Wil wanted to throw himself overboard. Or his friends. He put his head down, and then raised it and smiled artificially at Rasea. She still thought he hadn’t caught on. Or she didn’t care how transparent she was being. She was still glowing.
“Well, Captain Rasea, I’d prefer to do the rest of my…exploration in peace. I appreciate the assistance, truly. However, we’re very grateful. As thanks—what if we put you on the lead of some treasure?”
Rasea’s eyes lit up. Literally; her right eye glowed brighter and her crew grinned.
“Treasure? Well, we’d never say no to that. What did you have in mind?”
“We found a…shipwreck. The very same ship charted by Archmage Zelkyr in the past. It’s guarded by a rather large crab and it’s quite—dangerous. There’s an active war golem inside. But I’m sure that there’s a bounty of treasure. If you wanted—as a reward for saving our lives—we could give you the locations.”
Wil carefully spoke. Rasea was just smiling at him.
“Well, that would be…wonderful indeed, Lord Kallinad. A crab, you said? And an Archmage’s treasure. That’d surely be an amazing haul. However—we couldn’t take that from you.”
She didn’t blink once. Wil’s heart sank.
“You…wouldn’t want to test yourselves against such a foe, Captain Rasea?”
“Well—it seems like a foe like that’d be very—dangerous. Especially war golems. With their fucking beams. I mean—whatever they do.”
Wil glanced over the side. He stared down the length of the Illuminary. And he noticed part of the hull looked…patched. He glanced back up at Rasea. She winked at him.
“Might not be the easiest catch, Lord Kallinad. You have any more…spots? We’d settle for—one.”
The [Lord]’s heart sank. He looked at Rasea. She might be a poor liar, but she could spell out her demands. And she had a simple trade. He hesitated.
Two spots left. He looked at Rasea. If it came to it or having to fight her—he’d make the trade. But he had one last attempt.
It was stupid. It was not going to work. But here be [Pirates]. So the [Lord] straightened. He stood at the railing, and gazed at the Illuminary’s crew.
Madmen. But not monsters, like some [Pirates]. He had seen Rasea laughing as she fought.
Adventure-seekers. So perhaps—
“Are you a romantic, Captain Rasea?”
The woman looked taken aback at the question. She blinked a few times.
“Well, I’ve teared up at a few stories. And I took to sea rather than maraud about on land. So you could say that. After all—I’m a [Pirate]. What’s more romantic than the sky and open sea, eh? Especially danger. Monsters. Treasure.”
She spread her arms. And her crew cheered. Wil nodded. He pitched his voice, looking her and her crew in the eye.
“Well, Captain. It occurs to me—that you could well speed me on my voyage. Were I and my friends to join you. But where would be the adventure in that?”
The [Pirate Captain] paused. She looked thoughtful.
“How do you mean?”
“This is our first adventure.”
Wil indicated his friends. They stood behind him. Venaz, Feshi, Yerranola, Merrik, and Peki. The [Lord] spoke on.
“We’re students of the Titan of Baleros. But this—this is the first adventure we’ve had. At sea. With a…map. Given to us by the Titan himself. Our first voyage, really.”
“Ah. Now that is a glorious moment. And has it been all you’ve dreamed of?”
The woman’s eyes lit up. Wil smiled, crookedly as she did with her sharp teeth on one side.
“Less. And more. Far less, sometimes. It was boring. But then—we saw something incredible. And it might be only the start. We sail to the House of Minos, to Izril. It might be the beginning of a story.”
The Illuminary were nodding. And Rasea’s eyes were shining. She envied him. The first experience. And Wil Kallinad looked at her.
“I’d like this adventure to be mine, Captain Rasea. I know it’s impertinent. But—could you see your way to leaving this adventure to me?”
She blinked at him. The crew stirred. Lasc looked at Wil as if he were insane.
“You want me to turn my ship and leave you to your adventure?”
“Well, otherwise it wouldn’t be much of one. Not with Captain Rasea the Shining, would it? And I’d like it to be something…memorable.”
The young man held his breath. There was no way this was going to work. But Captain Rasea struck him as the only person it might work on. She was staring at him.
“A first voyage. Aye, I remember mine. I sailed through a storm in a tiny schooner. I found no treasure. But I dared the seas. And I…”
Her eyes grew misty. She stared past Wil. He spoke, carefully.
“We’d consider it a boon. Just this once.”
The Centaur had folded his arms. He was glaring. But Captain Rasea was actually wiping at a tear.
“Shut up. I’m thinking. Adventure. My crew. Not one of you joined me to die of old age. Or even for the riches of it, did you?”
She looked at the [Pirates] on the Illuminary. They shook their heads, laughing. Some rolled their eyes. But they were looking at her. Captain Rasea Zecrew grinned.
“Nor I. In fact—we dare the seas to take on the greatest challenges! We don’t know what caution is! Do we prey on easy targets?”
“Only if we’re out of drink!”
The Gnoll [Helmsman] called out! Rasea laughed.
“Exactly! I don’t want to die safe, like my sister! I want to see the world! See the greatest terrors and glories the world has for me to witness! If I live to a ripe old age, I won’t die in anyone’s bed, especially my own! Before the end…I’ll take the best of crews and a ship worthy of a legend and set sail for the final sea.”
She pointed towards the horizon. Everyone stared past her. Towards the sun. And past it—so far you couldn’t see.
“The end of the world. The Last Tide. If we live to that age, crew. I promise you, we’ll sail over the edge.”
Captain Rasea spoke to her crew, her eyes shining. Captain Lasc murmured.
The woman’s gaze swung around. She locked eyes with the [Storm Captain].
“Madness? Aye! Perhaps! But what man or woman who dares the seas isn’t but touched? And there’s something there. Past the end of the world.”
She pointed again, urgently.
“There are stars beyond the world’s end. I’ve seen it myself. Surely they shine down on something. But the Last Tide swallows all ships. Even fleets. Brave [Captains] and crews have dared it. None have returned. So they must not have been high-level enough. Although stories say…”
She paused. And looked at Wil.
“Someday. Aye. One last adventure. But for now? I respect your game, Lord Kallinad. And you’ve a tongue like silver. I see what you want. And I raise you this.”
She swept the hat from her head again. Wil tensed. But Rasea pointed up. Towards the second flag, flying below the pirate’s flag.
“You have your adventure! By the flag of Savere, I swear you will not be troubled by us on your journey! But should you ask—we’ll come calling for a share of the loot!”
Her crew laughed and cheered. And groaned and swore at their brash [Captain]. Wil stared. He saw Rasea laughing. And she plucked a bottle from her bag of holding.
“I swear by home. So drink with me and let’s seal the bargain.”
She smiled. Shining. Perhaps it was a [Pirate]’s mercy. But the students stared at Wil, awed. He looked at Rasea. A madwoman. But you couldn’t help but like her kind of insanity.
She burned with adventure.
“Can I join her crew?”
Yerranola murmured. Rasea heard as a plank was lowered. She strode across it and winked at the Selphid.
“Apply after you graduate! We could always use a good [Strategist].”
The Selphid’s mouth dropped. And Wil saw Rasea pouring a glass for him. She held it out and they touched the glasses. Rasea drank the strong liquid down. And he did the same. He coughed and she laughed and slapped him on the back.
“Well, damn. We’ll just have to find something else. Maybe raid a Wistram ship. If only the King of Destruction were closer—I’d love to see him face to face, just once. Now there’s a man who’s a legend, for all my sister hates his guts!”
She sighed. And her crew began to throw out options. The [Pirates] were laughing, merrily. Unconcerned.
Underwave, Captain Therrium scowled.
He had no intention of allowing a happy adventure. But Rasea was mad. Even the Undersea Crews thought so.
But then—it happened. As the Illuminary began to turn, as Therrium waited for Wil to hopefully find a treasure. As Wil Kallinad wondered at his luck—someone pointed.
“Captain? I see a reef.”
All heads turned. Captain Lasc strode to the prow of the ship. So did Rasea. Suddenly—they went quiet.
“Could just be a detached one.”
Rasea called out to Lasc. The [Storm Captain] was staring down into the deeps.
They were in shallower waters. ‘Shallower’ meaning the sea was probably less than a thousand feet deep. But now—Wil saw something moving.
It looked…like a coral reef. He saw the waters, usually dark or obscured, light up. There was light from the reef, illuminated by the remnants of the sun. And light from the naturally luminescent plants as well.
And shoals of fish. They clustered around the reef, taking nourishment and protection from the plants. It was a magnificent sight—like the reefs around Pheislant, thousands of years old and alive.
But this one was moving. And suddenly—every [Sailor] was staring. All the [Pirates]. Even the Drowned Folk. They stared in the distance.
“I think it is. Dead gods. Crew! To attention!”
Rasea looked at Lasc. He nodded. Suddenly, they were of one mind. Every [Sailor] moved to the ships as they turned, to present broadsides. Staring.
“What? What’s so special about that reef?”
“Shh! Be respectful!”
Inky stood with the [Storm Sailors] she was staring down at the moving reef. It was…strange. The reef seemed to be moving—not just floating. Parts of it were…definitely…moving.
“I think we’re witnessing a grand sight. One that proves I was right. Ah. Adventure.”
Rasea’s eyes shone. Captain Lasc saluted.
“[Storm Sailors]! Salute!”
They copied his gesture. Some [Sailors] were even lowering their heads or kneeling. As above, so below. The Drowned Folk silently took a knee.
But why? The students were left out of the loop. Yerranola murmured. The waters were lighting up with the passing reef. It was vast. Nearly…two hundred feet high? Very vertical, too.
“It’s just a moving bit of coral. What’s so great about—”
Lasc’s head slowly turned. And the even-keeled [Storm Captain]’s eyes narrowed with actual anger.
“The next man, woman, or creature on this boat who utters a word of irreverence, I will sink by anchor to the depths of the sea. I swear on my honor as [Captain].”
He said it in a flat tone of voice. Yerranola’s mouth snapped shut. No one uttered a word.
Closer, the reef moved. Wil studied it, trying to figure out what had the seafolk so awed. There was something…strange about the reef.
“Inky. What are we looking at?”
Venaz spoke quietly. It was the [Storm Sailor] who replied.
“A Guardian of the Sea. Far greater than dolphins or Nelgaunts or any other force. They ruled your lands, once. But they were defeated. They’re terrible wrathful. But—”
She gulped. Overcome by some emotion. Delivan took over for her, his voice quiet.
“They left the land, nature’s guardians. Banished by civilization.”
The students looked at each other. Merrik’s eye went wide. Slowly, he took off his helmet. Wil still didn’t understand. The pieces were there. He stared. And began to make out something.
The coral was moving. It was…walking. Two legs were carrying it across the sea’s floor. The [Lord] stared. The coral was all…part of the thing. And the fish, the dolphins and other creatures that lived around the mighty protector…
Guardians of nature. A walking bed of coral. Ancient beings.
And then he had it. Wil murmured.
“That’s not coral. That’s…a tree.”
The others looked at him. And then they saw it. Fossilized wood. Nature, turned to coral. A banished protector of the land. Banished by civilization. Merrik stared wordlessly, and Peki bowed.
A walking tree.
“A Treant. When the landfolk burned too much and cut down too many of their kin, they left the shores. But still, they walk the oceans deep. So few left.”
The [Sailors] saluted, the [Pirates] and Drowned Folk stared. The old world walked. And it turned its head, staring up at the small ships above. The Treant walked on. Guardian, tending to life. In any form.
How long Wil stood there he couldn’t have known. But the moment left an impact on him. A sight rare even for those at sea. And for the first time—he thought it might be okay. Even if he had no treasure.
Because—this was an adventure.
The 8th Location
So it was that The Emerald Signet parted ways with the somewhat honorable [Pirates]. A legend in her own right.
They left behind a memory of a seeing a legend of nature. A Goblin ship. A battle with the undead at sea.
Wil even thought he was close to leveling. But mostly—he was happy now. Content. He lounged around the boat as Inky and some of the [Divers] went exploring.
“This might be the shipwreck spot, Lord Kallinad. But the location was somewhat unclear. We’ll look around. After that, I might trouble you for another game of your damn chess. We’ll break out the hooks too. Even days after they pass, there’s good fishing in a Treant’s wake.”
Captain Lasc was speaking cheerfully as he stood at the prow of the ship. Wil was nodding and smacking his lips, thinking of fresh fish. The other students were laughing as Merrik read an ode to Feshi and she rolled her eyes. He was still trying.
It was an inauspicious moment. But even so—the diver’s bell came up as someone ran the rope connected to the bell. Wil and Lasc turned.
“Any news, Inky?”
Wil saw the [Storm Sailor] stumble out of the sealed diving bell. The part-Octopus woman stared around. And then she looked at Wil.
“Mister Wil? We found something. We’re bringing it up.”
It was so sudden. So—casual. Inky pointed. Her eyes were wide.
“It wasn’t touched. And it were right there. Out in the open. Amid the bones. It’s…a chest.”
The [Storm Captain] stared. Wil’s friends turned. Yerranola laughed, disbelieving.
“What? Did she just say…? No way.”
They stared as shouting broke out from the side. And then—ropes were being lowered. Something rose over the side of the ship, covered in seaweed. Water spilled around it as it was lowered.
A gigantic, magnificent chest. Inscribed with some sigils covered in muck. Wil stared. Inky pointed.
“It was just…there.”
The students stared. Venaz stood up as Lasc strode over.
“Dead gods. No way.”
“Wil? That’s not real, is it? Someone’s playing a prank. Right? Right?”
Yerranola looked around. But Wil was frozen solid. And Venaz was chuckling too. He strode over, glancing at Inky.
“Very funny. It looks real. But this is just a prank. Right? On ‘Sea Cow’. Well done. It looks real. What did you do, smear a chest with muck and seaweed?”
“No. It’s real. I swear.”
“It can’t be. It’s not—”
The Minotaur reached for the lid. Only then did Wil come alive. Niers’ warning flashed into his brain.
“Venaz! Don’t! It’s cursed—”
Too late. The Minotaur had reached for the handle set into the lid. And he yanked as he turned to Wil, about to laugh. And then—
The lid exploded. Those on board covered their faces as sand exploded from the lid. Fountaining upwards, more sand than the box should have contained. Wil saw Venaz stumbling back.
A vast cloud of sand filled the sky. The mortal [Sailors] and students looked up. Captain Therrium stared up through the water. And the clouds began to coalesce.
Far away, a [King] sat up on his throne. And his eyes burned. He felt the power. He saw.
In the sky, a figure formed. Out of the sand, in the air he stood. Wil saw an undead face. Burning eyes. The [King] moved. And Wil was afraid.
But this was no mindless undead. No force in this world controlled him. The monarch, the ruler of Khelt spoke as he gazed down on the ship. His eyes alighted on Wil, identifying the [Lord].
“Ah. Someone has finally uncovered the resting place of my treasure. Interlopers. This is not yours. But you have recovered a relic of my kingdom. And the generosity of Khelt is unrivalled. Return to me my treasure and I will allow you a half of it for your mortality.”
He pointed down. And Wil, gaping up at Fetohep of Khelt, looked down. And there—in the ancient casket lay a collection of six swords. They shone like the sky, after thousands of years.
Fetohep of Khelt met Wil’s eyes.
“The Diamond Swords of Serept. Until your deaths I will grant you half. If you take my bargain. Refuse, and the curse of Khelt shall engulf you until nothing is left. Choose your fate.”
He waited. And the [Lord] of Kallinad…hesitated. He looked at the swords. He looked upwards, at the figure made of sand.
“The Diamond Swords of Serept?”
“Yes. Forged by Serept himself.”
“They’re really here? We found them?”
The huge apparition inclined his head.
“After my predecessor’s fleets did not, and they searched for hundreds of years. As I have said, my gratitude is vast. But they are mine. Choose, boy.”
He pointed at Wil and waited. The [Lord] paused. He glanced around.
“So—this isn’t a prank?”
Fetohep stared at Wil. He sighed.
Author’s Notes: We are close to the longest chapter written. But here we be. Interlude – Strategists at Sea!
…Part 1. I got everything I wanted into the story. And did you enjoy it? Well, I’m dead. But I got what I wanted done and the thrilling (and hopefully a bit shorter) conclusion starts tomorrow!
Not much else to say. I’m off my break and this is what happens. Boredom, action, failed romance, sea cows, undead, and treasure. That’s an adventure.
The art for today is by…er…Microwaved Mrsha Plushie. I didn’t come up with the name, but they did a fantastic image of Reiss, our favorite [Necromancer]. Is that right? Well, I love the image. Thanks for reading!
…I write a lot. I also like [Pirates]. You may not have known that.