Thrice The Brinded Cat

The Eye of the Needle
Godsday, the 18th of Coldeven in the CY 594

The Captain set sail before sunrise. Once asea, the gruff Arganat called his crew, along with Derg and his trio of bodyguards to a meeting above decks. Kate could tell the captain was extra agitated and she wondered what new hell they were in for today.

Sybarate Isle was still visible as a black smudge across the starboard bow against the backdrop of just a slightly less-dark sky. The wind was even and blowing up from the south, making this a fast windward reach. It was the first time Kate had sailed downwind in the Dragonsprit and she was instantly amazed at how quiet and still the ride was. The ship sailed with the wind, leaving those on board to experience just the slightest of warm, moist breezes upon the backs. The Dragonsprit sliced along the coastal swells with an easy rocking chair motion and only the sound of the water parting the hull could be heard. To Kate it was a gentle and soothing “sushing” sound; it was a magical moment and she suppressed the urge to shout out with the joy of the moment.

“Well…today we face the needle once more,” Captain Arganat’s gruff voice brought Kate out of her reverie and back to the reality of the job she and her two friends had before them. With his good eye, the captain looked at each of the crew and passengers before him as if he were trying to see something beyond their very skin. “Are ye up to the task?”

The crew grumbled and nodded their assent. Kate had no idea what “The Needle” was so she just nodded along with the rest.

“As before, we’ll be sailing straight on till morning and should hit Seaton sometime after the morrow’s first light. No sleeping on the job, now!” he raised his voice as he stared down Zokar. “All eyes are to be alert,” he continued, now staring at Dogboy. “And all hands on deck,” now pointing at Bilge and Tonsil.

He then turned his eye to Lady Min, “And if you have to commune with nature, for the love of Xerbo, do it off the aft deck and make sure you hit the water or you’ll be cleanin’ barnacles off the keel when we make port.” Kate never thought she’d see the tough Lady Min blush, but that last bit from the captain brought a hint of color to her cheeks.

The First Mate was at the helm when Arganat turned to him, “Tully – keep your crew quiet. Especially when we make the Eye. Dogboy, when I give the signal, you raise the Lion Throne and you do it fast, you hear me! Bilge – you’ll be feeding the crew on deck today and you’ll only use the water dippers – I don’t want no one drinkin’ the good stuff till we hit port. There be time enough for a good drunk in Seaton.”

Kate wasn’t sure what ‘raising the Lion Throne’ was or how water dippers were to be worked into the day, but she wasn’t too worried.

The morning passed with the wind blowing hard west so the captain ordered Tully to take her further out to sea to take advantage of it. Before noon a thick fog set in and the temperatures dropped to a blessed comfortable level. As Tonsil passed hard tack and oranges out to the crew, Kate spied Bilge busily dipping deep iron ladles into one of the ship’s water casks and bringing a full one to each of them, keeping their thirst at bay, and, Kate realized, less likely for the crew to be tempted to slake their thirst on grog. Whatever was going on today, the captain meant for the crew to be in tip-top shape.

The Dragonsprit left Sybarate Isle behind and crossed into Fairwind Strait. The wind shifted again, now blowing hard from the southeast. Lady Min pointed out hulking Fairwind Island to Kate. It was just visible through the fog. Min explained that the straight was just nine miles across and the captain planned to make for it with great haste.

By noon the ship was sailing on the leeward side of Fairwind Isle. Kate saw that the land of this desolate island was quiet. Tully brought the ship within a hundred yards of the coastline and Kate could see the earth was pockmarked with huge swaths of scorch marks, as if the island had been besieged by lightning or falling stars.

Kate noticed the crew became very quiet as they sailed past the barren shore and their eyes darted this was and that, as if half-expecting ghosts to appear out of mid-air. After some time she heard Dogboy let out a low whistle from high up in his perch in the crow’s nest. Min and Zokar dropped from the rigging, creeping to the starboard rails and carefully leaned out, scanning the glassy water. Kate crept over and joined them, curious as to what the fuss was about.

Min pointed out beyond the bow and Kate looked out past her outstretched finger. She squinted to see better the object floating in the water ahead.

“Debris?” Kate asked in a soft, whispery voice.

Min nodded. “Jetsam, I suppose,” she said.

“Flotsam, more likely,” grumbled the hulking Zokar.

As the Dragonsprit sailed past, Kate realized the floating object was a rather large chunk of broken timber, planed and tarred as if it once belonged to the hull of a ship. She also realized that the plank wasn’t the only thing in the water. Suddenly hundreds, if not thousands, of objects appeared out of the fog bank, bobbing on the water’s surface. There were lots of pieces of tarred lumber, and there were bits of charred canvas, like sails, and wooden barrels and bottles and crates and all manner of things. The Dragonsprit continued on its course, sailing right through the sea of refuse.

“Flotsam? Jetsam? What does that mean?” Kate asked.

“Well,” started Min, “jetsam is stuff people throw overboard to, say, lighten a load or just to get rid of.”

“And flotsam,” continued Zokar,”is stuff you didn’t mean to throw overboard. Like when . . .”

Zokarr choked off the last words as a bloated, bleach-white corpse floated past.

“ . . . a ship crashes,” he finally finished.

Kate caught her own breath as she saw dozens upon dozens of floating bodies. They were a mix of dark skinned people, who looked a lot like Rhemi, and dark-skinned red haired people who looked a lot like the native Suel tribesmen from around Sasserine, and those of light skinned blond warriors and even others bodies that didn’t look human at all. Kate didn’t need to be a sailor to realize there was far too much debris in the water to all be from a single vessel. She figured this was the remains of many, many, many ships. The sight was more than she could stand and finally she looked away.

As evening approached, Tully pointed out the northern tip of Fairwind Isle. “Just beyond that, directly north is Jetsam Isle,” he said. He then pointed out to his left, “And far to port is Floatsom Isle. Right in between the two you will find Monmurg Head. At least, I think we’ll find it there.”

“Where would it go?” Kate shouted back to the First Mate. Tully waved her up to the aft deck. “No need to shout, lass. I, First Mate Tully, cordially invite you to join approach the wheel.” Kate had never been upon the aft decking as it was off-limits to all but Arganat and the First Mate. She felt a little trepidation as she climbed the ladder and joined Tully at the ship’s wheel.

Tully stared out at the horizon for a long moment. “Do you see that orange light out there,” he asked Kate. Kate stared out past the bowsprit at the darkening horizon until she could just make out a faint orange glow, like the last vespers of the setting sun.

“That’s Monmurg. Once the greatest city on the bay. It was the Capital of the Hold, or what once we called the Hold.”

“The Hold? What’s that?”

Tully raised an eyebrow at Kate and shook his head. “I see you don’t get out much, do you?”

Kate grinned and shrugged her shoulders.

“The Hold of the Sea Princes. Once a great nation of the most successful, glorious, beautiful, bloodthirsty, no-good, rotten scoundrels you ever could meet. They liked to be called things like “diplomats”, “ambassadors”, “governors”, “princes” and “kings”, but they was all just pirates, scalawags and buccaneers.”

“What happened to them?”

Tully looked wistful and stared off into the evening sky before answering. “Well, little lass, Tully’s really not too sure what happened to them. One day they was doing their pirate thing and the next they was gone.”

Kate gave a start. “Gone? How can that be? They all just disappeared in one day?”

“That’s how the people around here claim it happened. The Night of Death is what they call it. That’s been several years ago, now. Left the place in total chaos. Then the Shar showed up out of nowhere. They just kind of moved in. At first we all thought they was our saviors, come to rescue us from whatever evil took away our leaders. But it didn’t take long for us to realize things might o’ been better off with the Sea Princes. Evil lot, them Shar.”

“And, the Shar,” Kate asked softly, “that man on the docks back at Sybar. He was one of them?”

Tully looked grim. “Yes, lass. Brother Renn is Shar, as well as your Uncle Alresian, back in Sasserine.”

Kate looked confused. “Who? I don’t believe I know that person.”

Tully shook his head and mumbled something that sounded like “too young and too blind.” Tully scratched his balding head and grimaced.

Kate then suddenly looked surprised, “Wait! You mean the nice man on the docks? The man who is always smiling? The one from that new place? What was it called, the Scarlet Embassy?

“That’s the one, lass. The very one.”

“And those men who boarded the boat the other day?”

Tully just nodded.

“But those were Amedians with them,” Kate protested, “people of the jungle tribes! And there were a bunch of them with Brother Renn, too! I’ve never heard anyone call them Shar before.”

Tully sighed. “Those tribesmen are not Shar, and never truly will be.”

Kate looked confused. “But, why . . .?”

“The Shar are a proud, fierce and cruel people, girl,” Tully’s eyes darted left and right as he spoke as if afraid someone were secretly listening in on their conversation. “They like to keep their bloodlines pure and only the purest of their kin are Shar. Everyone else, especially the . . .” Tully suddenly caught himself and looked ashamed as he continued, “ . . . you know, halfbreeds,” he said with obvious pain in his voice, “they look upon them as the least of mortal-kind.”

Kate was all too familiar with the term “halfbreed”, and even though she felt Tully meant no harm in what he said, she still felt the sting. It surprised her how much that word hurt.

After a while she asked, “So, are the tribes-people half-breeds?”

“No, lass. Not all of them,” Tully said. “Take Rhemy, for instance. He can trace his tribe’s ancestry back a thousand years to a time when they first arrived in the Amedio. Olman is what they call themselves and their ancestors crossed the Azure long ago to arrive here. It was much later when the Suel came to the jungle, driven here by some long-forgotten war or, some say, a monster. Those that ‘mixed’ with the Olman are often lighter in skin and red of hair and freckled of face. Sometimes they even sire a white-demon, or so I’m told. But that being a rare event. Those Olman without Suel blood stay dark and pure in their own way.”

“I think I understand,” said Kate. “So, the Shar are pureblood Suel, then. And the tribesmen we have seen with the Shar have all had red hair – halfbreeds?” The word was foul upon her tongue.

“Aye, that’s the truth of it.”

“But, I still don’t know why the Amedians would travel with the Shar, or why the Shar would travel with the Amedians, if they hate each other so.”

“I suppose men will do strange things for a little profit.”

“Like pirates?” Kate asked, smiling up at the big man.

Tully harrumphed, “I prefer buccaneer, lassie. But, aye, something like that.”

“The Shar need fighters. Warriors. Eager souls on the front-lines of their battles. The front-lines are a dangerous place to be in a battle and if you are the Shar, you figure you might as well fill the front-lines with people who will fight fiercely and die on the spears of your enemy. What better place for people you despise than on the front-lines and dying for you.”

“Hmmm, but why do the Amedians do it? Why would they fight for people that despise them?”

“Well, that’s the catch, isn’t it?” Tully said. “If you dangle enough gold before a man’s nose it blinds him to simple truths like that. The Shar make grand promises to the Amedians. Lands, gold, power, slaves. They promise it all. Cousins is what they call them, and they promise some day they will find a rightful place within the Shar’s empire.”

“Let me guess,” said Kate, “that’s something the Shar will never give them.”

“Aye, it’s a dangerous job to work for the Shar and the Shar make damn sure none of their “cousins” live long enough to collect their rewards.”

Kate looked up to the top of the main mast. She could hear the red flag flapping in the night wind above them but in the darkness it looked grey and black to her. “And that flag. Is it a Shar flag?”

Tully nodded.

“So, are you and the captain Shar?” Kate asked in confusion.

Tully let out a bellowing laugh that brought the first mate to tears.

“Oh by the mermaid’s whiskers no, girl!”

Kate blushed at that and quickly asked her next question.

“So, what is happening in the capitol city up there? Is that fire? Is it burning?”

“Monmurg is always burning these day. Best not get involved with that, lass.”

“Who is burning it? The Shar?”

Tully looked pained as he spoke. “Years ago that grand city was the capitol of the Hold. No grander place of thievery and debauchery has ever there been, and, mayhaps, no finer a den of cutthroats and cutpurses will there ever be again.”

Kate thought Tully looked truly saddened by this, even though to her it seemed like burning down a place like that would be a vast improvement.

“Not only were the Sea Princes the best damn pirates on the seas, they were also very successful slavers. Before the Night of Death, folks on the seas figured there were eight slaves to every Holder.”

“That seems like an awful lot of slaves. Where did they come from?”

Tully laughed. “Well, all over, I suppose. But mostly from the Amedio.”

Kate furrowed her brow. “Tribesmen? From the jungle? You mean Amedian people?”

“Yes. Mostly Olman, but the Holders weren’t particular. They took everybody they could get their hands on.”

Tully looked out at the deepening orange glow on the horizon. “Nine years ago the Night of Death changed everything. The Princes disappeared in a single night and that very next day hundreds of ships flying red sails flooded the coastline and dumped hundreds of thousands of armed Amedians onto the shore to loot and pillage and kill any Holder that walked.”

“So, the Shar took over?” asked Kate.

Tully took in a deep breath. “Not quite,” he said. With the Princes gone and the Holders either dead or on the run, that left a whole lot of very angry former slaves mucking about.”

“Oh! So, they were reunited with their people when the Shar dropped their Amedian armies off on the shore. It must have been a very happy reunion!” Kate said, smiling.

Tully took another deep breath, “Once again, not quite,” he said. “Remember I told you the Shar had promised their “cousins” great wealth and power and lands. The Amedians of the Shar pillaged the land and killed anyone who got in their way, including their brothers and sisters who had so joyfully just been freed from their shackles. It was a bloodbath beyond description. And,” he said nodding toward the orange glow on the horizon, “the city still burns after all these years.”

Kate felt sick. So much blood and death and greed. She looked out north again and saw a hellish haze of orange light, silently flashing with orange blooms from the northeastern side of Jetsam Isle. Flotsam, remained dark, like an inkspot on an otherwise dark canvas. She remembered the flotsam and the bloated bodies from earlier in the day. What she at first felt were a series of strange and unrelated events since her first day on the Dragonsprit all began to connect like some horrible, gory puzzle in her head. Her thoughts consumed her as the darkness of night settled in and she drifted into silence, standing stock still upon the gently listing deck and letting the warm breeze envelope her like a blanket. She smelled smoke. Old and gritty smoke from far away. Monmurg is burning. The ferry is no more. The Princes are gone in the night, their isles blasted by the heavens.

Kate lost track of time standing there next to Tully, listening to the wind and the waves. Sometime later she became aware of a several lanterns bobbing up from below decks and voices accompanying them.

“Kate, you missed dinner,” Derg said as he climbed up the aft ladder to stand next to her. Gorbi, silently climbed up and joined them both. “Tonsil put together a delicious fish stew. Better hurry up and get some before Zokar eats it all.”

Tully stared daggers at Derg.

“I’m fine,” said Kate. “Not very hungry right now.”

Tully looked perturbed. “You are all invited to the wheel. I suppose,” he said quietly.

“Suit yourself. I’ve finally got my sea-legs and am going to take advantage of the fact my dinner stays in my stomach and not over the rails.”

More voice came from below and two more lanterns appeared. Galdar came into view, alongside Captain Arganat and Kate wondered her friend could possibly be doing hanging out with the captain, as if they were old chums who just shared a pint of ale.

“Master Moenthal,” the captain shouted up to them, “might I have a word with your bodyguards?”

“My bodyguards? What on Oerth would you possibly want with them? Don’t you have your own bodyguards, Captain?”

“Never needed guarding,” Arganat said, as he began to slide the wicked cutlass on his hip from its sheath. “Now, must I remind you we are planning to thread the Eye of the Needle tonight. Never been through there without at least a little spot of trouble. Just want to make sure your men know what the score is before we get into the thick of things.”

Derg shrugged, “As you wish, Captain. Just don’t take too long. I’m going to stay up here and enjoy the evening air. These three are getting paid good money to do their job and if they aren’t doing their job then I may have to dock their pay.”

Captain Arganat turned on his heel and, lantern in hand, stalked back to the captain’s quarters. Galdar motioned with a twitch of his head for Kate and Gorbi to follow.

The captain’s quarters was below deck through a hatch and down a long, dark hallway near the stern. Once inside Arganat lit several small candles and then shuttered the portholes. The cabin was small, but richly appointed. A bunk was built into the far wall and the bed was made crisply with woolen blankets. A large desk occupied another wall, and while it was covered in leather-bound books, scrolls and parchment and ink pots, Kate could see there was an order about the clutter. She also spied several brass instruments on the desk, a sextant and a spyglass were two that she recognized. The center of the room was dominated by a high wooden table. Dozens of rolled up tubes of long parchment were secured in several racks under the table. Arganat pulled up a bench and motioned for Gorbi to stand on it so he could see above the tabletop. Then the four of them gathered around in a conspiratorial manner.

“I won’t lie to you lads, uh, and lass. You signed up for a dangerous journey.” When he talked, Kate could smell the scent of rum heavy about his breath. “Last time through here we lost all me passengers and only me crew were spared. I got an itchin’ that tonight is going to see trouble o’ the likes o’ before, and I aim to put a stop to it before it begins.”

The captain reached under the table and removed one of the paper tubes from a rack. He untied a bit of cord around the middle and then spread out a map of Jeklea Bay. Kate heard Galdar gasp. In all the years she and Galdar had been friends, she knew he had no greater love than his dreams of faraway places and maps, any kind of map, moved him to near uncontainable excitement. Kate had to admit, this was a beautiful map. Aged and brown like leather but drawn with a delicate hand. She could see her home of Sasserine and the vast Amedio Jungle. There was the Horn and Syberate and Fairwind Islands, as well as Flotsam and Jetsam. And then, jutting out into Jeklea Bay, was the doomed city of Monmurg. Kate saw that the word “Sea Princes” was written on the lands around Monmurg and that there were other cities marked on the map, like Port Toli, Hokar and Westkeep. She noticed that the lands of the Sea Princes was cradled by high mountains to the west called The Hellfurnaces. To the north lay a vast swamp called The Hool and beyond that, further north, more mountains called The Jotens. A long river cut the Sea Princes lands in half, the Hool River and its headwaters were at a huge body of waters called Lake Spendlowe, located in a place called the Dutchy of Berghof.

“We’re here,” the captain said, pointing to a spot on the map just south of Flotsam Isle, “and we’re about to Thread the Needle. We’ve got a bilge pot of trouble all around us. Jetsom is here and the Commodore, Giannini was his name, and his family are long dead. That leaves a few Holders and their slaves. Judging by those bright lights, I’d say the Shar are involved in whatever is going on over there. I’ve met Brother Gimil-lum, who has been given control of that island, and he is someone we definitely don’t want to run into on a dark night.”

“Monmurg is over here,” he continued, “Its’ been burning off and on for years. We can all see it’s “on” right now. The person in charge over there is…well, let’s just say we want to avoid him at all costs. Last time the place lit up it was Olman slaves teaming up with a rabble of Holders and going at it against a whole pile of Amedians and some orcish shock troops that the Brotherhood brought over as reinforcement. No – I don’t mean the half-blooded kind. I mean the real unreasonable orcs.”

“So, see, what we need to look out for tonight . . .”

The captain’s words were choked off as the cabin floorboards suddenly dropped from under Kate’s feet. She saw the other three men hovering several feet in the air. Kate saw the floorboards of the captain’s cabin angle downward at a peculiar angle several feet below her. Then, just as suddenly, the floorboards shot back up to meet her with a crashing jolt. Pain shot up her lets and she crumpled to the floor, the others in the cabin ending up in more or less the same crumpled position. Books and papers and maps crashed down all about her. The lantern on its hook chaotically danced about, sending shadows strobing all about.

“What in the name of the five seas was that?” the Captain shouted, hurrying to his feet and out the cabin door without a care for the injuries of Kate and her friends.

Gorbi and Galdar were both on their feet and helped her up.

“Is everyone alright?” the Galdar asked.

Kate and Gorbi nodded and all three rushed into the dark hallway after the Captain.

When Kate got above decks, the first thing she noticed was how dark it was under the night sky. She could see no moon nor stars and no lanterns were lit. The second thing she noticed was the ship didn’t appear to be moving at all, the only sound was the flapping of the slack sails and the lapping of water against the unmoving hull.

Then she heard a short scream from somewhere towards the bow.

Fog blankets billowed in from all about and nothing else but darkness could be seen beyond the forecastle. Kate saw Tonsil crouched, slack-jawed and wide-eyed just to her left

“Cap’n. I don’t know what’s happening. We hit a fog bank and then we lurched downward,” the simple-minded cook said, “When the bow came out of the water we just stopped. I heard a scream up on the bow a moment ago, too.”

“Get that lantern lit now, Tonsil.,” the captain ordered in a hushed voice.

Tonsil fumbled at the lantern, striking flint on steel until the oil-soaked wick caught flame. A moment later he adjusted the large lens of the bullseye and directed the orange beam of light into the gloom. At first, Kate could see nothing but black fog and what appeared to be smoke. But after a moment she saw it. A figure standing upon the forecastle, very tall, even bent over. The woman’s hair was green and ropy and hung down in long wet strands, the skin of her arms were wet and green and warty, and her hands ended in long, sharp-looking, black claws. The woman jerked her head up as the light grazed her. Her eyes were enormous, wet, black pools that stared back with foul intent.

Several screams and gasps of horror issued from the deck and the rigging. Kate felt her bowels writhe at the sight of the woman-thing-creature and her feet seemed to freeze in place. She noticed Lady Min and Zokar in the fore-rigging, several feet above the woman-thing’s head, Min had the back of her hand over her mouth and was frozen in place, the other hand gripped a rope and one foot dangling free while Zokar scrambled up the rigging to get away from the horror below.

Tonsil moved the beam of light from his lantern to reveal another figure, this one even taller and larger than the sea-woman-monster. Tonsil shuddered as his light traveled up the black, glistening skin of a tremendously large creature – maybe eight feet tall and carrying the headless body of Derg in one hand. The creature was unlike anything Kate had ever seen before, all black spikes and armored plating that glistened with sea water. Barnacles stuck to its plates in patches like mold; seaweed and kelp dangled from protrusions on its body. The creature had glowing orange eyes and steam erupted from its mouth as it calmly reached up and plucked Lady Min out of the rigging.

The sea-hag laughed once then turned and dove over the rails. A split-second later the giant creature crouched low and then leapt overboard, as well, with the bodies of Derg and Lady Min in hand. The entire boat rocked violently and Kate heard a booming splash from below.

As the creatures vacated, the light from Tonsil’s lantern revealed three smaller green-scaled creatures standing at the bowsprit. Kate saw that while they appeared somewhat like men, with arms and legs, their heads were more fish-like than human and their hands and feet were laced with webbing like a duck’s feet. The creatures each held a menacing looking three-pointed spear in their hands and they began to shuffle forward towards Kate and the others.

“To arms!” shouted the Captain, “All hands to arms! Get these stinking creatures off my ship!”

Kate saw Rhemi appear to her right, a wicked looking long-knife in his hands, and Dog-Boy dropped down lightly beside him from somewhere above brandishing what looked like a short wooden club or a heavy peg of some kind. Tonsil drew a cleaver from his belt and even Bilge appeared with a mop-handle which he spun like a quarter-staff.

Just then Kate heard a mighty cry erupt from the bow, “Min! No!” and the hulking Zokar dropped down to the deck behind the advancing sea-monsters. Kate watched in horror as the massive sailor jumped into the sea after his lady love.

Captain Agranat swore loudly and drew a heavy scimitar from the sheath at his hip. He pointed the tip of the weapon at the advancing monsters. Before Kate knew what she was doing she drew her own weapon, a wooden handle with a spiked ball of steel at one end, and leapt toward the closest green creature, hacking down hard with an overhand swing. The creature easily raised it trident, catching her morning star amongst its tines and turned it sideways. The creature was strong and fast and Kate could smell the stench of rotted fish as she closed with the beast. In return, the creature lowered the trident and thrust it toward her. It was much stronger than her and she would have quickly been impaled if she had not remembered the simple martial techniques her father had taught her. Giving in to the creature’s advance, she rolled backwards and out of harm’s way.

Kate was vaguely aware of combat to either side of her. She could hear the heavy sounds of fighting, the shouts and crashes as bodies fought for life and for death upon the slick deck of the Dragonsprit. Kate’s own fear and the overwhelming sense of loss had fled and now her mind focused on just one thing – pulverizing the foul fish monster before her.

She just managed to find her footing once more and the creature lunged at her again, it’s trident low and aimed at her mid-section. As she prepared to parry, a dark shape moved in from her right and Tully slapped the creature’s weapon away with a downward arc of his shortsword. Together, the two of them paired off against the blue-scaled creature.

The next seconds were only a blur to her as weapons clashed and crashed and clanged. She barely registered pain as a sharp tine gashed her hip and warm blood drenched her thigh and a moment later. She barely rejoiced as a well-timed swing crunched through scale and muscle and bone, nearly removing the creature’s right arm at the elbow.

The creature let go of its trident with its now useless right arm and wielded the weapon with its left. The thing shook and bellowed an alien noise at the two of them and then it went wild, thrashing heedlessly in every direction, its trident whirling in a chaotic and unpredictable manner. The creature buried all three tines into Tully’s gut, the look of surprise on the First Mate’s face forever seared into Kate’s memory. The creature tried to yank the weapon free, but its barbs held fast to the Tully’s innards. The thing dropped its weapon and maniacally flailed about with its claws and teeth, slashing and biting at Tully’s flesh. Kate saw her opportunity and brought her spiked club down onto the sea-monster’s wet, fishy skull and through its brain. The creature continued to thrash about, biting Tully’s dying body one more time before going still.

Kate looked up to see Captain Arganat holding his bloody scimitar over the headless corpse of another creature, Rhemy and Tonsil to either side with blooded blades and shredded clothes and she was relieved to see Gorbi and Galdar dispatch their own monster, Bilge giving the creature a couple of whacks with his mop handle for fair measure.

The rest of the night passed in numbing silence. The Captain took the helm and ordered what remained of his crew to sail the Dragonsprit as best they could. After shoving the corpses of the sea monsters overboard and scanning the seas for any sign of Zokar, Kate, Gorbi and Galdar did what they could to help hoist and trim sails. Galdar spent a few minutes with Tully before sadly declaring the First Mate had passed from this world. The crew gingerly wrapped his body in a swath of canvas, said a few words and dumped him overboard.

“Zokar and Mr. Tully, they can’t be gone!” thought Kate. Then she remember Lady Min’s smiling face and the kindness she offered to her during the voyage. She remembered the headless corpse of Derg Moenthal, hanging limp in the sea creature’s giant claws. Her heart sank and she drifted. A deep despair washed over her.

Kate’s mind didn’t register the greyness of morning, nor the sounds of seagulls and distant voices as the Dragonsprit made Seaton harbor and moored up to one of the docks. She vaguely noticed Min’s hammock, hanging empty above her, as she climbed into her own, wrapped herself in a wool blanket and promptly fell into a deep sleep.

Moonday, the 17th of Coldeven in the CY 594

The captain and crew were up an hour earlier than usual this morn just as the sun’s light began to chase away the stars to the east. An hour after weighing anchor, the Dragonsprit sailed past a sharp, rocky headland. Galdar took watch at Derg’s door while Kate and Gorbi stood at the rail, gazing in wonder as the end of the world sailed past them. Lady Min explained it was the very northern tip of the Amedio jungle.

To Kate it looked as if a line were drawn in the water extending from the headland northwest into Jeklea bay. The water beyond the line to the east was no longer calm and blue but choppy and gray. To Kate’s amazement, she could see no land at all to the east or to the north. The ocean, or the Azure Sea as Lady Min had called it, spread out before her endlessly to the horizon. The sheer magnitude of space and sky and water before her took her breath away.

Kate and Gorbi could plainly see the crew of the Dragonsprit was nervous. The Captain had replaced Tully at the wheel, which always meant something important was about to happen. Arganat stoically observed the change in the sea ahead and the crew scrambled all over the rigging in preparation for something. Something big, Kate thought.

As the ship passed the headland, Captain Arganat shouted in a booming voice, “Helm’s a Lea! And to the fishes with ya if you don’t make it snap!”

A blast of warm wind hit the starboard side of the ship like an avalanche. To Kate is seemed as if the crew moved in a confusing, choreographed dance, hauling sheets through tackle blocks and leaping through the rigging like so many spider monkeys. Ropes, rigging, booms and canvas rotated, spun and soared overhead. The timbers underfoot shuddered and moaned as the sails caught this new wind. The Dragonsprit protested like the creaking bones of an old man rising to his feet after a long sit. The ship keeled so far over to port that Kate’s world tilted precariously. She grabbed frantically for the nearest stanchion while Gorbi held tight to a shank of hempen rope lashed to the rail. His little feet flew into the air and he seemed to be flying on the wind, a look of sheer terror on his gnomish face.

Both of them hung on for dear life.

The deck lifted into the sky and then angled sharply downward, water lapping ferociously at the gunnels. The Dragonsprit cut through the water like a shark’s fin and Kate and Gorbi fought hard to keep their breakfast in their stomachs.

After that, the day passed like a race through Hell. Nothing but open in all directions – horizon to horizon, and still the Dragonsprit plowed through ocean swells and spray. The ship would often hit a swell head-on, lurching upwards and then suddenly dropping down to crash hard on the other side.

Derg came out of his cabin briefly during Gorbi’s watch, the little gnome followed him above deck and held onto his coat tails to keep him from going overboard. The nobleman stumbled to the rails and leaned over, heaving the contents of his stomach overboard in a most unsophisticated manner. Derg tried to stand straight in an effort to regain some sense of his lost dignity, but only manage to wobble uneasily, his face a certain shade of green. He wiped his mouth with a stained handkerchief before shambling back to his cabin with Gorbi in tow.

Sometime in the early afternoon Dogboy shouted from the crow’s nest, “Land Ahoy!”. Soon after, Kate saw a dark line appear on the northern horizon. She watched as the landmass seemed to grow throughout the day, rising out of the sea like a hulking green leviathan.

After some time Tully took over the helm once again and the Captain retired to his cabin. Tonsil and Bilge served a delicious mutton stew on deck. Mugs dipped into fresh kegs of rum and mead were passed around, lifting the spirits of everyone topside.

As night fell and the stars came out in all of their brilliance, the winds let up and the Dragonsprit settled into a quieter run along foreign dark cliffs. Kate took over for Gorbi and she noticed odd smells in the air as she climbed the dark steps down to the stuffiness of the ship’s hold. She paused, just outside the hatch taking in one last glimpse of the magical night sky and the aromas on the warm breeze. She also saw how relaxed the crew seemed to be now they were behind the relative shelter of land once again.

Min dropped from the rigging above, landing next to Kate. “That’s olives you smell. And grapes and sheep, too. I suppose none of these scents would be familiar to you.” Kate shook her head, as these were, indeed, new smells to her. She didn’t find them altogether unpleasant.

Min pointed at the dark landmass to starboard. “This is Sybarate Isle. a forgotten piece of rock, really, but it is a mystery to me as to why. We used to stop here quite often and it’s more like a paradise to me." Min looked wistfully out toward the dark land and smiled. "The Sea Princes never really took much notice of it when they ruled these waters, and now the Shar seem to have turned a blind eye to it as well. There’s a small village and a dock. The rest of this rock is just farmland, vineyards and wilderness. We’ll make Sybar harbor by midnight. After that, make sure to get a good rest before tomorrow’s madness.”

“Madness? What kind of madness,” she asked. Min smiled a playful smile and swung back up into the rigging. “Tomorrow we thread the Eye of the Needle, Kate,” was all she said and then she was gone into the maze of canvas and rope above. Kate shrugged and dropped down into the dark hold of the ship to take up station outside Derg’s door.

The ship sailed well past dark. Near midnight Gorbi saw the twinkling lights of a sleepy harbor. Half an hour later, the Dragonsprit nestled into a tiny quiet bay along with a dozen smaller dhows and junks, all tied to a short wooden pier. He saw a small village just beyond the pier. A cobblestone roadway lit by oil lanterns hung from posts wound its way up a very steep hill before being drowned by darkness higher up. Several dozen stucco houses topped by tiled roofs lined either side of the roadway. Many of the houses had open patios, or stoas, lit by colorful lanterns. Guttering candles could be seen in many unshuttered windows.

Fireflies bobbed and darted here and there amidst the shrubbery and trellis gardens flanking the houses. Gorbi could see a few people, as well, gathered in subdued groups on porches or under streetlamps. Even in the muted darkness he could see the people of this village were dressed similar to those of Sasserine with loose fitting white shirts and thin, colorful pantaloons. Bright scarves were tied around necks or wrapped tightly around heads. He could also hear the unmistakable sounds of a boisterous tavern nearby, the clink of glasses and muffled shouts of joy and laughter mixed with the faint sounds of a harp and pipes.

The sternhouse door opened and voices rose up from the bowels of the ship.

“I am going ashore, unless you mean to make me prisoner upon your ship,” Derg was saying followed closely by First Mate Tully. Kate was just behind them. The nobleman was dressed in such foppish and ridiculous clothes Gorbi almost let out a laugh. He had never seen so much lace and embroidery upon a man before, and it even looked as if Derg had powdered his face!

“Gov’nor, this might look like a peaceful town, but these are dangerous times. Dangerous times,” Tully repeated just in case Derg hadn’t heard him the first time. “We haven’t put in at Sybar in several years. Who knows who’s in charge here these days?”

Derg looked completely unmoved and replied dismissively, “Well, I happen to know who is in charge and I will be just fine. Besides, I have several bodyguards to keep me safe.”

Gorbi didn’t like the sound of that. Derg was so nonchalant about assuming Gorbi and his friends would be able to bail him out if trouble found them. Gorbi had his doubts what the three of them could actually do in a scuffle. Gorbi had a few minor illusions at his disposal. he could distract Derg’s enemies for short while, but that might buy them just a few seconds. After that, he was going to be fairly worthless in a fight. Galdar was strong and had a little martial training from the priests and monks at the St. Cuthbert temple, but he had never had to use those skills in any real-life battles. The kid did own a nice shirt of mail, but had stored it away in the ship’s hold after his chastisement by Zokar. Kate would probably fair better than he would in a fight, but Gorbi just couldn’t even imagine his friend in a violent situation – he had never seen her even lose her temper before. The thought of her in a standup fight was ludicrous.

Derg stepped up to the gangplank and snapped his fingers, motioning to Gorbi and Gadar.

“Do not worry, Mister Tully, I am perfectly safe. We shall return before dawn, safe and sound I can assure you,” Derg said. Tully just grimaced and shook his head. “Come along now,” Derg commanded and strutted down the plank to the wooden dock below. Kate, Galdar and a reluctant Gorbi had no choice but to follow.

A single oil lantern placed midway down the pier gave off a gloomy light. The smell of seaweed and fish hung heavily in the air and jet-black waters lapped lazily at the boats moored there. Gorbi picked up the distant bleating of many sheep and goats far off in the darkness.

Gorbi took up the rear of the processional. Kate was out in front while Galdar followed behind her and then Derg. The little group got almost to the end of the dock before a man in loose fitting clothing stepped out from a small wooden house at the end of the pier. He was accompanied by six others carrying pikes.

“Oh, no,” Derg muttered in a breathy voice. He had froze mid-step and Gorbi nearly ran into the man’s lacey leotards.

Peering around Derg’s gold-embroidered coattails, Gorbi could see the man walking toward them was sporting an odd ring of blonde spiky hair, while the top of his head appeared totally bald. He wore brilliantly colored red robes tied with a black sash and he carried a long pole that Gorbi guessed wasn’t a walking aid. The six others were Amedian tribesmen dressed in traditional white loincloths and long black cloaks lined with a deep red fringe and tied at the neck. Their long black hair was held in a bun and decorated with several colorful feathers. Each held a wicked looking macuahuitls in their hands.

“Good evening, supplicant.” the man said with an oily cheerfulness in his voice, “I trust your journey was fair.” The man waited for an answer with the oily smile frozen on his face. But, Derg didn’t answer.

The moments of silence seemed to drag on to eternity. Just as things were moving from awkward to creepy, Gorbi saw a woman appear from behind the tribesmen. She drew two small objects from her pocket and then squished them together while shouting something that sounded to Gorbi like, “Shezrahath!”

The tribesman and the monk spun around, weapons ready, but the woman only smiled back at them. “Brother Renn, these are the visitors I was telling you about the other day. I can escort them to the Andropos estate. That way you can get back to protecting our harbor.”

Brother Renn shook his head, looking blankly at the woman. Then he nodded, “As you will, Sister.” The mink and the tribesmen pushed past her and walked to the house on the end of the pier.

The woman appeared to be a young human, perhaps in her early twenties, with very tan, olive skin. Her long, straight dark hair hung loose to her waist and shimmered in the sapphire moonlight. Her feet were sandaled. she wore white, puffy pantaloons that gathered just below her calves, a short blouse and a colorful vest that revealed her bare midriff, exposing a fit physique.

“Hello, Derg,” she said with a sardonic grin.

Derg cleared his throat, “Uh, hello Pareesh, its nice…”

But the woman cut him off with a finger to her lips and motioned for them to follow. She turned and led them up the cobbled street through the middle of the village. Pareesh smiled but did not speak.

The road was extraordinarily steep and it felt to Gorbi as if he were walking straight up the cliff. He noticed the houses on either side of the street were cut into terraced level plots, but the road just shot straight up the incline as if it were made for mountain goats. He began to work up quite a sweat as he pumped his little legs in an effort to keep up with the taller people. Galdar was huffing and puffing as he climbed the hill, too, and Gorbi grinned. “All that time at the altar has not been good for Dar,” he thouht.

Gorbi could hear people talking and the clink of dinner dishes, laughter and music emanating from the houses and porches to either side. The smell of roast mutton and vegetables and other things sweet set the gnome’s stomach to growling.

A dark church appeared to his right. Gorbi saw a wooden sign hanging above the doors depicted a spouting whale. He shook his head as he didn’t recognize the symbol at all and couldn’t even guess as to what religion was practiced here.

Just beyond the church was a lively and well-lit tavern. The sign above the door showed a horse’s tail, but letters in the Common tongue spelled out, “The Mare’s Head”. Three drunken men stumbled out of following a lovely young lass in colorful skirts. All four of them laughed and giggled in drunken abandon before spinning off into the darkness to do whatever the locals did here after hours. Gorbi felt no small sense of desire to just ditch his duties and check out the local wildlife at the Mare’s Head, but he remembered his friends, Kate and Galdar, and decided against it.

About fifty yards further up the hill, off to the left, Gorbi spied a massive walled manor house. Tiki torches were placed along its walls and lamplight flooded the grounds both inside and out. Windows and railed porches decorated the exterior – a building designed to entertain guests more so than for defense of any kind.

“Pareesh, I thank you for saving my neck back there, but some day that trick will no longer work,” Derg said to their escort.

Pareesh only grinned with wickedly white teeth and gave Derg a flirtatious look, “Then I will worry about it some day,” was all she said in reply.

When finally they reached the end of the lane, Pareesh led them to the left and through the gates of the manor house. Gorbi saw the grounds were tastefully decorated with ornate palms and marble statuary. Pareesh stopped and bid them farewell.

“You are not coming in?” Derg asked, but the young woman just smiled and shook her head. “Will I see you again, Pareesh?” he asked, the faint traces of his famous whine sneaking back into his voice.

“Perhaps,” was all the young woman said before spinning on her heels and disappearing through the gate and into the night beyond.

Derg straightened the many collars of his fancy clothes and then strode up to the front doors of the manor. He knocked and the doors were opened by an elderly man in fine, black and white clothing. The man merely nodded. “Master Moental. It is good to see you, again. We were not expecting you,” the butler said with an ancient voice.

“Robert. Please forgive me for appearing at such a late hour and unannounced as I am. It is just that I have a matter of importance . . .

“Nonsense,” the gravely old man said, “Lord Andropos is just sitting down for a late supper. I’ll have Tess put on for …” Robert stopped for a moment and began silently counting, “ . . four then?”

Derg looked back at Gorbi, Kate and Galdar. He scowled. “Oh no. One is just fine, Robert. These are just my servants.”

Robert paused for a long and steady stare. Then his gaze rose up to meet Derg’s. One of the old man’s fuzzy grey eyebrows raised in a questioning arch.

Derg put on a big, smarmy smile and opened his arms wide as if to embrace the ancient butler. “What am I thinking, Robert. Of course a setting for four will be just fine,” Derg grumbled. He walked past Robert as if he owned the place and led the party into a beautiful, spacious and sparsely, but elegantly, decorated manor house.

Tall windows and open patios let in the cool evening air to swirl about the place. Small statuary, elegant paintings and tapestries were placed artfully in the entry hall and greeting room. Potted plants and shrubs and decorative rugs and carpets were tastefully placed here and there.

Another elderly man dressed in fine robes entered the greeting hall from another room. His sparse hair was grey and expertly coifed. Gorbi could see his sandals were richly embroidered and covered well-tanned feet. The man suddenly smiled wide at the sight of Derg and embraced him heartily.

“Derg, young man! It is a blessing to see you on such a fine evening,” the lord of the manor said with a gusto in his voice that belied his age. “I was ready to take supper all alone but now I see I don’t have to. Please, introduce me to your guests!”

Derg turned and, somewhat sheepishly introduced Master Galdar a magistrate in the Dawn Council and Master Gorbachev, envoy of the wee-folk from the wilds of the Southren’ Amedio. The old man nodded and bowed to Galdar and Gorbi in turn. Then Derg instroduced the Lady Kate of House Ludon, a minor estate in Sasserine and “it’s no wonder you have not heard of it, small house that it is.”

“So, did I overhear you say these were your servants?” the old man inquired.

Derg looked a little ashamed and quickly tried to recover, “Uh…wards, sire. Handed over to me by my liege earlier this very autumn. They are quite harmless, I assure you. We can speak candidly if you like.”

The old man looked over at Derg’s three “wards” and smiled grandfatherly at each of them. “It is good to have young ones like yourselves back in the old manor. We get few visitors these days and none of them have seen less than two score birthdays, I am afraid.”

“Oh, how rude of me,” the old man continued, “My name is Linus Andropos and I am the governor of this little town. Come now, Tess is setting out our dinner as we speak and I’d sooner face one hundred rabid bullywugs than weather the wrath of Tess after letting one of her fantastic dinners get cold.”

Linus led them to the dining room and Gorbi wondered what Derg was really up to. Derg and this Linus person seemed to know each other really well, and yet Derg felt the need to lie to the man. First he tried to pass them off as servants in front of Robert, the butler. And then he told Linus that they were his wards, given to him by some “liege lord”. Linus seemed to know who Derg was talking about, so that person, whoever it is, must be real. But, why not just tell Linus the truth, that they were his bodyguards? Unless, Derg didn’t want the man to know he was in danger.

The dining room was cozy. A twenty-foot long marble table surrounded by high-backed cushioned chairs dominated the room and several candelabras hung from the high, teak-raftered ceiling. Arched open windows let in the night air which helped to waft the aroma of the magnificent dinner into Gorbi’s waiting nostrils. Ahhh! Gorbi could not remember ever eating such a magnificent feast. Racks of lamb with caper sauce, spiced cherry chutney, roasted vegetables, wild rice and baked sweet cakes were passed around amid small talk between Robert and Linus and multiple glasses of the sweetest brandy Gorbi had had ever tasted.

After several minutes of inhaling the delicious food and drink, Gorbi’s brain began to buzz from the brandy. He was enjoying himself immensely, but then he caught Kate’s eye. She was frowning at him from across the table. He gave her a quizzical look in return, wondering what he could have possibly done now. She intensified the frown, and Gorbi was reminded that they still had a job to do — to protect Derg. Gorbi was suddenly aware that the Governor and Derg had been talking for quite some time now. He shook his head slightly to knock loose the cobwebs and then tried to concentrate on what they were talking about in an attempt to sober up.

The conversation flowed easily back and forth for at least another hour as the old friends caught up on things. From what Gorbi could tell, it seemed the Governor had not been the same since his daughter, Julianna, ran off with some fool by the name of Orlando. It had been several weeks since the two had disappeared, and while no boats had arrived or left the island in that time, the Governor had felt certain they had run off to the mainland to elope. The Governess, Nikia, was beside herself and rarely left her chambers these days. Linus was worried sick, but figured he would give it a few more weeks before he spent money on inquisitors.

Brother Renn and his troops had been fair, if not a little distant and forgetful, these days. The Shar emmisaries had pretty much kept to themselves down at the boat house and rarely toured the town these days, which was perfectly fine with the Governor. It was true, Sybarate Isle had not had many guests in the harbor this past year. Ever since the Fairwind Isle ferry stopped running it had become very quiet. Sybar and the Governor worried there would not be enough traders next year, already the island’s warehouses were becoming full with casks of wine and bales of wool with no one to buy them.

Commodore Galanos, of Fairwind Isle had not been heard from in over two years now and it was almost certain he and his family had been disposed of. It had been even longer since hearing from Commodore Giannini of Jetsom and Commodore Vincetti of Flotsam. In fact, neither Derg nor Linus had heard anything at all from those two islands in over a year.

Things had been quiet, they both agreed.

Fleets of Shar ships, entire armadas had sailed both east and west (mostly west), but only one Shar ship had ever stopped at Sybar, the one that dropped Brother Renn and his troop of goons off on their shores five years ago.

Gorbi only sipped at his brandy and as the evening wore on into the early morning hours. At one point there was a lull in the conversation, only the night birds and insects could be heard outside. Looking out the window the town stretched out to the moonlit sea. Gorbi saw that most of the lanterns and candles in town had been extinguished. The townfolk were slowly finding their way to their beds.

“Have you heard anything more of ‘the situation’?” the Governor asked Derg in a low and serious tone. Derg looked nervously at each of his “wards” sitting around the table before shaking his head.

“Not much,” Derg admitted, “only that the Familia yet lives. It hides and it waits. Things abroad are unraveling fast and there will be a time, soon, when moves will be made. But until the time when we see the sign, we will be patient.” Linus thought about those words for a long moment before smiling and nodding his head in silent agreement.

“Well, the hour is getting late, my dear friend. But, before you go, tell me, what is it that you are involved in now and will it affect the Blades in any way?”

“Oh, it’s nothing like that.” Derg smiled, “It’s just a small side job to make a little coin. And it’s no business of a buccaneer like you to ask who hired me. Even if you say you are retired! The job’s a simple one. I’m meeting Old Catpaws at the Traveler’s Rest and giving him a message. That is all. I won’t tell you how much the job is worth, but I should be collecting a small fortune from my employer when I return Catspaw’s reply.”

Gorbi was so tired as Derg and Linus said their goodbyes, the gnome wondered if he should just curl up in one of the shrubberies for the night. The walk back to the Dragonsprit was treacherous. The night had cooled, leaving a blanket of dew upon the steep cobblestones and making them slick to walk upon. Only two guttering oil lanterns still lit the way so that most of the trip was done in darkness.

Gorbi didn’t see any light or movement from within the boathouse when they finally reached the pier, so Brother Renn and his goons must have turned in for the night, but the little gnome was sure his excellent night vision picked out a dark-haired girl ghosting them down the road as she slipped silently between the houses.

Cliffs of Doubt
Sunday, the 16th of Coldeven in the CY 594

The seas became dark and choppy and the wind, still abeam, picked up into a wild and furious series of gusts and puffs. The Horn, as Tully called it, could be seen far to the north, marking the end of the Amedio. As night closed in the terrain along the coast got decidedly steeper and rockier. Soon, only sheer black cliffs with thousands of sea birds could be seen, whirling white and grey in the night sky, their constant shrieking mixing with the howls of wind and crash of surf.

Once again, Derg kept himself locked in his cabin. Galdar, Kate and Gorbi took turns sitting in the tiny walkway outside his cabin door, making sure no harm came to their employer. At one point that evening, while she sat in the cramped, dark walkway staring at the wooden door of Derg’s cabin and feeling the constant rhythm of the boat as it plied the crests and troughs of each wave, Kate’s wondered just who their actual employer was? Back in Sasserine it was Derg who actually paid them their twenty gold admirals apiece, but clearly the simpering nobleman worked, in some fashion, for the strange beastman ringleader of that circus.

And it was Shag Solomon who promised them each an additional twenty gold upon their return. Up to this point, the job had been pretty simple, if not a bit exciting. Kate had never dreamed of traveling as far as she had in the past several days. She had seen more of the world in the past week than she had her entire life. But, now she wondered for the first time since accepting the job, just where they were actually headed? And, what was it that Mr. Solomon wanted Derg to deliver, and to whom?

Kate knew there must be other towns, maybe even magnificent cities out beyond the sea, but she really didn’t know of any. Her father was elven, but even though he mentioned once or twice that his people lived far away and across the sea he refused to speak more about them. Once, when Kate was very little, she told him she wanted to visit her elven family across the sea, but her father replied in a soft and caring voice, that those elves were not her family. Her mother, a human, had lived her whole life in Sasserine and if she knew anything more about the outside world, she never spoke of it.

Kate sat in the darkness and wished only to hug her parents.

Tales of Yore
Starday, the 15th of Coldeven in the CY 594

The clouds moved in, today, and the wind picked up, running abeam from west to east across the Dragonsprit’s deck. After leaving the Shar fleet behind, the coastline became decidedly rough, with jagged black cliffs rising from the sea and looking far more deadly than the plentiful coral reefs sporadically appearing in the nearshore waters.

Tonsil caught an enormous sailfish during the early part of the day and turned it into a scrumptious dinner by evening, passing around several fillets encrusted with roasted nuts and sea salt, flavored with mild saffron and served over a bed of rice and boiled dates.

That night, over watered grog and boiled plantains, Rhemi entertained the crew with a telling of the story of the Olman – his people. Gorbi did his best to determine the dates of the events and to filter out the more fanciful details in hopes of distilling a sense of truth from the amazing history.

Later that night, under the flickering light of a guttering lantern he wrote:

A History of the Amedio Jungle and the Many and Varied Peoples who Lived within it.

As told by Rhemi, Second-Mate of the Dragonsprit and penned by Gorbachev Mushroomnose, mercenary-extrordinaire.

  • Forever ago to somewhere around -1700 CY: An evil, demon-worshipping troglodyte race inhabited the Amedio.
  • -1700 to -1200 CY : The d’Kana, a peaceful race of gorilla-like beings displaced the trogs. Their Seers foretold the coming of the violent men to the jungle so they picked up and left, perhaps to the volcanic mountains far to the west – the Helfurnaces? Evil ketch, foul kopru and benign beastmen also had settlements during this time but kept to themselves.
  • -1000 CY: Olman arrived from Hepmonaland across the ocean.
  • -800 CY: Seven glorious city-states built by the Olman around a central capitol had formed. The Olman of the Amedio then claimed independence from the motherland.
  • -425 CY: Difficult to believe, but apparently armies of demons suddenly appeared and went to war with the Olman. Five of the cities were instantly destroyed. Southernmost Tamoachan suffered a civil war and destroyed itself.
  • -424 CY: The very next year, droves of Suel escaping a war across the sea to the east on the Tilvanot peninsula began to wash ashore and mixed with the Olman who were settled there.
  • -350 CY: A different wave of Suel entered the Amedio and fought the Olman. These Suel were well equipped and cruel. They carved a path through the jungle, defeating Olman and demon alike in a quest to reach the ruins of Elatahuihle on Matreyus Lake . They conquered that land and settled there for nearly two centuries – a pariah to all who came too near the massive lake.
  • -170 CY: Elatahuihle fell mysteriously into ruin once again. The Suel vanishing completely.
  • -97 CY: Mighty armies from Keoland, the Lion Throne, arrive and wage a holy war upon the demons of the jungle. The demon hordes are defeated in a decisive battle at something called the Demonskar. The Keolanders found the cities of Sasserine, Redgorge and Cauldron.
  • 393 CY: A mighty beast, which the Olman name Kacheklequi (Fire Snake of Hell), arrives and terrorizes the jungle. Taking a mate and producing many terrible progeny.
  • 493 CY: Exactly 100 years later, the fire beast retreats to the volcano, Mt Hurlon, and disappears.
  • 530 CY: A new threat arrived on the shores of Jeklea Bay, the Sea Princes raided and enslaved both Amedians, Suel and Olman, alike. They conquer Sasserine, assume control of the resources and then, using their network of spies, systematically alter the maps and history books across the known world, erasing all mention of the riches and civilizations of the Amedio in order to protect their greedy interests.
  • 584 CY: The leaders of the Sea Princes disappear over the course of a single night – The Night of Death. For the next five years, the Shar control the region unopposed and take many slaves of the Olman.
  • 589 CY: Far away the lost Olman find their strength and break their shackles. A new day is upon the Olman and the world. Rhemi says he will help usher in this new age any way he can. The crew of the Dragonsprit raised their mugs and shouted their support. Even Captain Arganat nodded his head in agreement. Rhemi, however, refused any details of what he meant by “uprising” and I decide to leave it be. I am sure I can dig up the details from someone more forthcoming.

Boarding Party
Freeday, the 14th of Coldeven in the CY 594

Rounding a verdant, jagged headland this morning, the misty coast seemed to stretch off to the hazy horizon as far as the eye could see. Black sand beaches, dense green jungle rose slowly up to cloud shrouded peaks on one side while foaming white breakers, crystal blue waters and dangerous coral reefs led out to an endless teal sea on the other.

“Avast Ye! Avast! Jungle scrub party ahead! Get the Capn!”, Galdar heard Dogboy’s excited shouts from atop the crow’s next.

Moments later, Tully and Tonsil joined Captain Arganat at the starboard rails and the captain produced a long, brass spyglass to study the horizon.

“It’s a Shar hunting party. Nothing to be done now but carry on,” Arganat grumbled and then turned to his first mate. “Tully, prepare the crew!” Stumping up to the ship’s wheel, the gruff captain took over steerage duties.

Derg had finally come out of his cabin early this morning. Galdar and Gorbi had shadow-duty while Kate sat below, guarding the cabin door.

“We can’t do this!” Derg protested in a whiney voice, “We’ll be boarded, for sure! Turn about and we will live to see another day!” Galdar looked out beyond the bowsprit and strained his eyes to focus on the distance. He was just barely able to spot a cluster of boats apparently anchored in a line several miles further north up the coastline. Spots of red and purple could be seen flashing in the wind and among the waves.

Tully turned on Derg with a frightfully serious look, “Dogboy’s got good eyes, man, but sure as sunrise they saw us the moment we rounded that head. Anything but holding course will be a death sentence.”

“Well, then we outrun them!” Derg whined with just a hint or aroma of desperation wafting about his pitiful demeanor, “This is a fast ship, isn’t it!? Didn’t I hire a fast ship?”

Tully laughed uproariously, “Ya! We’d outrun them, gov’nor, for all of about two days! Problem is we’re five days from nowhere! Har har har!” Tully’s guffaw spread about the crew and nervous chuckles broke out among them. Derg didn’t share in the mirth. Neither did Gorbi and Galdar who looked on with a mixture of equal parts concern and confusion.

A loud thud sounded from the wooden deck followed by the clank of metal chains. Galdar turned to see the huge, tattooed winch-hauler, Zokar, as he dumped a large pile of chains and shackles from a dusty burlap bag. Rhemi sighed deeply then extended his arms toward the big man and lowered his head to expose his neck. Zokar picked out a set of chain-linked manacles and tested the padded leather of the cuffs before clasping them gently around Rhemi’s wrist and neck. Min reached up, smiled and brushed the Olman’s cheek with the back of her hand while Zokar clapped the dark man on the back of his shoulder.

“You too!” Tully shouted at Gorbi, nodding to the chains. “Have to get you in those things, too. Can’t have a gnome running loose without raising questions we can’t answer.”

“What!? By the Nose-Hairs of Urdlen, there is no way you will be strapping those things on me!” Gorbi shouted. Tully was so taken aback by Gorbi’s tirade that Galdar thought a keel-hauling was imminent, but Tully just put his hand to his chin and stared down at the little gnome, regarding him with a thoughtfulness that seemed out of character for the rough and tumble first mate.

“Hey, Bilge,” Tully shouted across the deck to the toothless swabby, “you think we got room in those special lockers we set up for the Pomarj runs?”

Bilge eyed Derg’s diminutive bodyguard as if he were measuring planks for a carpenter. “Aye, me cortermastah, theys will fit and room to spare, methinks.” Bilge motioned for Gorbi to follow. The gnome took one more look at the chains and shrugged.

Derg lunged forward and grabbed Tully by his shirt screaming, “You have a place to hide him? Hide me, you buffoon!” Tully growled and threw him off roughly. Derg stumbled to his knees and Galdar was there to help him up.

“You,” Tully said in a dangerous-low voice, pointing at Galdar, “do your job and watch him. Make sure he doesn’t say anything unless asked.”

At first it looked to Galdar as if the Dragonsprit was approaching a small harbor town on the jungle coast. As the ship got closer, though, he could see tents and supplies and men spread out along a stretch of beach for about half a mile. Red flags with black crosses flapped in the wind and about thirty ships in a wide range of sizes were anchored just off-shore.

As they approached the small armada, Galdar saw several strange ships break from the Shar fleet and moved to intercept the Dragonsprit. Galdar had never seen anything like them before; pointed bows and bulbous sterns, they looked like giant teardrops scooting across the water. At first, what seem to be sails, turned out to be just colorful red and black awnings stretched across various parts of the deck to keep the sun at bay. Without sails or oars, he was baffled as to how the ships could be moving at all – let alone speeding along at a fast clip into the wind!

Arganat shouted at the crew to reef the sails and drop anchor. The two teardrop ships mysteriously glided up to either side of the Dragonsprit and grappling hooks clunked into place upon the stanchions. Soon, the three ships were hugging in a tight embrace.

Tully turned to Galdar and Derg just as the first of the Shar officers climbed onto the deck of the Dragonsprit, “Do not speak,” he said in a serious and hushed tone, “do as my crew does and you will live. You act out of line and you endanger my crew. If it comes to it, I will sever your head from your neck before the Shar can draw their swords. Mark my words, well, boy.”

Galdar watched from amid-ship as five young men in loose fitting clothes boarded the Dragonsprit. They were fair of complexion and wore their blond hair either cropped short to the scalp or in long ponytails draped down their backs. Armed with small hand scythes and billyclubs the men ushered twelve dark-skinned Suel tribesmen with freckled faces and reddish hair aboard behind them.

Tonsil and the rest of the crew formed a line along the center of the deck and looked down at their feet before dropping to their knees in supplication. Galdar fell in line next to Zokar. When Derg didn’t immediately drop to his knees, Galdar grabbed his hand and jerked him down to kneel beside him. The dandy whimpered audibly and Galdar sighed deeply. He put his hand to his chest and clutched at the holy symbol of St. Cuthbert which he wore around his neck.

The five pale men walked slowly up the line of the crew. Galdar saw their sandaled feet padding softly along the deck boards. When they reached the end of the line they turned to Captain Arganat, the only crewman of the Dragonsprit not kneeling.

Galdar couldn’t hear what was said over the sounds of the wind and the surf and the loud creaking of the boats, but he saw that papers were produced and examined, more words were exchanged, and then the captain took the five men on a tour of the ship.

After a brief inspection of the deck, Arganat led the men down into the ship’s hold. Fifteen minutes past and Galdar rocked slowly from side to side in order to ease the pain in his knees. He noticed the Suel tribesmen were still standing about above deck. They stared back at him, menacingly, thumbing their steel machetes. Finally, Arganat and the five Shar officers emerged from below. They motioned to the Suel and the whole lot of them climbed back over the rails to their strange ships and glided away back to the fleet.

“Set sail,” Captain Arganat said softly. Tully gave a few more orders and without a sound the crew silently weighed anchor and set the sails. Galdar saw Rhemmi, still in chains, mopping the deck and playing his part perfectly in this little charade. Within minutes they were moving again, sailing slowly past the mysterious and deadly armada.

Galdar noticed the largest ship in the fleet was a huge barge. Dark-skinned men swarmed over the deck as they dumped hundreds of barrels over the side of the barge and into the sea. Clear liquid poured from the barrels followed by what looked like a person, yet like no person he had ever seen before. The skin of each was a brilliant light green or blue in color. He could see no other features except the blue and green people didn’t seem to move and appeared dead, their features never clear enough for him to make out details before they were lost below the waves.

Later, once the Shar contingent was well out of sight Gorbi was freed from the secret lockers below decks, apparently none the worse for the wear.

Galdar remembered Mr. Tulley’s words from the other day when he had asked him about the Shar, " . . .best that you don’t know," he had said. Galdar shivered and decided Mr. Tully was absolutely right.

Earthday, the 13th of Coldeven in the CY 594

This day was hot and muggy as the last, with a light and favorable wind that kept the Dragonsprit making even time along the tropical coast. Black sand beaches, rugged headlands, razor reefs and a cloudless sky was the theme from sunup to sundown with little to no break in the monotony.

The only excitement came from a pod of large whales breaching a mile or so further out to sea. Gorbi excitedly pointed out a particularly large specimen which apparently came to the surface to soak in the sun’s warming light. The wet skin of the massive beast glinted in the sunlight.

But the whale never moved as they approached and soon its pale and pleated underbelly was seen bobbing in the wave. “It’s dead,” Zokar intoned in his rumbling basso voice.

“What could have killed something like that? Its so massive,” squeaked Gorbi.

Zokar shrugged, “That’s a big ’un for sure. A grand-daddy whale, that one. Mayhaps old age took his life this day.”

No sooner had Zokar finished his thoughts when the whale corpse seemed to lift out of the water and the sharp toothed-jaws of a shark clamped down on the whale’s belly. Gouts of blood and seawater fountained into the air and the massive shark shook its giant head, tearing off a chunk of blubber, so loud Gorbi could hear the ripping sound from where he stood at the ship’s rails.

“Wow,” said Zokar, his voice monotone, “you don’t see sharks that big every day.”

“Or, never,” said Lady Min who was hanging from the rigging overhead. She had also stopped what she was doing to watch the spectacle.

After that, Gorbi made sure not to ever lean out over the ship’s rails again.

Eddystone Light
Waterday, the 12th of Coldeven in the CY 594

The day passed hot and humid. Not a cloud marked the perfect azure tropical sky and the light breeze, a prevailing wind, did little to help with the sweltering heat.

Gorbi noticed that Dogboy and Bilge were the only ones with any real duties this day as the two alternately swabbed the decks and fished for dinner. The sails were set at sunrise and little adjustments were required for the entirety of the day. The rest of the crew hid out in whatever shelter could be found. Gorbi was actually disappointing when Galdar showed up to relieve him from his post outside Derg’s cabin door. The work might have been boring, but at least it was cool and shaded down below-deck.

Derg hadn’t left his cabin since the excursion to the jungle’s edge on the day before. In actuality, all three friends could stand guard outside the cabin door, but the hallway was cramped enough, as it was, and so they took turns, with the other two trying to find shelter with the crew above decks.

Only one ship, an Ulek trader traveling west to Sasserine, was seen this day. Tonsil kept the supply of fish, rum and oranges passing among the crew and Tully kept the Dragonsprit on course.

Evening was a blessed event as the temperatures finally cooled and Zokar broke out the concertina while Rhemy and Lady Min accompanied him with some bawdy sea shanties.

"My father was the keeper of the Eddystone light. And he slept with a mermaid one fine night. Out of this union there came three. A porpoise and a porgy and the other was me! Yo ho ho, the wind blows free, Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

"One night, as I was a-trimming the glim. Singing a verse from the evening hymn. I heard a voice cry out an ‘Ahoy!’ And there was my mother, sitting on a buoy. Yo ho ho, the wind blows free, Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

"’Oh, what has become of my children three?’ My mother then inquired of me. One’s on exhibit as a talking fish. The other was served in a chafing dish. Yo ho ho, the wind blows free, Oh for the life on the rolling sea!

“Then the phosphorus flashed in her seaweed hair. I looked again, and my mother wasn’t there. But her voice came angrily out of the night. ‘To Hell with the keeper of the Eddystone Light!’ Yo ho ho, the wind blows free, Oh for the life on the rolling sea!”

Panthera Yaguara
Godsday, the 11th of Coldeven in the CY 594

The next day dawned bright and hot. Porpoises leaped and frolicked before the ship’s wake while dozens of gulls and seabirds wheeled and cried in the air about the sails. They still passed a few whalers and trading boats traveling to and from the port of Sasserine, but their numbers grew fewer as the days passed.

Just before noon, Tully arranged for the Dragonsprit to set anchor just a hundred yards from shore. The heavy surf boomed loudly upon a stretch of black sand beach that climbed a short distance to the thick, green jungle’s edge. Derg was mightily displeased at the unexpected stop and protested loudly about being behind schedule, but his complaints fell on deaf ears.

It seemed apparent that the crew knew what was happening, but they didn’t seem to want to elaborate with their passengers. Within a few minutes of setting anchor the crew had lowered a longboat to the choppy sea.

Mister Tully turned to Kate. “My Lady. Would you care to join us on our little excursion? We won’t be but a few minutes, and it occurs to me you might appreciate the chance to walk about on dry land for a spell.”

Kate enthusiastically agreed.

Gorbi grabbed Kate by the elbow before she could climb over the side of the ship and asked her in hushed tones, “Kate! What do you think you’re doing! We’ve got a job to do, which is to protect his High and Mighty Worshipfulness over there.”

Kate shrugged. “I know. I’m going anyway.”

Gorbi cried out in exasperation, glanced back at Derg and then climbed over the side, too,

“Gaurds!” shouted Derg, “Where do you think you are going? Get back here! I didn’t give you leave to go!” The foppish dandy was still chastising them as he swung his legs over the rail and climbed down the rope ladder and into the ship’s dinghy. Soon all were in the small longboat save Tully and Min, who stayed behind to guard the Dragonsprit.

Rhemmmi, Dogboy, Tonsil and Zokar took to the oars. Derg continued to complain about the quality of good help, all the way up to the point where the longboat hit the surf. The crew pulled in the oars and everyone held to the gunnels while the tiny boat rode the wave all the way up the beach before coming to a crunching halt on the black sand. The surf hissed as what was left of their wave retreated back to the sea.

The group pulled the boat several yards further ashore and then began a labored march up the beach. Before long, the group found themselves at the edge of the jungle.

Lady Min caught Kate’s questioning look and explained in a low voice, as if not wanting to be overheard by the others. Gorbi and Derg both leaned in close to hear her words.

“Rhemmi’s people are from the jungle and he knows this place well. This is a sacred spot, used for many rituals of the Olman peoples. He says tonight is a night of evil. When Rhemmi tells us to stop to make a little sacrifice to his jungle gods, well, let’s just say the Captain has learned to listen.”

Clearly, the captain and crew had done this several times in the past. A small, burnt circle had been etched into the jungle floor and Rhemmi crouched at its edge, pouring a mysterious purple sand from a pouch into the ashes and then lighting the substance on fire, which flared with a flash of sparks and smoke before quickly going out.

Rhemmi began a rhythmic chanting, apparently asking the jungle spirits for a safe passage along the shores of the Amedio.

Kate was startled when all of a sudden a loud barking or howling sound was heard not too far off into the jungle depths. Rhemmi stopped chanting for a moment.

“It is all okay, my friends,” he said in his thick native accent before returning to his chant, “it is just a jaguar. He will not bother us as we are so many.”

A moment later, the sound came again, but it was answered by another bark somewhere further back in the jungle. Kate could sense a tension rise among the little group as they waited for Rhemmi to finish whatever prayers he was offering up.

Then the barking and woofing sounds began to be heard from all over the jungle, some were much closer than others. Captain Arganat looked worried. “I’m not much of a land-lubber, myself, but I know enough that those big jungle cats definitely do not travel in packs.”

Rhemmi stopped chanting and stood up.

“Our captain speaks the truth. We should make haste back to the ship. Quickly, my friends.”

As the group made a hasty retreat across the beach and back to the longboat, Kate and Gorbi each took one last look back into the greenery of the jungle. Kate could see several cat-like forms leaping amongst the vines and foliage. Kate was sure she saw that some of those black cats had arms with hands instead of four legs with paws . . .

Moon Palms
Moonday, the 10th of Coldeven in the CY 594

The spoonful of runny gruel hovered motionless just two inches from Galdar’s mouth. Globules of the stuff slowly fell off the spoon to land with a plop in the wooden bowl he was holding. Galdar stared up at the mainmast, above the crow’s nest, and studied the strange red and black flag flapping in the morning breeze.

“I swear that flag wasn’t up there yesterday,” he thought. Yesterday as they left port he could have sworn the crest of the noble Taskerhill’s, a ridiculously wealthy, old plantation
family, was flying upon the mast. Now, a completely new and unfamiliar flag had replaced it.

Roy Tully, the ship’s first mate happened to be making his way up to the forecastle at the time. “Mr. Tully, what’s that flag all about?” Galdar asked.

Tully looked up, shielding his eyes from the bright morning sun. “That’s Shar,” he said, as if that was all the explanation that was needed.

“Never heard of a Shar. What is it?”

Tully laughed a hearty guffaw. “Let’s just agree you not knowing is a good thing. How about we keep it that way,” the first mate said as he climbed up the short ladder to the upper deck.

Galdar looked back up at the flag, now even more confused than before.

The day was much like the previous one. A brilliant yellow sun rose and arched its way across an equally brilliant blue sky. The wind continued to be good and the air was hot and humid. The three friends continued to take turns either following Derg around wherever he went on the rather small ship and taking up station outside his cabin door. It was a routine that they found not unpleasant and truly a simple one to perform.

Tonsil served small meals throughout the day to the crew and passengers. Galdar was a big fan of the fish chowder and sliced fruit. He wondered just what the cook had done to make the sliced pineapple taste so sweet. The juice ran down his chin and Kate teased him for being such an uncultured slob.

As evening set, Kate found herself talking with Lady Min, one of the ship’s agile riggers. At first she was intimidated by the bigger-than-life presence of the woman – and the Captain’s rather scary introductions hadn’t helped her anxiety of actually speaking with her. But, after a bit of small talk, Kate found the older woman to be really quite nice.

“This is not your first time on a ship,” Min said as a statement.

“I grew up on boats. My father owns a fishing ketch and my mother runs one of the gondolas in town.”

Min smiled. “But, I take it this is your first time outside ‘town’, is that right?”

“It’s that obvious?” Kate blushed.

Min laughed. It was a light laugh and not one Kate would have expected from such a rough looking lady. “No, not at all. It was just a good guess on my part. Mostly from the way you are constantly gawking at the sky and the sea and the jungle. Folks who live on the sea just tend to see those things with a more casual eye.” A pod of porpoises breached the wake of the Dragonsprit and continued to play amongst the white cresting waves and foam.

The two watched them for a minute or two and then Min turned slightly to study the young girl. Kate’s gaze had left the porpoises and she was now scanning the horizon intently. After awhile Min spoke. “So, what is it that you are searching for when you stare out into space like that?”

Kate gave a little jump, as if startled, “Oh geesh, was I doing that again?” Min nodded. “Nothing, really.”

“That’s not what I call searching for nothing,” Min said with a sly smile. “What is it you’re expecting to see out there? A long lost favorite uncle returning home, are you looking for pirates, or perhaps….is it a boy?”

Kate blushed again. “Oh no, it’s nothing like that,” she paused as if considering something very important. “It’s just…well, I was hoping to see a dragon.”

“A dragon?” Min said with mild surprise. “Well, I suppose that could happen.”

Kate was suddenly very excited. “Do you think? Do you think there could be one out here? Would it come from the sea or perhaps the jungle…”

Min laughed again. “Wow. You really are eager to see one. You know if the stories I’ve heard are true, I’m not so sure I’d be all that enthusiastic about running into one. Deadly creatures, dragons are, and usually they’re hungry.”

“What stories?” Min asked excitedly. “Can you tell them to me?”

“Whoa, now. Hold up there, little miss. There will be plenty of time for stories on this trip, but my break is about over. I’ve gotta go help Rhemmi pack the sails for the night. But maybe later.”

Min started to climb down the ladder leading to the fore-cabins and then she stopped and turned back to Kate. “You know I saw a dragon once,” she said softly.

Kate’s eyes lit up like lanterns. “You did?” she squealed. “When? Where? Tell me!”

Min smiled and shook her head. Then she looked out across the jungle to the south of where they were anchored for the night. “Right out there,” she said pointing toward the crest of a distant volcano. “Mount Hurlon,” she said “It’s claimed to be the home to Hookface, a terrible beast. He and his brood have terrorized the Amedio for centuries. Pray you not meet that one, child.”

Kate’s jaw dropped as she stared at the faraway peak which was gently puffing smoke into the purple evening sky, as Lady Min climbed back down the ladder and disappeared into the ship’s hold, below.

That night, after her shift, Kate climbed above decks and found her hammock. As she lay there, half awake, she looked up at the nearly full moon, Celene, and was amazed at her splendor, with a blanket of stars strewn out across the night sky. But then she spied another glow. This one about a mile wide that graced the top of the high basalt cliffs to the south. She sat up in her hammock and stared.

“Moon palms,” Lady Min’s soft voice came from a hammock swaying above her, higher up in the ship’s rigging. “I’ve only ever seen one grove of them in all of my travels. No one really knows why they glow like that. Some say they only do that when Celene first waxes from new, as if they are welcoming her back from wherever she had been hiding.”

Kate lay back down in her hammock and tried to sleep, but thoughts of dragons and volcanoes and silver goddesses flying across the night sky filed her mind with wonder and for the first time it occurred to her that she was truly glad to have taken on this journey. It was a long while before she finally fell to sleep.

Bon Voyage
Sunday, the 9th of Coldeven in the CY 594

Kate watched the backs of her mother and father as they retreated from the dock, never looking back. She watched and watched, waiting…hoping she would see them turn to look at her one last time. There was a crack as the ship’s running jib flipped around to the leeward side of the mainstay and they caught the powerful gusts that were common just beyond the breakwater. She could feel the craft pick up speed and it was at once exhilarating and terribly sad, all at the same time.

She had never left Sasserine before.

She could still see her parents on the Sunrise District’s main dock. They looked like tiny insects from this distance, but just as they left the harbor Kate felt sure she saw her mother glance back over her shoulder.

They had been cross with her. “A fool’s errand,” her father had scolded. “Just as like to get yourself killed before you get yourself paid!”

“I know those friends of yours would finally get you in trouble, Katt,” her mother had said between tears. “You must find a way to get out of this. You must! You’re no bodyguard! You’ve never been in a fight in your life. Ehryl, please! Go find this Moenthal princling and tell him your daughter will not be accompanying him!”

But Kate had refused to let either of her parents change her plans. She was determined to take this job and she was determined to make some honest money for a change. Besides, perhaps this was her calling. How difficult could it be to keep some rich noble’s son out of trouble, anyway? And she would be with both Gorbi and Galdar the whole time. Those two knew how to take care of themselves. She could leave any scuffles or fights up to them, but she didn’t expect there to be any fights. They were just sailing across the bay for a few days and then they would be back in Sasserine before anyone really missed them.

“And besides,” thought Kate, “I am bound to run into a dragon out there. I sure am not going to find one sitting around here all my life.”

And so she had met Gorbi and Galdar at the Sunrise District just before the actual sunrise. Neither of them had family to say goodbye to, but her parents were kind enough to give them each a hug and handshake. Her mother actually made sandwiches and packed them in a sack for each of the boys. She would find out later that the sacks also contained hard tack, cheese and several bottles of ale – clearly a secret gift from her father.

When they had finally said their final goodbyes, Kate’s father had asked her one last time if she would change her mind. When she said she wouldn’t, he calmly took her mother by the shoulders, turned her around and left, the anger clearly present in his eyes.

Her parents had barely walked ten feet when they heard Derg Moenthal from the ship’s deck shouting at them to hurry aboard. And it was a good thing, too, a scrawny boy with a black and white tattooed face hauled up the gangplank the moment they got on board. Within a minute the ship’s crew had cast off from the docks and they slowly made their way out of the harbor.

Kate knew quite a bit about boats from her father. She discovered they had boarded a short and squat mahogany cargo caravel named The Dragonsprit. Kate’s heart raced when she heard the name and she took it for a good omen.

She noticed that her choice of dress seemed to have been a good one. A loose-fitting blouse and light trousers with a leather vest, wide leather belt and soft knee-high doeskin rounded out her ensemble. The crew of the Dragonsprit were dressed in similar fashion, so she blended right in.

She also saw that Gorbi and Galdar took her advice to heart and were wearing similar clothes, but she clearly saw the glint of mail under Galdar’s shirt!

“Where in the name of Elysium did you get that!” she said in his ear so as not to attract attention to her friend’s suicidal attire.

“It was a gift from the High Priest!” he said, beaming. “Don’t you like it?”

Before she could reply, one of the largest specimen’s of human being she had ever encountered dropped from the mid-boom onto the deck so close that she could smell sweat and rum wafting off the brute.

“If she don’t like it, I know the lobsters will. You’ll have your very own lobster fan-club at the bottom of the sea first time you slip off the deck.”

Galdar glared at the man as he swung back up into the rigging to help hoist the mainsail.

“He’s right, Dar!” Kate hissed. “That armor may look pretty but its going to get you drowned!”

Kate’s admonishment was cut short by a gruff voice. “Gov’nor, glad to see you could make it. But I heard you was just bringing two men aboard. You said nothing about a girl!”

The ship’s captain had emerged from below decks and addressed Derg Moenthal as if he were not at all pleased to see him. The captain was about as gruff of a man as Kate had ever seen. His face was pocked and scarred and one eye looked to be swollen shut. The man was short and muscular and looked to be of an age anywhere between his twenties to his early sixties. Two thick golden rings adorned his ears and Kate could see tattoos peeking out from any bit of exposed skin.

“Don’t you worry about the passenger fares, Captain. I’ve paid up round-trip for myself and two men. There’s one man,” he said, pointing at Gladar, “and the gnome and girl make another.”

Kate frowned and then heard Gorbi suck in his breath. She knew the gnome’s quick temper and put her hand on his shoulder to calm him. The booming laughter that followed from the captain didn’t help matters much.

“Well, grather your men, or whatever you call them, and we’ll find out where you can and cannot go on my ship.”

Kate would later discover the captain’s name was Arganat, and the dobule-masted, lateen-rigged vessel was his pride and joy. He certainly seemed to care more about his ship than he did his passengers, crew, or just about anyone else alive and kicking. The Dragonsprit ran nearly twenty paces from bowsprit to stern and seven full paces at its widest breadth. Kate didn’t think it would be breaking any speed records any time soon, but she had never been on a sturdier vessel. She imagined the thing could weather a storm better than any ship she’d seen.

A high captain’s forecastle dominated the ship’s design and three short wooden doors gave main-deck access to its interior, the ’tween decking and the main cargo holds, below. The captain’s quarters sat just under the forecastle and was accessed by the center door while the two outer doors led down to the ship’s galley, the first-mate’s cabin, guest cabin and the two largest cargo holds. The fore of the ship’s interior held eight small open holds that contained spare sheets, tackle, sails and other necessities.

“The aft-deck is home to me and Mr. Tully,” the captain said while pointing toward the rear of the ship. A gruff looking brawler stood behind the ship’s wheel, looking bored. Kate assumed that was the first mate. “No one, and I mean no one is to be on the aft-deck except me or Mr. Tully unless you have been personally invited by either me or Mr. Tully? Is that clear? Anyone not following this rule, or any of the other rules of this ship, will find themselves shark bait inasmuch time as it takes for one of my crew to toss you over the rails.”

Kate got to meet the rest of the crew during the captain’s little tour. At the top of the mast in the crow’s nest was the black and white faced kid that had stowed the gangplank when they had first come aboard.

“That’s Dogboy,” said the captain, “he’s our cabin boy and crow. There’s not much going on in his head, but he’s got the eyes of an eagle.”

“Why is his face like that?” asked Kate.

The captain grimaced, “Had some no-good parents who belonged to some greasy gang in the city of Cauldron. Called themselves the Jester’s Laugh, or something like that. All of ‘em in the gang put on facepaint before making a hit, ya see? When they had the kid they decided it would be great fun to have his face permanently tattooed black and white like that. Mean thing to do to a kid. But I suppose they got what was coming to them. Some big floating eye-monster thing attacked the city last year – you might of heard ’bout that. Well, his parents got in the way and got dis-in-grated. Heard the whole gang got did for, too. The kid here ended up in an orphanage so I took him on. Me and the crew’s got a soft spot in our hearts for that kid. He don’t have to worry ’bout getting picked on for his looks long as he stays with us. And we keep him well-fed, too.”

Kate also met the ship’s three riggers. The huge man that had laughed at Galdar’s armor was named Zokar. He was six and a half feet of pure muscle. Kate figured he must easily weight three times her own weight, and yet he swung through the ship’s rigging, high above decks, as if he were a monkey. His yellow shirt was drenched in sweat and his grey-brown hair was soaked as if he had just been in a rainstorm, the bandanna tied to his head did little to ebb the flow.

Never far from his side was Zokar’s fiancee, the Lady Min. She was one of the more muscular of women Kate had ever seen, and she was equally agile amongst the rigging.

“Oh she’s a peach, that one,” said the captain. “her Rhennee blood runs deep. She may look like a princess, but cross her and you’ll soon learn the error of your ways, to be sure, and she can use a rapier like the devil uses souls.”

Kate spied a young man with very dark skin swinging alongside Min. “Rhemi,” said the captain. “I wasn’t sure about taking on an Olman. The jungle-people don’t take too kindly to us pir…uh, sailors. But, Rhemi there soon proved to be twice the worth of any other able bodied sailor. Quick learner, that one, and priceless in an negotiation. Me and Tully advanced him to Boatswain couple months back, but he still prefers to spend most of his time in the rigging with Zokar and Min.”

Tonsil, the portly cook and Bilge, the ship’s swabby rounded out the crew.

Eventually, Derg was shown his cabin below the foredeck. There was an uncomfortable moment when the dandy made it clear that his bodyguards would not be sharing the cabin with him, but expected one of the three to be posted at his door at all times and the other two were to be at his side whenever he was not in his cabin.

“Suit yerself, Guv’nor. They’re your men. You can do what you want to with ’em,” growled Captain Arganat, “I’ll have Dogboy fetch a couple of hammocks from the hold and you can sleep above deck with the riggers.”

So, for the rest of the day Kate and Gorbi followed Derg about the ship, always standing or walking two steps behind him, while Galdar sat in the tiny hallway belowdecks outside Derg’s cabin and tried not to get too seasick.

The day was beautiful. A bright sun sailed across the bluest of skies and the tropical shores of the Amedio Jungle passed to starboard while the sea-to-sky horizon cut a straight line to port. The wind was fair and blew from the northwest, so the ship was able to keep a beam reach without tacking for most of the day. Kate had never been outside the city and she knew there was nothing but tropical jungle for miles and miles outside the city limits, but she never would have guessed there could be so much jungle with no sign of any civilization at all.

While there were no other inhabitants Kate could see on land, the same could not be said for life on the water. There were tons of boats out of the Bay. Fishing boats made up the bulk of the vessels that Kate could see, but there were also a fair number of merchant ships, trawlers and a few giant schooners plying the waves further out.

An hour before sunset, the captain called Derg to his quarters to discuss the details of the trip. Kate and Gorbi followed dutifully behind as they made their way belowdecks. A small compass room, full of charts and maps and weird nautical instruments sat just outside the captain’s main cabin room. Gorbi climbed on a stool to get a better view of one of the maps that was laid out upon a tall table.

“Hey, is this a map of Jeklea Bay?” he shouted.

The captain halted just before entering his cabin and turned to the little gnome. Kate could see clear signs of agitation on the captain’s face as he did so.

“Gorbi!” she hissed softly at him in hopes Derg and Arganat couldn’t hear her, “get down from there!”

Gorbi replied in a loud voice that clearly meant he didn’t care who hear him or not.

“No! It’s just a simple question. I should be able to ask it and the Captain should be able to answer it.”

Captain Arganat cursed under his breath and pushed past Derg, bearing down on the gnome standing on the stool.

“You heard your mommy, gnome. Now get down off that stool and do the job you were hired to do.”

Gorbi didn’t seem to notice the captain looming over him like a death-knight from the deep seas.

“So, if this is Jeklea Bay, then this is where we should be, right here,” he squeaked while pointing at a spot of coastline in the far southwest corner of the Bay. “i don’t get it. If we’re here, where’s Sasserine? Why isn’t it on the map?”

“You ask too many questions for a bodyguard, elfling. No get down off that stool and be silent!”

“No!” shouted Gorbi, “what is this? Can’t a guy ask ques..” The little gnome never finished his sentence before the captain grabbed Gorbi around his collar with both hands, yanked him off the stool and began to shake him like a dog worrying at a bone.

“You good for nothing, barnacle! Don’t you ever talk back to me on my ship! When I give an order to you, my crew and even the Gov’nor over there, it WILL be obeyed! Do you hear me! I’m going to throw you overboard, now. No, that’s too good a fate for you. You ever heard of keelhauling? Well, that’s what…”

“Captain, please!” Kate said and she stepped up to the captain and gently placed a restraining hand on his arm. “My friend didn’t mean disrespect. He’s just very curious and his curiosity just got the better of him. I’ll talk with him and I promise it’ll never happen again.”

The captain stared daggers at Kate, but he stopped shaking the life out of Gorbi. For a moment, Kate thought her plea wasn’t going to work and she even feared she might have just volunteered to be the next target of Arganat’s wrath. The captain slowly looked down at Kate’s hand where it rested on his arm, the look of fury still present. He squinted his eyes and looked back at Kate.

Slowly, the captain lowered Gorbi to the floor of the compass room. Kate let out her breath.

“Well, okay,” said Arganat. “Just be sure this one knows how to obey orders next time. Understood?”

Kate nodded.

“Gov’nor,” the captain said, turning to Derg, “I expect you can find your own way out of my cabins. My business with you and your….hirelings, is done for now. Perhaps we can talk later.” He pushed past Derg, entered his personal cabin and slammed the door.

Derg regarded Kate and Gorbi, sniffed, then walked past them, waving his hand over his shoulder indicating they should fall in step behind him again. Gorbi stormed past her, following in Derg’s wake. The scowl on the gnome’s face was a look unfamiliar to Kate.

“He’s going to pay for that,” Kate heard him say as he passed her. She suddenly felt very nervous about what was in store for them.

The three got used to life on deck, as they were quartered there along with the rest of the crew while the captain, first mate and Derg all had rooms below decks. During the warm evenings, the ship anchored just offshore and away from the pounding surf. That night, Kate took first watch outside Derg’s door, making sure he was safe while he slept inside. Gorbi took second watch, taking over for Kate somewhere around midnight and Galdar took third watch just as the eastern horizons began to lighten.

As Kate lay in her hammock in the early morning hours, she stared up at the night sky. She had never seen so many stars before. She had a hard time falling to sleep as she thought about where she was and about the exciting journey she and her friends had embarked upon.

As her eyes finally got heavy and began to close she wondered if dragons flew at night.


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