Thrice The Brinded Cat

Of Spirits Old and New
Freeday, the 20th of Coldeven in the CY 594

“He’s not here?” Gorbi squawked. Or maybe it was a squeak. It was hard to describe the gnome’s voice when he got excited. Gorbi pounded his little hands on top of the wooden counter and stood on his tip toes so that his largish nose poked over the edge and then he furrowed his bushy brows, casting his most ferocious and intimidating gaze at the innkeep. “What d’ya mean, he’s not here? Not here as in he’s not in this inn, or not here as in not in this town? Be clear, man!” Gorbi finished with a grunt for good measure.
For his part, Master Harden, the proprietor of Traveler’s Rest, did his best to look intimidated while simultaneously suppressing a mirthful grin. He took a step back and held up his hands as if warding off a rabid animal.

“Well, hold on there, young man. No need to get tough with old Oren. I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

The inkeeper winked at Kate. “This is your son, I presume?”

Kate’s mouth dropped open and found herself momentarily speechless.

Gorbi’s face turned a deep red and he took in a deep breath. Galdar recognized the signs of an imminent Gorbi-explosion and quickly stepped up next to him, jamming the heel of his boot onto Gorbi’s foot while delivering a sharp elbow to Gorbi’s ribs. The gnome let out his breath all at once at the sudden pain and managed to not say anything.

Kate, on the other hand, regained herself and put her hands gently on Gorbi’s shoulders.

“Oh, yes. This is my little rascal, all right. You’ll have to excuse him. He gets a little excited sometimes.”

Oren Harden let out a chuckle. The man was of average build and average height. Kate guessed by his once-blonde hair, which he wore to shoulder length and held in a pony-tail by a strap of leather, that he was probably somewhere in his mid-fifties. His face was smooth and beardless, but deep crow’s feet marked the corners of his eyes. Oren brushed his rough hands on a worn leather apron which covered a spun cloth shirt and baggy trousers.

“Catspaw drops by Saltmarsh every few weeks, or so, but when he does it’s the Traveler’s Rest he stays at. He doesn’t talk much about where he’s off to, and all that, but I can usually tell he’s been on the road. All that means is that I can’t tell you where he’s at right now. Your best bet would be to just settle in for a nice wait. I’ve got room here if you need, and I can even cut you a deal if you stay by the week.”

Galdar winced. They were getting fairly short on coin and had already spent about a quarter of what Derg paid them back in Sasserine. What seemed like a fortune in gold admirals was quickly drying up.

“How much for the week?” he asked.

Oren looked at the young man as if sizing up him up. “Well, I’d settle for five admirals for the week, but that doesn’t include food or drink! That would be extra, of course.”

Kate bit her lip. Five more gold coins would make quite a dent in their collective funds and then they would have to find a way to feed themselves. And then what if this mysterious Catspaw person didn’t show up this week? What then?

“You said Catspaw stops by this place on occasion. When was the last time you saw him?” she asked.

“He was just in last week. Are you some kind of relative of his? I don’t remember him saying anything about family before and he’s never has anyone come ‘round asking for him,” Oren said, squinting suspiciously.

“No. We’ve never met him before, actually,” Kate felt no need to be anything but honest with this man. “We’ve just got a message from our employer that we need to deliver to him.”

Oren smiled. “If it’s something you trust me with, I can give the message to him, if you like.”

Kate shook her head, “I thank you, Master Harden, that is very kind of you, but I think we had best deliver this to him in person,” she said, frowning. “It’s just that five gold is a lot of money for us.”

“Do you know of any way we can make a little coin while we wait?” Gorbi asked suddenly.

The innkeeper looked down at him and cocked his head to one side as if suddenly second guessing Gorbi’s little kid status. “Coin you say? You seem awfully young to be worrying about things such as that.” The innkeep leaned down on his elbows and looked Gorbi in the eye. “But, we here in Saltmarsh don’t take well to them that cannot pay their bills and you won’t find much in terms of charity on our streets. If you walked the long Coast Road from Seaton than you know we live alone out here. You’ve reached then end of that road, there’s nothing else further on but miles of swamp, where if the bulywugs don’t get you, the mosquitos will. Those who can’t pull their own weight around here, those who go looking for handouts, usually end up locked in the poorhouse, or worse, dumped in the swamp.”

Oren Harden stood up then and put his warm smile back on his face. “So, if you plan on staying long, best make sure you can keep your tab paid.”

Galdar gulped loudly and Kate felt like she was going to be sick. Gorbi, however, was deciding he didn’t like this man much. The little gnome was fairly well known in Sasserine. The people there that saw him on the docks or attending his studies at The House of the Dragon or just loitering with his two friends Kate and Galdar, knew the diminutive lad had a feisty temper. The dockhands and the burley boys and wharf gangs tended to leave him alone, for while he wouldn’t be all that much of a challenge in a straight-up fist fight, those that tangled with him soon found out Gorbachev Mushroomnose didn’t play, or fight, by the rules and sooner or later, Gorbi would find a way to make you pay. Gorbi was smart and he was stubborn and he didn’t always succumb to fits of uncontrollable anger. More often than not, when Gorbi didn’t like someone, he would simply find a way to beat them. Now, here, in a strange town at the edge of the world, Gorbi found himself dealing with a man he wasn’t too fond of, and his mind focused in on what he might do to make this man regret treating him like this; like a child or a worthless beggar.

“So,” Gorbi said, grasping the edge of the counter and pulling himself up again to furrow his brows at the innkeeper once again, “tell us who’s hiring.”

This time Oren really did stand back in grand startlement. He put his hand to his chin and regarded Gorbi, having never seen a gnome or having no understanding of what one was, he was still unsure as to what to make of this young, brash child, who clearly seemed a lot older than he looked, not to mention the unmistakable unshorn whiskers that he noticed for the first time upon the boy’s chin and upper lip.

“Well, sometimes Louie Barr down at the Custom’s House hires workers to help unload cargo at the docks, but we’re not expecting any ships here for the next week or so. Liz, the herbalist sometimes buys goods off travelers, but even if you arrived fully stocked with roots and herbs and who know what else that woman wants, you probably wouldn’t make enough to get by here for long. Booker Lane lost his deck hand last week, kid took off for Burle chasing the daughter of the Earl. But fishing doesn’t pay much and he’d only hire one of you.”

“No, no, no,” Gorbi said with an edge of irritation to his voice, “you don’t seem to understand the line of business we’re in.” Gorbi paused and let the innkeeper mull over his words. Gorbi puffed up his chest and sauntered over to the paned, salt-crusted window next to Oren’s countertop. He looked out at the misty morning as waves crashed upon the beach and the palms lining the avenue swayed gently in the warm breeze outside.

“We’re no common deckhands or teamsters or merchant’s lackeys,” Gorbi said while staring out the window. Then his voice got softer for dramatic effect, “We’re looking for bigger work. You see, we fix things. Things that others are . . . “ and he turned then giving Oren Harden his most piercing stare, “. . . too afraid to deal with. Do you have work like that around here?”

Galdar’s eyes got wide and he waved his hands at Gorbi, silently mouthing the word, “WHAT?” Kate just looked down at Gorbi as if she smelled something unpleasant.

“Uh,” Oren stammered, “oh, wait, are you saying you are adventurers? The three of you?”

The innkeeper looked skeptically at Kate. Kate just shrugged, warming to the ruse. She met Oren’s gaze and stood a bit taller, resting her hands on her hips and elbowing her long cape out of the way so the pommel of her morningstar strapped to her belt came into view.

Oren’s jaw dropped open slightly and he turned his head to look at Galdar. The young lad looked surprised at first, but then realized he needed to play his part in this so he threw back his traveling cloak and unclipped his mace from his belt and then smacked the head of the heavy weapon into the palm of his free hand. Gorbi shook his head, reminding himself to talk to Galdar about overdoing it.

Oren’s jaw dropped a bit more as he turned back to regard Gorbi, who just smiled back at him.

“Adventurers.” Gorbi heard Oren say almost under his breath, “here. In Saltmarsh. Well, I’ll be. There’s something you don’t see around here every day.”

“So,” Gorbi said, “about the work. . .”

Oren cleared his throat and shook his head. “Yes, uh. Well, we don’t get many adventurers around here so we don’t have any sort of official adventurer hiring policy or anything like that.”

“We?” Gorbi asked, “you keeps saying, ‘we’. Who is this ‘we’ and is it ‘they’ who are in charge around here?”

“Oh, yes. The town council, I suppose, is who is in charge around here. But, like I said, the Council don’t really have a policy for hiring adventurers.”

“You make it sound as if your mayor and town council might actually have some jobs for people like us. Is that right?” asked Gorbi.

Oren lowered his head as if ashamed. “I suppose Saltmarsh does have its share of problems.”

“Like what?” pressed Gorbi.

“Well, there’s the lizardfolk in the swamps,” Oren said. “Usually them creatures keep to themselves, far out into the Hool and never come bother us folk. But lately we been seeing them coming close to town and last week Ross Jarton said he lost a cow and figures it was one of them lizards. Council might really appreciate it if someone brave went out there into the swamp and taught them beasts a lesson.”

“Next!” Gorbi shouted.

Oren looked startled again. “What? What do you mean, next?” he asked.

“I mean next job. We’re not tromping into lizardfolk territory and roughing them up just because some dumb farmer misplaced his cow. So, next,” Gorbi said.

“Okay, then,” continued Oren. “I suppose there’s always bulywugs. We’ve got great nests of them all over the place and they’ve become quite a nuisance. And the sounds they make at night during mating season! The croaking and the….well, the croaking. No one sleeps well during bullywug mating season. I bet the Council would look mighty fondly upon the fierce band of adventurers who wiped out the bullywug nests closest to town.”

“Next!” Gorbi shouted. Even louder this time.

Oren winced. “What? What’s wrong with that job? It would take some real heroes to clear out a bullywug nest.”

“It’s a stupid job,” said Gorbi.

“Wait, stupid? Why?”

“Because it’s too easy to get rid of bullywug nests,” said Gorbi.

“It is?” asked Oren.

“Yeah, of course. We’ve got so many bullywugs back home you can barely walk anywhere without bumping into one. But everyone knows bullywugs have super high metabolisms?”

“High..metabowhats?” Oren asked, looking terribly confused.

Gorbi gave him a withering look. “Metabolis….oh, never mind. Their hearts beat really, really fast. That’s all you need to know.”

“Uh, okay. So, what’s that go to do with anything?” Oren asked.

Gorbi rolled his eyes. “Kafe,” he said.

When Oren just looked at him blankly he continued. “Kafe wakes us all up in the morning, right? It gets your heart beating a little faster. So, just dump a pile of kafe grounds outside a bullywug lair. They are hungry little cretins and will gobble it down as soon as you leave and their little hearts start pounding that much faster and then, POP!” Gorbi clapped his hands gleefully, “Their hearts explode. No more bullywugs. Stupid job, so next.”

Oren looked horrified. “Okay, then. Well, I guess there is the old Weer House,” he said.

Kate suddenly looked up in surprise. “Weer House did you say?” There was something to that name she felt she should remember. As if she knew someone by that same name, but she just couldn’t place where she’d heard it before.

“Yes. The house up on the hill,” Oren said while pointing roughly westward, further up the Coast Road. “It’s haunted again.”

“Again?” Gorbi asked. “You mean it’s been haunted before?”

“Yep,” continued Oren. “Years ago. Before my time actually. It’s probably been sixty years since Old Man Weer disappeared and the house went vacant. The old-timers around here say the place filled up with spooks and ghosts soon after. They say the ruckus those ghosts caused up there on the hill was enough There are stories of people going in there to chase the ghosts off and then never coming out again. I guess after a time things settled down, but no one ever wanted to get to close to the place, so it just sat up there on the cliffs overlooking the bay and fell into ruin.”

“But now its re-haunted somehow?” Gorbi asked.

“It’s been nearly a year now,” Oren said. “People say at night they can hear strange sounds again. Like loud bangs and screams and weird lights can be seen in the broken windows. It’s got the townsfolk pretty worried!”

“And you think the mayor and the town council might, perhaps, pay some brave adventurers to go clear the place out of ghosts?” Gorbi asked.

“Well, I suppose they might.” said Oren. “it would at least get their attention. I am sure there are plenty of things around here that the council might hire a proven and experienced group of adventurers to do.”

“We’ll take it!” said Kate, enthusiastically.

  • * *
    “Okay, that is officially the!! creepiest house I have ever laid eyes on.”

“I’ll have to second that. I mean, if I were a ghost I’d even have second thoughts about living in a place like this,” Gorbi said. “What do you think, Kate. You’ve been pretty quiet since we left Saltmarsh.”

Kate scrunched up her brow the way she always did when she was trying extra hard to concentrate on something. “Ug! It’s like right there! In my mind, I can see it, but the more I think, the more it runs away from me!”

Gorbi shot a worried glance at Galdar who just pulled a face and shrugged.

“Uh, Kate?” Gorbi asked in careful tones, “I think you kind of lost us, there. We were asking you if you thought the house was creepy, and then you said something about stuff in your mind and things running away from you and ….and…”

“What he’s trying to say is, are you possessed?” Galdar blurted out.

Both Kate and Gorbi stared back, wide-eyed, at the him.

“What!? That’s what you were going to ask her, right?”

“No!” Galdar cried.

“Yes you were, Galdar! I mean, we both were thinking that if we are about to go into a haunted house,” Gorbi looked up at the dark structure looming on the hill before them and pointed, “in particular, THAT haunted house, which we had just determined was pretty much the creepiest house in existence, and then all of a sudden our fearless warrior woman starts acting crazy. Isn’t asking her if she’s possessed the most logical question at a time like that?”

Gorbi scowled at the lad and muttered something half in the gnomish language and the other half something unintelligible.

Kate threw her hands in the air. “No, look, it’s just that there is something about the name Oren told us about. You know, the people who used to live here. Weer. I know that name somehow but I just can’t remember and it’s driving me crazy. Not possessed, Galdar, just a little insane – and there is a difference.”

“Well, I’ve never heard that name before today, so I can’t help you out there, Kate. But I vote we head up the road a bit further and get a closer look at this place. Then we can figure out what to do next.”

The house was ancient and its weathered wooden walls and shingled roof was black with age. It had two stories with a round corner tower with a conical roof on one end and a series of pointed gables on the other and along the fronting face. The rotten remains of fluted columns, once white, lined a long, railed porch and a balustrated stair led up to a set of entry doors. Glassless windows punctured the walls like dark wounds and at least six crumbling chimneys sprouted from the rooftop. A wing of the house jutted out towards the sea, making the whole structure form a giant “T”. The house itself sat upon a tall cliff with spectacular views of sun-speckled Jeklea Bay to the south, the town of Saltmarsh at the base of the hill to the east and, spread out as far as the eye could see to the west, the vast Hool Swamp. To the north, nothing but rolling hills and grasslands could be seen. Out of sight, beyond the mists, the massive Dreadwood stretched for many leagues, effectively walling off this desolate stretch of the Kingdom of Keoland from the rest of the nation-proper.

Kate and her two friends had left Oren and the Traveler’s Rest soon after their conversation ended. The trio had wandered into town to see the sights and were sorely disappointed. There wasn’t much to be seen in the salty town by the sea. A couple of hundred, warped, wooden buildings were clustered around a smelly slough that had been dug several hundred yards inland from the beach. A dozen, or so, fishing ketches were tied to half-submerged piers and the stench of rotting fish and aged seaweed filled the air.

Local townsfolk stared at the strangers as they passed. Swaggering fisherfolk gawked at them in the street while chamber maids stopped hanging laundry and emptying thunder pots …to be continued…

Seaton and Saltmarsh
Waterday, the 19th of Coldeven in the CY 594

“I’m telling you, we just need to march right into his cabin and demand his money.” Gorbi’s voice was low but intense and his eyes shifted from side to side as if making sure no one were close enough to overhear.

[Note: The characters just landed in the town of Seaton. To find out more about Seaton, click here:

“Listen, G, for the last time, his money is not ours, even if he is dead. I am sure he had a family somewhere and if he has any possessions at all then they belong to them, not us.”

“Galdar, he owes us the money! It’s ours!” Galdar knew the look in his friend’s eye. He hadn’t known many gnomes in his lifetime, but he had heard they could be stubborn, and Gorbi had a flair for mulishness. Galdar felt his temper start to simmer. What he was suggesting was tantamount to stealing and St. Cuthbert, his patron god, had little patience for thieves. But, despite his streaks of obstinance, Gorbi had an exceptionally logical mind. Galdar had been in a million arguments with his friend and he knew all he had to do was be patient and search for the logic. When he started speaking again he did so slowly and deliberately, letting the wisdom of the Cudgel guide his words.

“Look, all I’m saying is that Derg paid us for the first part of our mission, which was to protect him. And, even though we failed at that, I don’t know who we’d give the money back to, so I guess we get to keep it. The only other part of our bargain was with Shag Solomon. Remember, he said he would double our pay when we successfully returned? So, Derg doesn’t owe us anything more. If we want to collect from Shag, we are going to need to get back to Sasserine.” Galdar let out his breath and felt a great calm slide over him. He had done it. He had kept his calm, followed the light of Cuthbert and found the logic.

After the tumultuous events of last night, Gorbi looked tattered and disheveled. The gome’s dark hair was windblown into a wild mop on the top of his head and his face was crusted with sea salt and grime from their battle with the sea monsters. While neither one of them spoke about the deaths of Derg and the crew, Galdar could tell the sudden loss had had a profound effect on the little guy. Gnomes might be irascible and stubborn, but, as a race they could trace their heritage back to the elves and fairies of yesteryear – the Fey. As such, gnomes had a great connection to nature. Even though Gorbi was trying hard to act tough, Galdar knew his friend well enough to see that the gnome was struggling to come to grips with the deaths.

Hours ago the two of them, along with Kate, had collapsed into their hammocks just as soon as the Dragonsprit had tied up to the docks in the little fishing village. but seagulls and the sounds of the wharf had woken Galdar and Gorbi only a few short hours later. They had decided to let Kate sleep while the two of them scrambled down the gangplank to the wooden pier below in order to discuss their situation in relative private. None of the surviving Dragonsprit crew were moving about above decks, but the two felt it best to be out of earshot anyway. Only one other boat was moored up to their dock and not another soul was around. The small armada of Seaton’s fishing fleet were long out to sea, plying the waters for the day’s catch and few people or ships remained on the half-dozen or so of the wooden piers jutting out into the tiny bay.

“So,” Gorbi said with a sly grin, that means all we have to do is get back to Sasserine and we’ll double our money!”

“What? Did you not hear the part about ‘successfully’ returning?” Galdar felt his ire on the rise again.

Gorbi chuckled, “I sure did. All we have to do is successfully make it back to Sasserine and I’ll be forty admirals richer!” the gnome rubbed his little hands together and grinned as if he were about to dive into a roasted pheasant.

“Uh, I don’t think that’s what Shag Solomon meant by ‘successfully return’,” Galdar admonished. “I think we need to have succeeded at the mission before coming back, Gorbi!”

The gnome looked up at him with a blank look. “What mission? I don’t know of any mission. No one told me of any mission.”

All sense of calm and peace were disintegrated. Fragments of his inner tranquility were flung to the far reaches of his soul as Galdar stared at the evil, maligned gnome sitting on the wooden pier.

“Why you no-good, conniving, twisted evil, no-good fey . . .”

“You said ‘no-good’ twice.”

“What?” Galdar stopped himself mid-rant.

“Yeah,” Gorbi said nonchalantly, as if they weren’t in the middle of a heated argument, “when you are calling people names it’s against the rules to use the same name twice and you called me “no-good” two times. You can’t do that.”

Galdar spent the next several minutes stomping up and down the pier, half-shouting unintelligible curses and cuss words in several languages. The nerve of that rotten gnome, he thought. And then he thought up a bunch more questions, like, how could such a miserable person such as Gorbi be allowed to roam free? Shouldn’t there be a prison somewhere for cretins such as he? And, why in the name of Cyrrollalee had he decided to even team up with the foul being in the first place? Well, Galdar told himself while muttering the goblin word for “son of an ugly prostitute”, it was for Kate, of course. Gorbi was Kate’s friend and since Galdar’s best friend in the whole world was Kate, well then, Gorbi was, by default, a friend of his, too. Although friend seemed like such a strong word right now.

“Okay, so we just complete the mission, right?” Gorbi asked him once Galdar had regained his composure.

The two were sitting now on tarred pilings at the foot of the little town’s wharf. It was nearly low tide and seagulls were having a feast on the sandy beach below them. Crabs scurried for cover under stranded piles of seaweed and clouds of sand flies buzzed in the morning heat as the avian hunters scoured the sand.

Galdar reached out for his calm and logic once more. “Well, I suppose we don’t really know what Derg was doing for Shag Solomon. He never really told us.”

“And he was equally mum about the whole thing when we were with his rich friend back there on Sybar. Well, at least I think he was. I kind of dozed off a couple of times during dinner.”

A thought suddenly occurred to Galdar at that moment. “But, you know who might know what Derg was up to? The captain. I bet he could tell us what the mission was, or err…is,” Galdar said, smiling. He was feeling much better now that he had finished stomping around and Gorbi was talking logically again. Galdar was feeling so cheerful, in fact, that he had almost forgiven his little friend for the argument earlier.

“Ok, so let’s go talk to the captain,” said Gorbi as he jumped off the piling and began marching up the dock toward the Dragonsprit. Galdar grinned, jumped down and followed after the gnome.

+ + +

“His belongings are now my belongings. You got that!” the captain bellowed at them, anger and frustration clearly playing across his face. The strain of the night’s sprint through the Eye of the Needle had clearly worn away at the already course Captain Arganat.

Galdar was furious as well. He was sure that the plan was to ask the captain about Deg’s mission, but once inside the captain’s cabin, Gorbi blurted out that they had come for Derg’s possessions. The nerve of that one-track-minded gnome! Now the captain was really angry.

“What my friend here meant to say is that we need to know what Master Derg’s plans were, Captain Sir,” Galdar said, trying his best to smooth things over.

“How in the Nine Hells would I know that!” the captain shouted back at him. “Do I look like someone who cares what other people’s plans are?”

“Well, uh, no, not really, Sir. It’s just we were hired to help Derg complete a mission for his employer and we were hoping there was something among his possessions that would help clarify just what that mission was,” Galdar said in as polite a voice as he could muster.

The captain regarded the gnome and the acolyte as if he were deciding whether or not to make them walk the plank. Galdar was nervous about that prospect at first, then he remembered they were docked close to shore and that he was a fairly competent swimmer and his nervousness dimmed a little.

The captain stood up from the map table at the center of the room. Galdar noticed everything was put back in its proper place after the previous evening’s tumultuous destruction. Arganat walked to his bunk and rifled through a pile of fine clothes and some odds and ends. He produced a small leather tube with a red wax seal at one end from the heap of Derg’s belongings and handed it to Galdar.

Galdar saw that the other end of the tube had once been sealed in wax but was now open.

“This might have what you are looking for. I’ve already read it and it’s of no value to me. Don’t look at me like that! I need to sell his belongings to make enough gold to hire more crew.”

Galdar rolled his eyes and shook his head in disgust as he took the tube from the captain. It was a crime in Sasserine to break the seal of any missive that was not addressed to you and

Galdar could see a roll of fine, tan parchment was rolled up inside the tube. He flicked the tube a couple of times and managed to extract the brittle paper inside. Gorbi stepped close to him and stood up on his tiptoes to see what was written on the paper and Galdar slowly unrolled it.

Galdar could tell the message was penned by someone with a flowery hand. The letters of each word was artistically written with many unnecessary swoops and serifs. It read:

Great Sir, I humbly request to redeem that favor bequeathed upon my Troupe by your vaunted Order. I wish to travel safely from Seaton On The Coast to Grayhill through the Wood. Only you can make the arrangements with Dryer-eplith and Yargrove and I see no other alternative. You can expect my troupe to reach the capitol of the Viscounty on Earthday the Eleventh of Fireseek in the Common Year of 594 and we shall be arriving by sea under cover of night. After this great deed, I would happily call our debts repaid. SS

“SS,” said Gorbi, “that’s Shag Solomon!”

“I am guessing this is the message Derg told the Governor of Syberate he was hired to deliver. Someone named Catspaw was what he said and he was to meet him at some place called The Traveler’s Rest,” Derg said thinking furiously.

“Captain,” he continued, “do you know someone named Catspaw or someplace called The Traveler’s Rest?”

The captain sat back down on his stool and shook his head. “I know a lot of folks and been a lot of places but none of them rings a bell. Mayhaps the library in town will have your answers.”

Gorbi looked shocked. “Library? There’s a library? Here? In this crappy little town?”

The wooden sign hanging over the door of weathered, blistered blue paint was odd; a rainbow of fruity colors springing forth from an open hand. Well, Galdar had seen weirder signs in Sasserine, but how this signified a library was beyond his reckoning.

The three of them stood in the dusty plaza outside the wooden structure, a look of doubt passing between them.

“Are you sure this is the place?” asked Kate, “This doesn’t look much like a library.”

An hour ago, Galdar and Gorbi had bid farewell to Captain Arganat. The gruff seafarer had told them before they left that he planned to stick around Seaton for a week or two in order to scrounge up replacement crew and said he’d give them a discount on the fare if they wanted to sail with him again.

The two then gathered their gear, woke up the still slumbering Kate, and marched into town.

Seaton wasn’t much of a town, compared to Sasserine, but it covered about a mile of coastline and consisted of several hundred buildings, mostly made of bleached wood with the occasional brick wall. The visitor’s wharf, where the Dragonsprit was moored, lay on the outside of the town-proper. Dozens of wooden shanties clustered about a smelly fish market and several inns of questionable repute. A road from the south cut through the market and ended at a stretch of thirty-foot stone wall that surrounded the inn city. Several huge stone braziers were set atop the wall spaced out about fifty yards apart while spearmen in gold and white livery walked the battlements.

A pair of sleepy guards paid the trio no mind at all as they passed through the gates and under the wall, emerging on the other side into a windless, hot and muggy central township. There were no great buildings in Seaton, the tallest being only two stories. The buildings were set far apart from each other with wide avenues of brick and packed dirt between them. Galdar had spied a small, withered park with a small fountain and a bit further on was a weathered stone statue of a one-gallant king. The inner-town was bisected by a small river and the wall was open to the west where the town looked out upon the Jeklea Sea. Galdar could see a small amphitheater a bit futher on and he also spied several small buildings that appeared to be churches or shrines to a variety of gods or other celestial beings, he wasn’t sure which, but he did not see the sign of St. Cuthbert anywhere.

“Excuse me, where might we find the library?” Kate asked a passing, plump woman with a basket of herring resting on her hip. The red-faced woman looked startled at first and then turned to point to a good-sized wooden building just ahead on the northern banks of the little river.

The three of them now stood in the blessed shadow of the building with the odd sign hanging above the door. Several open-paned windows line the walls to either side of the door and the high, slanted roof was made of dull-orange curved tile.

“I don’t recognize the significance of that sign,” Galdar said. “But, I guess we could just go in and ask.”

“Wait,” Kate, standing between her two friends held her arms out to stop them while never taking her eyes of the sign. The back of Kate’s hand cracked right into Galdar’s face while Gorbi simply walked under her other arm. “What if it’s a freaky fortune teller. I think that’s what the sing means, with an open hand and a rainbow coming out of it. Or, maybe it’s the home of a deranged wizard. I think I’ve seen Gorbi cast a spell like that. I mean, what are we really even doing here. We’ve still got some coin left in our pockets. Can’t we just hire passage on a ship back home?”

“Hey! Who are you calling deranged?” Gorbi protested.

“Look, Kate. It’s pretty simple. Shag said he’d pay us forty gold admirals each if we succeeded in this mission. I don’t know about you, but that’s more gold than I’ve ever seen in my life, and if we need to spend a little extra time to deliver this message-scroll to someone, then I think it’s going to be worth it knowing I’ll be able to retire in luxury once we get back home. Now, unless you know who Catspaw is and where this Traveler’s Rest is, then I think we need to do as the captain suggested and find a library to see what we can learn about them.”

Kate didn’t look convinced. “You think we’ll be able to find out where a person is in a library?”

“I don’t know,” Galdar said, “but it’s a start, I suppose.” And with that he ducked under Kate’s arm and opened the door.

The interior of the Seaton Library was Spartan. Creaky wood floors and grey weathered wood planked walls formed the inner shell of a large open room. Light from the windows brightened the place up to an adequate level, but no lanterns or torches were set. Squared beams placed here and there throughout the room held up a low ceiling, hinting at a level above. Threadbare rugs created a path from the front door to the center of the large room, as well as to three or four side chambers. Dusty marble statuary sat in a couple lonely corners and a few rickety chairs, benches and small tables were scattered about in no obvious arrangement. Near the back wall of the large room sat a plain wooden table, covered in books, papers and manuscripts, an ink well and several quills joined the clutter. Four plain but sturdy chairs sat around the table. An aged, white-haired man in a pale, blue robe sat at one of the chairs and looked up as the door opened.

“Welcome to the Temple of Lydia!” the man beamed.

“Oh, sorry, wrong place,” Galdar said. “We were looking for the library.”

“Well then you’ve found it!” the man said, still beaming.

Kate, Galdar and Gorbi looked around with skepticism and confusion.

“Uh, where are the books?” Gorbi squeaked.

“Ah!” the old man behind the desk intoned, grinning and pointing to the top of his wispy-haired head, “tourists, huh? Well, all the books are right up here. Now what can I help you with.”
“Wait a second,” said Kate, “you mean you have all of the books in the library memorized?”

“That I do, missy,” the old man squawked gleefully, “you don’t believe me? Ask me a question.”

Galdar looked down at the parchment with Shag Solomon’s message scrawled on. “Alright,” he said, “where is the Traveler’s Rest and who is Catspaw?”

“Ah ha! Trying to trick me are you! That’s two questions! So, I’ll answer your first. If you want the Traveler’s Rest, well, you’re in the wrong town. You’ll find that inn in Saltmarsh.”

Galdar furrowed his brow. “And where is Saltmarsh?” he asked.

The old man laughed. “The first answer was free. You want any more and you’ll have to pay the fee.”

Gorbi looked furious. “What fee! I don’t know if this is a library or temple, but neither one charges fees where I come from!” he shouted.

“Well that may be,” the old man replied, “but you’re here now and where we are at we charge for both.”

Galdar studied the old man shrewdly, “Well, this might be our first time in the Hold of the Sea Princes, but we didn’t just get off the boat yesterday. What do you take us for, fools? You could be just making this stuff up. If I’m going to pay for knowledge I at least want to see it in a book, and not from the mouth of a toothless old man.”

The priest of Lydia leapt to his feet, “Ha! You seem to imply you are some wise traveler, young-one. But, if you were so smart you’d know this isn’t the Hold of the Sea Princes, you are in the Kingdom of Keoland! And I am not toothless!”

Galdar swaggered toward the old man, holding back a grin, “Kingdom? You call this a kingdom? If it is, I’d like to talk to the person in charge here. I’m going to talk to the king about this!”

“Oh ho!” the priest hooted, “there you go again, thinking you are so smart! The Kingdom of Keoland if vast! So big that Our Magnificence, King Skotti, whose throne lies at the heart of the great city of faraway Niole Dra, has viscounts to run each of the twenty-seven counties of our great nation. Fat chance of talking to the King and you sure won’t find him mucking about the likes of a town like Seaton!”

“So, what you are telling me is that your king cares so little for you that he has put a second-rate magistrate in charge of your town?”

“Second-rate?!!” the old man looked hysterical, “second-rate, you say? Not on your life! Shows you how much you know! The fanciful Cronin Secunforth III, Viscount of Salinmoor, rates no more than fourth at best! That scoundrel of a man and his waspish wife and snotty children spend no time at all here in the county seat of Seaton and instead choose to spend all of their time up north in that backwater town of Burle! And now, good sirs and madam, you owe me two silver sails for this granted wisdom.”

“Really?” Galdar smirked, “I don’t remember agreeing to pay you anything. You gave us that information all on your own.”

The old man’s face turned red and sputtering sounds tumbled from his mouth. “Wha? Why you little trickster! Why I ought to …”

“Now hold on there, gramps,” Galdar said while holding his hands up, “here’s a gold to tell us what we want to know. Okay?” He fished a gold admiral out from his pocket and handed it to the old man, who snatched it away and promptly bit down on it, then studied the coin hawkishly, then grunted, apparently satisfied at the authenticity of the gold.

“So, we are looking for someone by the name of Catspaw,” Galdar continued, “would you know who that is?”

The old man looked a bit ruffled, but his coloring had returned to a more even pale and she sat back down in his wooden chair behind the table. “Of course I do, trickster. Most people do. Catspaw happens to be one of the most adept rangers in these parts. He spends most of his time in the Dreadwoods up north, but he will often wander down into the Hool and sometimes wanders this far east.”

“The Hool?” Gorbi asked, “what’s that?”

The old man started to protest, but Galdar pointed at the gold coin and the man sighed, “The Hool is a vast and trackless swamp that separates southwest Keoland from The Hold to the southwest and the nation of Yeomanry to the northwest. There’s nothing in there but death and the hands of a thousand bullywugs and ten million mosquitos.”

“So, you said this Traveler’s Rest is in another town? Saltmarsh, you say?” Galdar asked.

“Yes. Saltmarsh is a fishing town on the edge of the Hool, about twenty miles west of here.”

Galdar looked back at the note from Shag Solomon, “And we are also looking for a place called Grayhill through the Wood. What would that be?”

The librarian-priest looked oddly at Galdar, “well, I suppose now we know why you want to find Catspaw. You’ll need him if you plan to travel to Grayhill by way of the Dreadwood. Grayhill is the capital of the Barony of Grayhill and one of the few settlements in existence within the boundaries of the Dreadwood, but it lies on the northern side of the wood. Sane people go around, I can’t imagine why you would want to go through it.”

“Well, you might have already guessed by now we’re not just anybody,” Gorbi said while puffing out his chest.

“Not anybody sane is what I think,” the old man retorted.

“And who is Dryer-eplith and Yargrove?”

The old man raised his eyebrows and stared at them. After a moment he continued, “I will tell you Yargrove is referring to Reynard Yargrove, The Great Druid of Sheldomar Valley and who currently lives somewhere in the Dreadwood, but I sincerely doubt you have enough coin left in that pouch for me to tell you about Dryer-eplith.”

The trio of friends looked wide-eyed at each other.

“Actually, I think Lydia has earned Her gold. If you want any more answers, I’ll require further recompense.”

Galdar shook his head. “No. Thank you, you’ve been very helpful. Thank you for your time and knowledge, good man.” And with that, the three of them left the Temple of Lydia. Or the Library, take your pick.

“Well, that was interesting,” Galdar said, “so, what do you think?”

“I suppose we could stay here in Seaton for the night. But out money isn’t going to hold up forever. If we’re going to make a profit on this little adventure, I’d just as soon get to this Saltmarsh place as quick as we can, find this Catspaw guy at the Travelers Rest, deliver that note and get back to Sasserine so we can collect our pay!”

Galdar liked Kate’s level-headed wisdom. “Yes. I concur,” he said matter-of-factly. Then he looked up at the sun which was near directly overhead. “But it’s got to be getting close to noon now. If we have twenty miles to cover in this heat, we’ve got to get a move on now.”

“These stubby legs aren’t going anywhere without something underneath them. I saw some stables back there on the other side of the bridge. Let’s go see if they have any ponies for sale.”

“Gorbi, we can’t go spending all of our money now. A pony could cost half of what we have!” Kate said.

“Aw come off it, Kate! It’s going to be midnight before we get to Saltmarsh at the rate I walk. You’ve got to be kidding me . . .”

And so the friends left Seaton by the Sea along the Western Road and the argument continued for the better part of the afternoon.

Delgon let Kate and Gorbi fight it out. Kate seemed in a mood to argue and as long as they were arguing Gorbi seemed to not notice the fact that they were already well along the road to Saltmarsh without any ponies at all. Galdar loved to travel and explore and this strange new land was more than he could have asked for. He closed his ears to his arguing friends and instead concentrated on the magnificent sights and sounds and smells of this alien land.

Just on the edge of Seaton he noticed a tall statue of a noble looking man wearing a crown. A small plaque identified the figure as King Tavish the Great. Just outside the northern gates (which were just as well-guarded as the southern ones) he spied a quaint cemetery resting in a field surrounded by tall golden grass. A beautiful shrine to the goddess Wee Jas stood just at the entry to the graveyard.

The sea breezes were cooling, as the temperature and humidity in this hot land would have been miserable without them. The sky was cloudless and a deep, dark blue. Tall golden grasses with fluffy tops of down dominated the landscape, while short shrubs and stunted, windblown trees dotted the view. To his left, Galdar looked out across the bright, blue sea, the sun sparkling and glittering atop the water all the way to the thin line of land at the horizon that marked either the Monmurg peninsula or one of the Sea Holders’ islands. To his right, the fields of grasses and trees stretched for mile before ending in a hazy strip of dark green marking, what he thought, must be the edge of the faraway Dreadwood. Behind him lay the walled city of Seaton, but in front of him the road beckoned. Dusty and wide, the road snaked ahead, cutting a wavy line across the fields of grass as far as the eye could see.

Galdar was happy to be on the road and he felt a sense of purpose in his steps and a sense of excitement of what might lie around the next bend in the road. At first he tried to keep the smile from his face, this was serious business they were on, afterall. But then, after a while, he relaxed and grinned foolishly, for which he found he didn’t really care! And the miles drifted away underfoot.

Birds of countless types darted from tree to tree as they walked (and argued), while their passage stirred up small fox-like creatures for which Galdar was unfamiliar, the small vulpines scampering across the road and yipping as if scolding their presence. There were bigger creatures, too. Galdar was startled the first time a small herd of strange antelope with long, twisted horns burst from the tall grass and bounded away in giant hopping leaps.

It was several hours after leaving Seaton when Galdar heard the loud growling. The sound startled him, too, until he realized the sound was coming from his own stomach. Galdar called for a halt by the edge of a small, burbling brook that cut under road. Kate and Gorbi had stopped arguing an hour earlier, but Galdar soon realized they had just stopped talking to each other altogether. That turn of events was perfectly fine with him, he preferred eating in silence, anyway. It allowed him more time to concentrate of the food.

The three plopped down in the grass, just off the road and soaked their feet in the cool stream while rummaging in their packs for the packets of food they had wrapped tightly in palm fronds before leaving Sasserine. Tonsil had fed them well while aboard the Dragonsprit, so there had been no need to dip into their precious rations. Galdar was very happy that the salted pork had survived the week just fine, he was slightly disappointed that the cheese and dried papaya had taken on a slight mold, and he was devastated that his mother’s lime sponge cake had completely disintegrated and become hard as bark. Gorbi had brought a flask of sweet red wine, which he silently shared with the other two before draining the flask himself.

When the meal was finished, Galdar let out a large belch, rubbed his stomach and then jumped straight to his feet in a wild panic, startling Kate and Gorbi in the process.

“What!?” Kate whisper-shouted at him, “Are we in danger? Should we hide?”

“No!” Galdar looked exasperated, as if Kate should have known the reason for his sudden burst of fear, “I just realized we just ate all of our food! We’re in the middle of no where and we have no food! We’re going to die!”

“Simmer down!” Gorbi scolded, “we’ll restock in Saltmarsh. No one is going to starve, Galdar.”

Galdar shook his head as if trying to shake cobwebs free from his golden locks of hair and then let out a deep sigh. “You’re right, Gorbs. I’ve just never been this far from available food before and it’s got me all in a panic. But, let’s not dally about here. The sun is getting low and I usually get pretty hungry after sunset.”

Galdar enjoyed the rest of the afternoon as they hiked along the dusty coastal road. The sun dropped low in the sky and spread it’s warm, orange glow across out across the bay below them. But as afternoon turned to evening, and the sky turned to deep purple and still the trio saw no sign of civilization, Galdar began to fret again.

Several hours later, Galdar thought his feet were going to simply drop off his legs. The sky was filled with a mosaic of bright stars and little Celene shown a brilliant blue, nearly full, just above the horizon, while her giant silver sister, Luna, was just a sliver that split half the night sky overhead. The sound of the waves in the distance had become a dreadful cadence as he marched along wearily into the night, but just as he was thinking about crawling into a patch of nightflowers and curling up to sleep when Kate let out a shout from up ahead.

“I see lights!” she said gleefully. “Up ahead, it’s a town! It’s Saltmarsh. We made it!”

At Kate’s word, new energy filled the Galdar and he hurried up the road and over a crest of a hill and was delighted to see the lights of a small town, tucked into a small valley between grass covered hills. The town appeared to consist of several dozen buildings with many lanterns lighting the streets between and cozy hearth-fires flickering merrily behind slatted windows. The sounds of a lute and drum drifted up to greet them and the distant ring of laughing and merriment could be heard.

They hurried their step just a pace and nearly skipped down the road where it wound down into the valley below and then turned to meet up with the sandy beach of Monmurg Bay. They passed neat rows poplars and palm planted long ago along the Coast Road’s edge, creating a grand entrance to the sleepy little fishing town. They passed several small homes on their right and Galdar could smell the aroma of spiced fish and turnip pie mingling with the sweet scents of fruit wine. Voices could be heard from within the homes, often punctuated with laughs or shouts. A dog barked somewhere further up ahead and the surf crashed upon the beach.

“Well, imagine our luck!” said Kate as she pointed at a large building just up ahead. Galdar could see the place was a two-story wood and brick affair and much larger than the homes they had just passed. A wooden sign hung from the covered porch, depicting a brightly painted red knapsack tied to a pole. The words “The Traveler’s Rest” were carved upon it.

The inside of the inn was in full swing when the trio entered. Two dozen locals, mostly fishermen by the look and smell of them, ate, drank, laughed, gambled and danced to the sea shanty played by a pair of bards on a tiny stage in one corner of the common room. The singer, a middle-aged elf, played a hammered dulcimer and belted out a bawdy tune, while his partner, a buxom blonde lass, sat on a stool working the bagpipe and foot-drum.

Now, I don’t want a harp nor a halo, not me
Just give me a breeze and a good rolling sea
I’ll play me old squeeze-box as we sail along
With the wind in the rigging to sing me a song

A long, polished bar ran along one side of the common room with a short set of steps leading to an office and the kitchens. A longer flight of steps led up, past rows of windows, to the second floor of the inn. Several barmaids twirled amongst the rowdy bunch, bringing pints of the good stuff and bowls of chowder to the hungry crowd. Galdar saw that a pint and bowl seemed to go for a silver sail and a pinch of the barmaid’s bottom cost you another.

Kate managed to gain the attention of a rosy-cheeked barmaid as she slapped at the hand of a drunken lad. She took their coin for the night, which came to a dozen silver sails, pointed up the stairs and said that food and drink and fun would be extra, of course. She also said if they were planning to stay longer than a night they should talk to the proprietor in the morning. Kate asked if Catspaw was around, the maid gave her an odd, confused look and then shrugged before whirling back into the boisterous crowd.

The room upstairs was cramped and the bed was full of lice. The three didn’t need much room as Galdar was the size of a typical human child and Gorbi was considerably smaller than that. Kate was just a slip of a girl, so they pushed the bed into the far corner and set their bedrolls upon the floor.

Galdar wondered how he was going to manage any sleep at all with the sounds of the music and shouting below. It was so loud he could even make out the words of the song, but he only managed to hear a single stanza before sleep claimed him.

Now let ev’ry man drink off his full bumper,
And let ev’ry man drink off his full glass;
We’ll drink and be jolly and drown melancholy,
And here’s to the health of each true-hearted lass.
We will rant and we’ll roar like true Keo’ish sailors,
We’ll rant and we’ll roar all on the salt sea.
Until we strike soundings in the channel of Monmurg;
From Ulek to Port Toli is thirty five leagues.

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 . . .


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