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Leafblade

An Everquest Novella

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(This is my first attempt at an EQN Novella much like we've seen from Lassen and Drake. There's a lot I'd still like to write on it, but as with all stories, they are never finished, just abandoned. There's a lot I don't know yet about the actual EQN reimagining, so much of what I write here is guessing and speculation and may turn out to be inconsistent with the game we play someday. Typed, it came out to about 23 pages. It is based around an idea I had concerning the 'exodus' and journey to Antonica for a certain group of people. It would be set at the time that the game is to start for many of us looking forward Everquest Next.)

 

 

Last Ship Out of Kunark

 

                                                         1

The Morning After

 

He stood on the shore as the waves rolled in. They were coming in higher with each surge of the tide, rolling up the beach toward him, splashing at his bare feet. He tried to step back but his feet would not move. When he looked down to see why, he found his feet sinking into the sand. He wrapped his hands around one ankle and tried to pull it out but it was stuck fast. His heart started to race, his breaths coming fast as he bent over and dug his fingers into the sand to dig his feet clear. Furiously he dug, but no matter how much sand he scooped out, more sand and water rolled in to fill the hole. His feet were sinking deeper into the beach.

 

 

An ominous rumbling sound made him look up. A wall of water, impossibly high, towered over the shoreline and rushed toward him. He tried to back up but his feet were stuck. He fell backward onto the sand. The sky above was dark and angry. A figure in the clouds, made of clouds itself, an angry man with lightning bright eyes set amidst a dark, cloudy head reached toward him. And then the wall of water, topped with white foaming fingers curled over him threateningly and began to fall.

 

 

The water pounded into the beach with thunderous fury. He closed his eyes but the water pummeled him, rushed over him, and pulled his arms away above his head with angry current but his feet held fast in the sand. Salt water filled his nose and roared into his ears. He opened his eyes and the blur of warped light through water shone through. He opened his mouth to yell but water rushed in-

 

Tomon woke with a start. His heart was thumping madly in his chest. His eyes took in the sight of a wooden floor beneath him and a wall of dark timber not far away. He felt himself swaying. Heard the sound of waves breaking apart, but at a distance. He was curled up against hard wood under a rough blanket, black spots all over it as if it had been singed in a fire. A railing was above his head. A white, canvas sail flapped in the air above him. A sail?  Memory flooded back in.

 

 A memory of the panicked race through town to the docks with his father. People screaming far behind could be heard. Some people running faster than he, passing them, looking over their shoulders, the flames of the town lighting up their wide eyes as they looked back. He remembered running along the pier, two other ships with sails set already pulling away from the docks into the night. From a distance, he could see some people still trying to jump from the docks to the ships. Some did not make it and fell into the water. He and his father had made it to the last one.

 

 

He remembered his father picking him up as they got to the ship. He saw lines of rope leading away to rowboats, visible on the night water due to the fires from shore. Men pulled on oars, trying to pull the ship away from the dock. He had been carried up the gangplank by his father, set down into an out-of-the-way corner, and told to stay still and stay on board. “No matter what happens,” his father had said breathlessly. With that, he had unsheathed his sword and run back down toward the dock.

 

 

“They’re coming!” he had heard people yell while he huddled against the railing of the ship with his eyes shut. Hearing a thud, he had opened his eyes to see a flaming arrow stuck in the deck near his foot. Others had hit around the ship. One had stuck in the sail above him. He had peeked up over the edge of the railing to see if his father was there somewhere, but the dock was on fire. Shadowy figures fought with each other.

 

 

“Daaad!” he yelled. The boat was slowly edging past the end of the dock as more flaming arrows flew into the night sky. “Son!  Stay on board!  Make your mother prou-“  As his father’s voice was cut off, he’d been grabbed by a rough hand, had a blanket shoved into his midst, and told to put out fires.

 

 Heavy feet thumped along the deck near him, bringing him out of his dreamy recall. A dwarf made his way along the railing, swaying unsteadily as he neared the opening in the railing. “Whoa!”  He lurched the last few steps toward the side and wrapped an arm around the rigging coming down from the sails and attached to the side. He jerked his trousers open and passed water over the side, his eyes still closed, head bobbing forward clumsily on his shoulders.

 

He was a dirty dwarf. His beard was dark with things in it that didn’t belong in a beard. Most of the dwarves Tomon knew from town had been proud of their beards and kept them neat. This dwarf had dirty pants, a scarred leather apron over a dirty shirt, and black streaks on his face and atop his bald head as well. His eyes opened and then opened wider. “Blast, where’s the gangplank?”  As he continued to pass water, his eyes rolled up and around, searching. “Blast, where’s Kunark?”

 

“Gone.”  The word was out of Tomon’s mouth before he knew it. The dwarf turned his face toward him, still passing water. His eyes looked very tired and red. “Gone?” he rasped.

 

“We had to go,” Tomon said. “The shissar were coming. Or the iksar.”  He shrugged his shoulders. “I never saw them.” 

 

“Can’t be,” the dwarf said. “I saw the mayor waving the treaty in the air. The Emperor’s ambassador signed it. We’re a free town. Me and the lads, we had a keg to celebrate last night.”  He continued passing water over the side. Tomon found himself wondering how long he could do that.

 

“The boy’s right, Master Stouthammer.” 

 

Tomon looked up to the sterncastle to find the voice. A kerran looked down at him. His clawed hands were on the captain’s wheel. Like all the kerrans, this one reminded Tomon of a man-sized cat that walked on two feet. He wore clothes like most men, but no shoes on his hairy and clawed feet. He wore dark leggings and a shirt that had once been white but had burn marks and charred streaks on it. It was open down the front and showed a furry chest. He glanced to the dwarf, “Treaty was a trap. You and most of the garrison had some of that special ale. Compliments of the Emperor. None of you woke up. Not when the bells rang. Not when enemy came through the front gate. Not when the screaming started. Not ever…”

 

The dwarf dropped to his knees. He’d stopped passing water now, but his face looked worse. “Blast,” he rasped, before vomiting over the side.

 

“That’s it, Master Stouthammer, get it out of your system,” the kerran at the wheel continued calmly. His eyes looked forward again, searching the skies and the open sea.

 

The dwarf continued for some time until Tomon felt he could not possibly have anything left to throw up. Finally he fell back on to the deck, leaning weakly on the railing. His eyes were closed with fatigue, his mouth hanging open. “Vagano…what about…my own?” he asked between breaths without opening his eyes.

 

The kerran at the wheel sighed, his ears flattening in response. “I am sorry,” was all he said. The dwarf’s face winced. “Why me?”

 

“You were the closest to me when the attack came, Master Stouthammer.”  The kerran, Vagano apparently, shook his head as his eyes gazed across the ocean, clearly seeing events from the night before. “My choices were few. I knew this old tug would need a man who was good with his hands. I grabbed you. Hoped you would wake up. Got a hundred souls below counting on you to serve as my boatswain and keep us afloat.”

 

Tomon thought he recognized the voice of the kerran now. It was the same one that had ordered him to start putting out fires last night.

 

Last night-

He had run about pulling burning arrows out of the deck and smothering small flames with the blanket. For a while, it seemed there were more falling on the deck than he or the others could put out. A few people were hit by them and made terrible sounds. He didn’t know what to do for them, so he kept putting out little fires. After a time, the arrows stopped falling. He’d followed the flames up some stairs toward the back of the ship, putting them out as he went. He came near the captain’s wheel and found the captain laying on the deck with a flaming arrow stuck in his chest. He wasn’t moving. Tomon put the flames out before they spread over the rest of the captain’s body, but he did not get up. When he called for help, a few men came and one pulled him away. He was pushed against the railing and covered up with the blanket before a deep voice said, “You’ve done well, boy. Get some rest.”

 

“That’s enough rest for now, boy,” said Vagano. Tomon was pulled from his thoughts of the previous night and looked up at the kerran. It was Vagano that had started barking out orders and took over the helm when the captain was found slain the night before. “Get yourself some water and a bit of bread from the kitchen,” the kerran said. “Get some water for our dwarven friend as well. Then come back to me. We’ve plenty to do today.”

 

“Will I see my dad again?” Tomon asked.

 

Vagano stared hard straight ahead but his ears flattened a little. After a long moment he turned his eyes down toward Tomon and did a double-take as if he was surprised to see him still there. “No time for that now, boy. Get to the galley and do as you’re told!”

                                                               

2

Fire in the Night

 

“Blast!” the dwarf barked. His dark face and beard were illuminated dimly in the night by a yellow light. Tomon was walking up the steps from below deck when he heard the word.

 

It had been a difficult few days sailing up the coast and hearing the word Blast! barked out by a deep voice had been a regular occurrence. Vagano had largely been accepted as the captain without much discussion. He had been first mate to the deceased captain and there were precious few others aboard with experience at sea. There were only a handful of sailors, a lucky few that had been on board when the trouble started. There were even fewer soldiers to guard the food stocks and keep order, but one of them was a large, powerful looking kerran named Vargas. Master-at-Arms he was called most often by Vagano. Able men, women and some children had been pressed into emergency service to keep the boat going. Durgin Stouthammer had blustered about above and below decks with a few amateur assistants in repairing damage from the escape and keeping the The Seahorse, or old tug as Vagano was fond of saying, afloat and moving. There were a couple of people tending to the wounded and injured that made it aboard during the escape. They’d labored on in hopes of making it to the next town up the coast. Talk was they would reach it this night.

 

    The dwarf’s moonlit face was the first he saw among many in a crowd on deck looking in the same direction. Behind him was the large ogre he’d seen earlier in the day. He was immense, seemingly the only one on the ship who was bigger than Master-at-Arms Vargas. He had dangerous looking teeth sticking up out of his lower jaw, almost like tusks. His large face of yellow-green skin was illuminated by an odd glow that did not look like moonlight.  Beside them were a few sailors, men and kerran, several men with swords that Tomon knew served Vargas as soldiers of the night watch, and a couple of fair skinned and fair haired elves with very tall ears. Tomon had seen the couple walking arm-in-arm earlier in the day about the deck. They were all standing still, staring, and whispering in the night.

Tomon stepped out onto the deck and followed the gaze of the crowd. The sight of a town, wharfs and many ships alight in flames made for a grand spectacle off in the darkness of the night.

 

“First our own Dalnir, now Warslik” said Durgin grimly. “Do you think those bloody Shissar are burning Kurn’s Tower too?”

 

“They will paint the high walls of Kurn with shissar blood first,” said one of the soldiers in the crowd defiantly. “At their best with all their iksar slaves doing their bidding, they were never able to take the tower.”

 

Tomon noticed a few iksar elsewhere on the deck looking toward the soldier but saying nothing. He paused his gaze on them for a moment. He knew many of them had broken from the shissar empire and joined the Combine, but he also knew there was mistrust amongst some of the races and the iksar still. Tomon thought it might have something to do with their scaly skin, lizard-like heads, and tongues that seemed to stretch out forever from their mouths.

 

He turned back to look at the burning town. The flames were growing brighter and Tomon felt the ship start to turn away from the burning docks.

 

“Snakes are for stepping on,” growled the ogre. “If there were more of my kind on this ship I’d tell Captain Heartless there to turn us toward shore and have us step on a few more in the name of the Warlord!”

 

Tomon heard a thin chuckle from behind the crowd. Some turned to the sound. A shadow in the dark with gleaming eyes looked out. “Anashti has blessed us with but one of your kind, Rorshif.”  The voice was little more than a hiss but it carried over the deck. “Any more and we would be ramming the docks on fire and challenging the flames themselves in a duel to the death.”

 

The ogre growled in response, turning menacingly toward the voice in the shadows. “Filthy little black elf. Step out of the shadows and I will step on you first!” 

 

“The question remains,” Vagano interrupted, “if we should continue up the coast toward Kurn, or set our sail for Antonica.”

There was a sudden murmur of surprise and doubt from the crowd. Clearly what Vagano had said was unexpected.

 

“Antonica?” questioned Rorshif, turning away from the dark elf. “I will not!”  His lower jaw seemed to stick out further in defiance, his tusked teeth standing taller. A few voices murmured support.

 

“Rorshif,” Vagano said patiently as he continued to steer the ship away from the burning remains of Warslik, “we were very fortunate that the supplies were loaded on to this boat hours before the attack on Dalnir. We do not have an inexhaustible supply, however. Even a cook such as yourself cannot make something from nothing. If we cannot make land, and we sail to Kurn and find it in ruins, we will not have food nor water to make it to Antonica.”

 

“I don’t need food or water to make it to Antonica,” Rorshif growled, his massive hands clenching into fists now. “I’m not going to Antonica. I’m staying right here on Kunark.”

 

There was a good deal of whispering and wondering gazes amongst those on deck. Nobody said anything for a few long moments. The eerie sound of a large building collapsing in flames echoed across the water. The flaming ruins were receding into the night as the ship moved onward.

 

“Rest assured, my good ogre,” Vagano said for all to hear. “Any man wishing to be put ashore will be when it is safe to do so. But they should consider carefully that we may be the last ship out of Kunark.”  A silence settled over the deck, broken only by the creaking of the rigging and the passing of the water.

 

“Get to your bunks, everyone,” Vagano finally said. “We’ll call council in the morn and give folks a chance to say their piece before our next move.”

 

3

Toward the Open Sea

 

Ultimately, there was little discussion the next morning. In the night they had passed two more small coastal fishing villages in flames along the coast. A fisherman had escaped to the water on his boat and was picked up by The Seahorse. The tale he shared of fire and death echoed what others knew from the dark night in Dalnir.

 

Over half of the people on the ship had planned to follow the exodus of the various races of the Combine overseas already. The return to the ancestral lands of Antonica had been going on for several years now and had gained momentum as word returned of the successful forming of new settlements. Separating oneself from the enslaving shissar with a large sea was an appealing idea for many who had endured their oppression. Some still worried about a return of the dragon attacks and the Ring of Scale on Antonica, but nothing had been heard or seen of them in years beyond count.

 

The other half on the ship had been those taking desperate refuge from the burning town. It was well known that most who had yet to go were planning to stay in Kunark. It was the only home they’d known. But most of them on the ship were persuaded by the seeming destruction of the civilized coast. Rorshif had protested mightily but when not a single soul would follow the ogre ashore, he had relented, sulkily returning to the galley to prepare the next meal.

 

So the ship turned toward the open sea. The horizon off the stern showed the land of Kunark retreating into the distance. Tomon sat on a coil of rope, eating his bowl of stew and hunk of bread. Staring out under the railing of the sterncastle, it struck him he was now getting further away from his father. Vagano had refused to answer him whenever he asked about his father, sending him off to do another errand or ignoring him entirely. Now he was being taken away from home and out to the open sea. His vision started blurring. His eyes filled with tears. A sob escaped him as a tremor of sorrow moved through his body.

 

Durgin Stouthammer paused his report on the work below decks and turned to look behind him at the sound of the boy crying behind. His bearded face grimaced and turned back to look up at the tall kerran at the ship’s wheel. Beside him was the fisherman picked up the night before.

 

“Vagano-

 

“Master Stouthammer, I believe it is past time you addressed me as Captain. Wouldn’t you agree?”  Vagano said. “It will be a long and difficult voyage made more so if discipline breaks down on the ship.”

 

“Oh blast it,” Durgin growled lowly. “Captain,” he said, “I believe it is past time that you addressed the boy about his father. Wouldn’t you agree?”

 

The Captain rolled his eyes at the dwarf’s mockery but the fisherman broke into the discussion. “The boy’s father is not with us?”

 

Vagano glanced at the fisherman before turning his gaze ahead again. He spoke lowly so as not to be heard elsewhere. “The boy’s father stayed behind to fight off the attack on the docks, allowing us to escape. I’ve tried keeping the boy busy since.”

 

There was a long silence while the three stood at the captain’s wheel. “A lot of folks aboard lost someone, left someone behind,” Vagano said.

 

“Blast, boy,” Durgin growled. “Finish that meal and come find me. We’ve work to do.”  The dwarf stumped away from the wheel and down the stairs to the main deck. Tomon couldn’t muster the composure to do more than bob his head in acknowledgement. But even in his misery, he could hear the softness in the dwarf’s voice.

 

Tomon felt a hand close over his shoulder and looked up to see the bearded fisherman picked up the night before. “Tomon?  That is your name, is it?”  Tomon nodded yes, wiping his eyes clear and then searching the man’s face curiously. His beard was a mix of dark and gray. His eyes were a dark blue and topped by eyebrows that seemed bushier than the hairy kerran, Vagano. His hair was colored as his beard, but swept back in waves as if buffeted by a sea wind for a long time. His cheeks were red and billowed out like sails in a high wind. He knelt down by Tomon, leaving his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Tell me the kind of man your father was,” he said firmly.

Tomon was tongue-tied for a moment. He couldn’t stop himself from looking into those blue eyes. At the raise of one massive dark eyebrow, he remembered what he’d been asked. “My father.”  The fisherman nodded patiently. Tomon’s eyes turned to look out to the sea. The trail of the ship’s wake stretched out behind them.

 

“Strong,” Tomon started. “A good man. A good man, they said.”  Tomon recalled standing next to his father when they met townsfolk. When they met soldiers, merchants, bakers, important people and normal people, they knew his father.

 

“They?” the fisherman asked.

 

“Everyone,” Tomon replied. Looking back to him, Tomon saw eyes searching, questioning. “The blacksmith, the storekeeper, the guards,” Tomon paused. “He was the captain of the guards.”

 

The fisherman waited. “And?” he finally said.

 

Tomon wasn’t sure what else to say. Did he need more people?  More names?  What else was he looking for?  Why was he even asking?

 

“People smiled when they saw him,” he finally said. “I think they liked him. They said I was his spitting image. That I should work to make him proud.”  The fisherman nodded. Tomon asked before he knew it: “Will I see him again?”

 

The blue eyes of the fisherman looked into his. For a long moment he said nothing. He let out a long breath and finally said, “I don’t know, Tomon. There’s a lot of folks on this ship that are wondering if they’ll see someone they love again. For now, if you want to make your father proud, we need to do what we can to help this ship get to where we are going. That would make your father proud, wouldn’t it?”

 

Tomon nodded. It wasn’t the answer he had wanted to hear. He wanted to start crying again. But the fisherman kept looking into his eyes and kept him from looking away. The fisherman held out his hand. Tomon reached out to put his small hand into the big one of the fisherman. “Let’s get to work and make your father proud. My name is Winsul. Work hard and find me at midday meal. I could use your help with a task the Captain has given me. Agreed?”

 

Tomon smiled and nodded. “Agreed, sir.”

 

Winsul nodded. “Run along, boy, before the dwarf has another reason to grumble.”

 

Tomon jumped to his feet and hurried toward the stairs down to the main deck. He decided he liked Winsul.

 

4

A Word of Mutiny

 

Rorshif looked angry. He always looked angry, Tomon thought, but he looked especially angry now as he argued with Captain Vagano near the wheel. Tomon started checking the fishing lines again. Winsul gave his shoulder a squeeze before walking away toward the captain and the ogre.

 

The fishing had been slow going so far, but Winsul had said it was to be expected as they were moving through a place in the sea that had little life, little wind, and little rain. He reassured Tomon it would change before long and their trip to Antonica would pick up. Tomon hoped so. The last week had been a difficult one. Men and women labored at the long oars beneath the decks. Tomon heard near constant talk of the food and water getting low. The argument seemed to be growing as he looked back to the raised voices at the wheel. There were more people around the captain now.

 

“We’ve been over this already, Rorshif,” Captain Vagano said. “Even if we had a southerly wind to help, we don’t know that we have a safe place to put ashore anywhere on Kunark.”

 

“We’ll make a safe place to put ashore or die trying!” Rorshif bellowed. “At least we know there’s land, food and water there.”

“We also know the Emperor’s armies are there,” said another large kerran. Tomon knew him as the one they called Master-at-Arms Vargas. He was taller and more powerfully built than Vagano, but still smaller than the ogre. Two men in armor and with sheathed swords at their waist stood behind him. Tomon felt better knowing they were there. He recognized one of them as a man that had been a part of the City Guard under his father. They and the Master-at-Arms had patrolled the boat, broken up a few disagreements and kept the peace. They seemed to stand firmly behind Captain Vagano.

 

“We don’t know they are everywhere!” Rorshif roared in response. The two iksar on board were standing behind Rorshif. They nodded their lizard-like heads in support of Rorshif. Tomon thought it was odd they stood in support of the ogre since he didn’t seem to like anyone, including iksar, but if they all wanted to go back then he supposed it made sense.

 

“We DO know where they are not, and that’s Antonica,” interjected Vagano. “The Combine has prepared settlements and scouted the lands for years now, my good ogre. There’s been no trouble from the dragons. Most of the people on board already had plans to join the Combine there.”

 

Durgin and another of his helpers stepped up the stairs from the main deck to join the growing crowd. Tomon noticed a few sailors looking on from the main deck.

 

“Most of the people on board had plans not to starve to death on this ship, Vagano,” Rorshif said, gesturing with an angry finger.

 

Captain Vagano,” the Master-at-Arms reminded loudly.

 

The ogre didn’t seem to hear, continuing his tirade. “The stores are getting low. The water lower. We’re not going to make it to Antonica!”

 

“The sea shall provide,” Winsul said. All eyes turned to him but he stood his ground not far from the Captain.

 

The sea shall provide,” Rorshif snorted in contempt, “you sound like a damned slave of Prexus!  What has the sea provided so far but a lot of nothing?”  A few heads turned, seeming to question Winsul, but the ogre continued.

 

“People on this ship won’t follow you into hell, Vagano,” he said. “You’ve cut their rations, put them to the oar, and given these cowards of Mithaniel the run of the ship.”

 

The kerran Master-at-Arms adjusted his stance, eyes flaring in anger at the insult cast his way. One hand stuck out to bar the movement of one of his men who had stepped forward with a hand on his sword-hilt. Turning his head, he sternly addressed his subordinate, “We are honor-bound.”

 

Tomon was worried. Things seemed to be getting worse. People were angry. Tomon noticed with some surprise the dark elf was sitting not far away in the shadow of the sunward railing. He couldn’t remember seeing him come up onto the sterncastle, but then Tomon rarely remembered seeing him anywhere unless he wanted to be seen. Now, he seemed to be coolly assessing the exchange at the captain’s wheel.

 

Tomon saw a glimpse of dark blue nose and jaw as they descended from the shadowy overhang of the black hood. He thought back to the words of the ogre, calling him black elf, and thought it seemed correct now. The black hood was part of a black cloak above black leggings and boots. A dull black that would not reflect light. A black that seemed to hide. All but the eyes. For an instant, he caught sight of the gleaming reflection of piercing eyes. Seeming to sense Tomon’s gaze, he turned his piercing glance toward the boy. For a moment he sized him up.

 

“What do you think, boy?” he asked in a low voice that only Tomon could hear. “Will we make it to Antonica?  Or should we turn and make our way back to Kunark?”

 

Tomon was tongue-tied. The dark elf intimidated him more than the ogre. But now he asked his opinion?  He hesitated a long moment, trying to figure out how to answer.

 

Tomon’s attention was pulled away by the voice of the dwarf speaking up loudly in anger. “I suppose you’d prefer to be Ship’s Cook AND Master-at-Arms and let those scaly shissar lovers have the run of the ship, eh, Rorshif?”  Durgin’s arms folded with hammer in hand, glaring up at the ogre.

 

Rorshif snorted. The iksar behind him hissed in anger.

 

“What if I did, dwarf?” The ogre turned on Durgin, glaring down at him. “Is that a challenge?”  His massive fists clenched in anger.

 

“There will be no challenges on this ship, Rorshif,” Captain Vagano said firmly. He turned away from the wheel, leaving one hand on it.

 

His gaze moved from ogre to dwarf. “Master Stouthammer, I believe it is time we moved on and got back to our duties.”

 

The dwarf planted his feet firmly apart. “Seems to me we have a problem here, Captain. Folks are getting restless with someone shouting about death and doom all day. Might be time we saw to this matter before it gets out of hand.”

 

Bodies tensed. The Master-at-Arms stepped forward to lay a large, furry hand on the dwarf’s shoulder.

 

Tomon heard the faint sound of a fishing line going taut behind him. He turned, tested a line, and felt the thrums of tension moving through. Something was definitely different. “Winsul!  Winsul, sir!  The lines!” he called over his shoulder.

 

Winsul looked to Tomon, nodded, and then looked back to the crowd at the wheel. Spreading his hands wide in gesture, he said again, “The sea shall provide.”

 

                                                   5                                           

The Tempest

 

The fish had come steady for two days. Many barrels were filled and salted before getting stowed below decks. The confrontation between the ogre and the Captain had been discussed by most of the ship, but of greater significance to most was the news of the fish. Winsul’s lines produced a supply of food that dispelled the specter of hunger casting fear and doubt throughout the ship. Tomon heard people speaking of Antonica in hopeful tones again. He told Winsul of this upon his return to the fish lines.

 

“That is well,” Winsul said while baiting a hook. “Morale on a ship is important.”

 

“How did you know?” Tomon asked. Winsul’s hands paused, an eyebrow raising as the deep blue eyes looked to Tomon. “How did I know what?”

 

Tomon sat down on a stool. “How did you know that, how did you say it, the sea would provide?” 

 

“Ah,” the fisherman smiled with a shrug, looking back to the small fish he would impale on the hook. “I have sailed on many a ship in the past, m’boy. There’s no substitute for experience. Spend enough time on the high seas and you get a feel for when you are coming up on some fishing grounds. Almost a shame the wind picked up this morning.”  He paused, looking to the sky to the north again. “I could almost have argued for another day on those grounds to fill more barrels with salted fish, but the Captain was in a hurry to use the wind and move on.”

 

Tomon looked to the skies to the north, but the words of the ogre echoed in his mind. “Rorshif called you a slave of Prexus. Why did he say that?”

 

“The ogre is scared, Tomon. He wants others to be scared with him.”  Winsul reached into the bucket next to him for another fish. “I don’t think I need to tell you that the Devoted want everyone to worship the Seraphs. What place of worship did your father take you to in Dalnir?  Karana? Errolisi?”

 

“Mithaniel,” Tomon said.

 

The fisherman nodded, baiting another hook. “Of course. A captain of the guard would look to Mithaniel. Your priest spoke of honor?  Justice? Bravery in the face of battle?”

 

Tomon nodded.

 

“I expect he also warned about those who speak of ‘other Gods’?  Those who have been led astray?  Become lost in the belief of ‘false gods’?”

 

Tomon nodded. “How did you know?”

 

“Tomon,” Winsul began in a patient voice, “some folks are comfortable in their beliefs and relationship with their god. They don’t fret over their neighbor’s worship. Not unless their neighbor worship’s a god that asks for the sacrifice of a neighbor’s blood, of course!”  Winsul let out a low belly laugh, clearly amused by his own word.

 

Tomon took a moment to work out what had been said, then joined Winsul with a chuckle. “Yes, I suppose I might worry a bit about my neighbor then too.”

 

Winsul took another fish, baited a hook, and began letting the line out. “Indeed. Most though, Tomon, think if others don’t worship as they do, they’re not to be trusted. Up to no good. Out to get them.”  He opened his eyes wide in a meaningful, threatening gaze at Tomon. “Evil!”

 

The fisherman leaned back, pushed the bucket of bait between them, and motioned to another line. “Let’s earn our keep, boy.”  Tomon sat and joined Winsul in the task of baiting the next line.

 

“I don’t want to naysay anything your father taught you, boy, but there’s lots more to the world than what your priest wanted you to believe. Veeshan?  The N’orl?  The Shapers?  Older powers that were around long before your Mithaniel.”  Winsul paused, looking to Tomon, letting those words sink in.

 

“Some have no room for that idea,” he continued. “They call those that do ‘slaves’…or worse. Rorshif is one of those that can’t allow for others to think differently than himself. So he calls me a slave of Prexus.”  The fisherman shrugged.

 

Tomon frowned, a dead fish in his hand but forgotten. “So, you worship a god named Prexus?”

 

Winsul paused, studying the boy in front of him. “The real question is would it concern you if I did?”

 

Tomon shook his head almost immediately, not wanting to upset the fisherman. “It’s just that the priest always called people who didn’t follow the Seraphs such terrible things. He warned us about them, how dangerous they were, how we should not listen to them.”

Winsul nodded. “We all get guidance from our elders when we’re young. As we get older, we either start making up our own minds or continue letting others do it for us. Might be time you decided which it will be for you.”

 

Tomon was about to ask Winsul again if he worshipped a god named Prexus. He wanted to know before he made up his mind. But at that moment, the fisherman looked up suddenly to the skies off port side. “Captain,” he called in a warning tone.

 

Ahead at the front of the upper deck of the sterncastle, Captain Vagano was already looking to those same skies. “Aye, Winsul, I see them. Thunder of Karana be merciful…”  Tomon followed their gaze and felt blood drain from his face. He was suddenly reminded of his dream the first morning on the ship after their escape. The sky looked as dark and threatening as in his dream.

 

In a moment’s time, the bell alarm was ringing. Orders were given to batten down the hatches, shorten the sails, secure all gear above and below decks, and prepare for weather. The last thing Tomon saw before he was pushed below decks by the Master-at-Arms was a mountainous rolling wave in the distance topped by dark clouds.

 

“This old tug will not weather these waves, Winsul,” Vagano said into the high winds. “Karana is angry!  These waves of his were sent to punish the unprepared traveler.”

 

Winsul stood with feet spread wide, balancing himself against the pitch and roll of the ship. The waves did indeed look unusual. Angry mountains, he thought.

 

“I can seek all the guidance the sea can provide, Captain,” Winsul yelled above the high winds in response. “You may not like who answers my prayer!”

 

Captain Vagano, feet spread apart, hands gripping the wheel firmly, whipped his head toward Winsul. His suspicions confirmed, he stared accusingly at Winsul.

 

“Bah!” he yelled, looking at the waves rolling forward that would topple the ship in short order. “I’ll plant a kiss on Veeshan’s scaly back end if it keeps our keel underneath us!  Do what you must, fisherman!”

 

Winsul stepped forward, his voice growing in strength as he began calling out to the sea ahead. Some of the words the Captain knew, some he did not. The chanting grew in strength and the wind that whipped over the deck of the ship seemed to grow quieter. The Seahorse rolled with the sea, climbing high waves and sliding down the back sides. Ropes snapped. Masts creaked and winds screamed.

Below decks, people cowered fearfully. The ship groaned under the strain of riding the mountains of water. Stouthammer and his men moved about without rest forestalling danger, adding supports when weak points threatened. Men manned the pumps desperately, glad to have something to do, fear lending them strength.

 

All people aboard the ship, above and below decks, could hear the sounds of Winsul chanting amidst the raging storm. Invoking the blessing of Prexus, calling upon him for guidance and asking for safe passage, sometimes speaking in words unknown to others, his voice did not cease until the storm had passed them by and the sea had calmed.

 

What they could not see below decks but what was seen by Captain Vagano and the small handful of sailors that stayed above was the miraculous journey amidst the fury of the sea. Mountains of water crested to great heights all about them. As each new set of angry hills rolled toward the ship, a way forward appeared that promised the thinnest of passages, narrow valleys amidst deadly peaks. Winsul and Vagano working together picked their way through the ever shifting maze.

 

Captain Vagano had sailed the seas enough to know the way through the storm had been more than he could have hoped to manage alone, at the helm of such an aging ship. A shallow trough had always appeared within reach. Waves crested late or in time to spare the ship the worst of impacts. His angle of approach was always faultless. Ever after, in stormy seas of far less danger, Vagano would seek in vain for the clarity of vision, peerless interpretation of wind and wave and deft navigation he had this day with Winsul at his side. Ever after, he would not attain it.

 

6

Man Overboard

 

 “Brell’s beard, will you look at that sunrise, boy?”  Durgin had come up to the sterncastle and found Tomon setting out the fishing lines again. The ship was moving slowly, beating into a morning breeze. “Captain is taking it slow while we check for leaks and get the bilge pumped. It was a rough night for the old girl but she’s seeing the morning. I wasn’t sure we’d see another one when the storm hit last night.”

 

Tomon smiled and nodded. “It sounded bad below decks, but I had faith in Captain Vagano to get us through it.”

 

They both turned to look as the sound of a loud laugh reached them. “Your faith is misplaced, boy.”  It was Vagano. He stood, as ever, by the wheel. The Master-at-Arms was not far away. Vagano looked back occasionally as he spoke. “That storm was the better of me. I’m not ashamed to say it. Was the better of this ship as well. Should have been anyway. Wouldn’t be a dry soul aboard were it not for our friend, Winsul.”

 

“The chanting?” Tomon asked. Durgin scowled, looking from Tomon to Vagano. The Master-at-Arms stepped closer to the captain’s wheel, attentive.

 

“I do not know, boy,” the captain replied. “The gods work in mysterious ways. That storm was a ship-killer. T’was more than luck or good fortune that saw us through. ”

 

The Master-at-Arms cleared his throat. “Beg pardon, Cap’n,” he began. “More than a few folks are not happy about our savior. They all heard the chanting to Prexus.”

 

“I suppose the idiots would prefer to be bunking at the bottom of the sea?”  Vagano’s tone was angry and dismissive.

 

“I can’t speak to that, Cap’n,” the Master-at-Arms replied. “Only that some aren’t comfortable with mention of the Shaper god. The cook is one of ‘em.”

 

As if on cue, a door from below decks burst open up at the forecastle. One of the men of the Master-at-Arms fell backward out the door and landed heavily on the deck. Appearing up out of the doorway behind him was the ogre, Rorshif. Behind him he dragged like a rag doll the unresisting form of Winsul.

 

“Master-at-Arms!” Vagano yelled, but the kerran was already racing down the steps to the main deck. Upon hitting the deck he leaped forward in a series of cat-like lunges that propelled him forward at tremendous speed. Tomon wondered if he could get to Winsul in time to help him.

 

Tomon saw the ogre pick Winsul up off his feet and slam him against the wall of the forecastle. The fisherman grunted in exhale and his eyes opened, trying to focus. His hands reached out clumsily trying to break the grip of the ogre.

 

“I’ll not share a ship with a damn heathen of the Shapers!”  Rorshif roared at him, his deep voice echoing across the ship. The ogre reared back a meaty fist and hit Winsul in the jaw. The fisherman slumped forward, limbs going limp again. The ogre picked the limp body of Winsul up over his head as he took two steps toward the railing and flung him over the side. “Prexus keep you!” he bellowed, reached to the railing to pull out a belaying pin, and then turn to face the Master-at-Arms and others that approached. With arms raised above his head, he bellowed for all to hear, “Who is with me?!”

 

The pair of iksar had just emerged from the door into the hold and Tomon wondered if there would be a fight. At that very moment, a shadow dropped down from above the ogre. Suddenly there was the dark elf on the Rorshif’s back, reaching over one shoulder and putting a hand to the chest of the ogre, and hissing loudly, “Say hello to the Warlord for me.” 

 

The ogre’s eyes had gone wide and looked down toward the dark elf’s hand. Then the dark elf was pulling his hand away from the ogre’s chest, and only then did Tomon see that he was clutching a bloody dagger. Rorshif’s knees buckled as he dropped the belaying pin and reached both hands up to cover the bloody hole over his heart.

 

As the ogre collapsed to the deck, the dark elf was already leaping away and moving down the railing. Looking over the side as he ran, he paused right next to Tomon at the far end of the main deck. In a single motion he tossed off his cloak, revealing the white hair and small horns of a teir’dal from the Umbra, and looked up to the sterncastle where Durgin stood by the railing. “Dwarf!  Throw me a line.”  With those words, he stepped up onto the railing and launched himself out into the air, hands held together above his head, and plunged downward out of sight.

 

Tomon whirled to look toward the sterncastle. The captain was already pulling the wheel over hard to port to bring the ship around and giving orders for the Master-at-Arms to secure the deck, sailors to reef the mainsail, and others to lower a lifeboat over the side. Durgin was hurling a coil of rope far out over the railing. Tomon stepped to the railing and looked over, desperately hoping to see Winsul. There was nothing but waves and a rope leading from the aft railing and disappearing into the water.

 

The lifeboat was being lowered as more sailors and guards appeared at the railing. With sail dropped and rudder turned hard, the ship was slowing but it was already past the point in the water where Winsul had entered. The rope was stretching out well behind the ship, stretched taut. Something was pulling on it.

 

“Any sign?” called the Captain.

 

“Not yet, Captain!” returned several of the crew. “Lifeboat is away!”

 

A cry went up as emerging from the water was the form of the dark elf, one hand holding desperately to the lifeline, the other wrapped about the chest of Winsul. The lifeboat was to them and hauling them aboard in less than a minute, but it was clear from a distance that Winsul was not moving.

 

The dark elf, once pulled aboard, immediately took charge of the effort to attend to the fisherman. The dark elf stepped on the frame of the fisherman and the force of it caused seawater to spout from his mouth. A few stinging slaps to the face brought about a coughing and spluttering from the fisherman and a corresponding cheer from the men in the boat and then from those looking on from the ship.

 

7

An Honor Like No Other

 

 “You may call me Vastin,” the dark elf said to Captain Vagano. The Captain nodded. “Very well, Vastin. I’ve spoken with the Master-at-Arms and we’ve agreed not to punish you for the murder of the ship’s cook.”

 

The dark elf raised an eyebrow but stood still otherwise, hands hanging loose at his sides. His clothes had mostly dried and his cloak was returned to him. “Truly?  Considering the ogre was tossing other crewmen overboard and calling for mutiny that is a most gracious decision, Captain.”  The sarcasm was not lost on the Captain.

 

“Be that as it may,” he replied with a bit more force, “it was not your place to play judge, jury and executioner. You should know that we will not accept any more such actions from you.”  Vagano looked at the dark elf sternly. “However, as you were acting on behalf of the ship and proceeded to risk your own life to save that of the fisherman, you are free to continue about the ship as you were.”

 

“I acted on behalf of myself, Captain.”  The dark elf, Vastin, continued, “I wish to get to Antonica alive and the fisherman has proven to be of vital importance in our voyage succeeding.”

 

“I’m indebted to you just the same, Vastin” said Winsul with some effort. His jaw and face were bruised and swollen from the beating he’d received by the ogre.

 

The dark elf studied Winsul for a moment. “Indebted. Yes, you are.”

 

“You are dismissed, Vastin.”  The Captain turned back to the wheel and ordered sails to be set. The dark elf nodded to both, pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, turned and moved toward the steps to the main deck.

 

Durgin stood with his arms folded a few steps away. “Cheery fellow, that one.” 

 

Vagano turned to the Master-at-Arms. “Vargas? How is the situation below?”

 

The Master-at-Arms stepped closer with hands behind his back. “Iksar are locked away and under guard, as ordered. They claim they had no idea what the ogre was planning. Having made it through the storm, and having passed word that the ogre was killed trying to start a mutiny, people seem to have calmed. Seems the ogre was a big part of our morale problem. ”

 

                “No surprise there,” the Captain replied before turning to the dwarf. “Master Stouthammer, how is the ship?”

 

                “Water level’s down, Captain…”

 

                Tomon left the discussion and returned to the fishing lines with the fisherman. “How are you?”  It seemed awkward to ask after what he’d been through, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. The fisherman’s face looked painful. He managed a smile in spite of the injuries.

 

                “Bit of a long day, if I’m to be honest,” he said. Sitting heavily on a barrel and taking a deep breath, he grabbed a line and began baiting the first hook. “Grab a line, my boy. Time to earn our keep.”

 

                Tomon sat down and started baiting another line. “I think you’ve earned your keep a hundred times over.”

 

                The fisherman smiled at Tomon. “Won’t much matter if we run out of food now, will it?”

 

                Tomon looked at the fisherman for a long moment. “I’m sorry you got hurt,” he said. “You helped save us all. It doesn’t seem fair the ogre hurt you because of it.”

 

                The fisherman smiled. “Thank you for saying so, boy. Your father raised you well, I can tell. You’ve a good heart and a sense of fairness about you. You’ll need to harden yourself though. There’s a lot in life that isn’t fair. Lots of folks who want to hurt others. Your father isn’t likely to be around to teach you that.”

 

                “Maybe someday,” Tomon said weakly, unable yet to give up hope of seeing his father again.

 

                “Aye, maybe someday,” Winsul replied. “But you can’t wait for him to return to learn your lessons. Life won’t wait for you to be ready. Life goes on, and so must you.”

 

                Tomon baited another hook, trying to make the blurry vision of his tearful eyes go away. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Maybe you can teach me.”

 

                The fisherman raised an eyebrow, looking searchingly at Tomon. He didn’t move for a long time.

 

                Tomon wasn’t sure what to think. He felt uncomfortable. He pushed a baitfish onto a hook and inhaled. “I mean, if you want to.”

 

                The fisherman leaned forward and put a hand on Tomon’s shoulder. “You honor me like no other, boy.”  He gave Tomon’s shoulder a gentle squeeze and returned to his work.

 

                They worked in thoughtful silence for a long time.

 

8

Beneath the Waves

 

                The water still stretched on forever in all directions. “How much longer do you think this trip will take?” Tomon asked.

                “Hard to say,” Winsul replied while working at a spear head with a whet stone. “Captain thinks it might be a week still.”

“Still?” Tomon asked. “It feels like we’ve been at sea forever.”

 

Winsul smiled. “You have to remember: nobody’s sailed to Antonica for hundreds of years. A few of the scout ships did of course before the Combine lords decided to return to Antonica. But they are not great ones for sharing. Captain said there was a rather rough map in the old captain’s quarters but it’s a bit short on details.”

 

Tomon frowned. “So we don’t know where we are going?”

 

The fisherman laughed a good long laugh. “My boy, trust in Captain Vagano. He’s a loyal follower of Karana the Traveler and a sailor of much experience. We will get to where we are going.”

 

“And when we do?  What then?”  Tomon asked. “Has the Combine built homes for everyone?  Are there towns and cities and towers?”

 

Winsul smiled. “All good questions, my boy. I don’t know the answers. I do know the settlements have been there for some time so it shouldn’t be like the stories of the old Exodus when the people of the Combine got out just ahead of the dragons and fled to Kunark. It shouldn’t be near the same struggle. Hopefully a skill and a strong back will keep a roof over your head and food on your plate.”

 

Just then a shout was heard from the lookout in the crow’s nest. “Contact off starboard bow!  Something in the water!  Could be wreckage!”

 

Captain Vagano altered course and made for the sighting. Tomon had moved to the railing on the main deck along with many of the crew when they first started getting a closer glimpse. There was a barrel bobbing in the water. Then another. Then the real wreckage appeared. The Captain had put out two lifeboats with crew to search the wreckage. As the Seahorse slowed under lowered sails, the smaller boats moved away, taking on barrels and poking through the floating debris.

 

“Was it the storm?  That, that did this?” Tomon asked.

 

Winsul shook his head as he stood beside the Master-at-Arms, Vargas, and the Captain. “Broken up like this?  This much debris?”  His eyes scanned the water full of splinters of wood. “It was pulverized. Almost as if it was struck down by the fist of the Warlord himself. The storm I’d have expected it to cause a ship to capsize and go down, not break apart like, like this.”  The Captain nodded his head in silent agreement.

Master-at-Arms Vargas shook his head. “Something’s not right, Captain. The wreckage is still close together. The waves have not had time to spread it out. This happened in the last day, two at most, but not a body to be seen anywhere. Nobody clinging to the rigging over there, nobody hanging on to a barrel or a piece wood broken loose. Not a soul. The sea’s been calm the past few days. What could cause this?”

“Captain!” came a voice from the nearest lifeboat. Men were pulling a piece of wood over the side. The lifeboat made its way to the side of the Seahorse a few minutes later. A few barrels were made ready to be pulled up to the main deck. But there, sitting in the bottom of the lifeboat was an elongated piece of driftwood. The letting was clear, if incomplete:  DY NERI.

 

The Master-at-Arms looked to the Captain. “The Lady Neria?”

 

The Lady Neria,” Captain Vagano confirmed with a nod, his ears flattened in sadness. “She was in port at Kurn’s not long ago, returned from the Antonica settlements. Word was it was taking the last of the departing nobles and their families out of Kunark and on to Antonica. She was built of pure Heartwood. One of the older ships of the navy but still one of the strongest.”  Vagano frowned as the wood was lifted up toward the railing. He finished with a voice barely above a whisper, “I’d have said she was the last ship to go down in a storm.”

 

“Perhaps it wasn’t a storm that sent her down, Captain.” The words were whispered so that only those nearest could hear. None had seen him approach, but there was the cloaked figure of the dark elf, Vastin, standing at the rail. Others looked to him. “The wood,” he continued, “is shattered. As if upon the rocks at shore. But no rocks do I see. We must be wary, Captain.”  He began to walk away, but paused behind Tomon and Winsul. “We must be prepared,” he said quietly.

 

Tomon frowned, not sure what the dark elf meant. He looked to the fisherman, but he only scratched his bearded chin in thought, saying nothing.

 

“Recall the boats,” the Captain barked. “Ready the sails!  We must be underway.”  The bell started ringing, recalling the last lifeboat. The other was already being hoisted up the side. Winsul moved toward the sterncastle in silence. Tomon followed. He wanted to ask what all the talk was about from the Captain and the dark elf, but had the strong feeling Winsul was too busy to answer.

 

“Contact to starboard!” came a shrill cry from the lookout. The note of panic was clear. “Something in the water!”

 

Tomon looked up to the crow’s nest and saw the lookout pointing. He ran to the rail and put both hands on it to look. The lifeboat with three men and some salvaged jetsam was still some ways distant from the ship. Two were rowing frantically while the third readied a spear. Beyond them was a disturbance in the water. He wondered what it could be. He felt Winsul’s hands slap on the railing beside him, but couldn’t turn away from the sight in the water. Behind him he heard footsteps coming closer. The voice of the dwarf asked, “What is it, Winsul?”

 

A large, dark bump surged up out of the water behind the lifeboat before submerging. Cries of terror were heard from the men on the lifeboat. The large bump emerged, coming higher out of the water this time. Water roiled around the lifeboat. What looked like large snakes came up out of the water and curled over the lifeboat. Tomon had never seen anything like them. Snakes was the only explanation his mind could come up with, but why were they out on the sea? They closed over the lifeboat and pulled it under the water easily. The cries of the men stopped suddenly.

 

“Solusek’s Eye!” Durgin exclaimed. “Will you look at that?  What is it?”

 

As if in answer, the lookout called out again. “It’s a kraken! Seraphs help us!”

 

The bell was ringing frantically now, calling men to arms on deck. The Captain was back at the wheel and the sails were going up, catching the wind immediately. The Master-at-Arms was shouting orders. Durgin leaped down to the main deck and picked up an axe before joining the Master-at-Arms and the others.

 

Tomon looked to Winsul who had not moved from the sterncastle railing. “What are we going to do?”

 

The fisherman did not answer, unmoving as he looked out to the sea. Tomon turned to look as well. The bump of the sea creature was surging toward the ship, parting the sea water and debris. It looked very big to Tomon. As big as the ship maybe. How much more of it was underwater he could not guess.

 

Tomon felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up at Winsul. His eyes gripped Tomon as firmly as his hand. “Stay by the Captain.”  He released Tomon’s shoulder and moved toward the stairs down to the main deck. Tomon ran to the side of the Captain at the wheel. Without thinking, he reached to the Captain’s arm and wrapped a hand around it. The Captain didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were on the approaching creature in the water. It was getting closer.

 

Tomon heard Winsul start the chanting he had heard the night of the storm. Winsul’s voice grew deeper and stronger. Tomon saw him walk down the stair to the main deck, calling out the name of Prexus. Saw him walk past the men with spears lining the rail, none of whom seemed to notice him, so focused on the magnificent sight of their approaching doom. Tomon saw him step past the dwarf and Master-at-Arms to the railing. Men looked to him now as he took a knife from his belt, reached out over the edge while putting knife to hand and pulling the blade through, and let his blood fall into the water below.

 

Tomon squeezed the Captain’s arm in fear. “What’s he doing?”  The Captain didn’t answer. The creature not far from the boat now. Men on the railing were backing away in uncontrollable fear.

 

“Prexus!” Winsul called out in his loudest voice. “Shaper of our World! Hear me, your loyal follower whose blood joins you now! Turn aside your servant and spare this ship!”

 

The surging bulge of the dark creature closed in on the ship. It did not seem to be slowing.

 

Winsul dropped the knife to the deck. “Prexus!” he bellowed as he pushed his hands outward. “I am Winsul! Hear me now as I join you!  Turn aside your servant for he has feasted enough this day!”

 

The surging bulge of the creature slowed now as it came within a stone’s throw of the ship. The water roiled and the snakes returned up out of the water, reaching toward the ship. Tomon saw they were not actually snakes now. There were no eyes or mouths at the ends. They looked like reaching arms from the large hill of flesh rising up out of the water. The remaining men at the railing dashed away. The Master-at-Arms managed to bellow out a command for them to hold their ground but his voice held no power for men in the face of the danger that confronted them now.

 

Durgin yelled out, “Blast it, Win. Get away from the rail!”

 

Winsul stepped out over the edge of the ship and disappeared into the water below with a splash. Tomon gasped as the blood drained from his face.

 

“Karana protect him,” the Captain said and made a sign over his chest. The creature’s arms reached over the ship. They were immense, thicker than the masts of the ship. People were crying out in irrational panic. Some ripped open doors to run below decks in desperation to get away.

 

Winsul was out of sight now, but his voice echoed up over the side from the water below. “Prexus!”

 

The creature paused and came no closer. The snake-like arms extending over the ship paused. Seawater rained down from them onto the deck and the people on it. People cowered beneath them, frozen in fear.

 

And then the tentacles of the kraken withdrew. Sliding back from the deck, they disappeared down over the side of the ship and out of sight into the water. The dark mass of the creature rose up out of the water. A massive eye opened from its midst, looking over the ship for a moment. Then the creature fell away, sinking into the sea and vanishing from sight.

 

For a few long moments, there was silence. Death had hung over the ship like a dark cloud, and then was blown away by a wind unlooked for.

 

The voice of the dwarf was the first to be heard. “Hooray for Winsul!  He turned the kraken away!” He had already tossed a line over the side. As Tomon ran down the steps to the main deck, Master-at-Arms Vargas and Durgin were already pulling the rope up and helping Winsul up over the side.

 

Tomon ran up to the railing and, impossibly, threw his arms around the fisherman. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the chest of Winsul. “I thought you were going to die.”  He felt wet arms close around him.

 

“So did I, m’boy,” Winsul said, “so did I.”

 

People were pouring out onto the main deck from below. As quickly as word spread of the kraken’s approach, so too did it pass that the beast had gone, and at the word of the Prexus-worshipping fisherman.

 

The dwarf renewed his cheer and it was joined by others, though not all. People slapped Winsul on the back, cheering and thanking him. Tomon stood next to him with one of the fisherman’s hands resting on his shoulder. A blanket was thrown over Winsul’s shoulders and his hand was bandaged. The procession of people thanking him continued as the ship set sail again until he called a stop to it and looked to Tomon. “Time to get back to fishing and earn our keep,” he said with a smile.

 

9

Promised Land

 

“Land ahoy!” came the call from the crow’s nest. It had been four days since the kraken. It had rained and allowed the ship to refill its water supply, but the food supplies, aside from the fish caught by Winsul and Tomon, were gone. Land was a welcome sight.

 

Tomon looked ahead tugging on the shirt of Winsul. “Look!  I see mountains!”

 

Winsul smiled in response, continuing to pull in more fish. “Look! I see fish! C’mon, boy. We’ve got to earn our keep.”

 

Tomon turned to the fisherman. “Aren’t you excited?”

 

Winsul smiled as he hauled the last of the line in. “Of course I am,” he said. “But I can’t reel it in and staring at it for hours won’t make it get here quicker. Still work to do for all of us.”

 

They’d arrived in Antonica at the towering Rathe Mountains. Comforting though it was, it would be several more days following the coastline northwest before they could put in at shore to gather firewood for the galley, hunt for small game, and give all a chance to set foot on the continent.

 

Several days later, at dawn, Tomon would wake to the sight of the sprawling castle and city of Qeynos through the morning mist. Ships in the harbor flew friendly flags of various races. All shared the flag of the Combine as well.

 

As they neared the docks, people emerged out on the deck. Captain Vagano chose some spokesmen to move into the castle and secure a place for the refugees. The relative safety of Qeynos loomed like a golden promise in the thoughts of those on the ship, but Vagano knew that difficult times were ahead for most as they sought to carve out a living.

 

Speaking to the harbormaster that met them at the dock as they tied up, Vagano learned that a few other ships had arrived before them. One knew nothing of the troubles at Warslik and Dalnir. Another had reported a narrow escape from further up the coast. No word had yet been heard of Kurn’s Tower or just how widespread the devastation was. Vagano thanked the harbormaster as the man left with the group of representatives for the refugees.

 

As he turned away from the group, the alarm bell started ringing. He searched the wharf and recognized it as his own from The Seahorse. He hurried back to the gangplank and climbed it to the main deck of the ship. The Master-at-Arms was awaiting him.

 

“Cap’n,” he said with some urgency in his voice, “the dwarf is waiting for you on the sterncastle. There is something you must see.”

 

10

Debt Repaid

 

                Vagano stepped up onto the sterncastle deck and his heart sank. There at the stern railing was the dwarf. His hands were set on his hips. His face was grim. He looked down to the deck before him. All Vagano could see were barrels where the fish had been salted and stowed. The sobbing of the boy though, he could hear.

 

                Walking closer, with a growing sense of dread, he saw feet and legs sticking out from the barrels. Rounding the barrels and coming into view of the entire scene, he took in the sight of a sobbing Tomon with his head lain on the shoulder of the fisherman. He looked asleep with his head resting on a coil of rope. Except that a hole in his shirt over the heart was visible. Below it was a massive bloodstain that spilled out onto the deck. Vagano held his hands out, silently asking.

 

                Durgin didn’t move, saying only, “Blasted dark elf.”

 

                Tomon opened his eyes, looking through blurry tears to the Captain with his hands out. He inhaled, trying to speak, but it was a few moments before his mouth could make the sounds. Finally he managed, recalling the words of the dark elf that called himself Vastin, words he spoke after pulling the knife from Winsul and turning to see Tomon standing there with mouth open in shock. “He said Anashti takes lives, not give them.” Tomon buried his face in the shoulder of Winsul’s body, overcome with grief once more.

 

Durgin nodded. “He said he pulled the fisherman from Anashti’s grasp in the water so that he could live to serve. And that once the deed was done, he could never have left the ship without reclaiming the life he took from Anashti.”  Durgin clenched his hands into fists. “I raised my hammer, but he held up a knife, threatened to kill the boy unless I stood aside and let him leave. So I did. Bloodthirsty bastard.”

 

Vagano whirled to look up the wharf toward Qeynos, hoping to catch a glimpse of the retreating murderer. Master-at-Arms Vargas put a restraining hand on his shoulder. “We’ll never find him, Cap’n. He’s gone.”

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

                Some years later, Guardsman Tomon strode out onto the stone pier of Qeynos at night. A figure stepped down the gangplank from a nearby docked ship.

 

                “Good to see you again, boy,” said a familiar voice. It sounded older, but there was no mistaking it.

 

                “Captain Vagano,” he replied in greeting. “It has been a few years. What brings you back to Qeynos?”

 

                “You,” Vagano responded.

 

Tomon tilted his helmeted head to the side in question.

 

“We’ve found him,” Vagano continued. “He’s come out of Neriak. Vargas spotted him. Rumor is he and some others are coming to Qeynos. Might already be here. I said we might need some help from an angry god. Durgin suggested you might speak with Prexus for us. I told him you’d been a man of Mithaniel like your father, but you were closest to our fisherman friend. What do you say?”

 

Tomon gripped the spear at his side tightly within a gauntleted fist. He looked up at the ship’s railing. There now by lamplight he saw Durgin and Vargas. He looked back to the Captain. “I say that I’ve spoken to them both, Vagano.”

The Captain raised an eyebrow.

 

Tomon removed his helmet and leaned forward into the lamplight, memories of a father and a father who would have been came into his thoughts. He looked with purpose into the eyes of the Captain. “They’re as angry as I am.”

 

~~~

 

                “Greetings, boy.” The voice was that of Vastin. Tomon would never forget it. He glanced to his side as the cloaked procession passed by. He felt his heart race as he met the piercing gaze of the dark elf again. He turned to look straight ahead, trying to calm himself.

 

                “Safe journeys, traveler,” he said as was the custom.

 

                The dark elf paused, searching Tomon’s face. “A man of duty now, I see,” he said with a mixture of acknowledgement and contempt.

 

                Tomon allowed himself an angry glare as he gripped the spear in his hand. “I am honor-bound.”

 

                The dark elf smiled. “Of course you are.”  With that he turned away, joining the end of the black cloaked line of travelers as they made their way to the ship. Tomon fell into line behind them, joined at his side by his fellow guard on duty.

               

               

                Tomon untied the rope that secured the ship to the dock. The wound on his hand bled freely on the fibers of the line as he uncoiled it from the post and let it slide away into the water. He murmured under his breath as his blood mingled with the seawater beside the ship.

 

The Teir’dal ship ran out oars and pulled away from docks. It was still foggy out on the water as the early morning sun struggled to burn through the haze. The other guard beckoned Tomon to return with him, but Tomon waved him off, saying he would be there shortly.

A moment later, he heard footsteps from behind. Stepping to his side at the end of the dock were the kerrans, Vagano and Vargas and the dwarf, Durgin. They stood there quietly for a time as the ship pulled further away from the dock. Various cloaked figures remained on deck. It was impossible to tell from that distance if one of them was Vastin, but Tomon was sure he was there somewhere, watching.

 

“It is done then?” Vagano asked quietly.

 

Tomon nodded his helmeted head. He rested his spear in the crook of his arm, pulled a cloth from his pocket and wrapped it about his bloody hand. “It is. Prexus will decide his fate.” He felt the heavy hand of Vargas rest on his shoulder and squeeze.

 

“I still say we should have taken vengeance ourselves,” Durgin grumbled.

 

Vagano sighed. They’d discussed it many times. Durgin wanted to kill the dark elf for what he’d done to Winsul. Vargas was willing but acknowledged it would not be easy and not without risk. Vagano was also willing, having taken it as a personal affront that the murder happened on his ship. But when he had heard Tomon express misgivings about finding vengeance through murder, he had supported him. In the end, they agreed to leave it to the gods.

 

“Say hello to the kraken for me, ya bloody bastard,” the dwarf hissed into the morning. The ship disappeared into the mist and was not seen again.

 

Tomon pulled on the uniform glove over his wounded hand and took hold of his spear. “If you gentleman will excuse me,” he said with a nod to them all, “I must return to duty and earn my keep.”

 

“He would be proud to hear you say it,” Vagano said to his back as he walked away.

 

“Aye, lad, he would,” Durgin joined.

 

He left them there at the end of the dock and made his way back to the stone pier and toward the Sea Gate where duty awaited.

 

 

The End

 

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