Antole Iron was standing at the rail of his dragonship and watched the stars. His draconian mercenaries were the best independent fighters in the Cluster, yet he felt an emptiness inside him. Lost in thought, he almost missed the motion behind him, but he caught it in the corner of his eye. "Sneaking up on me, Caerin?" Antole smiled as his second in command joined him at the railing.
"You seemed to be worried and I was wondering what was on your mind." The female Minotaur answered. "Well..." He gave a deep sigh. "... Actually I am tired of everything. I wish we could find a place where we can live in peace, but apparently this is something that was not meant for me and my people. Nowhere in this sphere would we be tolerated: The humans fear us, the lizardmen loathe us and the dragons hate us. It`s all so frustrating!"
"Hmmm, agreed, but think about all the things you have achieved so far. You are known in this entire sphere, your draconian soldiers have yet to find a superior foe and you acquired quite a fortune working as a mercenary." He looked at her, still sad and obviously suffering. "Yes, I know, but does that offset the lack of a home? I do not have a place to go, nor have I got a family." Caerin wanted to object, but he raised a hand and she fell silent.
"No, don`t tell me that my crew is my family. I appreciate the thought, but still I can never have children in the sense you can. And there is more: I wonder what I am doing here. I mean, sure we are successfully earning our living, but what`s the point? So far I haven`t done anything with any impact. When I die, nobody will be there to shed a tear and certainly nobody will remember me."
The minotaur shook her head. "No, I disagree... But anyway, this brooding does not suit you. It does not suit you at all, let`s go and pick a fight somewhere, this will raise your mood."
"Heh, you already did. But it seems that we do not need to pick a fight. There is an illithid squid ship behind us, I presume they have got another assignment for us."
"But you are flying away from them, shouldn`t we find out what they want?"
"Well, the illithids are one of the few who regularly require our services... But I do not like them. If they want to hire us that badly, they should put some effort into it. Order the helmsman to pretend not to notice them for another few minutes." The discussion was ended, Caerin bowed formally and carried out his orders. Antole Iron remained at the railing, staring out into the void. "I need that distraction indeed."
Finally the illithid ship did catch up with the dragonship and a varan in his early twenties stepped on board. "Greetings. The great empire of the illithids requires your able service. I would like to..." Antole watched the varan, then his gaze shifted to the mindflayer, who had remained on board of his ship. "Why doesn`t your illithid master talk to me directly?" he interrupted the human.
"Ahem, well..." the man cleared his throat. "My ‚master` does not wish to negotiate with you, since you insulted him last time."
Antole looked at the illithid and thought: Pathetic, scheeming little freaks, these illithids!
The mindflayer, who had been listening to his thoughts writhed his facial tentacles in obvious anger and retreated into his cabin. Antole smiled and shifted his attention back to the varan embassador. The latter sighed and said: "Now, you have done it again. His lordship will overlook your lack of respect one last time and you would be well advised to be more polite in the future!"
"Listen up, boy!" Antole overly pronounced the last word to emphazise his low opinion of the inexperienced varan. "Your employer has to learn that thoughts are free and his disregard for privacy is actually more offensive than anything that is on my mind. And please do not forget, that you are in need of me. It is not the other way around, so don`t try to set up rules on my ship."
After a moment of silence, the varan continued with an empty expression on his face: "We would like to hire you, because we lack the sufficient ships in this part of space. You need to destroy a convoy of six light ships, which is in the vicinity. Don`t worry, the only real threats are a lance ship and a wasp ship called ‚Bonta`. This wasp is something special though – we want you to take control of the ship and arrest a sunmage, who is part of the crew. It is essential that you capture this man alive!"
"Sounds like a tough assignment. I want thirty thousand goldpieces and a full repair of my ship."
"Thirty thousand? Are you out of your mind, I don`t think we can..." The varan stopped as he was receiving further instructions from the illithid. "Thirty thousand, agreed. We have got a deal... And do not disappoint us!" The varan handed over a scrollcase with details about the mission, turned around and returned to the squidship, which flew off into the direction, from which it came. Caerin, who had followed the discussion from a distance joined Antole, who was watching the departing ship.
"My captain, was it wise to anger the illithid in this way?"
"Perhaps not, but I just felt like doing it. Besides, something is wrong about the whole deal... I cannot put my finger on it, but I have just got this feeling."
"Oh, and why did you accept it, if you are not sure about the job?"
"Well, if I had declined, they would have simply found someone else to do it. And I am curious what this is all about. Helmsman, set a course for these coordinates!" Antole tossed a map, which was included in the varan`s scrollcase to a nearby draconian soldier. Of course this was not the helmsman, but the draconian knew what to do and quickly ran off in order to relate the news to the draconian wizard, who was powering the dragonship.
Six dragonflies were closing in on the Bonta. Shortly after they were in firing range, Captain Bont ordered his crew to open fire. The heavy ballista bolts hit one of the attackers and practically tore the small ship apart. Bont looked around and saw that one of the merchant ships, which were recently retrofitted with greek fire projectors, unleashed a jet of flame on of the pirate ships, which exploded in a yellow fireball.
However the pirate`s retaliation almost destroyed two of the four merchant ships, but fortunately they were sufficiently armoured to withstand the catapult stones. For a moment it almost looked like the pirates would win the day, since they were able to land a few lucky shots, but after the first attack most of the pirate ships were heavily damaged after they passed their supposed prey. When the Bonta and the other ships turned around, the remaining pirate ships were already retreating into wildspace.
The shipwrecked pirates were rescued and the crew of the Bonta gathered the helms and any valuables from the wrecks. Captain Bont watched everything with mixed feelings: On the one hand he had remained calm in a critical situation and they had driven off the attackers, but on the other hand most of the ships were in a very bad shape now and the repairs would probably cost a fortune. Not to mention the casualties they had suffered. Granted, most men had survived the battle, but every loss was one too many in his opinion.
At that moment he decided that he would have to hire a cleric soon.
After they set off for Ssthakal again, Captain Ara Thay along with a dwarven soldier came aboard. "Greetings, Captain Bont! This is Thrain, a mighty dwarven warrior, who has served me as my trusted advisor during the recent months. Still, he wants to expand his horizon and specifically asked to be transferred to your ship. Of course, I do not want to reach decisions over your head, so I wanted to ask if this is ok with you?"
Bont appraised the dwarf casually and since another hand was not something he would turn down for no apparent reason, he smiled and welcomed him on board.
The dwarf mumbled his thanks, although it sounded more like an insult, and grudgingly walked past the Captain. Ara raised his hands and smiled apologetically "He is not very sociable, but I assure you that he is a very good warrior. I`ll take my leave now and we shall discuss our next steps, once we reach our home."
Another two days passed, but they finally made it to the ports of Ssthakal. The repairs were indeed very expensive, but there was enough money left to buy new weapons and equipment for the officers. Ara and Bont made an appointment with the high priests of the lizardmen in order to find out more about the mysterious stone tablets. Just as they left their ships, Polkor came running after them.
"Good thing that I caught up to you on time. Here, this is something we have found in the ruins as well. Perhaps your wisemen will know what can be done with that."
"What is that? It looks like a boardgame... You cannot be serious!" Ara complained, but Polkor shook his head and gave an explanation. "No, you do not understand. This looks to be just a mere game, but I have cast a spell and found out that it is a magical item of some sort in truth."
"Hmmm, maybe the magic will just move the playing pieces, I hardly think we should waste the priests` time with some unimportant toy."
"Then again, it might relate to the stone tablets, since we have found it in the abandoned temple. Give me the game, I am going to ask them." Bont said.
Polkor bowed and returned to the ship much to the chagrin of Ara Thay. "I understand that you needed to make a concession to restore the peace on your ship, but you do not seriously consider wasting the wisemen`s time with trivial nonsense like that?"
"If Polkor thinks that it is important then that is good enough for me and it should be for you too." Bont retorted.
"You would rather trust an elf than a lizardman?" Ara seemed to be genuinely shocked.
"No, it is nothing like that. But remember, Polkor is a wizard and he knows more about magical items than we do. It won`t hurt us to show this game to the priests, in fact it can only turn out to be beneficial. Let`s go."
At the temple they were greeted by one of the clerics of Sstasa, who immediately examined the stone tablets, once they had brought them inside. "This is remarkable, these tablets obviously belong to us, but the inscriptions... It is an ancient lizardmen language, but alas, I cannot decipher it. Give me an hour for a further investigation."
Before Ara and Bont left the temple, Bont handed over the game and asked the priest to find something out about it as well.
It took much longer than promised, but after three hours the double doors at the front opened again. "Please join us inside again." The priest made an inviting guesture with his hand and continued. "Unfortunately nobody present knew how to translate the inscriptions, but perhaps you could find someone at Khalzan. However, the lizardmen at Khalzan are not too fond of outsiders, they do not have much love for other races and regard even us warily."
"I see. Nevertheless, thank you for your help, we appreciate the effort you put into this. By the way, is there anything you found out about that boardgame?"
"The only thing that we do know is that it is a game manufactured by the keepers of wisdom. It is old and quite valuable, but we were unable to unlock its magic so far. However, we would like to purchase the game and I am authorized to pay you an amount of 10.000 goldpieces. What do you say?"
"Thank you for your generous offer, but the game does not belong to me and as far as I know, it is not for sale. Once we find out something more about the stone tablets, we will be sure to inform you. Now, if you will excuse us, I would like to sail to Khalzan as soon as possible."
With that, Ara and Bont gave their fare wells and returned to the harbor. Bont quickly informed everyone about the news and their next destination. Furthermore he returned the game to Polkor and told him that the priest`s high bid might be an indicator that the game`s magic is in fact very strong.
On the third day of the journey the fleet encountered a galleon, which slowly pulled alongside of the Bonta. A tall man in his late forties stepped on out of the captain`s cabin and greeted them. "Hello there. My name is Deister, but most people refer to me as Mr. Trader. I see you are heading for a dangerous part of space, perhaps you are in need of some equipment? If you would like to come aboard, I could show you my wares."
Polkor, Bont, Murx and Thrain accepted the offer, but the cargo room of the galleon was a disappointment: Since they had already stocked supplies at Ssthakal, they were in no need of most of the goods and the few magical items were too expensive for them. One item caught their collective attention though – The trader also had a very detailed map of the surroundings of Khalzan in his repertoire. Since they all had heard rumours about the dangerous space amoebas, which would live in this region of the Astromundi Cluster, and which were capable of grounding even the mightiest spelljamming vessels, they agreed that it would be prudent to purchase the map. After the bargain was struck, Deister wished them a safe passage and departed in the other direction.
Thanks to his map, it was possible to avoid any trouble and so they finally reached Khalzan after six days. Ara suggested to just land with one ship and since the tablets were on the Bonta, he left the Ironclaw and took a place near captain Bont, who ordered the helmsman to land on Khalzan.
On the ground their ship was immediately surrounded by several spear wielding lizardwarriors, who eyed the crew carefully. Thrain growled and his hand gripped the hilt of his longsword.
"Perhaps you all should go inside, we do not want to provoke any hostilities." Ara smiled disarmingly and much to his surprise all non-lizardmen complied without questioning his suggestion.
One of the warriors outside stepped forward and shouted: "State your business, strangers!"
"Greetings, my name is captain Bont. I am here to speak to the keepers of wisdom about some ancient artifacts of the lizard culture."
The guard considered this a moment and then asked Bont to follow him. He was escorted by another four warriors and was asked to leave his weapons on board of his ship. They led him to a tall stone building and after a rather long wait, he was invited to step inside. A very old lizardmen, who was sitting behind a large wooden desk, watched him and finally broke the silence. "I see you are one of our lost children. What brings you here and why did you have to bring outsiders with you?"
Bont related the whole story about the stone tablets and the old man patiently listened. After the story, the old man got up and accompanied Bont to the door. "Your story is indeed intriguing and I would like to help you decipher the stone tablets, as well as this boardgame you told me about. However, my people are not known for their hospitality and they would not be too pleased if I would be involved with strangers. Of course we have got a few trade agreements with the neogi, but then again, that is business..."
Catching the hint, Bont asked if there was anything he could do for him in return for his services.
"Well, now that you mention it, there is indeed something. Nowadays we do not have any spelljamming vessels anymore. Back in the old days, we used to gather water from a holy fountain on one of the nearby asteroids, but we are unable to do that anymore and our supplies are running low. You could give me the tablets and I am going to give you the coordinates of the fountain. The travel will take one or two days due to the many meteroids, which will slow you down to tactical speed and once you get back, I am sure we will have additional information about the tablets for you. In case we have a deal, that is..."
Bont shook the old lizardman`s hand and agreed to the terms. Shortly after the formalities were cleared, the Bonta lifted off again and joined the rest of the ships.
The old man looked after them until they were just a dot in the sky. A younger lizardman, who had briefly studied the stonetablets, joined him. "Well, I can tell that they are old, especially the language is unlike anything I have ever seen in even our oldest records. If they are indeed from the keepers of wisdom, then it might be best to confiscate them in order to study them."
"I do not intend to break the bargain, especially since I have got a good idea to put these people to use after their current job... Albeit that does not mean that we cannot study the inscription more thorough afterwards: Please have someone copy down the whole text."
The younger lizardman smiled at his superior`s ingenuity and saluted "Yes, sir, right away!"
Everyone imagined that the flight to the fountain would be uneventful, since it was a very uninhabited region of space. It was all the more surprising when they came across a drifting flitter.
"A fighter that size couldn't get this deep into space on its own." Polkor mused.
"It must have gotten lost, been part of a convoy or something." Bespa commented.
"Gab! What the hell are you talking about???" It was Thrain who rudely interrupted their discussion.
"Regardless of how it got here, the air envelope of that ship is not very large, we better pick it up and see whether there are any survivors!"
It took them a good quarter of an hour to successfully haul the little ship on board. A softwood cocoon filled out the interior and revealed an elven officer, after it disintegrated. Polkor recognized the green uniform of the imperial elven navy at the first glance.
"Welcome aboard the Bonta. My name is Polkor and this young elven bard to my left is Bespa Distel. What is your name, if I may ask? And how come an officer of the imperial elven navy is so far away from home?"
"My name is Erat Ri and you have my gratitude for rescuing me. I am a flitterpilot on the Armada Pegasus, which was stranded in the Cluster two years ago. I was on a reconaissance mission when I got lost. Before I knew it, my air supply ran out and I had to cast a softwood spell from a scroll in order to survive. If you do not mind, I would like to travel with you until I can meet up with my people again."
Neither Ara nor Bont had anything to object naturally and so Erat moved to one of the merchant class ships, which specialized in gambling and was in fact one large, flying casino.
The building, which housed the fountain was shortly discovered and so Bont, Polkor, Murx, Thrain and Turmalis left the wasp ship and entered the structure. In the middle of the room there was a circular pool, in each corner stood a small basin of water and there were three exits.
"Damn, they totally forgot to tell me where exactly this holy water is. You guys better wait here, I am going to check out the frontal exit." Bont left the room, while Turmalis filled several vials with water from each of the five sources.
Bont walked through a small corridor, that opened up into a closed chamber, which appeared to be empty, except for two ornamented gargoyle heads on the wall and a fountain in the middle of the room. "Hey, I think I have found something..." Bont shouted and took another step...
The floor underneath him made a clicking sound and Bont knew that he had just triggered a trap. Looking up from his feet, he saw the gargoyle heads spring to life and one instant later they unleashed a powerful blast of water and steam on him. Bont was thrown through the corridor and landed beside the pool in the centralroom.
"Are you alright?"
"Captain Bont, can you hear me?"
All kinds of questions were asked at once, but he could only look from one person to the other. "Yeah, I guess I am ok. If I did not raise my shield in time, I do not know if I would have survived... Ow." Bont`s attempt to get up was interrupted by a torrent of pain, which went through him. The dents in his shield bore witness of the force of the blow and although Bont had survived, he was still seriously injured. Murx bent down and took away some of the pain with his healing abilities and escorted him back to the ship.
Polkor, Thrain and Turmalis remained behind. "Ok, now what? I suggest that you could check out the left tunnel, Thrain, and I might go and take a look at the right tunnel." Polkor said.
"Gab! I am going to take the right tunnel!" Thrain replied and walked down the right tunnel. Polkor sighed and walked down the left corridor.
Fifteen minutes later Polkor and the others returned to the ship with several containers of water. Polkor smiled at Bont when he handed him one of the waterflasks "We have found two additional fountains in the sidechambers and the water from those is a weaker kind of levitation potion. Drinking that we were able to float over the trap and gather the water. Now all we have to do is inform the crew and have them gather additional water."
"Very well, please make the necessary arrangements. Now for that water, I wonder what`s so special about it..." Bont took the flask and took a deep sip. It was a strange feeling that engulfed him and he was somehow changed. "Intriguing. The ‚holy water` turns out to be a limitless supply of a longevity elixir... Hmmm, but it seems that there is some additional quality to it... Wait a moment." Turmalis drank four times from the liquid and then he cast a few spells on it. "Just as I thought, the elixir will turn sour and ineffective, if it is removed from this asteroid field. No wonder the people from Khalzan are so restrictive about their territory."
"What they are doing with this longevity stuff is their affair, I just want to load it up and return as soon as possible."
"Sir, we have found the ships. The Bonta and the Ironclaw are dead ahead." one of the draconians shouted.
"Unbelievable! The Illithids want us to destroy these ships? I do not like this one bit Caerin, these do not seem to be warships at all and I do not go about slaughtering civilians." Antole said and Caerin nodded in agreement.
"Helm, take us to the Bonta, I want to take a closer look!"
When they were directly beside the waspship, Antole, Caerin and two kapak bodyguards walked onto it via a plank between the two ships.
"What a pathetic bunch! They do not pose a threat at all..." he observed.
Insulted, Thrain stepped forward "You think you are a tough guy, huh? Well, it seems I need to teach you a lesson!"
"Is that a formal challenge, little man?" Antole watched him with a mixture of amusement and irritation.
Thrain unsheathed his sword as an answer and charged the draconian. Antole quickly sidestepped him and used his inate magical powers to create a burning forcefield around his hands. He did not want to cast any spells yet as it would deprive him of the challenge.
They circled around each other, inflicting minor wounds without anyone gaining the upper hand. Then Thrain landed two solid hits and Antole stumbled backwards.
"You have fought well, but there is no point in continuing this. One of us might get hurt." Antole announced, but Thrain just smiled, sensing the draconian was about to fall and lunged at him. Although he was seriously wounded, Antole managed to dodge the blow, which surprised Thrain, who did not expect the draconian to put up much of a fight anymore. Underestimating the draconian and leaving his guard open was a grave mistake though, as Antole unleashed another energybolt from his hands on the dwarf.
Thrain groaned and dropped unconscious to the ground. Antole turned to face the rest of the Bonta`s crew. "My name is Antole Iron and I was hired to destroy your ship and to arrest the sunmage Turmalis. However, I consider sparing your life if Turmalis is extradited."
"Hmm, you heard him Turmalis. There is really nothing I can do..." Bont said and Turmalis stared at him in disbelief "You cannot be serious! If you stand by me now, I would be... Grateful."
Bont hesitated for a moment, but then someone shouted "Charge!" and so his answer went unheard as the crew of the Bonta attacked the four mercenaries. Caerin, who expertly wielded an ancient footman`s dragonlance, attacked Murx and Ara, while the two draconian bodyguards were hit by Turmalis` lightningbolt and a sleepspell cast by Polkor.
Bont challenged Antole, but it was not much of a fight. Antole used his own magical powers to cast a lightningbolt himself, which knocked Bont out cold. Meanwhile Caerin had immobilized Murx and Ara and was now walking towards Turmalis, who raised his hands after the first hit. "There is no need for further violence, I surrender..." he croaked, the dragonlance was a fierce weapon and his wound ran deep.
Antole cleared his throat and wanted to say something, but at that moment Bespa entered the deck from below. The draconian`s strength vanished and he fell to his knees. "We have got the sunmage, let`s go!"
Caerin tossed Turmalis to the wounded draconian bodyguards and rushed to Antole`s side in order to support him. "Are you ok?" A concerned frown was on her face, but Antole nodded reasuringly.
"Yes, I am alright. I did not break down because of my wounds. It was just... That I had a vision, which overwhelmed me. It was so real, so very real – my path is clear now, I have finally found a deeper meaning in my life..." He kept on talking, but Caerin was too busy carrying him back to his own ship that she did not hear him anymore.
She gave a command to disengage, after she reached the ship. A healer ran to her side and wanted to tend to Antole`s wounds, but he stopped him and pointed at Turmalis. "The sunmage needs your attention more than I do. See to it that he is well, I am going to retire to my quarters."
Thankfully the other ships did not pursue them. Caerin was confident that they could defeat them, should it become necessary, but she had no particular desire to be forced to do that.
A few hours later Turmalis entered the Captain`s cabin. "Ah, I see you have recovered. Care to join me with a drink?"
Turmalis watched the draconian suspiciously. "I thank you for your hospitality, yet I am also surprised. Is it sensible to let me keep my weapons and my spellbooks? After all, I could teleport from your ship to safety in an instant."
Antole pretended to be surprised. "Doesn`t Courtesy demand to treat you like a guest?"
"Not if I am in reality your prisoner. So, who put a price on my head anyway?"
"I cannot tell you that, I owe my employer that much. But you are free to go, I do not intend to keep you here against your will." Antole smiled.
"What? Why did you kidnap me then? It is imperative that I return to the Bonta!"
"Relax, I just reached the decision to turn down my assignment and let you go. While I was on the Bonta, I had a vision that the crew of that ship is important. They are surrounded by a strong aura and my destiny is linked to theirs. We will go back eventually, just not now: I need to settle a few things, before I can return, so you can either accompany me or you can leave the ship at any time." the draconian explained.
The sunmage thought about this for a moment and then he said: "Well, if you are going back, then I am going to stay with you – who knows when I would find a ship, if I were stranded here on my own. However, I am still a bit confused. When you first boarded the ship, you said that noone would pose a threat and that the crew was a ‚pathetic bunch`, but now you claim that they are important. How does that fit together?"
"My first impression was correct – they really do not pose a threat. However, I was able to cast a brief glance into the future and they will grow up to be important personalities in the Cluster. To make a comparison: Right now they are merely kids, but there will be a time when they are going to be adults. Fate has elected me to be their guardian until then, although I am going to have a hard time convincing them of this. But anyway, welcome aboard, supervisor Turmalis. I will advise Caerin to show you to your quarters."
"So, now that you do not deliver the sunmage to the illithids, may I ask what your next steps are?" Caerin asked, while she fixed herself a drink and sat down opposite of Antole.
"I understand your anger at this, but believe me, the illithids would not tolerate that we did not destroy the ships, even if we handed over the Antilan. Besides, with their mind-reading abilities they would gain valuable information about the Bonta and its crew is too valuable to compromise it. No, I have reached a decision to work together with Turmalis and follow the path of destiny." The draconian disclosed his plans, while drinking a glass of wine. "However, now that I have severed our bonds with the illithids, they are most likely coming after us. My crew does not need to be punished for my beliefs, therefore we are heading for the elven territory now and I will see to it that they are brought to Krynn."
"The elves are never going to grant us passage outside the Cluster." Caerin interjected.
Antole shook his head "And why not? Our money is as good as anyone`s and if we are not inside the Cluster anymore, they can breathe a sigh of relief as it will be a safer place. I just need you to gather a few volunteers for my mission as I cannot do it on my own."
Caerin gave him a smile and said "Count me in!"
"Thank you, I was hoping that you are going to help me and pass up this chance to go back to Krynn. There is something I need to tell you..."
"And what is that?" she leaned forward and watched him exited.
"While I was on the Bonta and collapsed, I had a strong vision and was able to see everyone`s aura clearly. That elf, who entered the deck from inside the ship, had a strange energy about him. He is not what he seems and very dangerous. We need to keep an eye on him when we are going back."
"Oh, oh. Yes, we really need to keep an eye on him." Caerin looked at a picture on the wall to hide her disappointment, then she forced a smile on her face, excused herself and left the room.