Second Wind was a Spelljammer PBeM campaign whose summaries were edited and written up as a narrative. --ed
"So you're getting rid of me!"
It wasn't a question. More of an accusation really. Kevved slouched on the corner of the bed, glaring up at his father.
Daul rubbed his forehead in exhaustion. This was turning out to be more difficult than he thought.
"It's for your own good, son," he started but Kevved cut him off.
"You always say that! Every time I try to do anything you call in the guard and it's always for my own good!"
"It's not like that Kevv, really,"
"Right. I feel like I'm a prisoner here. All you want me to do is the learn the business. Whenever I show even an ounce of independence, there you are reigning me back in."
"This goes far beyond you Kevv,"
Daul knelt down and placed his hand on his son's shoulder. Kevved flinched but didn't pull away.
"I just don't want you to throw your life away with parties and silliness. If that's what your friends want to do, then fine. But I refuse to stand by and watch you do the same. There are great things in store for you, but Waterdeep can't give you what you need. And after what happened last night, my mind's made up."
"It was just a fight. I could have handled it." Kevved mumbled.
"Do you really believe that? Kevv, that was a Northerner you were trading punches with. He was bigger, stronger, and faster than you. The only reason you're still alive is because Brother Halthet was nearby. Which means that we are now indebted to Tymora. Again. And where were your friends? Hmm?"
Kevved mumbled something inaudible.
"I said they ran away,"
Daul thought for a moment.
"Look, I'll make a deal with you. If you go with Jalat, when you come back your life is yours. If you don't want the business, fine. I just want you to have the kind of experience that you can't find here. And I trust Jalat. He's my best friend."
"You want me to be a sailor?"
"Mmm, not quite. Do you remember when I took you to Neverwinter last year?"
"At the mages' competition you told me that was what you wanted to do more than anything?"
Kevved looked up.
"Well, don't let your friend get in the way of what you most want,"
"You're serious. This isn't some kind of a joke is it?"
"It's no joke Kevv,"
For the first time that day Kevved smiled.
"I've got an apprenticeship. I'm an apprentice!"
"Well, not for another week, but yes, you are,"
"Wait," Kevved held up his hand, "I'm nineteen. That's too old to be an apprentice,"
"One of Jalat's crewmen prefers to teach a more mature student. Doesn't much care for insolence. He'll be the one in charge of your apprenticeship,"
Kevved looked worried.
"Jalat only picks the best men and women for his coster. You'll be in good company. So do we have a deal?"
"How long will I be away?"
Daul Stytheson paused. "Five years," He grimaced, waiting for the outburst. It never came.
Kevved's smile grew even wider.
"I'll start packing,"
Most of Kevved's friends were in that grey area between the lesser nobility and the well-to-do middle class. While any one of them felt privileged to be included in the frequent soirees of the upper crust, they certainly were not above slumming with their less cultured companions, a category which included Kevved.
Nine days had passed, and with his father's grudging permission Kevved was celebrating his incipient departure with a few of his more civilized friends. They had gathered at the Silver Flagon over a platter of roast boar and had whiled away the better part of the evening before Kevved told them of his apprenticeship.
Saldeen Everward leaned back in his chair and threw back his head in laughter.
"You've got to be kidding! That's so, so common!"
The rest of Kevved's friends nodded in agreement.
"What's so common about wanting to learn magic?" Kevved asked.
"Well, you have to admit it's not one of those professions that'll get you to the top of society,"
Ailea Rowanhair broke in.
"There is the Blackstaff,"
"Thanks Ailea," said Kevved.
"But," she continued, "he isn't exactly nobility,"
"Thanks Ailea," smiled Saldeen.
"You're missing the point. I've never wanted to join the nobility," This drew shocked gasps. Kevved continued. "Sure the parties may be exciting and the politics intriguing, but there's more to life than that. Much more."
"Name one thing," Carris Stormshroud had stopped picking at his teeth long enough to lay down his challenge.
"Magic, adventure, seeing new places. Elves. How's that?"
"Politics has as much power as magic," countered Ailea.
"And it holds as much thrill as any adventure," Saldeen added.
"You should realize seeing new places is exactly what attending parties is all about. Well that and catching up on gossip," finished Carris.
"And elves?" pressed Kevved.
Carris rolled his eyes.
"You're thinking of dwarves," said Ailea.
"Of course. How silly of me. Elves are the smug ones and dwarves are the stinky ones,"
"I get the feeling nothing I can say is going to convince you that what I think is important could hold any sort of fascination with you three," Kevved said morosely.
Saldeen raised his flagon high.
"Kevv, dear boy, you have just taken your first step into the upper crust,"
Kevved raised his mug in response. Ailea patted his hand.
"Don't worry Kevv, I'm sure magic is a worthwhile pastime. We just can't share your enthusiasm simply because it doesn't fit into our world,"
"It's not in the nature of a climber to get bogged down by the nature of reality," drawled Carris.
"Besides," said Saldeen, "all magic is really good for is icebreakers," He flexed two of his fingers quickly and waited.
Ailea gasped, then blushed furiously. The rest of the table burst into laughter. Saldeen ducked quickly as Ailea's goblet sailed through the air and smashed against the wall behind him.
"Another wine, barmaid!" Kevved called and settled back into his chair. "I plan on using it for more than just a conversation starter, Saldeen,"
"Well, you can do what you want. I'll stick with what gets me by,"
"So where are you three headed after here?" Kevved asked.
"Oh, we thought we'd wander on down to the Dock Ward and let Ailea earn us some spending money,"
Laughter erupted again as Saldeen ducked another wine goblet.
Then sun had not yet risen when Daul, Kevved and two hired bodyguards left Waterdeep headed east. Kevved and his father sat on the bench of one of Daul's freight wagons, silently watching as the surrounding farmland rolled past. There was a thin mist that clung to the low vegetation. Kevved watched the wispy tendrils snake around the plant shoots and tried to control his nervousness.
"You anxious?" Daul asked.
"Yes. I'm not sure what to expect,"
"It'll go easier than you think,"
They rode in silence a little longer. Finally Kevved spoke.
"What's space really like?"
Daul thought for a moment.
"It's like sailing through constant night, except the sun is always shining somewhere in the sky. It never sets. There are places you really have to see to believe. I've been to worlds that defy description. I've set foot on hundreds of shores, each one unique, and every time I close my eyes I can see every one of them,"
"You miss it, don't you?"
"Yes. Yes I do. I made my decision to settle here though, and if I left I'd miss Waterdeep even more,"
"Because after traveling for so long and for so far I finally decided this was where I wanted to raise my family. It's now home to me,"
Daul pointed to a small copse of trees about half a mile ahead.
"That's where we're headed. Jalat sent a transport for you late last night but we decided to wait until this morning so you could get a decent night's sleep,"
"Not that it did any good," mumbled Kevved.
"Well, just remember to smile when you meet everyone,"
Daul slapped the reins down and the horses picked up their trot.
Ten minutes later they had arrived at the tiny grove. Kevved climbed down from his seat and stared at the craft that lay half-hidden beneath a green blanket of dyed netting. On the ground sat a man, slightly older than Kevved's father. He rose to his feet and folded his arms as Daul and his bodyguards dismounted.
"Daul, good to see you again,"
"Well met, Torosa. Kevv, this is another old friend of mine. Torosa, this is your newest crewmember, my son, Kevved,"
Torosa smiled at Kevved. A genuine smile.
"Glad to finally meet you Kevved. Everyone's expecting you up topside. You got any baggage?"
"Good. Cargo space is tight right now, so the less you've got, the better. You should say your good-byes quickly, the timetable's running short,"
Torosa turned and began pulling down the netting. From beneath the covering emerged the rest of the transport. Atop two large pontoon-like extensions rested a large rectangular structure, flat at one end, angled at the other. Set into the side facing Kevved was a hinged door, open now, and beyond that could barely be seen a large, ornate throne. The whole thing was constructed from ironwood, banded with steel, and bore a crest Kevved had never seen before but he suspected was the sign of Jalat's trading company. He turned back to the wagon to retrieve his travel chest as Torosa began to roll up the camouflage netting.
Within minutes they were ready to go. Daul kept his goodbye short. He handed his son a slip of paper, folded in half.
"Don't read this until after I've gone,"
He pulled his son close.
"Make me proud Kevv,"
"I'll try, father,"
Kevved walked to the craft, paused at the doorway to give one final wave, and stepped inside.
It was a clean interior and not at all what Kevved expected. Except for the throne he had seen, the only other places to sit were two narrow benches that ran along the sides. More netting hung from the ceiling, tacked up here and there to keep it from bulging down too low. There was a chain and pulley system to the rear of the transport, presumably to operate a cargo door. Kevved had seen the same system before at his father's warehouses. His chest lay near the bench opposite where he stood and beside that was a small metal pail. Torosa stepped past him and motioned to the bench Kevved was looking at.
"Have a seat. We're taking off,"
Torosa latched and bolted the door as Kevved sat down next to his chest. Directly in front of the throne a large window had been cut out, allowing light to stream in.
"The bucket is for you. Most people get sick their first time offworld,"
Torosa lowered himself onto the throne. Immediately Kevved felt a vibration coming from the floorboards, faint but still noticeable. There was a tug. Outside he saw the tree trunks in the grove begin to sink, then the leaves flashed by, then there was nothing but blue.
"If you want you can come up here and take a look. Bring your bucket, just in case,"
Kevved rose, grabbed the bucket, and pitched forward. The floor had suddenly swayed beneath his feet.
"What was that?"
Torosa looked up at him from his seat.
"Wind. Use the netting to keep your balance,"
With his bucket in one hand, the other hand holding him up, Kevved peered through the window. A wave of nausea washed over him but he managed to keep his breakfast down. He turned away.
"How much higher will we be going?"
"We're only up three hundred feet. We've got another five miles to go. Should take us about ten minutes,"
Kevved threw up.
Far above the surface of Toril, the Delkao's Revenge hung silently among the stars. Scars from old battles long past riddled her hull, but her crew swore a finer ship had never been built. Two hundred and fifty feet from stem to stern, she was a formidable match for many of the would-be pillagers of wildspace. For two days the crew had circled the planet waiting for their secondary helmsman, Torosa, to return from dirtside and they were getting restless. Unlike previous stops, there was to be no shore leave, and cabin fever was beginning to set in. Several altercations had broken out recently, and while few had come to blows, tensions remained high for those on board.
Deck officer Gisel Kalavash paced the Revenge's deck, waiting. Torosa was due back any minute, and with each step she grew more impatient. Tall, tan, and heavily muscled, she kept her dark hair cropped short to match the styles most of the men on her shift favored. More than one man had made the mistake of confusing her with "one of the guys". It was a mistake they never repeated.
Gisel placed her hands on the side rail and leaned forward, gazing down to the planet below. She wondered briefly how the new blood would take to seeing Toril from space for the first time. Her fingers tightened on the handrail. Well, however he reacted didn't matter as long as Torosa got back up to the ship soon. She preferred to have the Revenge underway than stuck in orbit doing nothing. Especially since they were in a hurry to get back to Spiralspace.
"Ship off the port side!" cried the lookout.
Gisel squinted, trying to spot the vessel. She could barely make out the small dot moving across the starry background. The Hadozee was good. Too bad he was so damn annoying.
"Can you identify it?" She shouted up to the crow's nest.
"Wreckboat. She's approaching,"
"It's ours. Shuttle crew, prepare the deck!"
"Ship approaching off the port side!"
"It's the wreckboat. Recommend we fire weapons,"
"Damnit Nuarte, it's ours!" Stupid deck ape.
One of the crewmen handed her the guide rods.
"Ship approaching fast! She could be a threat! We should take evasive action!"
Gisel nearly dropped a guide rod.
"Get your ass down here now, Nuarte!"
She watched as Nuarte launched himself form the crow's nest and fell towards the deck. Just before he hit he spread his limbs, letting the skin flaps catch the air and turning his freefall into a controlled swoop. He landed nimbly in front of her.
"What th' fuck you want, butch?"
Gisel took a step towards him.
"What I want is two things from you. First, you curb your language with me,"
She grabbed a handful of chest fur and twisted. Nuarte let out a squeak.
"Second, because tempers are short around here, you will do your part by leaving your sense of humor in your cabin. I don't find it funny, none of the other watch officers find it funny, and I can guarantee you Torosa won't find it funny if he has to hear from me how you suggested we fire on him. Do you understand me?"
Nuarte nodded vigorously. Slowly Gisel let go of him and turned back to the approaching wreckboat.
"Now get back to your post before I write you up,"
Nuarte stomped back to the mainmast and climbed up to his perch. He was pissed but Gisel didn't care. One of these days he'd really put his foot in it and she could only hope she'd be there to see the fireworks.
Touching the two glowstones together on the guide rods' ends, Gisel activated the twin light sources and waited for Torosa to align his ship along the Revenge's keel above the gravity plane. She began signaling the ship down, correcting Torosa now and then when he began to drift too far from the landing cradle. Finally the shuttle touched down and four of Gisel's crew strapped its landing struts to the deck.
Torosa unlatched the side door and stepped out, followed by a younger man dressed in a simple robe and carrying a metal bucket. He looked very pale and unsteady. Torosa waved to Gisel.
"Commander, hello again!"
"Hello yourself, sir. This is our passenger?"
"It is. Will you have some of your men take his trunk from the shuttle down to the cargo hold?"
Certainly. And what is his name, if I may ask?"
"I'm sorry, I forgot the introduction. Kevved Stytheson, this is Commander Gisel Kalavash, deck officer, first watch, of the Delkao's Revenge."
"Call me Gisel,"
Kevved took her offered hand.
"Charmed to meet you, Gisel," he managed weakly. "I'm not feeling too well so I apologize at my lack of manners,"
Gisel smiled at him.
"It's all right Kevved. Spacesickness claims most groundlings. You seem to be weathering it well enough though. Much better than your father did his first time out, or so I've been told," She glanced at Torosa.
Torosa spoke up.
"I'll let the captain know we can break orbit. Kevved, I'm turning you over to Gisel. She'll assign you a crewman to help guide you around the ship and before too long, you'll get the hang of things around here. For the rest of the journey consider yourself a passenger. See you around,"
Torosa made his way to the aft door and disappeared through it. Gisel turned back to Kevved.
"So, is this your very first time into space?"
"How'd you like to see what your homeworld looks like from the stars' point of view?"
"I'm not sure if I'm up for it,"
"Come on, it'll be fun. You've got your chuck bucket in case you start feeling too overwhelmed,"
Kevved thought it over for a moment,
He followed her over to the railing, sneaking a glance at her backside. She may have had a more masculine haircut than he was used to but she was still very attractive. Definitely an athletic woman. His gaze dropped down, past the edge of the ship, to the sparkling blue and white of Toril miles below.
"Oh, wow," Kevved breathed, his nausea momentarily forgotten.
"It's a spectacular view from up here, isn't it?"
"Some friends of mine insist the world is flat. I wish they could see this,"
Suddenly the stars wheeled about and Toril slid from view. Kevved lost his balance and fell backwards hard against the wooden deck.
"Careful there! I should have told you about this,"
"What's happening?" gasped Kevved as his nausea returned. The stars continued to whirl past.
"We're leaving orbit. Just concentrate on the deck. There's no real motion, it's all in your mind,"
"Ugh, it feels real enough,"
"Just hold on. We'll straighten out our course soon. You'll be able to regain your footing then,"
Finally the stars returned to normal and Kevved felt confident enough to stand on his own. In the confusion his pail had spilled its contents onto the deck and now lay on its side nearby.
"I'm sorry, Gisel. I'll clean it up,"
"Forget it. I'll get one of the crew to take care of it. I should get back to work, so we'll get you a guide to show you around. Hey, Shekkelleh! I would have a favor of you!"
Kevved watched in trepidation as a large, grey, dragon-like creature climbed out of the large cargo hold doors and ambled towards them. Its strides were long and quick as it crossed the distance between them. Kevved had seen drawings of centaurs before and this creature vaguely resembled them, albeit a more reptilian version. Huge flanges extended from the top of its lizard-like head and its long slender hands ended in six fingers, each tipped with a wicked looking claw. It's thickly muscled tail swung back and forth eagerly as it bowed to Gisel.
"What would you ask of me sister-cousin?" it rumbled deeply.
"Shekkelleh, this is Kevved Stytheson. His line is of Kaba Jalat's blood-brother, Daul Stytheson, direct descent,"
"Mmmm...an honored herd member. It is a privilege to meet with you,"
Kevved swallowed thickly.
"I ask you to accompany Kevved about the ship. Make him feel welcome. Consider his blood your blood," said Gisel.
"I am honored you would ask this sister-cousin. Perhaps the honored member would care to see his quarters?" Shekkelleh waited expectantly.
It took a moment for Kevved to realize the creature was waiting for an answer. The way its tail swung back and forth was almost hypnotizing. "Oh. Sure. Lead the way," said Kevved finally.
"I would ask you to follow me, taking your place at my left, so that I may act as your right hand for a time," Shekkelleh motioned for Kevved to follow.
Gisel smiled as they left. He'd fit in soon, all right. She turned her attention to the discarded bucket still lying nearby.
"Nuarte!" she bellowed, "I've got a mess for you to clean up!"
Kargg waited patiently as the Blood Axe slipped behind the elven patrol ship, its bulk shielded from view by the Scro's powerful shamanistic magics. The Man O'War's course remained unchanged, a sign that those pompous sorcerers might actually be as good as they claimed. Much as Kargg hated their smug attitudes, this incursion would be for nothing if the elves suspected an attack.
"Are your men ready, Lieutenant?"
Kargg continued to stare out the viewport.
"We've been ready for the past hour. Can't this thing move any faster?"
Garrask shifted slightly.
'You're favoring your right side,' thought Kargg. 'One kick would break your knee. I could bury my knife in you belly before you'd even strike the floor.'
"I doubt you could fathom the intricacies of our craft, soldier," Garrask sneered.
Kargg bit back a retort and focused his anger on the elven vessel. Anger gives strength, hatred gives purpose, he repeated to himself. His mind began to clear, visions of gore burning away all other thought. A low rumble escaped his throat.
Garrask stepped away. He'd seen marines in this state before and any humanoid with half a brain knew better than to press his luck.
"Prepare to board in two minutes," the novitiate muttered to Kargg's back. When he received no response Garrask turned, his robes swishing over the metal plates, and left.
Kargg watched the Man O'War draw ever closer, its crystalline wings scattering sunlight in a dazzling rainbow. He imagined those wings crisping, burning beneath orange-red flames. He painted the decks crimson with the blood of slain elves. He clenched his fist, the dark leather of his gloves creaking, as he tightened his grip on a phantom neck.
"One minute," Kargg growled. He pounded his breastplate and his detachment rose to their feet. Kargg raised his fist and, as one, fifty soldiers fell into line.
Muffled shouts resounded throughout the ship as the crew prepared the grappling rams. Below him came the groans of "volunteers" as they struggled to move the scythelike arms into position. Once they were extended, the captain would trigger counterweights from the bridge and anything unfortunate enough to be caught between the blades would be shorn in half.
Five hundred yards away and still the elves held to their course.
"Thirty seconds. Brace for impact,"
The ships' air envelopes had not yet merged. Once they did, however, the illusion would be lost. The elves would have only a split second of reaction time before the Blood Axe could lock its rams around them. The scro didn't intend to let them use that chance.
Kargg reached to a handhold to steady himself. Behind him he could single out the breathing of each of his men, each one shallow and quickened with the excitement of the impending battle.
The ship lurched forward as the combined power of the six bridge shamans was channeled into the helmsman. The helmsman screamed as the raw magics coursed through him. Abruptly the scream was cut off.
The collision was spectacular; the now visible mantis ship plowed across the Man O'War's spine, its ventral razors slicing deep into its hull. The twin rams encircled the wings' support struts, then drew tight as the Blood Axe's captain released the counterweights. One strut snapped from the immense pressure sending its wing spiraling off into the void.
Kargg nodded to his second in command and together they swung the boarding doors open exposing the deck to space. From the outside it looked as if the mantis' jaws parted to slide back around to the either side of its head.
Two crewmen rolled the line ballista into place, trundling it forward on its tracks from the rear of the deck. No sooner was the weapon locked into place than a dozen grappling lines fired out of the ship's mouth to the trapped vessel below, steel bits digging into the crystal shell.
Kargg snapped the rings from the boarding harness he wore around the nearest line and leapt out as the first arrows began to fly. All around the Blood Axe similar boarding parties were swinging onto the doomed ship. Some of the elves' arrows found their marks; the scro they struck were dead before they reached their destination. Still the marines continued to pour out of the boarding decks.
Kargg landed heavily and rolled to his feet, plucking arrows from the air as quickly as they were fired toward him. Astonished, the elves faltered, giving Kargg the opening he needed. His sword flashed out of its scabbard burying its tip in the nearest elf's neck. Kargg stepped forward, driving his knee into his opponent's stomach, the spike on his joint plate piercing the elf's midsection. Tossing him aside, the scro lieutenant grabbed another arrow that threatened to lodge itself in his skull. In response, Kargg drew his dagger and sent it home, tearing through flesh and muscle. Soon he closed the distance between him and the most stubborn group of defenders. The sounds of battle surrounded him, invigorating, even musical. It was a symphony Kargg would savor later. For now Kargg concentrated on tearing his opponents down, parrying their feeble blades, and sending each elven soul screaming into the afterlife.
A lucky blow found its way through Kargg's armor, slicing open his arm and forcing him to drop his weapon. Bellowing with rage, he took hold of the offending sword, twisting it out of its wielder's hands. The blade's sharpness threatened to cut through his gloves but the thick leather held. Kargg dropped low, sweeping the elf's legs out from under him. As he fell, Kargg used his momentum to launch himself into a horizontal roll, the elf's sword arcing high in the air, then plunging down into the sailor's chest. Elven steel sank straight to the hilt, pinning Kargg's victim to the deck.
Overhead bolts of lightning flashed as the defenders began to mount a counterattack. The air turned acrid with the smell of burnt flesh. Frantically, the scro sorcerers sought to aid their troops with their own dark magics. For all its fury however, the magical battle paled against the carnage Kargg's marines wrought.
Kargg had no time to revel in his kill. Already his armored boots were deflecting the swords of two of the fallen elf's comrades. Their onslaught was fierce and the scro was beginning to tire. Drawing two more daggers from his belt, he lashed up at his attackers. The feint worked. As the elves slowed their blades, he kicked out, shattering their kneecaps. They collapsed in a heap, writhing in pain. Kargg regained his footing, knocking away another sword thrust from the fallen elves.
Brushing aside another pathetic slash, he reached down and hoisted one of the elves up by his hair. When he tried once more to stab Kargg, the scro quickly seized his wrist and twisted until bones crunched.
"Murderer!" hissed the elf, sweat beading upon his brow. "Monster!" He spat at Kargg.
The lieutenant smiled, his massive canines jutting up from his lower jaw. To his captive it was the last thing he saw before Kargg broke his neck.
"Thank you for the compliment," Kargg whispered in flawless elven as he let the corpse slide to the floor. Turning his attention to the second, still struggling elf, he pinned her sword to the deck with one foot. She turned her hate-filled eyes up at him. Still smiling, Kargg dropped to one knee, letting the full force of his weight drive his knee spike into her face.
Kargg stood again and took a moment to assess the battle. His marines had already secured the outer decks and from the sound of things most of the ships interior had also been seized. Kargg retrieved his sword, wiped off most of the blood using a borrowed cloak, and sheathed the weapon. Checking the rest of his armor, he discovered a few loosened plates, nothing that couldn't be repaired. Pushing his way past two scro guarding the entrance to the inner decks, Kargg went in search of the bridge.
The marines who had taken control of the command room saluted as Kargg appeared in the doorway. Unlike the rest of the ship, here the scro had taken prisoners from the bridge crew. Kargg had given specific orders that these elves were to be kept alive for his own personal ministrations. Even so there were a few who barely qualified as still living.
"Which is the captain of this sorry vessel?" asked Kargg.
One of the captives was shoved roughly forward. He was bleeding from the mouth and his eyes were beginning to swell shut. The scro had bound his arms behind him so tightly his hands were beginning to turn purple. Still he stood with an air of defiance, glowering at Kargg.
"This is an act of war! The Fleet will repay this attack a thousand times over!"
"My dear captain, certainly one so versed in warcraft could recognize this as more than an 'act of war'," Kargg replied smoothly. "This is a preemptive surgical strike for one singular and, I can assure you, quite necessary purpose,"
"You will fail, like the vermin you are," the elf shot back.
Kargg stepped forward and lifted his prisoner's chin.
"No, I think not," he said after awhile, letting the elf's head fall back. "I think you will find we are nothing like the uneducated savages we once were," He motioned to his men. The captives were forced to their knees.
Kargg drew his sword.
"You will find," he continued, "that it is your race that will drink from the cup of defeat. Failure will reside within your kind, not ours,"
His arm drew back. The room had become deathly still.
"And you will find," Kargg concluded, "that it is you who will be exterminated, driven from the worlds that are rightfully ours, and finally crushed into oblivion beneath our boots. Unfortunately, my dear captain, I cannot allow you to see that day. You should know, the one thing the scro are not very good at is taking prisoners,"
Kargg brought his sword down, grinning wickedly as it separated the elf's head from his body.
Kevved followed his guide as Shekkelleh squeezed through the doorway of the crews' salon. Someone had scrawled 'The Watering Hole" across the front of the door, and now that Kevved was inside he could see why. Except for the stars gleaming through the windows on either side of the room, the salon looked just like any of a dozen small taverns he had frequented with his friends over the years. Kevved had a flash of homesickness.
Shekkelleh wandered over to the bar and began to rummage around. Besides the two of them, the only other inhabitants were a couple of drunken sailors snoring away at a corner table.
"Where's everyone else, Shekkelleh?" asked Kevved. "I though a tavern on a ship would be crowded,"
Shekkelleh set a couple flagons on the bar and looked at Kevved. He was chewing on a handful of watercress he had found, giving him a thoughtful, almost placid look.
"We are early, honored brother. This ship has three packs, each serving for eight hours. My pack's shift will end in another hour and since you have seen the rest of the ship, we should get a head start in doing that which my pack does after a long day's work,"
"You mean everyone gets drunk?" Kevved asked incredulously.
Shekkelleh waved his hands.
"No, not at all. I apologize if I gave you that impression. Some of my packmates do get drunk, like Nuarte and his friends," Shekkelleh wrinkled his snout when he mentioned Nuarte. Apparently he didn't care for him that much.
"Others enjoy consuming their food here. Some talk. Some enjoy the entertainment," He filled both flagons with a frothy amber-colored liquid.
"I took it upon myself to provide a drink for you. I hope I have not offended?"
Kevved nearly burst out laughing. Shekkelleh had a peculiar obsession with being polite. The look of earnest on his dragonlike features was childlike in his wish to be as inoffensive as possible.
Kevved took the proffered mug from the dracon and drank deeply. The ale helped to wash away some of the sourness the spacesickness had left in his mouth. He wiped the foam off his upper lip with the back of his hand.
"Shekkelleh, I doubt you could offend even if you tried,"
The dracon bowed low, his forelegs touching the ground.
"You do me much honor, honored-brother Kevved Stytheson,"
Shekkelleh pushed a few chairs out of the way and lowered himself to the floor. Kevved took his seat opposite him.
"This is good ale," said Kevved. "I've never tasted anything quite like it,"
"It is from Reorx, in the Krynn system. We passed through that sphere nearly two months ago,"
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Shekkelleh, but it is good ale,"
Shekkelleh looked troubled.
"Has no one told you of wildspace yet, honored-brother?"
Kevved shook his head. Shekkelleh's look became concerned.
"Then I shall instruct you. With your permission of course, honored-brother,"
Kevved took another drink and leaned back in his chair.
"You said we have an hour. Tell me about wildspace,"
An hour and two more ales later, Kevved's head was swimming. Shekkelleh had explained to him the nature of the crystal spheres surrounding each solar system and of the volatile, gaseous phlogiston that lay beyond. He listened to stories of creatures so large they made the Leviathan look like a mosquito. He listened, incredulous, as the dracon described the stars of different spheres; how in one shell they were merely painted onto the inner surface of the sphere, and in another they were gigantic gemstones set into the shell walls. He listened as Shekkelleh told of the trackless, windless void between worlds and the ships that plied their trade within it.
"Wait a minute," Kevved interrupted. "If there's no wind in space, how are we even moving?"
"There are many ways to move a ship among the stars, Kevved. This ship has a helm to power it.
"All right, so what is a helm?" asked Kevved.
"You saw one in the wreckboat Torosa brought you up in. Remember the throne he sat in?"
"Can you tell me how it worked, Shekkelleh?"
The dracon spread his hands.
"I do not know. Only spellslingers are able to work them. They sit in it, the ship moves. It is up to the rest of the crew to turn the ship; the helmsman only provides the wind for us,"
"You mentioned other ways to move a ship,"
"Yes, although I understand them even less. The squid-faces use their minds to power their vessels. The reigar have their esthetics to sail the void, the neogi pull the life from other beings to move about. Then there are the norkhnar," Shekkelleh chuckled.
"Norkhnar? Who are they?"
"The norkhnar are great floating spheres with one large eye and a ring of tentacles, each with its own eye, on top. Where I come from there are similar creatures we use as kickballs,"
"Eye tyrants," Kevved breathed. "Do you mean they are out here too?"
"They have nations. Small ones though, usually no more than ten or twenty in a clan,"
"Isn't that just a bit dangerous, so many of them together?"
"It would be, if they weren't set on destroying each other. They hate their own more than any other race, simply because each nation looks so different. So long as they fight their civil wars, the rest of us are safe,"
Outside the salon a bell began to ring.
"The next shift is starting," observed the dracon. "Now I may introduce you to the rest of my packmates,"
"Wait, I was just getting into the conversation!"
"We shall have to continue at another time honored-brother. I apologize, but there are other things you must learn,"
"There is one particular packmate you should learn to deal with. He has no honor, nor manners. And his language is so coarse as to burn your ears,"
"That doesn't sound pleasant. Who is he?" Kevved asked.
The door burst open, the crew from Shekkelleh's shift clamoring for the bar. They were led by the lookout Kevved had seen from the wreckboat.
Shekkelleh rolled his eyes in disgust as the lookout launched into a series of lewd stories, each bawdier than the last. The dracon hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the furry creature.
"That would be Nuarte,"
It was a few minutes before Nuarte spotted the new face watching him from the back of the salon. He curled his lips back from his teeth as he studied Shekkelleh's companion, hoping his snarl would frighten the human. To his dismay, Shekkelleh was already whispering in his friend's ear. To make matters worse the boy was actually laughing. Nuarte pulled off his tabard and beat his chest with both fists, silencing the room with his hollow booming thuds. Leaping onto the table in front of him the hadozee made his way toward the pair, his skin folds sweeping about him like some makeshift cloak. Still wearing his snarl, Nuarte crouched in front of the two.
"Well ,well, well. Looks like we've picked up a little gravel beasty at our last stop. I thought we didn't let rats on board anymore,"
The human continued to smile at Nuarte.
"We decided to keep you on, didn't we Nuarte?" shouted someone behind him. The sailors around him broke into a chorus of catcalls. Nuarte waited for the noise to die down.
"I'm talkin' to the dirtkicker here. Ya got a name beasty?"
"He is Kevved, direct descent of Daul Stytheson, blood-brother of Kaba Jalat," offered Shekkelleh.
"Shut yer scavver hole, blowhard. I wasn't talkin' to you. Or maybe the worm doesn't know how to speak for himself,"
Nuarte leaned forward expectantly.
"I can talk just fine, Nuarte," Kevved said.
"So ya can. Me an' the boys over there were talkin', wonderin' what a little greaseball like you was doin' out here so far from home. Tryin' ta be a man? Off ta make yer fortune off'n the backs of honest sailors?"
"If I answer your question will you answer one of mine?"
Kevved leaned forward, his nose only a few inches away from Nuarte's.
"Oh, you can be sure I will,"
"I was wondering, how does a creature like you eat, seeing as how you've got an ass at both ends?"
The room erupted with laughter.
"Brave words from a groundling," sneered Nuarte. "Ya got any idea who yer insultin'?"
"A double-assed scrub monkey!" another sailor called out. More laughter filled the salon.
"Shut yer yaps, all of ya!" Nuarte howled. He pointed at Kevved. "Can't none of ya see he ain't one of us?"
"Seems to me you're the butt of the joke, fuzzy," laughed Kevved.
Nuarte foundered for a moment, then unleashed a flurry of epithets at Kevved so crude his ears burned. A few sailors actually blushed.
As Nuarte wound down his verbal assault the door to the salon flew open. In strode Torosa followed by Gisel. Neither looked happy.
"Nuarte!" Gisel shouted. "I thought I told you to watch your language. Get down off that table immediately!"
"And for all our sakes put you clothes back on," Torosa added wearily.
Nuarte hopped down from his perch and picked up his discarded tabard. Muttering under his breath he pushed his way past Gisel and left.
Shekkelleh turned to Kevved and nodded his approval.
"You handled yourself well, honored Kevved. Most new travelers would find Nuarte intimidating but you did not,"
Kevved sighed and flexed his fingers. His hands had been balled up during Nuarte's tirade and they were beginning to ache.
"I've dealt with fools like him before in Waterdeep. The trick is to not let it get to you, or at least not to let them know they're getting to you. Honestly though, I was so close to punching him,"
Torosa and Gisel joined them. Gisel was carrying a platter which she set on the table before her. It was piled high with what looked like batter-fried mushrooms. The aroma awakened Kevved's hunger and his stomach growled loud enough for them to hear. Gisel pushed the platter toward him.
"I can tell by the look in your eyes you're not going to let me eat these by myself,"
"Was I that obvious?" Kevved asked.
"Even Shekkelleh noticed, didn't you?"
"It was not that difficult an observation for me," answered the dracon.
Kevved popped a mushroom into his mouth and savored the pungent, earthy flavor. He washed the morsel down with some ale and was pleasantly surprised to hind his drink had taken on a warm mellow aftertaste.
"They're called alefriends. They're delicious on their own but taste even better with alcohol," said Gisel, answering Kevved's questioning look. "You look like you're feeling better than you did when we first met,"
"I think it's the walls in here. That and I'm trying not to look out the windows. It's hard to get used to the openness of space," said Kevved.
"You'll take to it soon enough. I bet by the time we leave Realmspace you'll be walking around without a bucket,"
"I can't wait. How long is that anyway?"
Torosa spoke up.
"I talked with the chartsman about that. Says fifteen, maybe sixteen days to H'Catha, another sixteen to the sphere wall. From there it's twenty days to Spiralspace, thirty at the most, and anywhere between five and eight days to Bral depending on our point of entry,"
"So anywhere between five and a half to seven weeks?" asked Kevved.
"You're using the Torilian calendar. We run on seven days to the week out here," Torosa said.
Kevved recalculated the numbers.
"Okay, that's eight to ten weeks,"
"Correct. You've got a head for mathematics. Perhaps we should train you in astrogation as well,"
Kevved held up a hand.
"Wait until I complete my apprenticeship. Then we'll talk about astrogation,"
Shekkelleh leaned forward inquisitively.
"If I may ask, for what have you apprenticed yourself, friend Kevved?" he asked.
Kevved chewed on another mushroom and took a drink from his mug before answering.
"I'm going to be a wizard. Well, I hope to be someday. I'm kind of nervous about the whole thing though,"
"What is there to be nervous about, friend Kevved? Magic is a noble profession,"
"Noble or not, it's a guaranteed way to turn a quick profit out in wildspace," added Gisel.
"I think it's the whole idea of the unknown that has me hesitant. Plus I'm a little old for apprenticeship. My father said there was a master that Jalat knows that prefers older apprentices. Beyond that it's a whole mystery,"
"You've come this far into the unknown. I'd say your more than up to meeting a challenge," noted Gisel.
Torosa snapped his fingers.
"I bet I know who Jalat's picked out. It has to be Muronis Saedhrecon. You're in luck if it's him Kevved. He's rumored to be the best teacher in nine spheres. He owes a few favors to Jalat and I wouldn't be surprised if they've been called in. He's also a Seeker so he'll most likely have the entire Library of the Spheres at his disposal,"
"Well at least that tells me a little bit more," Kevved admitted. "What's a Seeker?"
"They're a fraternity mostly," said Gisel. "Their whole purpose is to spread knowledge, which isn't that bad a goal for a fraternity to have. Most of the Seekers are wizards so they're more credible than say, a bunch of hadozee. Can you imagine the kind of knowledge they'd want to share?"
They all shuddered.
"The problem with the Seekers on Bral is their goals conflict to some extent with the Fireball Alliance which is the imperial wizards' guild," Torosa said. "That group has Prince Andru's approval to determine who can teach what to whom and that flies in the face of everything the Seekers believe in, so there's a strained relationship between the two,"
"So you're saying I'm getting involved with a gang of outlaws? That's hardly the kind of impression I want to make in a new place,"
"Well, they're not outcasts by any means. There's also a third guild on Bral, the Honored Mages' Guild that serves as a middleman to help balance out the power. That's where most of the spellslingers gravitate, simply because idealism doesn't intrude on them quite as much as the other two. Just watch your step and everything will go smoothly,"
Gisel got up and took the now empty platter off the table.
"I'll go see what's cooking down below. Be back shortly," she said.
Torosa turned to watch her leave. Although it was brief, Kevved sensed a connection between the two that went beyond mere friendship. He didn't know if Shekkelleh sensed it as well; the dracon was busy watching a trio of sailors setting their chairs up in a half circle. Apparently there were a few members of the crew that were musically inclined, as their instruments gave evidence.
The first musician, a tall burly fellow, set up a staccato beat on the drum he held between his knees. His audience quickly echoed the beat, clapping their hands in time with the drum. The second sailor began to play, his fingers plucking the strings of his mandolin so quickly they were a blur. Eventually he settled into a series of chordants Kevved recognized. It appeared no matter where he went tavern songs were universal. Then the third player started in, his flute carrying the melody above the beat.
As the audience began to sing, Kevved let his eyes close partway as he leaned back. Letting the music flow around him, he imagined himself back in Waterdeep. If he tried, he could almost believe he had never left.
"You sent for me?"
The voice was smooth, like polished glass, yet there was an edge to it subtle enough for most people to miss. It had the habit of putting its listeners off guard, which was what its speaker usually preferred. He waited patiently for his employer to look up.
Slowly Jalat rolled the scroll he was reading up and set it aside. There was already a sizable pile on his desk that threatened to spill onto the floor but Jalat had a knack for balancing things. The collection of scrolls shifted a little but held.
Jalat looked up at his visitor.
"What news have you?"
"Construction is proceeding on schedule. The Arcane sent the accelerator down to dry-dock two days ago, the liquid star is expected next week, and word from the Ironworks is the projector is ready to be assembled,"
"Finally, some good news. Have you heard the latest rumors?"
The figure in front of him shook his head, a nearly imperceptible gesture beneath the heavy hood he wore.
"I have not," he said.
Jalat pointed to the scroll he had set down.
"The entire colony on Armistice has vanished, as were the three elven patrol ships dispatched to guard it. The Imperial Elven Navy sent out an investigation squadron but found nothing,"
"What does this have to do with our consortium?"
"Nothing yet. But add to that the fleets spotted massing around Steeleye and the increased activity at Lionheart and that could prove extremely bad not just for us but for everyone,"
"Are you predicting another Inhuman War?"
Jalat looked worried.
"I hope not. Wars have a bad habit of disrupting legitimate trade and I'd rather not delve into black market dealing to survive. There was an envoy that arrived at the elven embassy yesterday. I'm waiting for my contacts to bring word of what information he may have passed along to the ambassador. I have a feeling it won't be good,"
"Your feelings are usually accurate, Jalat,"
"I know. I think what we can expect in the next few months is a little more meddling from the elves. I doubt they'll declare martial law in Spiralspace soon but they will start poking their noses into everyone's business, including ours,"
"The other trading houses will protest that kind of interference. Perhaps they may be open to an alliance of sorts,"
"No. There would be no way to hold it together. House Moune is the only one I would trust to try to live up to a truce. Our best bet is depending on Prince Andru's influence to keep the elves in line and even that influence is tenuous at best. I've been toying with the idea of relocating our entire operation,"
Jalat's visitor chuckled.
"Your accountants will die from shock,"
"Then we'll hire new ones. I haven't decided on moving yet but if I read any more of these reports that may be exactly what we'll do. To be safe I have a task for you perform,"
"I will do my best to fulfill it,"
"I'm sure you will," Jalat agreed. "I need you to exchange our entire Bral reserve supply for a deposit scrip. We won't be going to the Arcane this time so you are to find a dohwar agent and make sure the authenticity of the scrip is guaranteed. I don't want to get burned on the details. In addition I want the exchange destination to be limited to Greyspace. If anyone finds out how much that paper is worth it would be best if they couldn't use it anywhere else,"
"I'll need a note authorizing me to do this,"
Jalat handed him a sealed parchment stamped with the Delkao Trading Company insignia.
"Ahead of you on that. I'm trusting you to keep this transaction quiet. Should the wrong people find out what we're doing it could cause widespread panic,"
"Like your accountants?"
"Especially my accountants. Check back with me when you're done,"
Jalat's visitor turned to leave. As he reached for the door he paused and turned back toward the desk.
"I do have a question regarding the Revenge. She's due here in two and a half months. Are you still planning to decommission her once she puts in?"
Jalat considered that.
"In lieu of recent events I'm going to have to keep to the original plan. However, plans do need to be revised from time to time."
"I see," the cloaked figure said. He hesitated, as if preparing to ask something else, and then decided against it. He opened the door and left.
Jalat sighed and reached for another report.
A few hours later Kevved made his way back to his cabin, avoiding as much of the exposed decks as he could. Even so, the few glimpses he caught of the void surrounding the Revenge was enough to make his stomach turn. Finally he found his room and entered, leaning back against the heavy oak door and breathing heavily.
Soon he opened his eyes and glanced about, surveying the cabin he would call home for the next few months. As a guest he was entitled to quarters more spacious than those of the regular crew and from the look of things it appeared the crew had tight quarters indeed, if Kevved's cabin was any indication.
A simple wooden cot lay in the far corner of the room beneath a porthole that offered a view of the outside. Someone had draped a sheet of canvas over the window and left one end pulled back, allowing some of the starlight to stream in. Up near the ceiling the far wall curved in slightly, following the lines that gave the Revenge its characteristically shark-like appearance. Shekkelleh had called it a hammership and as Kevved remembered back to when he had first seen the Revenge from Torosa's shuttle, it did look like a hammerhead shark. That was another thing that intrigued him. Shekkelleh's descriptions of spelljamming vessels sounded a bit far-fetched, but if they were true then most everyone out in space designed their ships to look like one animal or another.
Continuing his appraisal of the room Kevved found that while the outside starlight gave a little illumination most of the light came from patches of moss that grew on the walls. Most of it was concentrated above a desk to his right and the light was bright enough to read by there. Next to the desk stood a small wardrobe. Its surface was carved with dancing figures over the entire surface. As Kevved looked closer he could make out a woodland scene populated with dryads and satyrs. From some of the stories he had heard about satyrs from his friends back home these scenes were tame in comparison. A knock at the door drew Kevved away from his perusal of the wardrobe carvings.
"Is that you, Shekkelleh?"
"It is," replied the dracon. "May I come in?"
Kevved opened the door and let Shekkelleh in. The dracon squeezed through the doorframe carrying Kevved's chest and set it easily on the floor between them. Kevved remembered his father's two bodyguards struggling to load it onto Torosa's shuttle and briefly wondered just how strong the dracon really was. Shekkelleh didn't even appear to be winded.
"I brought your property up from the cargo hold as you wished,"
"Thanks Shekkelleh. You've been a great help,"
Shekkelleh dipped his head low.
"You are a worthy comrade. I am honored to call you a packmate,"
Kevved drew a key from the chain he wore around his neck and began to fumble with the lock on the front of the chest.
"Shekkelleh, I've noticed you call everyone on the ship packmates and I can't help wondering what exactly that means. Do others of your kind think of humans that way?"
The dracon was quiet for a while.
"I hope I haven't offended you," Kevved added quickly.
Shekkelleh looked at him.
"You have not offended me, friend-Kevved. I was merely remembering my original pack, before I came here," He sounded sad.
Kevved stopped what he was doing and turned to the dracon.
"What happened, Shekkelleh?"
Shekkelleh took a deep breath.
"There are others of my kind, but my pack is now gone and I am alone. We traveled for many years searching for new places to live and to call new homes. My pack had discovered a world that called to us. It was warm, there was plenty to consume, and wide plains to roam. We took the ships we traveled in and used them to build camps for us to live in. We sent one ship back to spread news of our find and then turned our attentions to our new home."
"The first months we spent learning of our world. Many of us were sent to find new places to run. Others were sent to find water and food for the pack. Everywhere we went we discovered many wonderful things and from what we found we were lead to believe we were alone."
"What we did not know was we had been watched the moment we first set foot on that world by a people that considered our planet to be theirs. They made no attempt to contact us. They simply watched and waited until we were vulnerable enough for them to attack."
The dracon lowered his head, his eyes closed.
"Our pack-mothers had entered the birthing season when they came. I had been sent out of the camp to find a new place to move to once the calves were able to travel. When I returned my heart broke at what I saw. Every one of my packmates had died. Our defenders had no time to pick up their weapons. The camp had been overrun too quickly."
"The packmates we sent out to explore never returned. I learned later they had been killed by the same people that attacked us."
Shekkelleh looked up at Kevved.
"You do not know this, but my people cannot survive alone. The pack is who we are. Without structure we lose our identity. I too was dead the moment I returned to the camp."
"Then I heard a sound that stirred me from my grief. A ship had returned. At first I thought another pack had come to join us and I felt life return to me. I ran to them, hoping to warn them of what had happened, but as I drew near I knew my people had not returned. It was this ship that had found me instead."
"They were frightened of me at first, but they took me in. I had not eaten for days. Then Torosa came to me and told me what had happened. He said the githzerai had claimed this world as an outpost. It did not matter to them that we were unaware of their claim. We were trespassing and had been removed."
"From then on, this has been my pack, and Jalat has been our kaba. I know many of my packmates do not think of themselves that way, but it is the only way I can survive. And as for the githzerai, there is now one more they can count among their enemies."
Kevved laid a hand on the dracon's shoulder.
"Well, I for one am honored to be your packmate, friend-Shekkelleh,"
Shekkelleh nodded his head.
"Thank you, friend-Kevved. You would make a good dracon,"
"Whatever happened to the ship you sent back to spread work of your discovery?"
"They never returned. The githzerai destroyed them before they could leave the sphere. My people never were told of our pack or of what befell them."
Shekkelleh shifted uncomfortably.
"I must leave you to your property now. The night watch will start in a few hours and I must sleep. Will you serve alongside me in the morning?"
"Try to stop me,"
"I would not, friend-Kevved,"
Kevved watched as Shekkelleh shuffled back into the hall and closed the door. He stood there, thinking of Shekkelleh's loss, before returning to his chest.
The lock opened smoothly and Kevved began to search through his belongings. Finally he found what he was looking for. Pulling out the lute he had bought a year ago in Neverwinter, he began to tune the strings, one by one, until he was satisfied with their sound.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Kevved started to play, strumming one of the songs he had heard earlier in the salon. A bit rusty, he thought, but perhaps there would be time to brush up on his fingerwork before he arrived at Bral.
Kevved leaned forward to close the chest's lid when something caught his eye. There, underneath a stack of clothes was a cloth sack he knew he had not packed away.
Drawing it out, he was surprised at how heavy it was. Balancing his lute on his knees, Kevved untied the knotted cord that held the sack shut and looked inside. He nearly dropped the bag.
Piled one on top of another, lay a fortune in gemstones and gold. Kevved stared at it, the largest amount of wealth he had ever seen. There had to be only one explanation how this had gotten into his chest; his father.
A though occurred to Kevved and he dug into his pocket, searching for the note Daul had given him before Kevved had left. He unfolded the paper, his hands trembling. Scanning the paper, he skipped most of the beginning paragraphs, searching for any mention of his unexpected windfall.
'You should have found the money I put in your chest last night,' one sentence began. Kevved read on.
'Before you get any ideas in your head, it's not for you. Most of it isn't anyway. Part of arranging for your apprenticeship involved sending payment in full. I decided I could trust you to deliver your own tuition and in addition I also added a little something extra to help you in purchasing your first spellbook which, as I remember, can be very expensive. There should also be enough left over for food and clothes, so don't spend it all in one place. I won't be able to send you any more should you need it. Now, as to how you should act when you get to Bral...'
The letter trailed off in Daul's usual penchant for longwinded speeches. Kevved set it aside and hefted the sack in his hands. He looked about, trying to find a suitable place to stash away his wealth. Under the bed would be too obvious, as would be the wardrobe. Reluctantly he knotted the cord again and set the sack back inside his chest. Anyone who wanted to could probably take it but at least there would be a lock to get through first.
Kevved got up and after securing the lock got ready for bed. The second watch was still on duty but Kevved had gone through a long day and was exhausted. He climbed into the cot and pulled the wool blankets over his head. Closing his eyes, he began to drift off, barely noticing the internal shift as the Revenge dropped down to tactical speed.
Eschada Trueblade stood high above the Delkao's Revenge gripping the edge of the crow's nest. His eyes grew wide and he started to ring the alarm bell beside him. Before him was a creature most spacefarers never got a chance to see beyond certain drawings on old starcharts. This however was no drawing and the reality of it filled the lookout with dread.
"Krajen ahead!" Eschada screamed. "Gods preserve us, we're going to hit it!"
The crew of the second watch had been ready the moment the ship fell out of spelljamming speed, manning the weapons turrets for any sign of an attack. When they heard the lookout's cry a few dropped to their knees and prayed for deliverance. Others, grim-faced, began to load their weapons, knowing there would be no parley nor quarter given in this fight.
The ship dove as the helmsman fought to correct the Revenge's forward momentum. As the krajen rose above them, the entire crew watched in horror. More than twice the size of their vessel, the void kraken turned to follow, it primary tentacle lashing about blindly in front of it.
"All strikes!" shouted the weaponsmaster, dropping to the deck as the krajen smashed against the Revenge's midsection. Rigging snapped and the entire ship shook from the impact. Secondary tentacles began to latch on to the Revenge. Below decks the helmsman sent the ship into a roll, tearing out of the beast's grasp. As the ship slipped past, the aft gunners fired, ballista bolts piercing the krajen's rubbery main tentacle. The creature shuddered from the attack and began to pursue the Revenge in a murderous frenzy.
Kevved opened his eyes as soon as he heard the first of the alarms ring. Hurriedly he pulled on his tunic and rolled out of bed. The moment his feet touched the floor a massive concussion knocked him across the room into the wall.
Blood welled up in his mouth and Kevved realized he had bit his tongue. He clawed his way to the door, trying to ignore the ringing in his ears. Outside he could hear shouting and the sound of running in the hallway. Debating whether he should stay in his cabin or find out what was happening, Kevved gave in to curiosity and reached for the door.
"Six percent. Any less would be an insult to Master Espel."
Vashon steepled his fingers and gazed at the rastipede for a long moment. Its antennae twitched once as the insect recalculated the figures on its abacus.
"I take it six is not to your liking? Perhaps five percent is more acceptable?"
Still Vashon said nothing. From where he sat it was impossible for anyone to see past the darkness his hood afforded, an effect not lost on Espel's deal broker.
Perturbed, the rastipede brushed back and antenna like a strand of unruly hair and sighed.
"The whole point of price haggling, Vashon, is to offer and counteroffer. We are supposed to arrive at an amount that is mutually desirable and beneficial to both parties. However, I cannot complete this transaction without some sort of concession from you and there you sit, oblivious to the sacrifices I am making for your employer. What am I to do? Should I cancel your scrip? Should I rescind on our deal? Frankly, I am at a loss for words. Never in my life have I been treated so unprofessionally,"
"I'm only waiting until you offer an amount well out of the range of ludicrous, K'rka," murmured Vashon.
K'rka dropped his quill.
"Ludicrous? You seem to forget, transferring such a large amount between systems is not part of our daily routine. This goes beyond simple paperwork. There's the matter of transport fees, exchange rates, wages, taxes, "
"And turning a profit," Vashon finished.
"Yes. And turning a profit. Which is why you can see five percent is anything but ludicrous,"
"What?" K'rka rocked back as if he had been struck. "Two percent is out of the question!"
Vashon pointed to the abacus.
"Figure it out, K'rka. Subtract all you fees, wages, taxes, bribes, and all your other little costs and you'll find that two percent is more than enough. Or I can take my business to another dohwar. Espel isn't the only one on Bral remember. Certainly not all of them would be so shortsighted as to let an opportunity like this pass them up. Not over a difference of three percent,"
K'rka paused, not looking at the abacus. Shaking his massive head from side to side, he reached for the quill.
"You are one of the most stubborn, hard-nosed, bull-headed individuals I have ever had the misfortune of dealing with. But I will agree to two percent,"
"Make it two and a half to keep our transaction quiet,"
K'rka threw down the quill in disgust.
"Fine. Good. Two and a half," He leveled a glare at Vashon. "And we are always discreet when it comes to our customers. Once I am finished finalizing your scrip I want you off the premises. You've ruined my day,"
Vashon grinned beneath his hood. Within a few minutes K'rka had finished penning the scrip, stamped, sealed it and handed it to the runner. Vashon took it, saluted the rastipede and vanished through the doorway.
"One hour completely wasted," muttered K'rka as he watched Vashon leave.
Blow after blow shook the Delkao's Revenge as it tried in vain to elude its pursuer. Despite her best efforts the krajen continued to batter the ship, shattering masts as if they were mere twigs and tearing huge chunks from her hull.
Captain Skune Donovan watched helplessly while his best helmsman tried to stifle cries of pain as the Revenge was slowly torn apart. Twenty six years of captaincy, of cheating disaster, and it was to end like this, as prey for a beast of the void. Anger rose in him, railing at the injustice of the situation. He set his jaw and looked out the porthole at the darkness beyond.
'Not today,' he thought. 'Not like this,'
"Helm!" he shouted. "Roll the ship again, then take us into a hard dive!"
"Aye, sir," gasped the helmsman, furiously blinking tears from his eyes.
Stars flashed by as the Revenge spun along her axis, pulling out of the krajen's relentless grasp. Skune turned to the rest of the bridge crew.
"You, crewman," he pointed to one. "Find Torosa and bring him here. And be quick about it, we haven't much time,"
"Aye, captain," was the response and the sailor was gone.
"I won't be beaten by a mindless squid. Not today," Skune vowed.
Kevved hung on to the stair rail, fighting to stay on his feet while the ship heaved beneath him. As the last of the tremors faded he dashed up the remainder of the steps and onto the main deck.
It was a scene of chaos. Shouts filled the air as sailors struggled to reload their weapons or tried to rescue companions that were trapped beneath fallen rigging. The deck was littered with debris, tangled knots of ropes, cable, torn sails, and from where he stood, Kevved could see several bodies scattered among the wreckage.
He looked about, hoping to spot a familiar face. Gisel was there, manning one of the ballista behind him. As if sensing his gaze she turned, her face drawn and haggard.
"Kevved! What the hell are you doing up here?"
"I wanted to see what was going on," he shouted back. "Are we under att-"
His voice trailed off as the void kraken rose past the starboard rail. Kevved had no idea how far away the thing was, save that it was huge. Weak-kneed, he slumped to the deck.
Gisel swung her weapon around and fired on the krajen. Open-mouthed Kevved watched the bolt recede into the distance as it sped towards its target. For several seconds it hung between the stars before disappearing into the pale white flesh of the beast.
'Barely a pinprick,' thought Kevved.
"Reload," Gisel said to her partner and turned to Kevved.
"Get below now. I can't keep an eye on you right at the moment. Go back to your cabin and I'll send someone to get you when we're safe,"
"What is that thing?" Kevved whispered.
"Now!" she yelled back.
Kevved nodded dumbly and clawed for the door. With a strength born of fear he wrenched the door open and ran down the stairs. Behind him the krajen struck again and again at the ship, snapping the mainmast in two. The steps beneath Kevved's feet fell away and he was falling through darkness. His head struck hard against something and then there was nothing but empty silence.
Eschada opened his eyes. Against his cheek pressed the coolness of the deck and for a moment he thought he had fallen asleep under the night sky. He tried to roll over, to push himself up when his stomach exploded in white fire. He tried to scream but was only rewarded with a liquid cough. Breaking through the twisted jangle of raw nerves came the flood of memory and Eschada knew what had happened. Daring to glance down, he saw a broken spar of ironwood had crushed against him, covering his midsection like some torturous blanket. His legs were gone. He looked away, not wanting to accept what had happened. He tried to call for help but could only moan softly.
Someone was coming. Eschada craned his neck to see who it was but a fresh dose of pain made him reconsider.
"Don't move," It was Nuarte. Although Eschada couldn't see him the sound of his voice was comforting enough.
"How bad does it look?" he whispered.
Nuarte didn't answer.
"That bad, huh?" said Eschada.
He felt Nuarte's rough hand on his forehead, brushing back the hair from his eyes. Eschada winced as another wave of pain coursed through him.
"I've seen worse than you, boy. You'll live,"
"Liar," Eschada smiled. "I guess I win our bet,"
Nuarte snarled at him.
"Ya ain't dead yet, sailor. That bottle stays closed for a few more years, hear me?"
Eschada coughed again, a coppery warmth filling his mouth. He felt Nuarte gently dab at his lips with a bit of cloth, wiping away the blood.
"Don't leave me, okay?" whispered the lookout.
"I ain't goin' nowhere. Just try to relax while I figure out a way ta get this beam off'n ya,"
Eschada nodded and closed his eyes. He heard the hadozee grunt as he tried to lift the fallen spar but the heavy mast refused to give. The deck shuddered and Nuarte swore.
"I need some help over here, Shekkelleh!"
His eyes still closed, Eschada listened as the dracon drew near.
"How may I assist, Nuarte?"
"Help me lift this damn thing!"
Shekkelleh's powerful arms encircled the mast and together they lifted it off the lookout. Beneath was a smeared, jumbled mess of crimson. Slowly they swung the beam over and let it fall back to the deck. Shekkelleh watched as Nuarte rushed to his friend's side. Oblivious to the confusion around them the hadozee knelt and whispered to Eschada. Then his shoulders fell.
Knowingly, Shekkelleh placed his hand on Nuarte's shoulder. He turned silently and left the hadozee alone to grieve.
"You want me to do what?" asked Torosa, his voice incredulous.
Skune thrust the scroll at hem again.
"Target our helm. Shut it down,"
"But why?" inquired Torosa.
"I've got a hunch that thing out there can see our spelljamming field. If we redirect that field it may break off its attack. Now stop questioning my orders and start following them mister!"
Torosa took the scroll and unrolled it.
"If you're wrong, you'll have killed us all,"
"If I'm wrong it won't make a damn bit of difference anyway," Skune snapped. "Now shut us down!"
Torosa began to read, his voice resonant throughout the bridge. As he spoke, the runes inscribed on the parchment he held flared with a silvery light, burning themselves off the page and releasing their pent-up magics into the air. Torosa's finger jabbed out, pointing at the helm and the ship began to slow. The helmsman began to convulse as he felt his consciousness ripped away from him.
Finally the last word was spoken. Torosa dropped the blank parchment as it burst into flame, consuming itself before it struck the floor.
Skune stepped toward the helmsman.
"Are you still with us, Dennyr?"
Dennyr nodded slowly.
"I think so sir. I no longer feel the ship but I can still move,"
A cheer filtered down from above decks and Dennyr smiled.
"The krajen's following me sir. He's pulling away from the ship,"
Torosa looked at his captain.
"I owe you an apology sir. I shouldn't have questioned your decision,"
Skune shook his head.
"Forget it Torosa. I was just playing a hunch. Next time though I expect you to carry out my orders immediately, understood?"
"Dennyr, once you've led the krajen far enough away, Torosa will return the field to the ship and we'll need to get out of here as quickly as possible. In the meantime I want two teams assembled to deal with the wounded and to repair what we can of the ship. I want us to remain on schedule for our delivery,"
"I take it we won't be returning to Toril for repairs?" asked Torosa.
"No. We have a deadline to meet that's more important than docking the Revenge for a complete overhaul. Speaking of which, I'll be in the cargo hold making sure out shipment is intact. There's a lot riding on this trip, gentlemen, and I will not let our employer down because some creature thought we'd make a nice snack. That is all for now,"
Skune signaled to two of his officers and together they exited the bridge.
It was the sound of Gisel's voice that brought him back. Either that or it was her hand that kept slapping his face. Whichever it was, Kevved awoke with a splitting headache.
"You can stop hitting me now Gisel," he groaned.
Her hand stopped in midair.
"Sorry. I looked away for a moment,"
Kevved sat up and put his hands to his temples. Carefully he felt along his forehead until his fingers brushed against a large knot that throbbed steadily. He pressed it tentatively. Heat and pain spread out beneath his fingertips, prickling under his scalp and down behind his eyes. Kevved quickly pulled his hands away and looked at Gisel. She was watching him with an intent expression.
"How long was I unconscious?"
Gisel glanced up at the stairway above them.
"My guess would be about ten minutes. Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm not sure. I've got a killer of a headache and I'm a little dizzy,"
"Can you stand at least?"
Kevved pressed the heels of his palms to his eyelids. The pressure seemed to help. Without waiting for his reply, Gisel stood and held out her hand.
"There's only one way to find out, Kevved," she said.
Kevved reached out and took hold. After a moment's hesitation he hauled himself up.
"That's it," Gisel said encouragingly. "Take it slow. You don't have to prove anything to me,"
Kevved leaned against the wall to catch his breath. The dizziness had increased and he was beginning to feel the rough wood at his back slide away. Only Gisel's iron grip kept him from tumbling back to the floor.
Once again Kevved forced his legs to straighten, this time with more success. Soon he felt confident enough to stand on his own.
"Are we out of danger Gisel? Is that thing gone?"
"I'm not sure how, but Torosa managed to drive it off. Just in time too. We really took a beating,"
She started up the stairs.
"It's pretty extensive. Twelve men are dead and two are still missing. Our rigging's gone and the hull's holed in a few places. If you can move about well enough we could really use an extra hand. There's wounded up top,"
Kevved followed her as Gisel continued up the stairway.
"I'm not sure how much help I can be. I'm not a medic,"
"Just make them feel comfortable okay? We're going to be busy with repairs so someone's going to have to keep tabs on them. If anything happens, come get me,"
"All right," Kevved agreed as he climbed up to the ruined deck.
Traveling the main streets of Bral made for slow progress Vashon mused as he threaded through the crowded bazaar. Here and there vendor booths sprouted from the cobblestones like weeds, drawing their share of buyers and curious onlookers alike. It had been said that on Bral there was nothing that couldn't be found for the right price and it was here in the Great Bazaar that saying was most evident. All around was the din of merchants hawking their wares and the outraged shouts of shoppers dismayed at how expensive those goods were.
Finally he had enough of the constant pushing and jostling. Spotting a darkened alleyway nearby, Vashon fought against the tide of bodies and disappeared from the crowd. The change in atmosphere was remarkable. The wooden buildings on each side shielded him from most of the noise of the street behind him and the overhanging eaves blotted out most of the stars above.
Vashon picked his way through the litter of discarded crates and refuse, intent on returning to Jalat's headquarters. Twice he stumbled but caught himself before he fell in that cool dim passage. Then the hem of his cloak snagged on something.
"Hey buddy, got a copper for an old sailor?"
Vashon turned. His cloak had apparently fallen prey to an old, gnarled claw of a hand. Its owner peered up at him with a toothless grin.
"Sure friend," he answered.
Vashon's hand moved to his belt, then stopped. Surprised, he glanced down to his waist. His money purse was gone. Someone must have lifted it off him earlier in the bazaar.
"Damn!" he hissed through his teeth.
The old man chuckled.
"I been there too, buddy. Bral's not the friendliest of places, that I'll grant you," He leaned forward out of the mound of garbage he was reclining in and shook his head in sympathy.
"You're right about that," Vashon answered. "I'm sorry, but I have nothing to give you friend,"
The man lurched to his feet and smiled at Vashon.
"'S'all right. It's not really pocket change I'm interested in anyway,"
There was a glint of steel in the darkness and Vashon felt the cold barrel of a pistol shoved against his ribs. There was a gleam of maliciousness in reflected in the old sailor's eyes. Behind him two more men threw off the refuse they had been hiding under and joined their companion.
"The scrip you're carrying will be satisfactory enough. Hand it over,"
"Hell of a mess here boys," Skune sighed as he surveyed the cargo hold. Nearly half of the cargo containers lay in ruins, more that enough work to keep them busy for hours, if not days.
"Reeve, did you find the manifest yet?"
"Right here sir,"
The crewman handed Skune a thick wad of papers. He flipped through the pages.
"Let's start with this one, crate Ten-A. Damnation! Spellslinger materials."
Skune looked at the greenish mass in front of him and shook his head. "Probably was preserved for shipping too,"
"What do you suggest we do, sir?" Reeve asked.
Skune motioned with his hands.
"Gather it up, put it back in its crate. That all we can do for now. Once everything's accounted for we'll have Torosa come down and take care of the perishables,"
Reeve bent down and started to clean up the spilled merchandise as Skune continued his inventory.
An hour had passed by the time Skune reached the far side of the hold. There was little damage here and the stacked crates towered high above his head. Fortunately he was not a claustrophobic man or he would have found the closeness of the boxes disconcerting. He stopped to examine a crate at about eye-level. A large hole had been ripped in the side and within he could see the glimmer of gold and silver.
"Crate Twenty-three F. Coin collection from the third Ji Huong dynasty en route to Shou Embassy on Bral,"
Skune shouted up the aisle.
"Merkail! Bring the glowstone over here and help me do a count,"
He pushed some of the wood splinters out of the way and set the manifest down on the floor. As Merkail approached, he took the glowstone from him and peered inside the crate. Skune swore. Most of the coins had come loose from their cases and lay heaped at the bottom of the container. He handed the glowstone back to Merkail.
"Hold it steady wile I start separating these,"
Skune reached in with both hands and began piling the coins together while Merkail watched silently at his shoulder.
After a minute the light dropped away and Skune was left blinking in the darkness.
"Damnit Merkail, I can't see anything now!"
There was no answer.
Skune pulled his head back away from the hole and saw the glowstone lying at his feet.
He looked around. He was alone.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. There was something behind him. Slowly Skune turned around.
"If you please," Barrelar Redstone nodded to the barkeep as he strode to his accustomed seat at the back table. Spread out on the tabletop was an exquisitely lacquered chessboard and two hand carved sets of playing pieces already laid out for him. Barrelar began to set up the board as the bartender brought him his drink.
"What's the matter Joabi? You look like you're expecting another slow night,"
The bartender raised his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
"I am. Last weeks fight lost me some of my best customers,"
"Aww, don't worry so much. They'll come back eventually,"
"Well you were one of the main instigators," Joabi said pointedly.
Barrelar raised his eyebrows in a display of innocence.
"Me? How was I to know giff were such sore losers? Next time one of them wants to play I'll just turn them down,"
Joabi eyed a nick in the pillar beside him and absentmindedly scratched his belly.
"I hope so. Don't misunderstand, I enjoy having you as a tenant and you're money's good, but most of my livelihood depends on running an orderly establishment. One where my customers don't have to worry about a rampaging troop of boomheads cutting their evening short,"
"I understand Joabi. No more chess with giff. However, " he cocked an eyebrow and looked at the bartender, "I do need an opponent and since there's no one else here..." He left his question unspoken.
Joabi laughed and shook his head.
"I'm afraid I'll have to decline. Besides, chess isn't my game,"
Barrelar watched Joabi return to his bar and studied the pieces in front of him. Somewhere in the distance he heard the front door open and the approach of footsteps.
`Too quick for a human,' he thought, `and to heavy for a halfling. Most likely a dwarf.'
He looked up and snorted. He was right. It was one of Jalat's lackeys, and a poor excuse for a dwarf to boot. Couldn't even keep a proper beard.
The dwarf handed Barrelar a folded parchment. He took it and set it aside without bothering to read it.
"Sir," the dwarf began, "your services are needed immediately,"
"My commission doesn't start for six more months. Until then I'm on retainer,"
The dwarf shifted uncomfortably.
"There have been some unexpected developments recently. Jalat is pulling all his paid blades into service and liftoff has been rescheduled one week from today. If you'll come with me sir, there's to be a briefing in one hour,"
"What's your name?"
Barrelar sighed and leaned back.
"Your name. How you identify yourself to others,"
"Oh. Sorry. Theol Hammerdelve. Now, if you will follow me,"
"Hold a moment, Theol," Barrelar interrupted. "I find this change in plans more than slightly disturbing. Jalat knows any rescheduling of my contract requires me to be present at the time that rescheduling is done,"
Theol pursed his lips.
"Actually sir, that is what is contained in the addendum I gave to you. All of the necessary amendments to your contract are listed and only require you signature for them to go into effect,"
Barrelar looked skeptically at the parchment and then back to Theol.
"Where is the briefing to be held?"
"At Jalat's headquarters. One hour,"
Barrelar glanced at the paper again.
"You can leave now Theol. I already know the way and if I'm not there by the time the briefing starts you can consider my contract terminated,"
"Sir, I hope you know what that means as far as your retainer is concerned,"
The mercenary smoothed his beard and nodded.
"I do. But I'd rather work for a stable employer who'd see me sweat for my coin than an overly-generous one who feels compelled to alter an agreement every other week. I can handle change but only so far. Now leave. I have some reading to do,"
He unfolded the parchment and furrowed his brow, not even bothering to glance up at Theol's departure.
`An hour?' he thought. `I need at least three to make any sense of this,'
He pushed all thoughts of chess out of his head as he started the first line.
Shekkelleh tilted his head to one side and froze. He had been lashing together the frame for a makeshift sail when he heard what he could have sworn was a scream from directly below. From the cargo hold.
He looked around, checking for any pause in the rest of the work crew. Nothing. Kevved was off talking to some of the wounded sailors, Gisel was checking and rechecking the weapons, Torosa was probably still on the bridge, and the shallas only knew where Nuarte went. He hefted the rope in his claws. Probably his imagination. Still... He listened again.
There was always something about this particular voyage that had intrigued the dracon. Ever since the cargo hold was announced off limits after the Reorx pick up there had been a running bet among the crew as to just what the Revenge was carrying that required so much secrecy.
His tail twitched slightly and Shekkelleh felt the urge to stamp his feet in impatience Certainly the captain's orders had a perfectly good explanation to them, but if there was an injured packmate there would be no choice but to help. And, he told himself, if he had just imagined it then at least he would be sure of it.
Shekkelleh bobbed his head, satisfied with his reasoning. He tied off the end of his rope and shuffled as inconspicuously as he could to the stairway. After one last look around he ducked inside.
As he reached the lower deck entrance to the hold, Shekkelleh felt a stab of guilt at breaking the captain's orders. He wrung his hands. No, he was sure he heard a packmate in distress. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. Calmly he pushed against the door. It was unlocked. There was someone inside after all.
Shekkelleh pushed the door the rest of the way open and slipped noisily inside.
"I apologize for the intrusion, but I would inquire if I may render assistance in some way?" he asked hopefully. No one answered.
Shekkelleh closed the door behind him and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Slowly he began to see the soft glow of body heat off to the right above the cool blue of what must be the cargo crates. He approached the glow, which from where he stood was only about twenty feet away. Someone was hanging upside down from the great lift doors that were set into the ceiling.
"I heard your cry of distress," Shekkelleh called up to him. "May I offer the strength of my arms to return you to the floor?"
There was a snapping sound, and as the dracon's vision continued to improve he could see that it was the captain he was addressing. His nostrils caught the warm velvety scent of blood and then he realized with a growing panic why there was no answer.