Friday, October 20, 2017

The Masks of Shandar; Chapter 1, Part 4

The Masks of Shandar
Chapter 1, Part 4

    In the days following, Skulk managed to find an amicable arrangement with the crew of the Stormwind: he stayed out of their way and they left him to his own devices. He’d dine with the crew in the evenings, and made attempts to be a little sociable, but he found that there was little in common between them.
    The most interesting thing he’d been able to determine was why the Stormwind seemed an oddity to him. From what he’d read in the past, most Jenar families had small formations of ships that traveled together. One ship would be devoted to being the cargo vessel, another was the crew quarters, one was the captain’s ship and one or two small ships that were outfitted for fighting should the need arise. Stormwind sailed alone, something that seemed to gnaw at Skulk’s thoughts. He he unwittingly joined onto a pirate ship? The men that served on Captain Storm’s ship weren’t exactly unfriendly, but they were hard men. Many of them wore scars, broken noses, or the sunken knuckles of tavern brawlers. Over dinner on a quiet night with little wind, Skulk was sitting with a woman that was called Crow because she preferred to be on lookout duty on top of the main mast.

    “Ah, ye noticed,” the Jenar said, half smirking around a bite of biscuit. “No, we don’t sail in formation. Cap’n Storm isn’t a typical Jenar.” Crow looked around a bit for a moment. “See, lad, here’s the thing. We ain’t traders, and we ain’t pirates. We’re pirate hunters. Traveling like we do means that we have the chance to find, catch, and… ahem… deal with pirates we might find.” Crow gestured out to the sea, waving a piece of jerky how a teacher would gesture with a classroom pointer. “Out here, on the seas, there be some sorry folk that don’t give enough of a damn to make an honest life. They hunt the folks that be tryin’ to make their own way. And they love to see a lone ship on the sea.”
    Skulk nodded slowly. “So, it’s a trap, then? The whole ship is basically a trap to lure in pirates?”

    “Aye,” said Crow. She bit off another piece of biscuit before continuing. “See, when it comes to life out here, there be more Jenar doing anything than anyone else. But pirates are the ragged bastard outcasts of Jenar life, Guide spit on their souls. Lots of pirate ships ain’t crewed by full Jenar, who know their rigging and lines from the time they learn to walk. They’re crewed by anyone that signs on, so there be folk of every type on ‘em, and they don’t want to have a stand up fight with a full Jenar formation. Cap’n got his commission from the Grand Admiral, and outfitted Stormwind to be just what ye want for the task.”

    “If that’s the case, why take me on as a passenger?”

    “Lad, ye came on the ship right before departure and paid gold. Cap’n has a commission, but he’s still a Jenar.”
    And, so, the Stormwind sliced through the waves on the way to Eumoyn. Skulk imagined what it would be like, to be aboard the ship during an action against pirates. Could he hold his own with his blades, or would he be better off remaining hidden away from what was happening? Could it be that the pirates might work for whoever had killed his parents? He spent long hours trying to consider as much as he could, ultimately coming up with very little.

    A couple of days after his conversation with Crow, a call went up from the masts of the ship. “Starboard! Sails and masts!” came the cry, and the ship immediately began a long, sweeping turn towards the sighted vessel. Sails billowed and the ship seemed to leap into action, like a predator chasing prey.

    Skulk took one look towards the direction indicated and headed below decks. He still wasn’t sure what good he’d be, but he knew he had to be prepared. He went to his hammock and picked up his sword belt from where he’d hung it from one of the hooks the hammock was anchored to. It had seemed pointless to carry the blades while on the Stormwind. If the crew was going to be hostile, there was nowhere for him to go. If they weren’t hostile, why bother carrying the blades? He belted it on, feeling the reassuring weight of the scabbards hanging on his left side. He carefully nudged the blades from their sheaths, making sure they still drew smoothly, and headed back above.

    It took Stormwind a couple of hours to finally reach the sighted vessel. As they drew near, Skulk started looking for details of what they were sailing towards. It was a lone ship, he saw, three masted and a great, hulking ship. It looked to him like one of the ships of Shandral make, and Skulk felt a chill run down his spine. But, the ship sat, unmoving. Captain Storm had come to the fore of the ship and uncased his spyglass. He stood still for many moments, barely moving, before collapsing it and tucking it back into a pocket.

    “Be prepared, men,” he said. His voice carried across the deck, drawing the mens’ eyes. “It looks to be abandoned, so this may be a trap of some sort. Arm and armor, mount the rail crossbows and prepare to board!” With these words, the crew split in many directions. Men and women began hauling up the large, heavy crossbows Skulk had seen below. They mounted into steel brackets on the railings with the sharp snap of metal on metal and powerful springs. They were armed in a sequence. Every third crossbow had a grappling hook and line loaded, which the others were mounted with heavy, wicked-looking quarrels. After these were mounted, crew came up from below, wearing the leathers and cutlasses typical of Jenar sea action. The big folks that had brought up the crossbows then vanished below, rotating with the other crew just now returning. Skulk didn’t see the large crew members return, and the crew populating the deck began to work the lines and bring Stormwind closer.

    As they came alongside the other vessel, they saw no sign of activity. Ropes lay on the deck, unsecured. Rigging and sails sagged in the wind. The air itself even seemed to be very still. The captain looked over the deck with hard eyes, then nodded to Knuckles.

    “Ahoy the ship!” Knuckles bellowed out. And then, there was plenty of activity.

    Men seemed to boil up out of the other ship. They streamed onto the deck, holding hatchets, sabers, clubs, and spears. They came up from the ports to below, they came out of cargo hatches, they swarmed out of the captain’s cabin, filling the deck. And each and every one of them had a black masked tied over their face. Skulk’s blood seemed to chill in his veins.

    The captain looked unimpressed with the show of force on the larger vessel. “I am captain of pirate hunter Stormwind,” he said in a deep, resonant voice that carried over the din. “This is your one chance to surrender.”

    A big, swarthy man elbowed his way through the mass. He was broad, with skin like tanned leather and an ornate blade in his fist. “You’re speaking to the captain of the Black Mask! We’re here for the boy!” he shouted. “Give him over and we won’t kill the lot of you!”

    The captain turned his eyes to Skulk, and Skulk seemed to feel himself shrinking under that hard gaze. Captain Storm held his hard gaze for a moment, then turned back to the other ship. “Very well,” he said. Both crews seemed to stop for a moment in surprise. Skulk’s stomach dropped. “You had your chance.”

    And with that, all the hells broke loose on the sea.

    The rest of Stormwind’s crew swept up from below decks. The bigger folk who had hauled up the crossbows, clad in studded leathers and holding weapons of their own. The crew already on deck stepped to the rail, lifting the crossbows in their mountings. Crossbows fired. Wicked, heavy quarrels flew into the massed enemy crew. Men that had expected a quick surrender to their show of force had nowhere to move as the bolts pierced their way through men three deep. The crossbows fitted with grapples remained loaded, tilted back in their mountings.

    Captain Storm and the ship’s storm mage, a small woman everyone called Windy, then raised their hands. Power crackled in the air before them for a brief moment before bolts of blue-white lightning lashed out at the other vessel. Bodies flew at the impact, and then, the surprise was over and the fight began in earnest.

    Men from the Black Mask threw lines equipped with hooks into the rigging and leapt, swinging from them. These men and women were brave, or stupid, and their swings ended on the spears and polearms of Stormwind crew, waiting for just such an attack. Other men hoisted boards overhead, their ends fixed with vicious hooks. They flung the far end over the water and the hooks bit into the railings on both ships, creating small gangways between the ships. Black Mast crew swarmed at these to cross, again, meeting the pikes and spears of Stormwind’s defenders, but their numbers were too heavy to be denied, and the fighting spilled out onto the deck. Their shouts and howls filled the air, with the smell of angry humanity on its heels.
    Skulk drew his blades smoothly, trying to keep his breathing even as he had been taught by an old duelist. All over the deck, crews of the two ships collided with the clang of steel and the shouts of a fight. And one man emerged from the mass, stepping towards Skulk, wielding a long, heavy club with bands of iron encircling it. The man swung and Skulk opted to avoid the impact, skipping and ducking to one side to avoid the diagonal swing of the massive skull-cracker. When it hit the deck with a solid smack, Skulk stepped in, swinging his short sword. He kept the dagger angled in front of his chest as he swung, drawing the blade of his sword across the wrist of the other man. Well, he had intended to, but in his excitement, he ended up dragging the edge across the man’s forearm. The man howled in pain, but it didn’t destroy the grip of that hand like Skulk had hoped.

    The other man snarled and began to heft the club back up. Skulk looked at the massive weapon and quickly stomped a foot down on top of it, slamming it back to the deck. The other man had looked down to see what had stopped him from raising his weapon, just in time to see the bell guard of the dagger coming at him. The punch caught him on the bridge of the nose, snapping it with a sound lost in the general chaos of the fight around them.

    As the first man staggered back, another man from the Black Mask shoved him aside and surged forward. When his eyes fell on Skulk, they seemed to light with realization. In his hands, he hefted a long handled axe. Skulk had seen them before, usually on hand for cutting masts or spars that might become damaged or tangled. The thought of them cutting into flesh and bone was too horrifying for him to ignore. As the axe head swung, Skulk hopped back, out of its way. He’d hoped that the axe bit would get stuck in the deck, but the man was able to arrest his swing and step forward. This time, he swung across his body, aiming for Skulk’s shoulder or neck. The young man ducked with an undignified yelp, and the swing passed over head. The man then swung a foot up and caught Skulk in the chest, flinging him to the deck. With a vicious grin, he stepped forward, lifting his axe.

    A set of massive hands wrapped around the axe haft just below the head and pulled. The pirate turned, shocked, to find one of Stormwind’s crew. A huge man that the crew referred to as Tiny clutched the axe in one hand, and grabbed the former wielder by the throat. With a pivot, he flung the man into the mass of fighting. He looked down at Skulk and reached down, gripping his vest, and hauled Skulk to his feet. Without a word, Tiny turned back to the fighting, throwing his new axe into another pirate.

    Skulk took the moment to look around at the fight. Windy stood on the steps to the rear deck with a small group of men blocking the stairway while she flung bolts of magical energy around her. The captain stood in the midst of the fight, blade in one hand and magical power glowing around the other. At his gesture, a blast of wind issued forth from that hand and threw three men off the edge of the ship. The crew of the Black Mast had the numbers, but they it looked like they were used to overwhelming guards on merchant ships with numbers. The crew of Stormwind was a collection of hardened men and women who had made it their lives to hunt people like these. Skill and experience waged war with sheer numbers and mass all across the deck of the ship, and Skulk felt incredibly out of place.

    That’s when a lancing pain struck his left leg and he dropped to the deck. A a short man in a black mask had slipped through the fight and his hand still glowed with a small amount of magical power. He’d flung it into Skulk’s leg, just above the knee, which left Skulk kneeling on the deck, biting back a scream. The short man stepped forward, hefting a slender blade made for stabbing. He made his way towards Skulk with almost a casual indifference. He lifted his blade calmly, pointing the blade at Skulk’s chest and then lifting the hilt to propel the downward thrust.

    Skulk felt his mind seem to detach. Everything happening around him seem to fade away and all he could see was the man in front him and the blade in his hand. Without thinking, his hands began to move in the drill the old dueling master had taught him. He swept his dagger across his body, dislodging the sword from where it had been pointed against his ribcage, and at the same time, swept his sword up at the other man’s hand holding the blade. The parry caused the man’s wrist to extend and the blade swung true, slicing against the muscles and tendons and causing the blade to drop from his limp hand. Skulk then lurched up and stabbed with his dagger, up under the ribcage and angled. The other man’s eyes had bulged and he began to scream when the first strike landed, but now, he seemed to gag at the stab. He started to pitch forward, his good hand losing the magical glow as it clutched the blade that had just pierced his heart. He collapsed on top of Skulk, his lifeblood flowing freely and his eyes glazing over.

    Skulk struggled and squirmed underneath the other man, but the limp form combined with the slick blood and his hurt leg kept him from being able to work himself free. He lay there, watching as the magical power faded from the other man’s hand as his life drained away. It had surrounded his hand, glowing like a soft lantern. Skulk eye’s seemed to fasten onto it, watching that glow. He worked one of his hands free and reached up to touch the glow as it faded. As his skin touched the glow, pieces seemed to fall together in his mind. He had seen people using magics before, but never understood how it had worked. He’d never gone to a tutor for it, he’d never read about it. But here, the power that he touched as it died away seemed to cause something in his awareness to unlock and Skulk understood the ability. He closed his eyes and lay his head back, feeling safe in the moment. Who would bother with two dead looking men on the deck in this fray? He thought about touching that power again, and found that he had a small reserve of it, seemingly appearing in the back of his mind.

    The shouts and scuffles of boots nearby snapped his eyes open, and he watched as a man fell near him, a small hole in his throat. He turned his head in time to see Captain Storm extend his hand again and throw another small dart of light that leapt out, striking another man. The second man took the spell on his arm, and stumbled, holding what looked like a burned hole in his arm. His mind seemed to whirl with what he had seen again. The captain had taken a small piece of that power and thrown it. He prodded that small reserve, finding that he could mentally draw a bit of it out. His free hand began a soft glow of its own.
    The man with the burned arm swore and reached into his sash, drawing out a long, slender pistol. He lifted it and leveled it towards the captain, who had turned and thrust his blade into another attacker. The captain’s eyes swung back to see the pistol aiming at him, and his hard face seemed to pale slightly. Skulk hissed and made a motion with his hand, like flicking water from his fingers, and a small dart of power flew and struck the pirate between his shoulder blades. The man dropped to his knees and collapsed on his face. Skulk looked towards the captain, unsure if the pistol shot might have gone off, to see Storm’s hard eyes meet his own. The captain gave him a slight nod.

    All over the ship, the crew of the Black Mask was finding itself bested by the crew of Stormwind. Experienced fighters were using every dirty trick they knew. Some guided the strikes of their attackers with parries that put the strikes into their comrades. Some used the momentum of the attackers to pitch them overboard. Still others used the environment around them, hooking blades on ropes or bouncing men off of masts, to create opportunities. Skulk struggled anew, trying to free himself from where he’d been caught, finally using his good leg to push his way free. He crawled across the deck and took the fallen pirate’s pistol. He turned, looking for more attackers, only to see the remaining crew of the Black Mask dropping weapons in surrender. He drew a slow breath and dropped back on the deck.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Masks of Shandar: Chatper 1, Interlude

The Masks of Shandar
Chapter 1; Interlude

    All around the Rune Sea, there are discussions of why Shandral wear masks.  It seems to be almost a compulsion, this need to keep a mask on at all times, and confuses people from other city-states.  The masks can take any shape, any style, and really, there doesn’t seem to be anything in common between them, except for the fact that they cover at least half of a person’s face.

    There have been cases where some people will want to conceal their identity by wearing a mask and proclaiming to be Shandral.  Some stylish women of high culture will mimic the various styles of veils that some Shandral women wear, which bear the same commonality (and lack thereof) as masks, except that instead of covering the area from the upper lip and higher, they cover from the eyes down.  What sets these people apart as decidedly not-Shandral, is the cavalier attitude they take towards casting off their mask when it becomes inconvenient.  To those that know the difference, this is a dead giveaway, since a true Shandral won’t remove his or her mask even if it were lined inside with ground hot peppers.

There are very few instances where Shandral will remove their masks.  Intimacy can be measured by the knowledge of another’s face underneath their mask, or in cases where continuing to wear their mask could get them killed, such as a damaged mask on a battlefield.  There have been reports from old wars where Shandral soldiers who had lost their mask or had it damaged during a clash have immediately set about tearing strips of cloth to make new masks as soon as they had breathing room.

The reason why has recently been shared by the popular bard, the famous Saim Salimbra.  Saim is the most notable and famous member of the Shandral Salimbra family, a traveling bard who ventures across the Rune Sea, sharing tales of the world past and exploits of great people.  Some people assume that Salimbra is a pompous storyteller, spinning tales with the desire to keep audiences enthralled and money coming in.  Others, however, contend that Salimbra speaks truth in his tales.  The truth is somewhere in between, with Saim telling stories passed to him through a decade of research and travel to learn about the tales from men and women of different city-states, and yet, telling them with a certain flair to make them entertaining and fascinating.  His events are grand affairs, even if simply seated by a fire in the cool of the evening, telling tales to travelers having lucked into a performance that could cost a good deal of gold elsewhere.  Saim is not a small man, standing over six feet, speaking with a sonorous voice that carries like the boom of cannons or the whisper of the wind.  

But, in recent years, the story requested most of the man has been one he simply calls “Why Do the Shandral Wear Masks?”  He considers the title almost insulting simplistic, but the name has spread like wildfire, so he acquiesces.  

Saim starts by referring to another tale of his, the story of the Fay War.  The Fay of Old were the overlords of the world, working great powers of wonder across the lands, and creating the races known as the Faykin.  They are not Fay themselves, but from the old records, they are noted as being the creations and higher servants of the Fay, made to help the Fay order the world and relay their orders, desires, and directions to the humans that the Fay had found when they came to our world.  They created the Elves, the Night Elves, serpentine Ophidians, and the massive Ogren.  The Fay of Old ruled over the world as they saw fit, shaping the land, seas, and people with magics that only they could comprehend.  They created artifacts that still exist in the world, with wonderfully utilitarian properties or great weapons that have stood the ravages of time.

It is here that Saim Salimbra lowers his voice, evoking the imagery of dark clouds overhead and tells of the emergence of Those Who Live Beyond.  They came into the world and assaulted the Fay, ripping their way into the reality we all know, and striking out.  Their corruption destroyed lands, altered people in horrific ways, and unmade the work of the Fay with terrible efficiency.  They struck out with claws, with tentacles, with horrid visions, and with other weapons that were so terrible that people who witnessed them did not live to record.  Those Who Live Beyond battled the Fay for years, trying to crush a powerful foe.  It is in this conflict that a horrible weapon was created: the Keras.

While the Fay taught the mortals of the world in many magics, including the magic of the Shadows, the Keras seemed to live in and be made of the inky blackness.  Salimbra’s lip snarls at this point, disdaining fears of creatures under the bed or in closets, saying that they are but pale imitations of the terror of the Keras.  Those Who Live Beyond created the Keras as a weapon to strike out and take the Fay when unprepared.  With horrid hands tipped by razor sharp claws, the Keras would appear and rip the Fay apart, it’s glowing eyes blazing in a seething violet light.  

Saim pauses, to let the weight of this sink in.  A creature, made as a weapon to strike down the mighty Fay?  How could life still be in the light of such a terrible foe?  The Keras, as it turned out, was a creature that did attack, but only where directed, and disdained to lower itself to attack the faykin and humans.  To rouse the Keras, Those Who Live Beyond had to force their will against his, pushing it to action.  They had created the most terrible hunter they could imagine, but had not given it the will to stalk like an unrelenting predator.  It sought prey it would revel in slaying, but to stalk prey that could not even pose an interesting chase or fight back, it had no interest.

There are stories, says Salimbra at this point, about the Keras clashing with the mighty Fay known as the Redcap.  There are stories of the battles between the Keras and the fearsome Fay Dullahan.  These stories tell of amazing clashes, of fantastic battles raging across days and hundreds of miles.  But, these are stories for another time, says Salimbra, and not the end of any of their tales.  

Despite the Keras’ lethargy towards the mortal races, it was discovered that on the occasions the Keras did stalk the land, one thing could raise its awful ire.  Humans, elves, night elves, ophidians and ogren alike all bore one thing in common that the Keras grew to hate with unrivaled passion: a face.

In faces, the Keras saw a reflection of its enemies.  In faces, the Keras saw expressions of emotions it did not tolerate.  Joy, sorrow, fascination, concern, contentment and any other emotion you could think of roused such terrible hatred from the Keras, for it was created only to hunt and to rest.  So, on nights when it found itself restless, the Keras stalked the land, ripping away the faces of those it found.  These nights of rage would carry on until one night, a group of men discovered the key to survival.  A group of men that had gone out, attempting to find remains of valuables in what had been their village.  They had tied masks soaked with wine to cover their mouths and noses from the smell where a horrible attack had burned their homes down around them.  When one man had stopped, tearing off his mask to retch at what he had seen, the Keras struck, ripping away the man’s face and leaving him dead on the ground.  

The other men looked at one another, eyes wide with what they had just seen.  As one, they turned and fled, trying to get away from the terrible creature that stalked the night.  They ran, trying to find shelter, and as they did, the mask of one of their number slid and fell, the cloth hanging around his neck.  The Keras took him a moment later, ripping away his face and throwing the body ahead of his companions.  Another man tripped and fell over him, losing his mask as well.  But this last one was spurred on by cleverness or desperation, and placed his hands over his face, covering his nose, his mouth, his cheeks, his chin.  He felt cold breath whisper past his ear.  He heard the snarl like nothing ever made by man, like metal slowly grinding.  He saw the long, tall form of the Keras walk past him, claws and scales glittering in the moonlight, and its violent eyes lingering on him for a moment before it vanished into the dark.

These men were from a village near the town of Shandar, its own name lost to time.  But, in Shandar, they told of what they had learned.  Shandar was the largest town in the lands the Keras prowled, and as years turned to decades and decades turned to centuries, Shandar grew into the massive city known today.  But they never forgot their lesson. They teach this lesson to their children, as soon as they are old enough to hear the words, with the rhyme every Shandral knows.  

Show your face, show your face, Keras take it all away.
Hide your face, hide your face, Keras in the shadows stay.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Masks of Shandar: Chapter 1, Section 3

The Masks of Shandar
Chapter 1, Section3

    The days passed slowly aboard the Stormwind, at least for Jheghende. While the crew moved about the ship with purpose, Jheghende found himself without anything to hand to do.  He didn’t dare try to practice with his blades on the ship, very clearly not yet having what the Jenar sailors referred to as his ‘sea legs.’ He spent the first day and night sleeping off the exhaustion of the previous day and night.
    He spent many hours sitting in his hammock and staring at the messenger bag.  He wrestled with what to do.  He couldn’t decide if he needed to open it and read what was inside, or if the knowledge that had gotten his parents killed was too dangerous for him to know.  He stared at the closed bag, and he saw, over and over again, the deaths of the family he had known.  He couldn’t shake the guilt that ate at his heart.  Could he have done something?  Did he know enough with his blade that, if he had jumped in, could he and Vaughn have stopped them? If he had learned magic earlier, would that have made a difference? He chased the trains of thought in circles in his mind for hours, feeling bitterness rise up in his throat and tears stream from his eyes.  

    He reached up, pushing his mask away from his eyes. He angrily wiped away at his eyes and realized that the mask he’d been wearing was starting to come apart in his hands. It had been made out of velvet and stiffened paper. After everything that had happened, all the sweat, all the tears, them drying out, his mask was falling apart. With a shuddering breath, he slipped his dagger from its sheath and carefully cut a strip of fabric from the hammock he had been lying in. He held it to his face, spit on his hand and rubbed two moist spots over his eyes.  He quickly cut a pair of holes into the cloth and tied it on. It wasn’t quite even, and the holes weren’t cut quite right, but he felt properly masked again.

    He stood up. He needed to get out of the hammock, to move a little bit. His legs felt weak and stiff, but he made his way up on deck regardless. The sea air blew gently across the deck, whipping the tails of his freshly made mask. Jheghende looked out, squinting against the bright sun overhead. He looked around for a moment, hoping no one commented on his appearance for a bit. He made his way over to the railing and stopped, leaning against it.

    “Aye, now there’s the lad,” came a voice.  Knuckles was making his way over to the rail. He leaned against it as well, turning his face to the wind. “I wondered when you’d make your back up.”

    “I haven’t felt well,” Jheghende said. “Needed to sleep it off, I guess.”

    “I suppose you did at that,” Knuckles said.  “Listen, lad, I needed to ask.”

    “Is it about who I am or what I’m running from?”

    Knuckles cast him an amused glance. “Not really either.  Cap’n figures you’re probably a young noble that got in over his head. Took off one step ahead of trouble. As for the trouble, I don’t rightly imagine that concerns the cap’n overmuch, unless it concerns his one question of you.”

    Jheghende looked over his shoulder to the rear deck where the captain stood.  He cut an imposing figure, but in the bright light of day, the incredible blond curls under his hat contrasting to his darker skin tones seemed almost absurd, had it not been overtop of such intense eyes.  Jheghende turned his head away before he was caught looking. “What concern is that?”

    “If this trouble you’re a step ahead of is going to be following us. Did taking you on lead to a heap of trouble for his ship?”

    Jheghende looked down at the waters for a moment. Had he? Was he being pursued by whoever had orchestrated the attack on his family? Were the men sent fooled by his little misdirection with the canal, or had it simply bought him enough time to get away and left little enough evidence of where he’d gone? “I… don’t think so,” Jheghende replied. “As fast as this ship is, I doubt there’s a Shandral vessel that could catch up.”

    “That’s a fine bit of compliment to offset some uncertainty,” said Knuckles. “But it only barely answers the question.”

    “I don’t think so,” Jheghende said again. “I got away from some people that attacked my home. I made them think I had jumped in one of the canals. By the time we’d set sail, I’d say it was only an hour or so after it all happened. I don’t think they’d know where I’d gone. There’s too many choices. For all they know, I could be traveling overland.”

    “Hmm,” Knuckles said, rubbing his chin. “I reckon that’s a fair enough answer, lad. But, there’s one other thing.” He chuckled at Jheghene’s worried look. “Easy, easy. We just don’t know what to call you. It ain’t been an issue since you’ve been squirreled away, but now, we need at least something to call you.”

    “Oh,” said Jheghende quietly. The idea of an assumed name had never even occurred to him. He pondered for a bit, turning things over in his head. “I, um, I don’t know...”

    Knuckles clapped a big, meaty hand on his back. “Then we do it the Jenar way! We’ll find a name for ye!” Knuckles laughed and returned back to work on the deck.

    “Oh,” Jheghende said quietly. “Uh-oh.” Jenar gave out nicknames, and if he understood correctly, they were often given on the basis of an event that the person would like to forget.

    “Since you came aboard in the middle of the night, looking like you were hiding, some of the men wanted to call you something like Mouse or Bug.” Knuckles said. “Not the cap’n, though. He’s a fan of Skulk.”

    “I…” Jheghende wanted to say something, but realized it at least gave him a pseudonym that he could use. “Who am I to argue with the captain?”

    “Hah-HAH!” laughed Knuckles. “Right sharp lad! Skulk it is, then. Listen, since you’re up and about, eat with the crew tonight. They’re still a little nervous about how you came to join our trip.”

    “That reminds me,” said Jheghende, “what is the first port you’re going to?”

    “Hub of the Rune Sea,” said Knuckles.  “Eumoyn.”

    Jheghende nodded and made his way back below deck.  His mind was churning as he settled back into his hammock. First of all, they were headed to Eumoyn.  He tried to recount what he knew of the city. Eumoyn was the largest of the free cities in the Rune Sea. Where Shandar, Andol, Cyndar, and Jenar were all cities with cultures old as memory and traditions stronger than law, the other cities in the Rune Sea styled themselves as the free cities, where they claimed all kinds of people were free to mingle without interference. Free cities were younger and usually smaller than the four old cities. People that lived in the older cities sometimes called them the four Great Cities of the Rune Sea. People that lived elsewhere tended to call them the Old Cities.

    Eumoyn was a little different. It was established on the north peninsula of the most southern landmass of the Rune Sea. It was one of the most central cities in the sea, so a great deal of trade passed through its ports. Eumoyn was indeed young, only a century and a half or so old, and so the land near the city hadn’t been mined or harvested as thoroughly or as long as other cities. What made Eumoyn different was its size. Eumoyn was one of the biggest cities in the Rune Sea, with some claiming it was actually the biggest. Attempts to verify this were always murky at best, because of the transient nature of the population. Sailors, traders, merchants, craftsmen all moved through the city regularly. And, again unique in the Rune Sea, was the frequent passage of soldiers through the city.

    When Eumoyn had been established, the records showed the desire to have the city a bit further south, but when the first crews landed in the area with the intent on setting up a more permanent settlement, they had encountered a new threat: the goblins. Goblins populated the southern land and rebuffed the first settlement attempts with horrific, savage force. Their attack had been sudden and brutal, with the survivors being the people that had been on the ships at the time of the attack. Every city-state had hoped to have a stake in the new city, in its trade and the prospective wealth, but through the Treaty of Kings, no city-state would go to war with another or try to usurp their land, on the pain of retaliation from the combined weight of the other cities. What the Treaty did allow was what came to be known as the Bastion Agreement; each city-state provided troops to protect the Rune Sea from outside threats. The rulers of each city-state came together and agreed that the goblins would constitute such a threat under the Treaty, and so, now every city-state kept a sizeable force, all of which rotated through the duty to stand against the goblin empire.

    So, Jheghende reasoned, he’d be going to a large city, bustling with a population that changed constantly. He thought he could lose himself in the city for a time, and try to figure out what he was going to do. He chewed that thought a moment. What WAS he going to do? He looked down, at the old mask in his hand. It was falling apart, a perfect metaphor for what had happened to his old life. He couldn’t go on as himself, not really. People would surely be looking for him, if he used his real name, but he didn’t want to abandon it entirely.

    He took up the messenger bag that had the catalyst for changing his life so dramatically, and considered. Did he want to know what had caused everything yet? Could it be dangerous to know, or more dangerous than things already were for him? And, could he really continue on as himself? He sighed, leaned his head back and thought. The rocking of the ship put him into a light sleep, drifting in and out and still wrestling with the same thoughts again and again.

    Finally, he took a deep breath and sat up. He felt like he had one way to continue on. He may not have wanted to continue this way, but then again, what he had wanted hadn’t been priority much in the last day or so. He tucked his old mask into the bag and fastened it shut. He took a couple more strips of cloth and wrapped them around the engraved pommels of his blades. And, finally, he got up, wrapped the bag in his hammock and with that, Jheghende stayed behind and Skulk went up to have dinner with the crew.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Masks of Shandar: Chapter 1, Section 2

The Masks of Shandar
Chapter 1, Section 2

Jheghende’s quiet flight through the city took him on a route that was kind of familiar, but not exactly. In trying to make his way to the docks, he tried to keep to the back alleys and off of main streets. Maybe his little trick had bought him enough time, but then again, perhaps it had not.  He kept having to dash back into the alleyways when old habits led him back onto the open streets in the moonlight.  In his terror, he kept trying to go back to the familiar ways, trying to find comfort in the routine of doing things he’d done for years. Except, that might get him killed.

He crept up one alley, carefully stepping around a pile of refuse that had a smell he didn’t care to try and identify.  As he did, something inside shifted, and Jheghende took off at a run.  He’d heard stories about what lurked on the low streets of Shandar: cutthroats and mongrel dogs were the nicer variety of options.  Already exhausted from the blade practice earlier in the day, he only made it down the alley and around the corner before he had to stop and breathe.  

He leaned against the building wall, trying to catch his breath.  He almost slumped over, hands on knees, to gasp for air, but his fear kept his head up.  And that’s when his eyes fell upon the harbor.  It was scarcely a block away.  Dark masks jutted up into the night like needles, stark against the full moon and cloudless sky.  Getting a little of his wind back, Jheghende carefully walked forward.  He absently patted at his bag, at his pouch, and at his blades, feeling that he still had everything.  He also, very carefully, reached into his pouch and dug into his coinpurse.  He stopped only a moment, glancing at what he drew out.  A gold ring glittered up at him.  Probably too much for passage, but perhaps enough to not have questions asked.  He curled his hand around it, and then set off down the docks, looking for ships with lights burning in the night.

He passed by a heavy-hulled Andoly ship.  While they were formidable and probably crewed by Andolmen, they were not nimble or fast.  He doubted they would be willing to fight on behalf of some random passenger.  Or maybe they would.  The denizens of Andol were inclined towards the concept of honor.  But he still felt safer with a faster ship.  He also passed by several Shandral-flagged vessels; he had no way of knowing who it was that had attacked his home and if they would have an ally on any given Shandral ship.  Jheghende considered, and thought his best choice to be a swift Jenar ship.

The Jenar were the uncontested masters of the Rune Sea.  The Sea itself, that is.  They couldn’t match the might of Andoly infantry, Shandral cavalry or the array of Cyndral legions.  However, even with the craftsmanship of the Shandral vessels, the sheer mass and might of the Andoly warships, the Jenar’s ships were nimble, fast, and unmatched on the oceans.  A fleet of Jenar vessels may find the bad end of a fight should they become entangled with other ships, but they were simply amazing when it came to maneuvering and hammering other vessels to tinder.  Of course, this was all from what Jheghende had read about the Jenar and their vessels.  There were a few tales here and there of the success of the Shandral Navy or the Andoly Armada, but those were remarkable not only for their scarcity but for the tactics at play in those stories.

Jheghende came across a small two-masted Jenar sloop.  On board, alchemical lights burned, hanging on the rigging and shedding light all around.  Mustering his courage, Jheghende walked up the gangplank from the dock.  He crossed the rail when arrived, and found a ship very much in motion.  Men walked back and forth, carry crates or lines.  Others were adjusting sails, while still more were prepping lines for departure.  Two sets of eyes locked onto the youth that had just boarded their ship.  One was a tall, lean man with a hard, angled face and a dark beard lining his jaw.  However, underneath his tri-corner hat was a mass of curls in intensely blonde curls that stood as stark contrast to his dark beard and sun-darkened hair.  However, his dark, intense eyes robbed the visage of its humor.  Next to him was a shorter, wider man with a head and jaw covered in short, dark stubble.  The second man’s arms looked like they were made of nautical rope themselves and ended in heavy, thick fingered hands.

The shorter man nodded to the captain and walked over to Jheghende, eyeing the blades hanging at his belt.  The man had a very confident walk and didn’t slow his approach even after looking at the weapons.  “So, tell me, lad,” he said in a harsh voice, “what in the hells do you think you’re doing here?”

Jheghende swallowed before answering.  “I’m looking to buy passage.”
“Passage, lad?”  The man almost laughed in incredulity.  “There will be a slew of ships in the mornin’ that will be happy to take on a passenger.”

“I’d like to leave tonight,” Jheghende said, trying to make his voice as firm as he could.

The man chuckled again.  “Ah hah.  You don’t even know where we’re heading to.”

“I don’t care,” Jheghende said.  

The man’s face seemed to darken and take on new shadows in the ship’s lights.  “We aren’t going to put up with trouble on this ship.”

“I’m not causing trouble,” Jheghende said.  “Bad memories I’m trying to leave behind.”

The man tilted his head up slowly.  “Can you pay?”

Jheghende very carefully lifted his curled hand and showed the man the gold ring.  

“You might want to be careful showing gold around the docks, lad.”

“If I can buy passage out of here, I won’t have gold to flash around,” Jheghende said, hoping that the lie wouldn’t be transparent.  “But I’d rather do it that way.”

The shorter man nodded slowly, then turned his back to Jheghende and walked back to the tall me.  Try as he might, Jheghende couldn’t hear more than a word here or there.  Captain, passage, space, deck.  The tall man spoke in a quiet, deep voice that resonated but was indistinct.  The shorter man nodded and crossed the deck back to Jheghende.

“Alright, lad, the captain says you can buy passage, but you’ll have to bunk in a storage locker.”

“That’s fine,” Jheghende.  “Just show me where that is and I’ll stay out of your way.”

“Aye, that sounds like a good plan,” the man replied.  “I’m First Mate Knuckes.  That over here,” he said, tilting his head towards the tall man, “is Captain Storm.  Welcome aboard the Stormwind.”  With that, Jheghende pressed the ring of narrow, spun gold into the first mate’s hand.

True to his word, Jheghende kept back and out of the way, tucking himself away by the stairs leading to the quarter deck.  He watched as the men moved back and forth like a well-trained unit.  After a mere half hour, the ship was under way, setting out in the night on a placid sea with quiet winds.  The captain stood at the rail of the quarter deck, at the center of the ship.  At the prow stood a man with his hands glowing with power.  Winds seemed to ripple from his gesture and lights flared where he pointed.  The ship’s storm mage was checking the way out of the harbor, cautious even in perhaps the most open, clear harbor in the Rune Sea.

The winds rippled the sails of the small ship and it swept out of the harbor, quiet like drawing a piece of velvet across a table.  Once past the harbor mouth, and out on the open sea, the Stormwind picked up speed, knifing through the water.  Finally under full sail, Knuckles came to Jheghende and led him below decks.  He walked towards the rear of the vessel and threw back the curtain to a small alcove. Inside hung a simple cloth hammock and a sconce on the wall for an alchemical light. With a grateful nod, Jheghende closed the curtain, slid onto the hammock and let the grip of exhaustion take him. There, he slept, one hand wrapped around the messenger bag and the other resting on the hilt of his dagger.