ACT ONE In that breath, the battle had ended. The roar of the pirates’ retreat and the hesitant, hasty battle cries of sailors had faded on the wind. The steel that had flashed under the light of a shameless staring sun now lay on the ground in limp hands. The stench ebbed on the breeze, filled the sails overhead and beckoned the hungry gulls to follow.
Few Respectable Trades
NO ROOM FOR HOPE
The Aeons’ Gate
Sea of Buradan, two weeks north and east of Toha
Contrary to whatever stories and songs there may be about the subject, there are only a handful of respectable things a man can do after he picks up a sword.
First of all, he can put it down and do something else; this is the option for men who have more appreciable talents. He could use it to defend his homestead, of course, as protecting one’s own is nothing but admirable. If he decides he’s good at that sort of work, he could enlist with the local army and defend his kin and country against whatever entity is deemed the enemy at that moment. All these are decent and honourable practices for a man who carries a sword.
Then there are the less respectable trades.
There’s always mercenary life, the fine art of being paid to put steel in things. Mercenaries, usually, aren’t quite as respected as soldiers, since they swear no allegiance to any liege beyond the kind that are round, flat and golden. And yet, it remains only a slightly less respectable use for the blade, as, inevitably, being a mercenary does help someone.
Now, the very bottommost practice for a man who carries a sword, the absolute dregs of the well, the lowliest and meanest trade a man can possibly embrace after he decides not to put away his weapon is that of the adventurer.
There is one similarity between the adventurer and the mercenary: the love of money. Past that fact, everything is unfavourable contrast. Like a mercenary, an adventurer works for money, be it gold, silver or copper. Unlike a mercenary, an adventurer’s trade is not limited to killing, though it does require quite a bit of that. Unlike a mercenary, an adventurer’s exploits typically aid no one.
When one requires a herd of cattle guarded from rustlers, a young maiden protected, a family tomb watched over or an enemy driven away, all for an honest fee, one calls upon a mercenary.
When one requires a herd of cattle stolen, a young maiden deflowered, a family tomb looted and desecrated or an honest man driven away from his own home, all for a few copper coins and a promise, one calls upon an adventurer.
I make this distinction for the sole purpose that, if someone finds this journal after I’ve succumbed to whatever hole I fell into or weapon I’ve run afoul of, they’ll know the reason.
This marks the first entry of the Aeons’ Gate, the grand adventure of Lenk and his five companions.
If whoever reads this has a high opinion of this writer so far, please cease reading now. The above sentence takes many liberties.
To consider the term ‘adventure’, one must consider it from the adventurer’s point of view. For a boy on his father’s knee, a youth listening to an elder or a rapt crowd hearing the songs of poets, adventure is something to lust after, filled with riches, women, heroism and glory. For an adventurer, it’s work; dirty, dusty, bloody, spittle-filled, lethal and cheap work.
The Aeons’ Gate is a relic, an ancient device long sought after by holy men and women of all faiths. It breaches the barriers between heaven and earth, allowing communication with the Gods themselves, an opportunity to ask why, how and what.
Or so I’ve heard.
My companions and I have been hired to seek out this Gate.
To address the term ‘companions’, I say this because it sounds a degree better than a ‘band of brigands, zealots, savages and madmen’. And I use that description because it sounds infinitely more interesting than what we really are: cheap labour.
Unbound by the codes of unions and guilds, adventurers are able to perform more duties than common mercenaries. Untroubled by sets of morals and guidelines, adventurers are able to go into places the common mercenary would find repulsive. Unprotected by laws dictating the absolute minimum one must be paid, adventurers do all this for much, much less coin than the common mercenary.
If someone has read this far, he might ask himself what the point of being an adventurer is.
The answer is freedom. An adventurer is free to come and go as he pleases, parting from whoever has hired him when the fancy strikes him. An adventurer is free to stop at whatever exotic locale he has found, to take whatever he has with him, to stay for as long as he wants. An adventurer is free to claim what he finds, be it knowledge, treasure or glory. An adventurer is free to wander, penniless and perpetually starved, until he finally collapses dead on a road.
It also bears mentioning that an adventurer typically does leave his employer’s charter if the task assigned proves particularly deranged.
Thus far, my journey has taken my companions and me far from Muraska’s harbour, where we took on this commission. We have travelled the western seas for what seems like an eternity, braving the islands, and their various diseases and inhabitants, in search of this Gate. Thus far, I’ve fought off hostile natives, lugged heavy crates filled with various supplies, mended sails, swabbed decks and spent hours upon hours with one end of mine or the other leaning over the railing of our ship.
My funds have so far accumulated to twenty-six pieces of copper, eleven pieces of silver and half a gold coin. That half came from a sailor who was less lucky than the rest of us and had his meagre savings declared impromptu inheritance for the ship’s charter.
That charter is Miron Evenhands, Lord Emissary of the Church of Talanas. Miron’s duties are, in addition to regular priestly business, overseeing diplomatic ties with other churches and carrying out religious expeditions, as which this apparently qualifies. He has been allocated funds for the matter, but spends them sparingly, hiring only as many adventurers and mercenaries as he must to form a facade of generosity. The ship he has chartered, a merchantman dubbed the Riptide, we share with various dirty sailors and hairy rats that walk on two legs.
My companions seem content with these arrangements, perhaps because they themselves are just as dirty and smelly. They sleep below deck even as I write this, having been driven up top by foul scents and groping hands. Granted, the arrangements are all that they are content with.
Every day, I deal with their greed and distrust. They demand to know where our payment is, how much money we’re getting. They tell me that the others are plotting and scheming against them. Asper tells me that Denaos makes lewd comments to her and the other women who have chartered passage aboard the ship. Denaos tells me that Asper mutters all manner of religious curses at him and tells the women that he is a liar, lech, lush, layabout and lummox; all lies, he tells me. Dreadaeleon tells me the ship rocks too much and it’s impossible for him to concentrate on his books. Gariath tells me he can’t stand the presence of so many humans and he’ll kill every one to the last man.
Kataria . . . tells me to relax. ‘Time at sea,’ she says, smiling all the while, ‘amidst the beauty of it all should be relaxing.’
It would seem like sound advice if not for the fact that it came from a girl who stinks worse than the crew half the time.
To be an adventurer means to have freedom, the freedom to decide for oneself. That said, if someone has found this journal and wonders why it’s no longer in my hands, please keep in mind that it’s just as likely that I decided to leap from the crow’s nest to the hungry waters below as it is that I died in some heroic manner.
In the span of a breath, colour and sound died on the wind.
The green of the ocean, the flutter of sails, the tang of salt in the air vanished from Lenk’s senses. The world faded into darkness, leaving only the tall, leather-skinned man before him and the sword clutched in his hands.
The man loosed a silent howl and leapt forwards. Lenk’s sword rose just as his foe’s curved blade came crashing down.
They met in a kiss of sparks. Life returned to Lenk’s senses in the groan of the grinding blades. He was aware of many things at once: the man’s towering size, the sound of curses boiling out of tattooed lips, the odour of sweat and the blood staining the wood under their feet.
The man uttered something through a yellow-toothed smile; Lenk watched every writhing twitch of his mouth, hearing no words behind them. No time to wonder. He saw the man’s free hand clutching a smaller, crueller blade, whipping up to seek his ribs.
The steel embrace shattered. Lenk leapt backwards, feeling his boots slide along the red-tinged salt beneath him. His heels struck something fleshy and solid and unmoving; his backpedal halted.
Don’t look, he urged himself, not yet.
He had eyes for nothing but his foe’s larger blade as it came hurtling down upon him. Lenk darted away, watched the cutlass bite into the slick timbers and embed itself. He saw the twitch of the man’s eye - the realisation of his mistake and the instant in which futile hope existed.
And then died.
Lenk lunged, sword up and down in a flashing arc. His senses returned with painful slowness; he could hear the echo of the man’s shriek, feel the sticky life spatter across his face, taste the tang of copper on his lips. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes, the man knelt before his own severed arm, shifting a wide-eyed stare from the leaking appendage to the young man standing over him.
Lenk’s sword flashed again, biting deeply into meat and sliding out again. Only when its tip lowered, steady, to the timbers, only when his opponent collapsed, unmoving, did he allow himself to take in the sight.
The pirate’s eyes were quivering pudding: stark white against the leather of his flesh. They looked stolen, wearing an expression that belonged to a smaller, more fearful man. Lenk met his foe’s gaze, seeing his own blue stare reflected in the whites until the light behind them sputtered out in the span of a sole, ragged breath.
He drew a lock of silver hair from his eyes, ran his hand down his face, wiping the sweat and substance from his brow. His fingers came back to him trembling and stained.
Lenk drew in a breath.
The dead remained.
They were everywhere, having ceased to be men. Now they were litter, so many obstacles of drained flesh and broken bones lying motionless on the deck. Pirates lay here and there, amongst the sailors they had taken with them. Some embraced their foes with rigor-stiffening limbs. Most lay on their backs, eyes turned to Gods that had no answers for the questions that had died on their lips.
His thought seemed an understatement, perhaps insultingly so, but he had seen many bodies in his life, many not half as peacefully gone. He had drawn back trembling hands many times before, flicked blood from his sword many times before, as he did now. And he was certain that the stale breath he drew would not be the last to be scented with death.
‘Astounding congratulations should be proffered for so ruby a sport, good sir!’
Lenk whirled about at the voice, blade up. The pirate standing upon the railing of the Riptide, however, seemed less than impressed, if the banana-coloured grin on his face was any indication. He extended a long, tattooed limb and made an elaborate bow.
‘It is the sole pleasure of the Linkmaster’s crew, myself included, to look forward to offering a suitable retort for,’ the pirate paused to gesture to the human litter, ‘our less fortunate complements, of suitable fury and adequately accompanying disembowelment.’
‘Uh,’ Lenk said, blinking, ‘what?’
Had he time and wit enough about him to decipher the tattooed man’s expression, he would, he assured himself, have come up with a more suitable retort.
‘Do hold that thought, kind sir. I shall return anon to carve it out.’
Like some particularly eloquent hairless ape, the pirate fell to all fours and scampered nimbly across a chain swaying over the gap of quickly shifting sea between the two ships. He was but one of many, Lenk noted, as the remaining tattooed survivors fled back over the railings of their own vessel.
‘Cragsmen,’ the young man muttered, spitting on the deck at the sight of the inked masses.
Their leviathan ship shared their love of decoration, it seemed. Its title was painted in bold, violent crimson upon a black hull, sharp as a knife: Linkmaster. And in equally threatening display were crude scrawlings of ships of various sizes beneath the title, each one with a triumphant red cross drawn through it.
Save one that bore a peculiar resemblance to the Riptide’s triple masts.
‘Eager little bastards,’ he muttered, narrowing his eyes. ‘They’ve already picked out a spot for us.’
He blinked. That realisation carried a heavy weight, one that struck him suddenly. He had thought that the pirates were chance raiders and the Riptide nothing more than an unlucky victim. This particular drawing, apparently painted days before, suggested something else.
‘Khetashe,’ Lenk cursed under his breath, ‘they’ve been waiting for us.’
‘Were they?’ someone grunted from behind him, a voice that seemed to think it should be feminine but wasn’t quite convinced.
He turned about and immediately regretted doing so. A pair of slender hands in fingerless leather gloves reached down to grip an arrow’s shaft jutting from a man’s chest. He should have been used to the sound of arrowheads being wrenched out of flesh, he knew, but he couldn’t help cringing.
Somehow, one never got all the way used to Kataria.
‘Because if this is an ambush,’ the pale creature said as she inspected the bloody arrow, ‘it’s a rather pitiful excuse for one.’ She caught his uncomfortable stare and offered an equally unpleasant grin as she tapped her chin with the missile’s head. ‘But then, humans have never been very good at this sort of thing, have they?’
Her ears were always the first thing he noticed about Kataria: long, pointed spears of pale flesh peeking out from locks of dirty blonde hair, three deep notches running the length of each as they twitched and trembled like beings unto themselves. Those ears, as long as the feathers laced in her hair, were certainly the most prominent markers of her shictish heritage.
The immense, fur-wrapped bow she carried on her back, as well as the short-cut leathers she wore about what only barely constituted a bosom, leaving her muscular midsection exposed, were also indicative of her savage custom.
‘You looked as surprised as any to find them aboard,’ Lenk replied. With a sudden awareness, he cast a glance about the deck. ‘So did Denaos, come to think of it. Where did he go?’
‘Well . . .’ She tapped the missile’s fletching against her chin as she inspected the deck. ‘I suppose if you just find the trail of urine and follow it, you’ll eventually reach him.’
‘Whereas one need only follow your stench to find you?’ he asked, daring a little smirk.
‘Correction,’ she replied, unfazed, ‘one need only look for the clear winner.’ She pushed a stray lock of hair behind the leather band about her brow, glanced at the corpse at Lenk’s feet. ‘What’s that? Your first one today?’
‘Well, well, well.’ Her smile was as unpleasant as the red-painted arrows she held before her, her canines as prominent and sharp as their glistening heads. ‘I win.’
‘This isn’t a game, you know.’
‘You only say that because you’re losing.’ She replaced the bloodied missiles in the quiver on her back. ‘What’s it matter to you, anyway? They’re dead. We’re not. Seems a pretty favourable situation to me.’
‘That last one snuck up on me.’ He kicked the body. ‘Nearly gutted me. I told you to watch my back.’
‘First, when we came up here.’ He counted off on his fingers. ‘Next, when everyone started screaming, “Pirates! Pirates!” And then, when I became distinctly aware of the possibility of someone shoving steel into my kidneys. Any of these sound familiar?’
‘Vaguely,’ she said, scratching her backside. ‘I mean, not the actual words, but I do recall the whining.’ She offered a broader smile to cut off his retort. ‘You tell me lots of things: “Watch my back, watch his back, put an arrow in his back.” Watch backs. Shoot humans. I got the idea.’
‘I said shoot Cragsmen.’ Upon seeing her unregistering blink, he sighed and kicked the corpse again. ‘These things! The pirates! Don’t shoot our humans!’
‘I haven’t,’ she replied with a smirk. ‘Yet.’
‘Are you planning to start?’ he asked.
‘If I run out of the other kind, maybe.’
Lenk looked out over the railing and sighed.
No chance of that happening anytime soon.
The crew of the Linkmaster stood at the railings of their vessel, poised over the clanking chain bridges with barely restrained eagerness. And yet, Lenk noted with a narrowing of his eyes, restrained all the same. Their leering, eager faces outnumbered the Riptide’s panicked expressions, their cutlasses shone brighter than any staff or club their victims had managed to cobble together.
And yet, all the same, they remained on their ship, content to throw at the Riptide nothing more than hungry stares and the occasional declaration of what they planned to do with Kataria, no matter what upper assets she might lack. The phrase ‘segregate those weeping dandelions ’twixt a furious hammer’ was shouted more than once.
Any other day, he would have taken the time to ponder the meaning behind that. At that moment, another question consumed his thoughts.
‘What are they waiting for?’
‘Right now?’ Kataria growled, flattened ears suggesting she heard quite clearly their intentions and divined their meaning. ‘Possibly for me to put an arrow in their gullets.’
‘They could easily overrun us,’ he muttered. ‘Why wouldn’t they attack now, while they still have the advantage? ’
Largely, he told himself, that we’re going to die and you’re going to be the cause. His thoughts throbbed painfully in the back of his head. They’re waiting for something, I know it, and when they finally decide to attack, all I’ve got is a lunatic shict to fight them. Where are the others? Where’s Dreadaeleon? Where’s Denaos? Why do I even keep them around? I could do this. I could survive this if they were gone.
If she were . . .
He felt her stare upon him as surely as if she’d shot him. From the corner of his own eye, he could see hers staring at him. No, he thought, studying. Studying with an unnerving steadiness that exceeded even the unpleasantness of her long-vanished smile.